The sun streamed into Wild Orchid Aerial Fitness & Dance from the many windows around the studio as students began making their way into the studio. Five or six poles decorated the light wood floor.
The room smelled of aromatics. A humidifier buzzed, releasing steam by one of the windows. Everyone grabbed a mat and began wiping down their respective poles as the clock struck 6 p.m.
The level two class began with an announcement from instructor Jerad Kendall. The usual background music, a YouTube compilation of dub step, wasn’t loading properly.
This time, Kendall would have to draw from his own music collection.
“Things are going to get weird,” ?he said, laughing.
The group began with a few common stretches: toe-touches, the butterfly position, anything to loosen their muscles and prepare them to learn the day’s moves.
Sean MacLennan, senior in the School of Public Health, walked in 10 minutes after six.
Kendall greeted her, asking how she was.
“Good,” MacLennan said.
“Late,” Kendall replied.
MacLennan said she came straight from her job; she works as a desk monitor and trainer at the Briscoe Fitness and Wellness Center. She smiled and made her way around the poles, taking her place near one of the pre-set mats and trying to catch up as the group worked through downward dog.
Wild Orchid opened last fall under the ownership of Anita DeCastro. Some of its overarching goals are to combat the negative connotations of pole dancing, celebrate aerial arts and help clients get fit.
Pole dancing, according to students and instructors alike, is both an artistic and fitness movement. The objective is not training for a career but bettering a lifestyle.
“Every day we are told how to act and what’s appropriate to do when and where,” MacLennan said. “It feels good to be able to let loose sometimes and do something completely for yourself. To lose yourself in any form of expression is a practice that more people should give a chance.”
The term “pole dancing” is being re-appropriated in studios like Wild Orchid. It is not about sexuality for public consumption as much as free expression and self-appreciation.
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During the next phase of the class, students lay on mats or on the hardwood floor, holding the pole from over their shoulder. Using their core muscles, they propelled their pelvises upward. This is a form of conditioning and a common start to the class.
Each time the students moved their legs back down from the pole, they remembered to point their toes so that their bodies were ?completely erect.
The student-to-pole ratio is around 2-1, so students partner up for each class. As one partner conditions, the other will do pushups or squats.
After warming up by practicing spins learned in previous classes, the students moved on to the lesson of the day: a bicep grip.
“Remember: pointed toes, straight legs, hips in front,” Kendall said, demonstrating the move on a pole in the front of the class.
Holding the pole with her upper arm, MacLennan hopped up, moved her hips to the front and spun until she reached the ground. She then repeated, trying with her weaker arm.
A classmate told MacLennan she did a good job, and she smiled a thank you as she held a high part of the pole and attempted the move once more for good measure.
“How is it?” Kendall asked the class. “Feel like you’re flying? This is nothing. The real flying comes later.”
* * *
MacLennan’s journey to Wild Orchid started on a bus ride.
One day while riding through downtown, MacLennan noticed a studio opening up on College ?Avenue.
Curiosity piqued, and she went online to see what the space was all about. What she found was an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign asking for donations that would go toward opening up the nontraditional exercise studio. In exchange for her contribution, MacLennan received a 10-class pass.
MacLennan cast away inhibitions and expectations and signed up for the pole dancing class.
“There’s a lot of stigma that comes with it, so I had no idea what I was walking in to, but I had heard pole classes were really fun, and I just wanted to give it a shot,” MacLennan said.
She described her first level one class as “nerve-wracking” and noted there was a definite learning curve, even though she has a background in fitness and frequents the gym.
The class quickly moved from basics to spins, which MacLennan said came easily after a few tries. The moves might look easy, but they take effort to perfect.
That illusion, MacLennan said, is the greatest challenge students face.
“It’s intense,” MacLennan said. “It hurts when you’re doing it, but it’s a lot of fun and worth it. The hardest part is the mind-over-matter thing, knowing what you want to do and having the willpower to do it even though it’s not the easiest thing in the world.”
Each class inevitably ends with a few bruises. The backs of MacLennan’s legs are often splotched with purple and blue circles that she seldom remembers getting.
“The pain and bruises are unavoidable when practicing pole, but I proudly wear them like badges,” MacLennan said. “It shows my dedication to something and the hard work that I have put in to be able to do what I do.”
Fitness is important to MacLennan, who hopes to join the world of health coaching after graduation. Pole dancing provides a different type exercise regimen that may appeal to a wider audience than traditional gym memberships.
In high school, MacLennan danced competitively as part of her school’s team, “The Devilettes.” She primarily practiced hip-hop, though she dabbled in pom, a genre of dance involving the use of pom-poms, among ?other styles.
By practicing traditional dance, MacLennan gained a strengthened connection with her body and a constant awareness of where it is in space.
That awareness is key to mastering moves in pole dancing, as well.
Only when a person knows where they are in relation to the pole can they adequately adjust when they make a ?mistake.
“Since pole is very expressive and performance-based, my dance background allows me to keep the small details in mind, like pointing my toes and keeping my hands delicate, which makes my spins look more polished and professional,” MacLennan said.
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Stephanie Lochbihler, graduate student in psychology and another Wild Orchid client, entered the world of pole dancing in a similar fashion to MacLennan.
The studio attracted her, Lochbihler said, because its form of fitness seemed to have more of an edge than lifting weights, her normal workout routine.
“It requires a lot of upper arm strength,” Lochbihler said. “I worked out all the time at the gym, I thought I totally had strength for it. I was really excited thinking I was going to be really good at it, and I was not right off the bat. It’s really hard.”
She started out getting a lot of questions from people about whether or not her taking this class meant she was training to be a stripper. Now, even her parents are comfortable explaining the difference between what she does versus the stigma.
“Even though they still have to explain, a lot of people have come to realize that it’s more than just a stripper activity,” Lochbihler said. “That it’s a good exercise, and it’s impressed a lot of people some of the things that I have gotten to learn.”
* * *
After the first new move of the week, Kendall called students’ attention once more. There would be one more flying move on the lesson plan this week: “The Juliet.”
This one would prove to be more of a challenge, but not because of the complexity of the move itself. In addition to the spin, an offshoot of a previously-learned move, Kendall expected a smooth finish, even a pose if possible.
“Use the pole,” Kendall advised. “The pole is your friend.”
As it turned out, the toughest part of the move was the ending pose, as MacLennan and her classmates soon figured out they did not have enough space below them to execute it.
After a few tries on each side, MacLennan managed to dip backward, adding in an embellished flip of her shoulder-length hair for ?showmanship.
Kendall clapped and pointed out MacLennan. “Bam! You even got the hair flip,” he said, flipping his own short hair.
* * *
MacLennan said her life has changed as a result of her time at Wild Orchid. She lost 20 pounds from pole dancing for just a few months.
“I have learned to love myself inside and out regardless of my weight,” MacLennan said. “I love my body for its ability to do such amazing things and am surrounded by like-minded people.”
More than anything, the class is a cathartic experience supplemented by the emotional power of art.
Though there are times when her foot won’t point as far as it needs to or when her arms slip down too soon so she does not have time for the pose, MacLennan knows she will have the satisfaction of trying.
“My classes aren’t just a workout, they are an emotional release for me,” MacLennan said. “It’s an outlet that allows me to express myself in new ways.”