Monday, December 24, 2012

Facility review: King Spa, Chicago

There's no Korean mega-spa in the Boston area, so visiting King Spa was high on my list when I came to Chicago to visit for the holidays. Living here for a year, I found that the aerialists were familiar with Korean spas, but the polers were completely in the dark. I tried to arrange an outing, but we got snowed out, and meanwhile I was surprised at how much misinformation there was out there about what it's all about. So I thought I'd write it up so people who have never been might be less intimidated to check it out.

The following FAQ is about King Spa in Niles IL, but mostly applies to other Korean spas as well.

How much is a manicure?
That's not what you do here. I think some Korean spas might offer that kind of service, but mostly it's about visiting the facilities (saunas, hot tubs, etc), and optionally paying for salt scrubs and massages.

Is it a massage parlor with happy endings?

Is it a gay hook-up joint?
Qualified no. That's definitely not what it's about--it's normal to see families with little kids running around. On the other hand, these places are open 24 hours, so I don't know what might go on in the men's section in the wee hours.

Do you have to be naked?
Not exactly. You'll definitely see naked people in the hot tub/shower area. However, men and woman are in different rooms at this point (attached to the locker rooms), so it's not that different than just getting dressed in front of people.

Do you have to be naked?
I'm going with no on this one. My experiences have varied. Last time I was at King Spa, it was a weekday afternoon, and most of the women were in bathing suits. (My male friend said all the guys were nude.) This time, Sunday night, EVERYONE in the hot tub area was naked. So whether they started enforcing a no-clothes-allowed rule or it was just a different crowd, I'm not sure. But if you're feeling modest, bring a swimsuit just in case.

Keep in mind that this is only for one small part of the facility. Most areas are coed and clothed. You could just skip over the tubs if you weren't comfortable with all the boobs. I'm sure no one will complain if you shower in a swimsuit.

What should I bring/wear?
You don't need to bring anything besides your credit card, but you could potentially bring a swimsuit (see below). You won't be wearing your clothes, so just wear something comfy that you can get on and off easily. Slip-on sneakers and yoga pants are great. Don't wear make-up, as you don't want it running once you get wet/sweaty.

I think it's easiest to go to these places with someone who's been before, but in case you don't have that person on hand, I'm going to walk you through how a visit to King Spa works:

You check in at the front desk. Don't listen to your GPS--the entrance they bring me to, by the Home Depot, is actually the back door, and then you have to walk around to the front, where they have the real entrance and parking. It's much more impressive-looking if you see the real entrance first.

You pay $25 (they have a loyalty card you can get, something like buy 10 visits get 1 free) and receive a bracelet with your locker number and key.

Then you enter either the men's or women's entrance, which brings you to the locker room. BEFORE YOU GET ALL THE WAY IN, you'll see a sign to remove your shoes. There is a shoe locker area that comes before the main locker area. It's the same locker number and key for both lockers. So lock your shoes up and continue on to the main locker room.

In the main locker room, you'll find your locker, shelves full of pink (girls) or grey (guys) clothing, stacks of not full-sized white towels, and toiletries at the sinks, as well as lots of staff members keeping everything immaculate. There's also a counter where you can buy things like hair clips or socks.

The outfits are arranged by size: S, M, L, and child (which are yellow). They consist of a baggy tshirt and long shorts that you'll wear in all unisex areas. Some people I've tried to explain this to get weirded out at this point, but it's actually awesome. First of all, it ensures that things say sanitary--no dirty clothes from outside. Second, you're gonna sweat all over them, so aren't you glad it's not your own clothes you're mussing up? Third, they may not be flattering, but they get the job done. They cover enough of your body that it's easy to sit or lay on the hot floor without feeling burned, and the material is thick enough that nothing is pooking through.

You don't need to put on your outfit yet, though. Instead, put all your belongings and all your clothes in your locker (unless you're wearing a bathing suit, but don't quote me on that) and head into the hot tub area.

Oh one more thing: put your hair up. They have rubber bands. Not ideal, I know, but I got away this last time with a long braid so I didn't get a rubber band stuck in my hair,

Jump into one of the shower stations. You can change the temperature of the water separately from the pressure. They are set to 40 C by default.

Then you can get in the tubs. They have a few different ones, but the temperature difference is not that great (they do have a colder one, but I've never been in that--that is so not why I'm at the spa), so just go in whichever has the most room. Also in this area is the steam sauna. The steam sauna at King Spa is amazing. The temperature is perfect and it smells good. Big upgrade from the ones at NYSC I used to go to.

They also have sitting-down shower stations. I tried it last time I was here, but I'm just not Asian enough to get it.

This is also the area where you'd get special services like salt scrubs. I've never had one, as I am a cheap bastard and don't want to pay for it. Those are off to the side behind barriers.

After you're done in the hot tubs and steam room, you can dry off and put your outfit on to head into the main area. Now, you may be tempted to wear something under your outfit, but it will not be comfortable once you start sweating balls.

Lounge. Photo from

The main area is made up mostly of different-themed saunas in little igloos/huts, and big princess chairs to sit in. They have free wifi, chess boards, flat screen TVs (playing the Simpsons when I was there), and even if you just come here to sit in the big pink princess chairs I think it's money well spent.

Inside of the Salt Room, photo from

The saunas are mostly based on different minerals in the walls--stuff like amethyst, ochre, and charcoal. And it's not subtle, it's like, the walls are filled with charcoal, you can see it and touch it. The huts are cute and little, can fit maybe 10 people at a time. Most of them have mats and hard head-rests so you can lay down, but you'll usually at least want to keep your knees bent to make room for everyone. (Sometimes the saunas are crowded and sometimes they are deserted, and that can change in an instant if a group of friends comes or goes.) There's an especially hot room (fire room or something) for which you have to crawl through a tiny door. I'm guessing that's so not so much hot air gets out when people come and go. They also have special mats and rules for that room. It's hotter than the others but not mind-blowingly so; you'll be fine.

There is a food court that serves smoothies and Korean food. I've never had anything from the food court at King Spa, but you should probably plan on eating there. They don't allow outside food, and you'll be hungry. Besides the "swimming" (even if you're not doing laps, being in the water can make you ravenous), being in a sauna raises your heart rate so it's kind of like exercise. So if you plan on staying for more than an hour, expect to get hungry.

There's also a movie theatre. I didn't watch anything (by the time I was ready to get out of the saunas they were between showings), but the lineup for the night included The Mask, Son of the Mask, and Remember the Titans. The theatre has giant cushy recliners, I think the same ones as in the meditation room.

The meditation room is upstairs. You can either "meditate" coed or in the women's or men's section. It's basically the same as what Spa Castle calls the nap area. Big cushy recliners that go all the way back. There were also some mats and headrests on the floor that were a little cushier than the ones in the saunas. Either way, no one was actually meditating. Just napping, chatting, reading, or playing on their phones.

So who goes to these things? Well, it probably is mostly Koreans, but far from exclusively. There are a lot of Russians and other Eastern Europeans, who have more of a spa culture than we do. There are plenty of Americans, as well. You will NOT feel out of place!

King Spa has far fewer facilities than NY's Spa Castle, but the spirit is the same and the feel (since I've last gone to Spa Castle, which was before it was called Spa Castle) is better. It's a good thing to do with friends, even though you're technically not supposed to talk in the saunas. There are plenty of other places where you can hang out and chat. You just have to be comfortable seeing your friends naked. In my case, I couldn't find anyone to go with me this time (holidays and family and all), but I was having a stressful day (holidays and family and all) and some quiet time by myself to soak and sweat was just what I needed. I felt a million times better the instant I got into the first hot tub. It really was the best present I could have given myself.

King Spa and Sauna, Niles, IL
Amenities: lockers, gender-separated hot tubs/saunas/showers, 8 different saunas, movie theatre, "meditation" rooms, food court. Pay extra for other services. Probably some other stuff I'm forgetting.
Drop-in price: $25

Photo of King Spa entrance by me

Saturday, December 15, 2012

In defense of momentum


Would you ask a little girl in gymnastics class to do this without jumping off?

Would you ask an Olympian to do this without swinging?

No? Then why would you ask your pole students to do as much?

Momentum in pole pedagogy is ironically taboo. "Ironically" because the spins and swings which are at the origin of Western pole dance are almost entirely momentum-based. And yet some teachers forbid their students from jumping, kicking, or swinging into various moves. "Muscling" any kind of inversion is seen as the "right" way to do it, and using any kind of momentum is "cheating," and even decried as unsafe.

Also ironic because most teachers themselves learned the very same moves by using momentum. But now that they've gotten it into their bodies and gotten so used to it and had so much time to train it that they can muscle it, they realize that they were "wrong" and are going to keep you from making the same "mistake."

It's funny, because it's only in pole that I really see this. Way back when in circus school, we were encouraged to use momentum in certain kinds of inversions. I once trained silks with a high-level professional aerialist who asked me why I kept muscling my inversions. And much of gymnastics would be impossible without a running or a swinging start.

Momentum isn't what you should be afraid of. You should be afraid of flailing. In my studio, it's OK if a beginner jumps into their inversion--heck, I don't deadlift most of the time I'm working from the ground, especially if I'm in a tight space--but it's not OK to spastically throw your outside leg to the pole and hope you hit close enough to kick yourself over.

Momentum is about flow. You go with the energy, like you're riding the wind. You should never jolt, even if you're throwing something hard. I often use the term "hard throw" when talking about certain spins, but it's about the amount of energy in my movement and the angle of my extensions, not any kind of force. A pitcher who throws a ball hard can do it with ease and flow, or by forcing it. When they force, they dislocate a shoulder or tear a rotator cuff. Same thing with you.

They can also hurt themselves by overdoing it over time, and so can you (and so have I). Practice your moves on both sides, and don't overtrain the same moves over and over, especially when they are new to you. (See Reasons to learn tricks on BOTH sides and Are you overtraining?)

Reading over testimonials my students have written about me, I am known as being a trainer who promotes strength. But professionals know that muscling everything is an inefficient use of energy. It's great to build up the strength, but if you've got a dozen shows a week, you can't be wasteful.

Nonetheless, it's good to be able to work up the strength to deadlift as many moves as possible, for the sake of control as much as for showing off. After all, if you're going to get yourself in a tricky position, you need the muscle control to be able to get out of trouble if something goes wrong once you get there.

Meanwhile, how do you use momentum without flailing? A lot of it is psychological, not letting yourself tense up or hold back. Remind yourself to ride the wind instead of thrashing about. Easier said than done when working on a new move. More technically, it's about paying attention to your form. You can't just think about getting to the end position by any means possible. You have to know the position of your body, even if you're upside-down and the world is spinning around you. Here I tuck, here I twist, here I extend. A good teacher should be able to tell you the sequence of movements and as many subtleties as possible. But ultimately, you're going to have to find the sweet spots yourself. Until you get there, pay very close attention to your coach's instructions. It's more important to think "hips up" than to think "nowwww GO UPSIDE-DOWN!!!" If you keep good form but you don't make it all the way, that's OK! Better to learn good habits in the beginning.

There is a time to muscle and a time to ride the wave. Having good technique in both cases is the end goal.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Studio Review: SuperShag, Charlestown MA

For my second studio visit in the Boston area, I went to the only place I can easily get to on the commuter rail: SuperShag.

SuperShag is most famous as a ballroom dance studio, and, among the pole community, as the producers of the competition I went to in September but didn't post the review for 'til last weekend. (Oops.) The pole studio part of the company is in Charlestown, and I can walk there from North Station, yay!

It's funny how you can live somewhere so long and there are so many places you'll never see. Like, I walked all over Boston from 1997-2002, but I don't know that I ever even went to Charlestown. The walk over the river was over a rickety complex of pedestrian walkways that was a charming stroll on a gorgeous day like last Saturday was, but I imagine it would suck if it were icy and windy.

I should have taken a picture of the entrance, because I passed it a full 3 times before I found it. OK, the first time was because I was busy playing with my phone and not watching where I was going, but after that it did take me some effort to find it, and I had pretty detailed directions. Not only is it tricky to figure out what building it is, but the entrance is tucked away in a corner that's not super-visible from the street. You'll know it when you see it, though. It's all decorated and colorful.

Most studios are either big and beautiful, or small and stripped down. SuperShag is the rare hybrid--it's small, only one workout room with 8 poles--but done up fancy. The decor was purple and burgundy, which I loved because it's got a bit of a feminine angle but is not pink. Thank you!

I was actually going to SuperShag to take an advanced class. Normally I go to open pole workouts, but I don't know that they offer that. (They do have an "open level" class, but I'm not sure if that's open pole or a guided class that all levels can attend.) Anyways, it's a nice luxury to be in an actual class now and then. ("But Pippi, you're an advanced teacher already, why would you take a class?" Hey--we can ALL learn from each other! You never stop being a student!)

The students and employees I talked to were very nice, though a few seemed perplexed that I was self-taught. I guess it is unusual that a self-instructed poler drops in for an everyday class (workshops are a different matter). I did find at least one person who trained at the same circus school in New York that I did (though at a different time), and a lot of the other students trained in other aerial arts.

I didn't count the students, but I'd say there were 6 or 7 of us. There were 8 poles and I'm pretty sure they weren't all full. (I don't know what their policy is on max students and if there's ever pole sharing.)

My teacher was Patti, and the class structure was something like: warmup, tricks & combos, very tiny amount of improv time, and cool down. There was no routine, which is good by me.

This was a "Level 5" class, which is their top level. The most advanced classes at most places are always a bit of a hodgepodge, and this was no different. As usual, I didn't watch the other people training too carefully (partly to give them privacy/not be creepy, and partly because I am self-absorbed), but I can say I saw advanced things like deadlifts and heard comments about people still making friends with Superman. So yeah, that's a pretty wide spread. OK, now I have to try to remember what moves we worked on, 'cause this was a week ago. A spin combo (involving my least favorite, reverse grab, which I don't really do because I don't do 1-armed spins, but getting into it from a split-grip spin is a relatively controlled way so it's OK), Superman drop (they do it into the outside leg hang, and I prefer a straight drop, but it's good to practice different things), pole splits, Janeiro (I actually got it for like 2 seconds thanks to some help from classmate Juel), and twisted grip handsprings done without swinging (you were allowed to get into position and pop off the ground with your toes though). So again, a pretty wide spread of skills. Pole splits are pretty easy (even I can do them, and I can't do the splits), Janeiro is a really advanced move. Oh, and Patti had seen me complain on Facebook that my open cupids and other bottom-of-feet moves are sloppy since switching to a chrome pole, so she offered to take a look at my cupid after class, which was very thoughtful of her. Her diagnosis was the same as mine, though: correct technique, just slippery feet/pole. (I just don't want to use grip on the bottoms of my feet because I'll end up with cat litter grains and dust bunnies stuck to my tootsies!)

Of note is that the instructor didn't demo anything during class. Not sure if that was a studio policy, an instructor-specific policy, or if she was just under the weather that day. The task of demonstrating went to the more advanced students in class. There were enough advanced students that it worked out.

Class was an hour and 15 minutes, which is a good amount to have a full class and still have time to warm up and take a couple breaks. An hour is good if you're gonna really push yourself, but it's too easy to slack and not get your workout on. (Unlike other dance and aerobics classes, aerial arts involve a lot of standing around figuring stuff out.) Even though I could already do most of the moves to some extent or another, I ended up really exhausted. Maybe I was hitting it harder than I realized, or maybe it was just the stress of being the stranger in the room. I'm glad we had the breaks, because I downed several bottles of water and a protein bar over the course of the class.

I thought the $25 price was fair for an instructed class, especially in a big city, and especially for a class that's over an hour.

Overall it was a good workout and a productive use of training time. Except that, due to the weekend train schedules, I was gone for 6 1/2 hours just for one class. Yeah, I got some good shopping done in the 2 hours I had to wait for the next train, but getting here from the suburbs without a car means making a day of it.

SuperShag Dance Studios
Equipment: 8 chrome X-Poles, 7 50mm and 1 45mm. (We used static, didn't check if they spun)
Amenities: 1 pole room, water cooler, bathroom but no shower
Drop-in price: $25

I forgot to take a pic so I got this one from Yelp

Friday, November 23, 2012

Event Review: SuperShag’s Pole Fitness Invitational Championships and Showcase, Boston

I had originally written this for Vertical Art and Fitness Magazine, who I theoretically cover events for (I say "theoretically" because it's hard to cover events unless you're jetsetting around), but due to miscommunication it didn't make it in time for the issue. So I wanted to post it here so it didn't go to waste, and I'll be swinging by SuperShag's pole studio soon and wanted to get this out first.

SuperShag’s Pole Fitness Invitational Championships and Showcase, Boston

BOSTON - On Saturday, September 15, 2012, SuperShag Dance Studios in Boston hosted SuperShag's Pole Fitness Invitational Championships and Showcase for the first time. SuperShag, a world-renowned ballroom dance studio, has been presenting pole showcases ever since it first started offering pole classes in 2007—showcases which grew from tiny studio events into the New England Pole Dance Showcase. Last year the pole division of SuperShag made its first appearance at the Boston Ballroom Conference and Competition with a pole showcase, and this year returned reinforced by a national competition, instructor certification, and workshops by pole idol Marlo Fisken.

The performance was multi-tiered, featuring a non-competitive showcase; amateur, professional, and group competitions; as well as a performance by the pole-centric aerial group AERA, all back-to-back. Although the divisions varied, regional restrictions did not: all levels were open to national entrants, and all featured performers from outside of New England.

The judging panel was as professional as it was varied. Four judges scored the competitors: pole champion Marlo Fisken, obviously the crowd favorite; master aerialist Sacha Pavlata, who has decades of experience as a circus performer and now is an instructor at a local circus school; and two ballroom dances judges, Chuck Danza and Gary Edwards, who were chosen not only as a hat-tip to the ballroom aspect of the event and the studio that hosted it, but because of their vast experience in judging and scoring dancers, a quality often lacking in pole panels.

The event was held at the Sheraton Hotel in the heart of Boston, in a conference room that was overshadowed from the lobby by racks of dazzling gowns pedaled to ballroom participants. Nonetheless, the setup was swanky. A DJ pumped club music over the VIP tables that took up half the audience seating, while blue lighting shone from the same box truss that the poles were attached to. This caused some tense moments when hard spins (both poles spun) caused the entire rig to sway dramatically back and forth. No one involved seemed concerned, but this reporter was happy to be a good distance away from the infrastructure.

Both regional and visiting performers displayed a high level of skill, and advanced moves were busted out in each division. As is often the case in events where entrants must chose what level to submit to, talent was at times indistinguishable across divisions. Which raises the question: Why did dancers choose to enter the division they did?

For a local showcase performer with a charming Polish accent named Grace, it was her first performance. “[I performed] to fight with my fear,” she said. Grace had always wanted to perform, and had seized the opportunity.

Fairport, NY dancer Sheila Frank, on the other hand, is no stranger to performing. Frustrated by the difficulty of breaking into the competition circuit, submitting to the showcase was “the last straw” for her after a series of rejections. After a crowd-pleasing performance, naturally, she admitted that she was “kicking myself for not competing.” Notably, there were more showcase performers than competitors in any division, though whether this was due to greater interest by participants or more slots offered by the organizers is not clear. The word “invitational” in the title is a misnomer. While in previous events participation was invite-only, in this case, both showcase and competition were open to the public, and pre-screened by video.

The amateur solo division was won by Ashley Popoli of Stamford, Connecticut, with Kelly Palumbo and Juel Sheridan running up. The professional solo division title went to Danielle Romano of New York, followed up by Tracey Kafer and Jessica Mari. The winners of the group division were The Girls from Trumbull Connecticut.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Studio Review: North Shore Pole Fitness, Andover MA

For my first pole outing in the Boston area, I wanted to go to North Shore Pole Fitness. First of all, because I live on the North Shore. Second, because they do aerial-style pole in addition to gettin' your sexy on pole, which not everyone does. Thirdly, because the studio welcomes male students, which earns my respect.

The problem is, there was NO way to get to Andover from Salem without a car. I mean, it would have been an all-day affair of commuting into Boston and back up on a different train line. No buses or anything that go straight from here to there. So I mentioned to co-manager (or something--not sure of job title) Philip Deal on Facebook that I was interested in his studio but wasn't able to make it due to the transportation issue. So he offered to pick me up and drive me there. !!

Sunday I finally had time to come down for open pole, and true to his word, Philip went out of his way to come to my apartment and bring me to the studio. How's that for service? Especially cool because it gave us a chance to get acquainted. I'm a self-taught poler, so when I go on expeditions to studios it's for social purposes (and to have more reviews to write for you guys!).

North Shore Pole Fitness is a no-frills, down-to-business type of studio. It's a lot like Pole Chicks in Rockford, which I reviewed over the summer (and where I had the honor of teaching a workshop in the fall). No pink chandeliers or painted silhouettes, no nightclub sound system, no merch center selling stilettos and branded booty shorts. It's a pole room and a general fitness room (yoga, chair dance, etc), painted orange (THANK YOU FOR NO HOT PINK).

One thing I have to give them props for is temperature control. The studio was freezing when I got there, and by the time I finished getting dressed and paying, there was a beautiful sticky heat in the room, perfect for stretching out and gripping the pole. I don't know how they did it, but the room remained the perfect temperature the entire 2-hour session. Warm enough to keep the poles sticky and not to get cold in skimpy pole wear, while never making me lose grip through sweating.

The studio only opened in July, and while classes (from what I've heard) are going strong, open pole is usually sparse. So it ended up being just Philip and I having a pole jam, with owner Dorian occasionally sticking her head in to hang out.

I'm estimating the poles at about 11 feet--about 3-4 shoulder inversion climbs for me to get up to the top and into a ceiling lay. So they were high enough for most drops and stuff, but not exhausting to climb. They use a specialty product to clean the poles (I forget which it was--the iTac Pole Cleaner I think?), so they were nice and grippy,

As is usually the case, I didn't take an actual class, so I can't speak much to instructor style. Philip and I exchanged a lot of pointers, and he was very complimentary when he saw something he liked, so that's a good quality to have in a teacher. I didn't do any poling with Dorian, but she is super fun and adorable. I had to hug her when I met her because, I dunno, she just looked so squeezable!

The open pole time was 2 hours, which I think is the Right Length. A lot of places offer 1 hour, which isn't really enough for a full workout, if you want to do it right with warming up, stretching, climbing, tricking out, conditioning, cooling down, taking snack and water breaks, and the obligatory taking pictures of each other. 1 hour can be a good workout, but it has to be pretty rushed, which is good for your endurance but causes you to gloss over important things like stretching and staying nourished.

My only complaint is that they didn't have crash mats (yet?), which I was really looking forward to using. I haven't got one at my new place yet, and I wanna practice scary moves!

I think North Shore Pole Fitness is the perfect place to check out if you want your poling experience to be both sexy and athletic. Most places tend to emphasize one side or the other, but North Shore makes a point of giving both equal footing. You do have to be comfortable dancing/working out around men, because they welcome male students to ALL classes, including stiletto and chair workouts. No discrimination here! But if the other guys are anything like Philip, you'll find them completely non-threatening to work around and a lot of fun.

I forgot to take a picture of the studio, but Philip took the above pic of me, and I took pics of him trying out some new moves I showed him. (He got everything on the first try--don't you hate people like that???)

North Shore Pole Fitness
Equipment: 8 11' stainless steel Platinum Stages poles, spinning-static convertible. 4 50mm, 4 45mm.
Amenities: Dressing rooms, bathrooms, fitness room in addition to pole room
Drop-in price: $30 ($25 for first-time students)

Photo (of me!) by Philip Deal. Photos of him by me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cancellation policies: making them suck less for students and teachers

I love posting about training and healthy eating and feminism and pedagogy and controversial issues. But in life, as in pole, as in blogging, we sometimes need to face some less fun stuff. I have been wanting to address cancellations for awhile, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't on the heels of any incidence of cancellation, since I didn't want any one person to think it was about them. Since I moved, I haven't started back up teaching yet, so I haven't had any cancellations to deal with, so no one can take it personally. Because this isn't about one person. It's about everyone who has ever cancelled on a teacher, both correctly and incorrectly.

I've been either teaching or taking private lessons in one thing or another nonstop since I was 14. My background is as a classical musician, which means at least one hour or private instruction a week (which I haven't taken in years, stupid economy, which is why I'm no longer performing at the level I once was). I've had private lessons in aerial acrobatics, and have also taught voice and ESL in addition to silks and pole.

In every industry I've taught or taken private lessons, the cancellation policy is exactly the same. A cancellation more than 24 hours in advance is either either cancellable or reschedulable at no cost. A cancellation less than 24 hours in advance, for any reason, your payment is due in full.

Classes usually have some sort of similar cancellation policy (although make-ups are often allowed on a limited basis), but as classes are usually paid for while booking, there is not the uncomfortable situation of a person being asked to give you money that they have for something that they did not get even though it was TOTALLY DEFINITELY NOT THEIR FAULT. Private lessons booked through a studio, college, or other institution usually have some level of administration to do the kneecap-busting for you. But when it comes down to the financial exchange (or lack thereof) between student and teacher, it's awkward.

I've been on both sides of this. I am notoriously healthy so I never cancel, but there was one time, one of those insanely busy, juggling-everything times of my life, where I misremembered the time of my voice lesson and showed up an hour late--as it was ending. I was in a tight place financially, and my lessons were the only large expenditure I allowed myself, because it was my career and it was necessary.

When I realized what had happened, I cried.  It was hard for me to part with the money in the first place, even when I was getting a hit-or-miss lesson for it. To give $65 away for almost no reason was--well, if you've ever been broke, you understand--heartbreaking.

So I understand how it is from the student's perspective. Now. Down to business.

If you cancel a lesson FOR ANY REASON, for (more or less) ANY TEACHER in ANY INDUSTRY, pay your teacher the money. Willingly, cheerfully, and (as long as the cancellation policy has been made clear) without having to be asked. Do not be a whiner, a moper, a bitch, or a victim.

Here are the reasons:
  • The space. Most of us pay for studio space. We don't get to cancel for free. Neither do you. (This is the most obvious reason, but if your teacher teaches from home, that's no excuse.)
  • Our schedules. Most of us are not sitting around watching TV all day. We have other students and other activities. You have reserved your time and we have spent the rest of the days or weeks up 'til then having to arrange our schedule around you. That often means saying no to other students or business.
  • Prep time. Most students would be surprised at how much time we spend preparing for their lessons. We need to figure out moves that are appropriate for your level, brush up on them, and sometimes even try out new moves that you've requested to see if we can master them and develop a pedagogy by the time your lesson comes. Directly before the lesson, if there's no one before you, we have to get dressed and warm up, and either commute to the location or clean our apartment.
  • Our financial stability. We're artists, not wall street tycoons. We're possibly broke and counting on the money you were supposed to pay us to get through the month.
  • Your discipline. Remember college? When there's no consequence for people not showing up to class, they don't show up. Sure, they have good intentions to begin with, but life intervenes as always, and coming to class is inconvenient. Guess what? It's always going to be inconvenient in some way. That's why you make a commitment.
I actually know teachers who request payment in advance (my high school voice teacher had us pay a month at once, with no cancellations possible whatsoever), but most of us try to make things easy for the student, which means you pay when you get there.

Look, this isn't fun for anyone. I probably feel more angst over possibly offending you than you do over losing the money. But if we choose to use this honor system, so we need to stay worthy of it. So here are my do's and don'ts, for both students and teachers.

  • Make sure you're clear on the cancellation policy before your first lesson. I know you don't think you're going to cancel, but anything can happen.
  • Don't be a no-show just because it costs the same as cancelling hours before. That's disrespectful to us. Plus, we get worried about you.
  • We're sorry you had an emergency/thing that wasn't your fault, and that's cool if you want to tell us about it, but shit happens and you do still owe us. Do not think (or imply that you think) that you're off the hook, no matter what happened.
  • When you call to cancel your lesson, do us an enormous favor and say right away, "I totally know that I still have to pay you, I am mailing the check/bringing double to my next lesson which I want to schedule right now." I feel so relieved when I don't have to bring it up.
  • If you are sharing a lesson, figure out the contingency plan in advance. If one person cancels or no-shows, who's responsible for the money? You don't want awkwardness with your classmate any more than we want it with you.
  • And my pet peeve, because I always fall for it: You don't get to "reschedule." You get to optionally schedule a new lesson, which you will need to pay for in addition to this one. I can't tell you how much money I've lost because I felt bad and agreed to let someone "reschedule" a lesson even though they didn't know yet when they wanted to reschedule for. That lesson has actually happened 0% of the time.
  • Actively draw attention to your cancellation policy for new students. Don't just put it in the studio rules or waiver. Write it in red and draw circles and stars and arrows around it. Mention it to the student out loud in words that you speak with your mouth. People don't read the documentation carefully.
  • While the standard policy seems like common sense to most of us, people who aren't acclimated to the student-teacher relationship might be surprised. Don't assume they "get it."
  • Getting deposits from students can be tricky (like if they don't come on a regular basis), but if you don't mind PayPal taking a cut, it might be worth having them pay in advance.
  • Set your policy and stick to it. If you waffle, it makes the rest of us look bad.
  • I know at least one teacher with a "first cancellation is free" policy. This is good for not making you look like an asshole, and bad for making students understand that the policy is for real, so it's your call. It's easier to pull off when you have regular students on a regular schedule than if you have sporadic drop-ins. The "first time" for someone who comes twice a week is a much lower percentage than the "first time" for someone who comes three times ever.
  • I know your students are your friends, which makes it awkward to demand money from them when they don't think it's fair. But being a bitch about the money is easier than being a bigger bitch and keeping them at arm's length. (This works well in some industries, but pole and circus are too intimate, and we tend to be in the same age range.)
  • You should know how to write invoices. It might seem passive-aggressive to send an invoice instead of asking for the money to their faces, but it's also more professional and legally recognizable. Your call on if you go that route, but either way, all teachers should have a template for invoices at the ready. Sometimes you need them when you teach workshops.
  • If you can't deal with the dirty money, you need a middle man (like a studio). Yeah, then they take their cut. To many sensitive artistic souls, it's worth it. That's why we have middle men.
A few final points for everyone:
  • "The teacher doesn't have to pay me if they cancel! That's not fair!" It's not, on paper. But in reality, teachers almost never cancel. I mean, they are relying on you for their livelihood! That said, some teachers do offer something in return to placate everyone's sense of justice. A free lesson, or a discount, or whatever. I don't think I've ever actually cancelled, so I don't know what I do.
  • Think twice before sloughing through your lesson when you are sick. Check with your teacher/student to see if they're ok with that. A germophobic teacher might even be willing to give you a free reschedule if you'll just keep your diseases away from her.
  • If you work for a studio that does not follow a 24-hour cancellation policy for you as a teacher--as in, they'll cancel your class or let a student cancel a lesson right before and don't pay you--please don't work for that studio. There are a million ways in which working conditions can be less than ideal, but this is an industry standard (across all private teaching industries, not just circus and pole) and it should be a dealbreaker. We'll probably never be unionized, so holding our ground on something this basic is as close as we're gonna get.
  • If it's MORE than 24 hours in advance, and you're starting to think you might not be feeling well or your grandma's taken a turn for the worse, and you're not sure whether or not to cancel, talk to us. I can't speak for others, but schedule permitting I'm sometimes cool with letting a person quasi-cancel. Sort of a "more than 24 hours cancellation but if works out for both of us I'll do a drop-in" kind of thing.
  • Even though I'm touting this as the industry standard, it shouldn't be assumed. If your teacher has not given you any cancellation policy, you owe them nothing. You could still pay them just to be a good person, but you're not required to.
I bring this up partially because I'm not always the best at it. I theoretically have a strict policy, but I don't always have the balls to follow through, and am too worried about people being mad at me. So maybe putting this out there with my name on it will force me to stick to my guns. I don't want to be a heartless monster, but I don't want to be a hypocrite either!

Again, I'm not implicating any one person here, because I've been teaching for years, so naturally I've had many cancellations and no-shows over time. But I DO appreciate everyone who's been cool about it. Interestingly? The people who are quickest to say "I know I still have to pay you and I will" are always other teachers.

Image from Travel Insurance Review

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Quality vs. Quantity: Are you collecting tricks?

In my spare time, I have a day job as a writer in IT. In IT, you basically have developers and non-developers. And the two camps love to complain about each other. One of our favorite gripes is that developers never polish anything. They get really excited to invent a cool new app, but once they've got it made, they move onto the next cool project. Debugging, usability, documentation--this is no fun. Hence all the buggy software out there.

I see many--nay, most--students approaching pole and aerial the same way. They want tricks. New tricks, fancy tricks, tricky tricks. They obsess over learning something new. They practice it (often over-training it), pay teachers large sums for lessons and workshops, pore over videos and tutorials. Then one day the finally get it, and they have their friends take a picture of it, and that's it. Maybe they add it into their regular repertoire and maybe they forget about it. But either way, they mentally check it off a list and call it done. It's kinda like going on one of those Contiki tours in college, where you see like every city in Europe for like one night each. Been there done that bought the tshirt!

Have you bought the tshirt for all the tricks you've learned?

Don't feel like debugging your dance?

Polishing is not really fun. There's no rush, no happy dance. There's no bragging rights, and, in a community where we mentally rank each other by what tricks you can and can't do (admit it), there's no cred. No bullet point on the mental resume.

And then one day you see a video of yourself and you cringe. Or you enter a competition and can't understand why your scores were so bad. Or you audition for a show or a circus troupe and pull out all the stops and bust your ass and are flabbergasted when you don't make it past the first round of cuts.

Sometimes polishing means discipline. It means inverting without hooking your foot even when you're tired and PMSing. Other times it means inspiration. It means turning the lights down and putting on the perfect music (NOT your usual workout playlist), and practicing finding that place where you feel amazing and it shows. All the time, it means not mistaking a checklist for art.

Photo from i can has Cheezburger, of course.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Are you training your competition?

 Over the weekend I taught an advanced pole tricks workshop. Since I'm mostly self-taught (not attached to any studio) and don't follow competitions and YouTube trends very closely, I end up coming up with some of my tricks and sequences on my own. (Someone else may come up with the same thing, of course. I don't claim bragging rights on any points of ownership or inventorship.) So I end up teaching a lot of what are de facto "signature moves."

So now anyone who took my workshop (or my classes, privates, or other workshops I've done), or anybody they subsequently teach, can run out and use my moves in a competition.

Great! Do it! That's what I'm here for.

The problem comes when your students end up working or competing in the same circuits you do.

Back in the good old olden days (not that long ago), the best teachers were basically retired from illustrious performing or competing careers. They would earn their living in their art for as long as they could, and then they would settle down and pass their wisdom on to the next generation of stars.

We tend to have a nostalgic view of this career path. "Isn't it great that people/the government was so supportive of the arts that these artists could make a living just performing?" "Isn't it great that there was so much employment that they didn't even have time to teach, they were so in demand as artists?"

The landscape has changed, for sure, but I think we are idealizing things. It has NEVER been easy to be an artist. Ask Mozart. There are other aspects to this arrangement that we forget to consider.

Artists also waited until they were retired to teach because they didn't want to share their secrets. They didn't want others in the field using their knowledge to depose them. They didn't want to create competition for themselves. After all, pretty young Sally Soprano has everything you don't: youth, beauty, energy, potential-and she'll work cheaper. Why risk her replacing you?

Well, the old system doesn't always suit the modern world. First of all, for a number of reasons, artists do usually need a day job, and often that means teaching. Secondly, the world changes so quickly these days that older, retired artists might have outdated information. And in some cases, the field is so young, or has so recently expanded, that we don't have a trove of seasoned pros to learn from. I mean, if you're learning clarinet, there are centuries of master clarinetists who have paved the way for you. If you're learning lyra? Circus arts aren't new, but just how many people do you think there were doing lyra 20 or 30 years ago, compared to today? Somebody has to teach all these budding aerialists, and that usually means working or aspiring professionals.

All this means that many of us are training our own competition, without having thought through the ramifications.

How do you deal with this bundle of logistics and awkwardness? Well, for some people like me, it's not a big issue. I don't really compete or perform professionally. I mean, if I want to enter a contest or a showcase, I will. But I'm not trying to break into the competition circuit, or earn my pro card. So if someone shows up with the same trick as me, it doesn't affect my life a whole lot.

Other people chose to keep their signature tricks, or at least their new tricks, to themselves. But new tricks are exactly what students most want to learn from us. So we're kind of hurting our business. Plus, we can really only keep so many moves polished & practiced at a time, so with advanced students who already know the basics (or think they do), we often end up teaching them whatever we've been polishing on our own time.

Some less evolved teachers might prevent their students from achieving their potential. They might discourage them from entering competitions, or imply that they're not good enough. Obviously you shouldn't study with someone like this. (It's important to be objective, though. If a trusted coach tells you you're not ready, you should listen, or at least get a second opinion.)

Teaching doesn't only create quality of competition. It creates quantity. You'll often hear old-timers complaining about newcomers on the market who don't have enough knowledge/experience and are ruining things for those who are already established. Here's a thoughtful piece by aerialist Laura Witwer (who I had I think one silks class with years ago at STREB, where she told me that glitter is what separates us from the animals, which is good advice) complaining about new aerialists drastically undercutting the pros and bringing fees down. This is a legitimate issue, but I also think you can't make a large part of your living training hordes of new aerialists, and then turn around and complain that there are hordes of new aerialists on the market and prices are dropping. If you are teaching your skills to many people, then it's your own fault that your skill set is no longer rare.

If you want to teach while you are still active as a performer, that's fine-that's actually what most of us do. But you should be aware of this dilemma going into the situation, so you can think ahead about how you want to handle it when it comes up. And if you're an outstanding teacher, it will come up. The best want to train with the best.

Photo from

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why we can't have a rational discussion about pole brands

One of the most important topics we can talk about is the difference between pole makes and manufacturers. Why? Because it matters and it's actionable. We can talk about whether we like stripper-style pole or Olympic-style pole, but it's not really an actionable debate on an individual level. You already have your mind made up, I already have my mind made up, and while we like expressing our opinions, and the open-minded among us like seeing other points of view, it's not going to change what most of us do on a day-to-day basis. Knowing why Dancer A likes booty popping isn't going to make Dancer B start rump shaking too.

What pole should I buy? Totally actionable. What pole should I buy? Brand Z! OK! Done! A transaction has taken place.

Plus, people really want to know this stuff. Most people who get into pole are going to want to buy one, and they're going to want to know what to buy. Few people, especially beginners, have the chance to try out different makes firsthand and decide for themselves. So they need advice.

The problem is that someone asks the room what brand they should get, and a bloodbath breaks out. Everyone is convinced that their pole is the best, that the opposing brand has horrible customer service, that Brand Q is unsafe, that Brand Y has a bad reputation.

Part of the problem is that our industry is so small that one complaint gets echoed around the community. If one vocal person has a bad experience with a pole, a significant portion of the industry will hear about it.

But the issue is psychological.

Let me pose a question to you. Why are people rabid and pushy about their preference for a Mac or a PC, but mild and reasonable about their preference for Pepsi vs. Coke?

I don't mean that people who prefer Coke over Pepsi are making a logical choice--the Pepsi challenge has proven that people might prefer the taste of one product but fall for the marketing of the other. And I don't mean they're flexible about their choice. Anyone who's ever worked in food service knows the look of disgust when a customer is told their beverage of choice isn't sold there. But there is no debating, evangelizing, or justification like there is with the computer.

When somebody (especially somebody passionate about computers) is asked their preference for computers, it's a different story. They will pretty much get up on a soapbox, and a discussion of vices and virtues between opposing parties can get heated.

Besides the fact that soda is simpler and there is less to debate (unless you bring up terminology--I lived in the Midwest for 7 years of my childhood and REFUSED to say "pop" because I was from the East coast), the difference is that the computer is a major investment. One of the biggest, after your house and your car, you'll ever make. Because not only do you have to buy the computer itself, but the software and hardware. You have to limit yourself to the choices that are available on your platform (or, *ugh*, run a virtual machine). And if you ever want to change teams? Best not to think about that. Your head might explode.

You know, we polers don't really argue about grip aids. They are important! They are complicated! You have to try them in person to know how it works! They all have advantages and disadvantages! But we don't fight. We just say "I like Mighty Grip." Or, "I like Dry Hands for tack but Tite Grip for sweat."

You see where I'm going with this. A pole is a major investment for most of us. Depending on what you get, you're going to be dropping like $500. And even if we had the money, most of us don't have room for two. You pick your pole, you get to know it intimately, you get used to it. You go to a studio that has a different kind, you get confused. How do I set this to spin??

What happens in this situation is that the purchaser can't afford to be wrong. You've basically bet everything on red. That's what turns discussions about major purchases into religious/political debates. I mean, people don't change religions often. Because it's like, not to dramatize, but "Everything I've ever known is a lie!" Obviously the stakes in a pole aren't as high--it's $500, not 20/30/50+ years of life invested. But you can see the same chemistry working itself out on our minds.

And yes, we do tend to evangelize, because we all want to be on the "right" side. When I think about it, I have to admit I did feel a little defensive of my Platinum Stages pole when X-Pole became the "cool" kid in town. It didn't bother me, because I knew it was a good piece of equipment, but I didn't want my reputation to suffer. I was afraid my students would think I wasn't "in the know" because I didn't have the "right" pole.

But I consider myself a relatively unbiased person, and I can say with all honesty that I have owned and used both Platinum Stages and X-Pole, both at home and in studio/performance settings, and I can legitimately say that I've had good and bad experiences with both. I think everyone who's used both can say that. (I don't mean to make this a two-horse race. I've just had minimal experience with other brands. I've used Li'l Mynx and Markstaar--again, both good and bad aspects.) I originally bought Platinum Stages, and advised my students to do so, because it was the only brass option (this was years ago), but now that that's not the case, it's an open playing field as far as I'm concerned.

Anyways, thought I would point this out, because it's a legitimate psychological phenomenon that we should be aware of when we have this discussion. If anyone else has caught themselves being biased towards their pole of choice, I'd love to hear about it!

Incidentally, I use a Mac at home (because I'm cool) and a PC at work (because it works). I can legitimately say I see advantages and disadvantages to both of these, too.
Photo from

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Free" "flavors": making your diet tasty

For those who enter diets or instate lifestyle changes, the restrictions we face can be depressing. We think about all our favorite foods we have to give up, and resign ourselves to either boring meals or having to become full-time personal chefs to ourselves. Even harmless-seeming condiments like our favorite salad dressing and sweetener in our coffee can become off-limits.

I know a lot of people who decide to go on a diet and just microwave a bowl of chicken and broccoli for every meal until they fall off the wagon. And there's something to be said for the effectiveness of repeating the same meals over and over. But you don't have to live off of bland, dry food.

You might have said good-bye to creaminess, sweetness, coconutty deliciousness and peanut-buttery goodness. Probably you are cutting out greasy or cheese-drenched comfort food, or, like my parents (and me to a less strict extent), oils altogether (see The Esselstyn diet and my family). But there are still plenty of "flavors" you can enjoy that won't put you off your diet.

Of course, every diet is different, and your restrictions will vary. But over the years of many methods of eating, these are some flavors (spices, condiments, whatever) that seem to be relatively "safe" for most diets.

I'm not going to go down the spice rack and list every bottle, but here are the more over-arching tastes that you can achieve without a lot of caloric sacrifice.

If you like spicy food, you're in luck. A little bit of hot sauce or jalapeno can add an enormous amount of flavor for almost no calories. And the best thing is the options for where you get your heat are boundless. Cayenne, Tabasco, sweet chili paste, sriracha, or even regular black pepper of salt-and-pepper fame all have different tastes and uses. Plus, there are even studies that show spicy food might boost your metabolism. If you don't like spicy food, you might try sneaking in just a tiny bit of heat. It's something you have to get used to, but once you do, it's a slippery slope!
Drawbacks: Could be bad for people with heartburn/reflux problems.

Soy sauce adds an Asian mood to anything on your plate. Unfortunately it has a lot of sodium, which is a no-no for many dieters. But there are several options that give you the taste with a lighter salt load. Low-sodium soy sauce is good, as is low-sodium tamari. You could also try an alternative such as Bragg's Liquid Aminos. Depending on sugar, teryaki might be OK, too. Mmmm.
Drawbacks: Most of us are supposed to cut back on sodium, and even low-sodium versions are probably more salt than we should be having. I would not touch it a few days before a photo shoot or other event where you want to look thin. Salt is bloating.

You love pizza and pasta? Me too. But it's probably not just the carb-load and fatty cheese you crave. You're free to have as much tomato as you want. That means pizza sauce and pasta sauce are in, as well as ketchup and (depending on sugar) barbeque sauce. You don't need a high-calorie bed to pour them on. I love veggies and beans in bbq sauce, and tomato sauce on my vegan meatballs!
Drawbacks: Like spices, should be OK for almost everyone unless you have a low tolerance for acidic foods.

Oil and vinegar might have too much fat, but vinegar by itself can do more than enough! Throwing a little vinegar on your stir-fry or in your sauce can give you that sour taste that makes any vegetable interesting. Sauerkraut is a great topping or side for a veggie brat, or even on a salad if you don't have any "safe" dressings handy.
Drawbacks: I seem to remember Fit for Life having a "vinegar is a cleaning product, not a food" policy. So some "internal hygiene" diets might say no. For most of us it should be fine.

Lemon and lime
Here's a recipe for making guacamole out of edamame instead of (high-fat) avocados. Add some lemon or lime juice and cilantro and it's almost like the real thing. I like fresh-squeezed lime juice on my corn on the cob instead of butter. Even if you are on a low-sugar diet where fruit is a no-no, lemons and limes don't really have the sugar that other fruits have.
Drawbacks: Why are all the good lemon squeezer devices like $15? Rip off!

If coffee was caloric, no one in this country would ever diet. It's a way of life for Americans. As an add-on flavor, it tends to be more of a dessert thing, and most diets aren't very dessert-friendly. But if you find a way to slip it in, whether it's in a smoothie or in a low-sugar muffin, it's a healthier option than chocolate or peanut butter.
Drawbacks: Lots of people go off caffeine for health reasons, weight-focused or not.

Cinnamon is sort of the "spicy" option of dessert foods, in that it adds a zing and may increase metabolism. It can be a great substitute for sweeter in pastries or coffee. There are a lot of sweetener options out there that may or may not be healthy, depending on who you ask and what diet you're on, but for most of us it's better if we can cut back on them altogether. There's still an adjustment as you slowly lose your sweet tooth, but if you replace your sugar shaker with a cinnamon shaker you'll be much better off.
Drawbacks: Can't think of any.

So that's a very general survey, but those are the major "flavors" I've found that make a huge difference without detriment to my health or diet. The fun part comes when you combine them. Hot and sour soup! Lime salsa! Cinnamon latte!

Bon appetite, and feel free to add your own favorite flavors below!

Photo from take the day off

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sexy vs. sporty pole: understanding each other

OK, I'm finally going to tackle the sexy pole vs. fitness pole thing. It's pretty much the most controversial topic in our community, and I don't shy away from hot topics. I've just been taking the time to figure out the best approach to adding to the conversation in a way that will benefit everyone.

First off, there's a point we need to clarify that tends to get overlooked. We are not arguing whether pole should be sexy or athletic. Neither side is trying to do away with the other side. I don't know any reasonable person who thinks you shouldn't be able to dance exotically if you want to, or should have to if you don't want to. (If you do think that: Mind your own business about how people want to dance.) The argument is not which of these two styles should exist, but about how they should coexist.

And the problem from my perspective is that people are so adamant about their opinions that they are not really understanding each other. Fortunately, as an independent poler/instructor not attached to any studio, I've been exposed to a lot of different poling environments, and I feel I'm in a good position to see both sides of the story. And since I can see how passionate everyone is, I think it's a good idea to step back from the particulars of the pole community and turn our thoughts elsewhere.

It's the 80's. (Late 70's, whatever. I'm good at music, not history.) You're a disenfranchised youth. Everybody's running around in suits trying to screw each other out of money. Greed, hypocrisy, and a life that tastes like cardboard. You're in school, it's horrible, but real life is going to be worse. Dead end.

And then one day you and your friends are out smoking and being bored and you wind up at CBGBs and your life is changed. You have found the counter culture, you have found music, life, friends, actual fun, and a big fuck you to society. You don't have to be a prick in a suit, you can be a badass with spiky green hair. You don't have to have a white picket fence, you can have body piercings.

You become totally immersed in the punk scene and you've never felt so alive. You adopt the fashions, worship the bands, and let society know how you feel about it. You trade the emptiness of jumping through hoops for disinterested teachers for crazy nights of drinking and partying with your friends.

And you're going along finally feeling like yourself, when some moron shows up spewing all this stuff about how we have to get all the drinking and drugs and crazy clothes and hair out of the music venues. They wanna play "punk music" but they don't want any punks around. And you're like, "UH, DUDE. YOU'RE IN THE WRONG FUCKING PLACE. THIS IS WHAT PUNK IS."

OK, chance of scene. It's the 80's. You're a young musician. Played guitar your whole life. Obsessed with Hendrix, the Beatles, everyone. Every paycheck goes straight to the music store for another stack of records (or tapes, we never did decide what year it is). You've been gigging around a bit and jamming with your friends, but nothing you would call a real band.

And then one day you hear the Ramones and your life is changed. You have found your musical calling. Punk puts every other kind of music in its place. It is strong, it is loud, it is in your face, but it has a disingenuous simplicity. No frills, no trills, just real music. And it sounds awesome.

You instantly get your friends on board and start a band. You start playing out at CBGBs and you are awesome so you amass a following very quickly, enough to make you local celebrities. You make some demo tapes and fans are going wild for them. You're finally right where you want to be.

Before you know it, a major label gets ahold of your tapes and is interested in signing you. Your career would be made. A rock star.

But the label wants to see you live, and there's just no way. You appreciate your fans exuberance, but those venues are a mess. People are dressed to intimidate. Underage kids are drinking and fighting. A suit wouldn't last thirty seconds in there.

Not to mention, the whole fans behaving like jerks thing is kind of getting to you. You're all in support of tossing back a few beers, and leather jackets do look pretty awesome, and sure guys should be able to pierce their ears if they want to. But the "image" of punk is sort of drowning out the music, and you're sick of fights breaking out at every show. Your little sister really wants to come see your band play, but you're afraid something could happen to her.


So here we have two people drawn to the same scene for very different reasons. Two people who value different aspects of it, and find their goals at odds. One thinks that punk is about what you wear, how you party, and your attitude towards society. The other thinks it's about three chords and the truth, and the rest is fluff that is currently driving people away. Unfortunately, the scene is so small that musician guy and spiky hair guy don't have a lot of room to break off from each other, They don't really have anywhere else to go.

Stalemate. End scene.

I think you get the point. And I'm not really proposing a solution, just wanted to show how both sides can make sense if you look at them from a different perspective. Can you separate the music from the message? Well, I think Paul Ryan being a fan of Rage Against the Machine answers that question.

Some people want to pole to express their sensuality, and taking that away would be missing the point for them. Others want a cleaner image so that they can share pole with their children and get it into the Olympics. And we can have different naming conventions (pole dance, pole fitness, aerial pole, pole art, exotic pole dance, acrobatic pole), but for the most part we are too small of a community to split ourselves up in a way that will affect how the public views us. I mean, I used to do taekwondo. Did you know there are two versions of taekwondo, traditional and WTF? If you're not already involved in martial arts, you probably didn't know that. If you formed a mental image of someone doing taekwondo, you wouldn't have asked yourself first which branch it was. This is as opposed to say, being a politician, and being a Republican or Democrat. So many more people know basic politics than basic taekwondo that they would know to ask that question if you introduced yourself as a politician. But unlike with taekwondo practitioners, the image matters more for polers, because due to the sexual aspects, it affects when and where it is appropriate to perform it, or even talk about it.

There is one more point I want to make about naming conventions, though. OK, so let's say athletic people call what they do "pole fitness," and sensual polers should then use "pole dance" or "exotic dance." But they don't want to do that because they want to imply that what they are doing is different from stripping--not that they think there's anything wrong with stripping, but they don't necessarily want people to think that's what they do. Guess what? That's exactly how many athletic polers feel about exotic pole. They don't think there's anything wrong with dancing sexy, but they don't want people to think that's what they do.

Anyways, I know it's kind of a dick move to point out a problem and not propose a solution. But I felt that the problem was that people didn't understand the problem. So I hope I helped a little bit with that. And before anyone flames me, let me point out that I'm not an interested party. I'm not attached to sexy pole, I'm not trying to get it in the Olympics; as always I'm happy just doing my own thing and working with anyone who wants to work with me, whatever their persuasion. So I don't have a horse in this race (until I come up with a solution and write a blog about that). Just want to see everyone getting along!

Image from

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Should I improvise or choreograph my performance?

Most pole dancers don't get a lot of performance opportunities. Unless we are highly involved in the competition circuit or working as exotic dancers (which is pretty much all improvisation so doesn't factor into this blog post), the vast majority of what we do is relegated to the studio, our homes, and maybe our YouTube accounts.

But every once in awhile, those of us who are pretty serious about our pole hobbies will have the opportunity to perform in public. It could be a local competition, a showcase, a studio performance, or some sort of local event that you've been asked to perform at (hopefully for money--this isn't a cheap hobby!).

For most polers, the first question they ask themselves will be, "What will I WEAR?!?!" The second, though, will be, "Do I just get up there and dance, or do I have to write a routine?"

The truth is that either way is totally fine. People do it both ways. So you just have to decide what's better for you. Obviously I can't do that for you, but what might help is going over what it's like to do each, and what the pros and cons are.

Improvisation should play a huge part in your studio or home training, so you should be pretty comfortable transferring that practice to a public space.


Since you are not running a routine over and over, your training will not change much from your day-to-day routine. You'll probably just keep practicing the moves you were working on anyways, and doing some freestyling. Even if you don't have a routine in mind, though, it's a good idea to have a mental list of what moves you think you will and won't use. We all have our "default moves" that we pretty much throw into everything, but that probably won't be enough to fill up a whole song. What else do you have that would be a good fit? More importantly, what do you NOT want to do? Are you sure that combo you've been working on is ready for an uncontrolled environment, where you or the pole might be too hot or too cold or too slippery and you won't be able to do anything about it?

And please please video yourself, even just once. Routine or no, you're bound to catch something you're doing that needs to be cleaned up, whether you tend to flex your feet when you fonji (I know I do) or make a face when you drop your legs down & up in an iguana (I do that too).

Before the show

You'll mostly be reminding yourself to include the moves you want. You shouldn't be stressed out about too many things beyond general performance anxiety.

During the show

Hopefully, you will be totally into the music and the moment, connecting with the audience and feeling amazing. Here are some other thoughts that will probably run through your head, though:

"OK, what should I do next, um..."
"WTF this song is LONG!!!!"
"Crap, I think I did this move like three times already."
"Uhhh what else what else was I supposed to do..."
"Why aren't we done yet? WHY IS THIS SONG SO LONG?"

After the performance

You should feel awesome and elated. But you will probably be saying, "Gahh, I forgot to do like 10 things I meant to do!! Dammit!!" and maybe "I think I just did the same couple of things over and over."

That's the biggest problem with improvisation. You'll be relatively chill beforehand, but kicking yourself afterward for everything you didn't do. The good news is, you're the only one who knows that. The audience doesn't know you didn't do an Oona split, and even if you think it would have blown their minds, really they were probably just aweing at how beautiful and graceful and amazing you are. You can tell your fellow polers about all the awesome stuff you were GONNA do, but the general public really doesn't know the difference.

Other pros and cons

The best thing about improvisation is that you are totally adaptable to any situation. It doesn't matter how thick or high the poles are, or whether or not they are attached to the ceiling. No ceiling? Don't use the ceiling. No problem.


Writing and mastering a routine is quite a lot of work, but extremely rewarding.


Depending on how much time you have to prepare, you need to start practicing way in advance.
Of course it's all relative to your time frame, but you should be doing complete run-throughs of your routine at least a couple weeks before go time. Because you're gonna find that what worked in your head, and what worked one chunk at a time, is usually impossible to actually pull off in context. Generally, especially if you are a more athletic-style dancer, you're gonna get completely winded after the first verse. Stamina is a topic for another day, but for now let's just say you either have to keep practicing 'til you get used to it, or re-choreograph so that you get more "rest" time. And there's no way of knowing in the beginning which one it's gonna be, ie, whether or not what you want to do is going to be possible for you or not.

You also don't want to overtrain. That's also a subject for a future column, but for now: if you're running your routine a lot, you're practicing the same moves over and over, on the same side, day after day. This can easily lead to overuse and imbalance. Be careful and make sure you have at least a little time dedicated to working your other side in there. Try running your routine, even in slow motion and without music, on your other side. It doesn't have to be good, but you have to try. (See also: Reasons to learn tricks on BOTH sides.)

Before the show

You're gonna be freaking out about everything. It matters a LOT what kind of equipment you'll be working on, and sometimes the people you're communicating with are not very specific. Yeah, so it's 8 feet, but if it's self-standing then you can't do your ceiling lay. Will there be enough floor space to do the kinds of floor work and dismounts you were planning? Plus, you have all these moves to worry about. If it's too slippery to do a monkey tail (or whatever the kids are calling it these days), and you have one planned, you're pretty much screwed. Once you have your routine set in stone, you're going to find that you are not willing to deviate from it. When you have planned down to the last hair flip, it seems inconceivable to change an entire move, which will affect timing, height, transitions, and maybe the entire sequence it's a part of.

During the show

If you've trained and practiced right, you should really slay here. You should have the moves so memorized and second nature that you can concentrate entirely on personality, showmanship, and just rocking it. That said, something will always go wrong. Hopefully it will be something small, but just know that there will be a little snag or glitch somewhere and no amount of preparation will prevent that. I once had a routine that I agonized over, including a really difficult, really fast spin sequence. In my performance, the pole got semi-stuck and wouldn't spin fast, so the entire effect was lost. Not my fault, nothing I could have done about it, and yeah I was pissed because it was a really super cool thing, and that whole verse pretty much just fell flat. But the audience didn't really remember that, they went ape for my performance overall.

After the show

You should be feeling good. If you were prepared, then you almost certainly did all your moves well, in the right order, and hopefully were able to add on a lot of stage presence. You'll still be mad about that one thing that didn't go right, but you will hopefully have put on a real show, and that's what the audience will respond to.

Other pros and cons

Because it matters so much what the setup is, your routine may not be reusable in its current form. That is, you planned on a static pole and a spinning pole twelve feet high and going all the way to the ceiling. Your next performance might be on a single nine-foot static stage pole. It won't transfer without some serious editing. So you're looking at doing a TON of work and maybe being able to use it once. You better at least get it on video! You should probably video your dress rehearsal, too, in case that comes out better.

Combination of the two

If you're not ready to commit to one plan or the other, you can always do something in the middle. One example is to freestyle, but to practice freestyling to your song so many times that you've got a pattern going of what you're going to do when, even if you're not committed to it. Another is to choreograph just parts of the songs. For example, you know you want to climb to the top of the pole during the guitar solo, and you know what you're going to do once you get up there. You almost might consider planning out just the beginning and the ending of the song, so you know you that no matter what else happens, you'll start and end strongly.

Which you pick depends a lot on personality type and performance style, so it's a really individual choice. Don't worry--as you perform more over time, you'll find what works best for you. Good luck and let us know how it went!

Image of Cleo the Hurricane from Pole Dance Italy

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Studio review (kinda): Intrigue Fitness, Lake in the Hills IL

 I forgot to take any pictures, but here's a video of me practicing my routine at Intrigue.

So, full disclosure: I didn't actually take a class at Intrigue Fitness. I was there because I was performing at their grand opening party, which I was doing because I'm friends with the owner. So of course my opinions are biased, and I can't tell you anything about the instruction or other students.

To a New Yorker/East Coaster like me, Lake in the Hills sounds like the name of a fake rural town in some Midwestern place like Illinois. It is all that, except the fake part. It's a real town, and yes, I did pass by farms with rolling hills and white fences and barns to get there.

Intrigue Fitness is a brand-new pole-and-other studio, and they have their shit together. Easy to find, professional storefront, bathroom with tampons available, and a wide selection of merch. Is there hot pink? Yes, much. But on the videos I was taking of my practice session, it looks kinda reddish, which makes me happy.

Me and two of my fellow performers in front of the dazzling merch selection

There are two main fitness rooms: an open room, for stuff like yoga and hula-hooping and Zumba, and the pole room, which is the one we're interested in, obviously. (I mean, Zumba your heart out, but this is a pole/aerial blog and that's why you came here.)

Pole room: OMG AWESOME. Dude, the ceilings are 13 feet high. 13! How many studios can boast of that much height? Plus, the studio is half 50mm and half 45s, so you can use either. (I think for our performance, half the performers used the 50 and half used the 45.) They are Platinum Stages spinning/static convertibles (the kind with the pin you pull out), which is what I have, except theirs are stainless steel (mine is brass). I found both times I went there that they really needed to be warmed up. Probably because they're not in constant use yet, they were "fresh" every time I touched them. Plus, they have fierce air conditioning, so when the room's not full of people, the poles get cold quickly. But once they were lightly warmed up (cleaned and slid down), they were fine to work on, even for a brass monkey like me.

There are 8 poles, and plenty of room around them. Weird thing though: no mirrors. The yoga/Zumba room had mirrors, but the pole room didn't (yet?). Even though mirrors can be a crutch, I like having them to check my positioning on things like iron X and flagpole and other moves that need to be parallel to the ground or else they don't count. For most other things, I find videoing something and watching it back is more effective than a mirror anyways.

Oh, and they have cool lighting! I mean, they have regular lighting, but for our performance they turned the lights down and put on some club lighting, with dancing light flickers and everything. From my experience teaching in studios, students tend to like that sort of atmosphere, so I'm sure it's a popular option for their classes.

When I was there to practice, each pole had a little "supply" station, with a buckled-up yoga mat, a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol and a cleaning cloth... there was probably other stuff in there but I didn't notice what; I guess that was all I needed! But I thought that was a cute way of staying organized. It's a pain usually when everyone has to go to the same stack of mats and drag one out, and it creates kind of a bottleneck, so having all the supplies set up by each pole seems convenient.

Anyways, the long and short of it is, it's about the long. These are really tall poles, so if you wanna do any serious aerial training, go here and knock yourself out. Srsly, if I weren't moving (oh yeah, I'm moving btw), I'd probably go there once in awhile just to practice challenging climbs that I can't get much juice out of at home. And it's a really nice, shiny studio in general. Slick and professional all around. I don't know what classes are like, but if you're in the area, it would definitely be worth checking out.

Intrigue Fitness
Equipment: 8 13' Platinum Stages stainless steel spinning/static convertibles, 4 50mm and 4 45mm
Amenities: a bathroom in the general fitness room as well as some miscellaneous exercise equipment (dumbbells, exercise balls), couches in the entrance room and a really nice selection of merch, as well as stiletto shoes for sale
Drop-in price: $16-22 for non-enrolled students. Linda says the first week of drop-ins is free; I dunno if that's forever or just a grand opening promotion, but I'd get in there ASAP!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to be a pole beginner

Back in my high school and college years, I was what people called a "seeker," mainly meaning that I read a lot of books about different religions, went to churches, meditated, got really good at astrology, etc. One thing I remember from all the zen buddhism books is the concept of "beginner's mind." I hate trying to distill a concept like that into everyday, non-buddhist language, because I'll screw it up, but the idea is that the openness of a new student is something wonderful, that even the masters should strive for. Or as my frustrated math teacher once complained to a roomful of unlistening students, "The hardest thing is to try to teach someone something they think they already know." As a long-time teacher of many different skills, that's one of the truest axioms I've ever heard.

So I'd like to start out by saying: embrace your beginnerhood. This is the most you're ever going to learn, because you'll be open to everything. You are fresh, enthusiastic, and welcoming. For most of us, it isn't long before we have Opinions about everything, preconceived notions about what performers and teachers we admire and which we look down on, what moves we are Good At and which we Can't Do, which is our Good Side and which is our Bad Side. I'm not saying don't form opinions, but you know, "Stay gold, Pony Boy." For us experienced dancers/athletes, it can be very difficult to revisit nature's first green, but it can be refreshing to try.

OK, so that's my philosophy/grad school advice. Here are some more specific, tangible thoughts for those just starting out, or those who want to renew their pole souls.

Try different studios and teachers
I think most of us have a strong sense of loyalty to where we learn and who we learn with. We admire our teachers, bond with our classmates, and feel at home with the routine of going to class. Meanwhile, going to a new studio can be intimidating and uncomfortable. You don't know what to expect, how long it's going to take to get there, if you're going to look like a dork in front of your new classmates and whether they're going to judge you for it. (I've tried to alleviate these fears as much as I can by posting studio reviews so you know what to expect when you go.) So the fidelity perpetuates.

Is this loyalty misplaced? Yes and no. As a teacher, I love that my students feel loyalty towards me, that they keep coming back for lessons, try to get their friends involved. I feel proud of them for their progress that I see each week, proud of myself for being a good enough teacher that they want to keep coming, and, yes, happy to have steady income. I like it, and they like it, so what's the problem?

I think that stepping outside your studio bubble is important for your growth as an artist. If you just want to show up to class once a week and burn some calories, then staying at one studio is fine. But you're not the kind of person who would be reading this blog. Most of you want to get really good, whether that means moving more gracefully or learning crazy tricks. You can learn a lot by working with the same teachers week after week, but you'll learn more by trying other teachers now and again.

And if you're not already feeling super attached to a single place, please don't be shy about shopping around. Try a class with every reputable studio in your area if you can. Pole studios are so, so, so different from each other, and so are teachers. I teach completely differently than most people that I've worked with. And if there aren't a lot of places offering drop-in classes, see who has an Open Pole jam that you can attend as a non-student. Open Poles are a great way to meet new people and see what tricks and sequences other local polers are working on, without committing to a series of classes or trying to figure out what level you would be at what school.

The pole community is big on workshops by touring teachers, so most of us do have the opportunity to try new instructors and studios. If, on the other hand, you were at a studio where none of the students ever trained anywhere else ever, that would concern me. Sure, a studio wants your money, but if they are discouraging you from branching out or sheltering you from the rest of the pole/aerial community, that's not a business, that's a cult.

Stop moaning and practice your tricks on both sides
Isn't it funny how quickly we decide that learning a new trick on the opposite side is mind-bogglingly impossible? Try this. OMG SO HARD. Try it two more times. OK, I'm starting to get it. Now try it on the other side. HOLY SHIT NO WAY THAT FEELS SO WEIRD OMG! Uh, yeah, it felt so weird THREE MINUTES AGO when you tried it on your first side, and it only took you a few tries to get over that.

I've already written extensively about the importance of learning tricks on both sides. I'm just bringing it up here because it's a particular problem for beginners. Look guys, if you don't face the challenge now, you will face it later, and it will be a lot harder and a much bigger deal. Please learn it right.

Don't focus only on learning new tricks to the exclusion of other kinds of training
This is more for people who are self-taught, as if you are in a class the teacher will probably take you through routines or freestyle, correct your form, and do some stretching and conditioning with you.

Getting a new trick for the first time is an amazing feeling. Every little move you get expands your possibilities. You can put this in a routine, in a performance. You can add it to your freestyle, to show off in class. You can sequence into it, sequence out of it. Plus, I hate to say it, but what tricks you can do has a lot of affect on how much respect you get from other polers. If you do a brass monkey, that puts you in one category. If you can do a handspring, that puts you in another. If you can do an iron X, that improves your ranking.

So the temptation to spend all your training time on new tricks is very high. But guess what: when you watch people perform who know a lot of tricks and don't train anything else, they tend to kind of suck. The movement is clunky and the performance uninspired. You need grace and flow, proper form, strength, flexibility, stage presence, and a good relationship with the music. Video yourself once in awhile, and you'll catch immediately all the spots where you're not pointing your toes or making That Face. Hire a ballet instructor or theatre director for an hour to get some pointers, or maybe do a skills exchange with a friend in that kind of business. Work out, whether you use the pole or the gym, to build strength, and find time to stretch. Choreograph a routine, maybe even sign up for a showcase. You will still have time to work on new tricks, and when you do them, people will enjoy watching them more.

Get over your fear of improvisation
I believe strongly in the value of improvisation, and I think most pole instructors and advanced polers do. In fact, the only polers who don't value improvisation are beginners. Oh my god, the giggling fits. The standing stiffly in the room, looking around, wondering why the song isn't over yet. Even if it's a guided or partial improvisation, beginners just freeze up.

I totally get it. I would feel EXACTLY the same way in your shoes. And we don't even let you drink in class to lower your inhibitions! So mean! Hopefully you have a teacher who can give you enough guidance that you don't feel like a complete moron, but at the end of the day, you are the one who is going to have to get over it. That might be very hard for some people, and some reading this before their first class might consider it a deal breaker. Tell you what: come up with a back-up plan. If the teacher tells you to improvise and you can't think of anything to do, have an easy, repetitive move you can revert to. Maybe it's walking around the pole, maybe it's swiveling your hips. Then as ideas and inspiration come up, you can throw them in. There, problem solved. OK?

Stop thinking we don't want to work with you because you aren't advanced
I hear this comment all the time. "Sorry, I'm not going to be any fun, I'm really basic."

Beginning polers, hear us out: WE LOVE YOU.

Where do I even begin? First of all, we get to awaken you to the love of pole and aerial arts. We get to see that passion bloom in you. We don't have to undo any bad habits, because you haven't picked them up yet. Plus, you're learning moves that we could sleepwalk through. I have to prepare much less for a beginner than for an advanced student, because the moves are all new to you, and I've taught them 100 times and have it down to a science. I enjoy teaching advanced students because I get to do unusual stuff with them, but they are so high maintenance! Half the time I go to teach them something, they're like "Oh I know that already," and I often need to teach them moves that I haven't done in 3 months because I haven't had anyone advanced enough to do them in that amount of time, so I have to practice it a lot myself to make sure it gets back up to seamless. And I really enjoy the process, but then when I get to teach you guys, it's like "Ahhh, a break!" Plus, there are more of you. The vast majority of teachers couldn't stay in business if they only liked teaching advanced students. Y'all are our bread and butter. That might not sound like a noble reason, but it doesn't hurt, either.

I hope this helps a few people who are just beginning their pole journey. And I'd also like to hear from other instructors about what they wish they could say to every first-time poler out there!

Image from