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!

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Esselstyn diet and my family

I've been a vegetarian since I was a teenager (over half my lifetime), and was even mildy vegan for about five years. I'm the only vegetarian in my family, including extended. Actually, most of my immediate family are pretty big carnivores. At least one of my sisters goes to BaconFest religiously, and my dad's been on and off Atkins for 10 years or so.

That's probably why it's my dad who's the protagonist of this story. Three months ago when he had his check-up with the family doctor, he said to me, "I think Dr. Lee wants me to... be vegan."

Me: (laughs uproariously)

Dad: That's not exactly what he said. He said... I forget, something about...

Me: Plant-based diet?

Dad: Yes! That's it! He was telling me about this book, where the author managed to cure heart disease in these deathbed patients. He said I should at least try to adopt some recipes from there.

Me: So, are you going to do it?

Dad: Well, I guess I'll read the book.

I was so tickled I ordered it for him on Amazon out of my own underemployed pocket. He got the book a few days later, and when went to Subway for lunch that afternoon, he got a vegan sandwich. And that was that. He was on the diet.

Conversations over the following week went like this:

Me: So, the doctor told Dad to go vegan.


Me: No, dude. He's doing it.

And he was. My dad's an engineer, and he likes all-or-nothing, black-and-white problems and solutions. The book convinced him, so he went all the way with it.

The Esselstyn diet is basically a vegan, extreme-low-fat diet. You can't have any meat, dairy, or eggs (I think a little honey is OK, so that kind of depends on your definition of vegan), of course. On top of that, no oils, not even to cook in. Furthermore, no nuts (except walnuts in moderation), no avocados, no coconut--you're even supposed to keep tofu to a minimum, as it has too much fat. And of course, no sugar or refined flours. He can have a little maple syrup, agave, and I think even Splenda might be ok. But not sugar and only whole grain breads and pastas.

My mom could happily have been vegetarian, maybe even vegan, but she was irate over the no oil thing. She loves her olive oil, and could not conceive of cooking without it. As for me, I was in 7th heaven. I live with my parents at the moment (moving away in a little over a week), and this meant that I was going to have healthy, vegan home-cooked meals every day. I threatened to never move out if this kept up!

We started out by using recipes in Esselstyn's book, which included both hits and misses. My parents discovered that they love portabella burgers on the grill. I used to not be a fan, but when I saw that a portabella cap is only 20 calories, I decided to convert from veggie burgers. (Also an influence in this conversion: Epic Burger. Lord, their portabella is fantastic. Probably has oil or something so not on the diet. Plus I like the epic sauce, which is not vegan. But it's so good I don't even need fries with it.) Other recipes were disappointing. My mom was frustrated with the cookbook (it is at times horribly vague), so for Father's Day my dad got The Happy Herbivore, a low-fat vegan cookbook. This one is definitely better. Still hits and misses, and generously padded with food porn (glamor shots of the dishes), but a very good selection of recipes. It's not as strict as Esselstyn, as many of the recipes do contain tofu and the like, but close enough.

Veggie skewers off the grill
 My mom does most of the cooking, and she's getting used to it. She has a few recipes that are her favorites, but I keep prodding her to try new ones. I've done a bit of cooking myself, which is generally not the way I like to spend my time, but it's kind of fun and relaxing when I get around to it.

Today was the day that my dad got his blood work results back for his three-month check-up. Not only did he lose 33 pounds (and his blood sugar was drastically lowered, which is important 'cause he's borderline diabetic), but his cholesterol dropped from 180 (it was over 200 before he started taking medication) to 119. It came up highlighted on the results sheet as "dangerously low" (not because it's dangerous to have low cholesterol, but because it could have been an indication of some other problem). The doctor hadn't known my dad had gone through with the diet, and his mind was just blown. My dad said the doc was literally laughing looking at the results. I guess my dad was the first patient who had actually followed the diet to the letter (except one other guy who was much healthier so his results weren't as steep), and it just served as a confirmation that the author's theories worked.

So the doctor took my dad off of two of his medications, and lowered two others. Not bad for three months!

As for the rest of us: my mom and I have been sort of doing the diet in solidarity, but not strictly. My mom likes her oil and goes nuts for Amy's No-Cheese pizza (a staple from my vegan days--god, so good), and I like to swing by Starbucks for a frappucino (with whip!) once in awhile. But for meals we've been pretty good. My mom, who weighs about the same as me (but is shorter, and, well, older), had lost 8 pounds last time I checked (could be more by now). And I've actually lost a few pounds myself. Which is hard for an already fit (and already vegetarian) young woman to do.

I guess if there's anything I've gotten out of this it's that, when you're preparing your own food, you really don't need oil. We cook most things in vegetable broth, and it's fine and saves us a ton of calories. Also, you can make guacamole out of peas instead of avocados, and it's almost as good. Also, even though I don't run anymore or exercise as much as I used to, I can eat plenty of carbs and still lose weight.

Overall, this diet is way too strict for most people. Eating out is nearly impossible (we've found decent approximations of diet-friendly food at Panera, Potbelly, and Ruby Tuesday), so you pretty much have to love cooking. If you just want to lose weight, there are much easier ways to do it. But if your concern is heart disease, in our experience, this diet WORKS.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Part of teaching pole means working with and talking to a lot of women. Most people I deal with have a decent understanding of the way exercise and the body work. They might come from another kind of fitness background (dancers and gymnasts make fabulous aerialists!), or maybe they just remember stuff from high school science or health class.

But there's no escaping the occasional whine of, "But I don't want to bulk up!"

Or, its more prevalent sister remark of, "I just want to tone!"

<sigh.> Ladies, for the love of god, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BULK UP!

If you're grossed out by pictures of female body builders, that's fine. It's a matter of taste. I mean, I'm kinda grossed out by extreme flexibility, even though some of my students go ape for contortionists. But what you need to understand is that those women didn't become so hulking by going to pole class, or even by hitting the gym. They had to work really, really hard to get that way. Part of that has to do with a specifically-targeted weightlifting regimen, and an often larger part has to do with cramming as much protein down your face as possible. Either way, it was not a side effect of poling, or of trying to get stronger.

And I'm sorry, but toning is fake. It is not a thing. It was made up by the fitness industry to assuage the fears of those of you who are afraid of bulking up. "Toning" is just losing a little fat and gaining a little muscle so you can see the definition a bit. It still involves making your muscles bigger, whatever you call it.

(And this is off-topic, but since we're on the subject of exercise myths pedaled to women: you can't lose weight off one part of your body by exercising that particular part. Build muscle yes, lose weight no.)

Still concerned? There are some reasons you might gain an above average amount of muscle:

Easy gainers
It is with muscle as with fat: some people gain it easily, some people don't. Your muscles might get bigger faster than other people's. You're just a mesomorph. Unless you're a legitimate freak of nature, though, you're not going to turn into She-Hulk by working out for strength or general fitness. Although for aerialists, you might not want to work out too hard on muscles that you don't need for your apparatus. Balance is essential, of course, but muscle weighs a lot, and you don't want to make yourself harder to lift. I'm an easy gainer, and I don't do a ton of lower body workouts. I did when I was a runner, but as an aerialist, I just don't need as much leg strength as I used to, and as long as my tush looks good, I'm happy.

Some people have disproportionately-sized feet or hips. Others have disproportionately-sized delts or quads. Chances are, this will be somewhat apparent before you start gaining. I have large biceps. But even when I was a high schooler and not doing any exercise, I could flex and put on a pretty impressive gun show. My arms are much bigger when I am exercising, but they were kinda big to begin with. My shoulders and pecs don't get nearly as enlarged. There's not a lot you can do about this--if it's not a muscle you need for your apparatus, you can exercise it a little less, but if it is, I wouldn't sacrifice strength because you feel self-conscious about your muscles.

OK, now that I've hopefully convinced you you're not going to turn into The Tic, I'll concede that you are going to gain muscle. If you work hard, you might even gain enough muscle that people say, "Wow! You're in really good shape. What do you do to work out?"

Please don't let this make you feel unfeminine! I have muscles, and I'm pretty much a girlie-girl. I like make-up and dresses and kittens and hearts. And if you were going to call me attractive (to which I'd say, "Why thank you!" unless you were a creep, in which case I would probably reject you in a way that did not involve letting you down easy), you'd call me conventionally so. Not a supermodel, but not a fetish model, either.

Tell ya what--go ahead and do your darndest at your craft. If you feel you've gained too much muscle, you can back off your training and go back to how you used to look.

But you won't. I have yet to see it happen. I don't know a single aerialist who has said, "Hmm, I look too athletic. I liked myself better before." Sure, we complain about not being able to zip up dresses, or short sleeves being too tight on our arms. But it's a bragging kind of complaining.

A few final tips:

Your workout regimen
Actually delving into detail about how to train for strength vs. bulk is beyond the scope of this post--plus, most of your exercise will likely come from your aerial workouts and conditioning, and less from hitting the gym. But I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention that the general guideline that most people agree upon is if you want to build just strength, without hypertrophy, do just a few reps at a very high weight. Ironically, this is the opposite of advice that's peddled to women who "don't want to bulk up," which is the whole 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps thing.

Hang out with other strong women
I never appreciated my muscles, or even my strength, before I became an aerialist. Suddenly it went from a party trick to something that people around me admired and wanted to emulate. If you want to appreciate your muscles, hang out with other women who appreciate them--theirs and yours.

Don't get carried away
Maybe I convinced you a little too well. Seeing these changes in your body can get addictive, and you might be tempted to start hitting the gym harder so you can see even more results. That's fine if that's what you want for yourself. But if your primary goal is to become the best aerialist you can be, you'll want to avoid bulk just for appearance's sake. Stay light, so you can fly.

So stop worrying and get on that pole (and in that gym). Be strong and love it.

Image from