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