Sunday, December 29, 2013

Should you get a (bottle of) grip?

Grip aid preferences are one of the most popular topics for polers (right after what brand pole to buy and before what material pole to buy). Other aerialists tend to be rosin or nothin', though whether they use rock rosin or spray is also a subject of discussion. Grip aids are interesting to trade notes about, because everyone has a preference. Some swear by Mighty Grip, others like Dew Point, some love iTac and some hate it. My favorite are the grip aid "cocktails" I hear people come up with: "I layer on Dew Point and then cover with iTac on my legs plus Dry Hands on my hands and shoulders, and Cramer's on the bottom of my feet if I'm going to attempt a Starfish!" It's like bros in the gym describing their supplement stacks. "Bro, I take casein protein before and 30 grams of whey after, and 4 times a day I take a stack of creatine, caffeine, and alpha-lipoic acid, bro."

But I know many aerialists who have sworn off rosin and suggest that you do, too. Relying on grip aid can create lazy fingers and prevent you from building up the strength you need to master your art. (See also How to stick to the pole.) So should you torture yourself to build up your grip, or should you even the playing field by using as much grip aid as everyone else?

As much as many people like to be dogmatic about this, there's no cut-and-dry answer. It depends on the individual. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

What are your goals?
Are you training for a career in the circus? To win competitions? Consider stepping away from the bottle. You need to be secure in your poses in ANY conditions--hot or cold, dry or humid, fresh or exhausted.

Are you working out in your apartment for fun? Then why torture yourself? If you're going to have an enjoyable training session with grip or a frustrating one without it, you don't have a good reason to make yourself miserable. You're doing this because you love it, so you should enjoy yourself.

What are you doing?
If you're running your competition routine for the 40th time, now's a good time to go grip-naked. You've got the moves, now you need to intensify your training. It's like putting on ankle weights--you don't need them every day, but when it's competition training time you gotta give 110%. (Note: you do want to practice under performance circumstances as well, so it's also important to do some runs using exactly what grip aids you plan to use during performance.)

If you're trying out a scary new move and are afraid of falling on your head, grip away. Above all if you are actually above all: getting on a 20-foot pole for the first time? Use whatever you want! You don't want to look down, get nervous, start sweating, and slip to your death.

What is your skin chemistry like?
I agree that there are circumstances where using your skin alone are ideal, but I also hate when people get preachy and judgy about it. Why? Because they haven't walked a mile in your skin. An aerialist who has a cooperative skin chemistry scolding one who has to use rosin without understanding their skin chemistry is like a skinny person scolding a fat person for eating too much without understanding their metabolism. I don't sweat a whole lot. Lucky for me and my dainty femininity. I have friends who break out in sweatballs like Texas hail the second their heart rate goes up. It's not fair for me to tell them not to use grip aid. On the other hand, Pippi at 34 has really dry legs, but Pippi at 29 had no problem with knee holds in any weather. As a result, I am much more likely to use grip aids now because getting older sucks.

What is the weather like?
I live in Massachusetts and it's December and my apartment is cold. Maybe if poling were my full-time job, I would have the time/patience to warm up my pole in front of the space heater, warm up my body with vigorous calisthenics, get the pole all hot and bothered with some friction-inducing climbs and drops, and eventually I'd be able to pole comfortably. But I don't have time for that. (See Training when you don't have enough time.) I have to cook dinner and practice music and write this blog! I'd really rather just put on some rosin than slide out of every move for the first 20 minutes of my 30-minute practice session.

The summer is a different story. Poling in the summer is so exciting because everything is so easy! Until it's like 100 degrees and the air conditioner window unit isn't cutting it anymore. It's a delicate balance.

What's your budget?
Sport-specific grip aids tend to be $10+ per bottle, so if you go through it fast the cost adds up. If I'm honest, probably the reason I'm so stingy with using grip aids is more because I'm a cheap bastard than because I'm being a hardcore aerialist.

Of course, there are budget, DIY alternatives. I like to use Corn Husker's Lotion because I can get it at CVS for like $4. Some people use shaving cream or even hairspray (thanks for the tip Peita!). But the cheapest option is nothing.

Photo by me. Please disregard bottle of wine in the background.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Treatment of minor pole & aerial injuries

No matter how safe you are, the aerial arts hurt. Injuries, large or small, are inevitable for the air-bound athlete (see The stigma of injury.) Some are career-ending, even life-ending. Others are annoying. If you dislocate your shoulder or break a fibula, see your doctor. But for your everyday bumps and bruises, here are some handy tools that will get you back off your feet and back into the air.

(Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, I'm not a nurse, take any of the following advice at your own risk.)

Pole/fabric burn: A+D Ointment
One of the first things you learn in pole is that pole burn is a thing (see Your first pole class.) The same is true for silks, rope, and other instruments of torture. Apparatus burn can keep you off your apparatus as you wait for it to heal.

Fortunately, during a particularly bad inner thighs burn a few years ago (you know the one polers--where you wear bike shorts under your skirt so your thighs don't rub together because OW) I had some A+D Ointment around due to a tattoo, and decided to give it a try. Problem solved. I can apply after training and get back on the pole the next day. Now, don't overdo things--and yes it is possible to get a more serious burn that will need more care (I fell out of silks in Berlin and had fabric burn that kept me in bandages for a month). But for your everyday pole burn, this trick should keep you going.

Blisters: Liquid Bandage
Blisters aren't one of the first problems that polers have (nor silks, though I can't speak to other apparatuses), but overtraining can bring them on, and then it hurts to touch things, which is not useful for training. A lot of people will soften the blisters by rubbing oils into them--but then your skin goes back to being weak and fleshy and the blisters will come right back.

When I first got my own set of silks, I really overdid the training, and after a few days my blisters were so bad that I could hardly hold the fabrics. Fortunately, my former teacher tipped me off to liquid bandage, and a CVS pharmacist confirmed that it would be my best option if I wanted to keep training in the near future. I painted that magic stuff over my lumps and I was back in the air the next day.

I covered all of this in Blisters: Soften or Toughen, but it bears repeating. If you want soft, touchable skin (and there's nothing wrong with that!!), oil away. If you want intense athletic training, don't.

Pulled muscles: KT Tape
I've always had neck problems. I remember at 8 years old waking up with a stiff neck and not being able to turn my head to the right. So when I threw my neck out a year and a half ago, it was nothing new. But it was worse than ever before, and I had performances and a workshop coming up, so something needed to be done. I had heard of KT Tape and tracked down a package at a local luxury gym. It was really complicated to apply--following the instructional videos, my mom wasn't getting it right and my dad had to take over. But once it was on? Night and day. All of a sudden I could move, I could breathe, I could hold my head up high, I could look around!

With KT Tape I was able to go back to training and complete all my commitments. And I know how well it worked, because at one point I thought I was better so I took it off. I was instantly in pain again and begged to be taped back up immediately. And then I was and I felt fine. Day and night.

Sore muscles: Epsom salts
You know what I like about hot baths? So many things that are healthy for us--exercising, dieting, waking up early--can be so unappealing. Not so for hot baths! You can relax with some bubbles and the radio and maybe some candles and a class of red wine if you're feeling fancy (and why the hell not? live it up a little!). Just make sure you add a scoop of epsom salts to the water and you'll be relieving your sore muscles as well. This is a popular treatment among aerialists and athletes of all varieties.

This one is hard to judge objectively. How do you know the extent to which the salts are helping? Maybe if your calves were sore and you soaked one in a big tub of epsom-salted water and the other in regular water? But subjectively, I do tend to feel better after one of these delightful restoration baths.

Bruises: Arnica
Even non-athletes swear by arnica oil for bruises. We all bump our shins on the coffee table sometimes! I use it and subjectively I think it works. But again, it's hard to test. You'd have to have identical bruises on both sides of your body and then just arnica up one of them. But anyways, a little bit of gel goes a long way, so it's not like using it is a huge investment.

I usually use gel, but I sometimes like to douse myself with Weleda Arnica Massage Oil after training. That's mostly just because it smells so good, though.

Most things: Ice
After 10 years of pole and aerial, I can tell you that the vast majority of injuries I've given myself, small or large, benefit from icing. Ice reduces swelling, and swelling is the body's response to lots of injuries, so it's usually the first place to go.

Icing yourself can be a pain. Do yourself a favor and invest in reusable, anatomy-specific ice packs. If you hurt your knee, buy a knee ice pack. If you hurt your neck, buy a neck one. Yes, your freezer will be more first aid than ice cream, but if you don't make it easy on yourself you're not going to do it. And you'll probably end up needing it again. Keep the 80/20 rule in mind: 80% of your injuries will probably be to the same 20% of your body. (Or, for an alternative, see my mom's idea.)

Everything: Rest
You are probably here because you are overzealous about training. (See Are you overtraining?) You hurt yourself (everyone does), and you want a shortcut so you don't have to wait for it to heal before you start training again. OK, I gave you the shortcuts. But we all know that there are no real shortcuts in life. You need to rest. Lay off a little bit. Don't expect to jump back in at full force, no matter what potions you're using. You'll only make it worse. Think long-term about your training--and your life. It's not worth really hurting yourself to get back to training a couple days sooner.

Photo by me!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Your first pole class

Going to your first pole dancing class can be intimidating. You might be confused about what to expect, what to wear, and what the workout actually consists of. Maybe you are trying pole as part of a Groupon or Living Social deal. Maybe you'll be attending a pole dancing bachelorette party. Or, maybe you're an experienced poler (self-taught, learned from friends, or "on the job" in the case of exotic dancers) who's never been to a pole studio, but wants to give it a try. Well, consider me the Welcome Wagon. Here's an introduction on what to expect at your first pole class.

Finding a studio and signing up for a class
Unless you found a studio by driving by one in your town or joining a Groupon deal, you probably started by googling for pole dancing classes in your area. You probably came across a studio's website (or maybe many studios), maybe read some Yelp reviews or even a review on this site. Some areas are glutted with pole studios and some have no options for miles around. It makes sense if you think about it: pole is a hobby that becomes obsessive quickly, so pole studios tend to multiply as students take class, get hooked, train to become instructors, and open their own studios nearby.

Most pole, aerial, and yoga studio websites use an online class sign-up site called MindBody. So the look-and-feel of the signup pages may be familiar from site to site, but unfortunately a lot of administrators have a really hard time configuring MindBody in a way that makes sense. You might have problems such as not knowing which tab to click on to get the class you want, not being able to find out how much a class costs until you create a login, and differing schedules on the studio's web pages vs. the studio's signup site. Hopefully you end up on a site that is well-organized and can sign up for class without too much of a headache.

What to bring and wear
The first question most newbies have is, "what should I wear?" It's actually pretty tricky to dress for pole. You need enough skin exposed so your skin can grip the pole, but you need to be covered enough that you don't have any wardrobe malfunctions. Even something that seems reasonable on the ground, like shorts, can look very different when you're upside-down (and everyone can see up your shorts legs).

The standard uniform for experienced polers is: tight-fitting "booty" or "boy" shorts, a sports bra, and a tank top layered over the sports bra (you might want to take the tank to off to have more skin to grip with, so don't plan on wearing one of those that are a tank top with a sports bra built-in). However, at your first class you probably won't do moves that require as much skin grip, so you're probably fine in long pants. Think "yoga wear."

Some studios allow/encourage students to dance in "stripper heels," but barefoot is the norm.

You also want to bring a water bottle. Some studios make you bring your own yoga mat, but that's rare, so if it's not specified on the website don't worry about it. I like to bring a little snack (power bar or something) for classes that are over an hour so I don't get "hangry." Finally, experienced polers will bring some kind of grip aid, but if it's your first class you probably don't have any grip aid yet. They will probably sell some at the reception desk and/or have some you can use in the studio.

Arriving at the studio
Plan to arrive at the studio plenty early on your first day, to leave time for finding it (some of them can be really hard to find), signing waivers, getting dressed, and just having time to look around and chat. Parking might also be an issue in some areas.

Size, layout, and amenities vary drastically from studio to studio. You may be in a cushy lounge area, or you may be in a single pole room. This largely depends on how much money the studio has. But don't be put off if you end up in a single, unimpressive room--it often means that the owners are more interested in the art of pole than in making money, so you might get better training in the end.

Most studios have a reception desk that may or may not be manned. If it's not, someone will wander out and see you waiting to be helped eventually. The first thing they will do after meeting you is give you a waiver to sign. It's a pretty typical legal form that says they're not responsible if you injure yourself. Don't be alarmed, every studio has this. (But yes, pole dancing is dangerous and you can hurt yourself. Be careful!)

Of course, not all pole classes are in a pole studio per se. Some may be in a gym or a dance studio. Oh, and keep in mind that policies on men taking class vary from studio to studio as well. If it's going to be too creepy for you to train alongside dudes, check on the studio's policy first.

Getting dressed
Bigger pole studios will have locker rooms and even showers. Smaller ones might just have a bathroom that has to be shared among the students. That means you need to arrive early enough to get dressed and wait in line for the bathroom. Alternatively you could just show up dressed already, depending on where you're coming from.

Waiting for class
Depending on the layout of the studio, there might be a lounge area to wait in. Or maybe you are in the pole room, trying to stay out of the way of the class before you.

It's possible that some friendly student will introduce themselves to you, but don't feel bad if they don't. Pole studios can be a little cliquish. However, we polers are REALLY excited to introduce new people to our art, so if you tell people it's your first time they'll probably be really happy to talk to you about it and tell you how much you're going to love it.

If it's a "teaser" or "taster" class, you'll be there with a lot of other newcomers. Some of them will be pretty nervous and chatty, so it's easy to make friends. :)

On the other hand, maybe you're there with a bachelorette party. There could be a regular class before yours, or there could be another bachelorette party. Either way it's nice if you can get a peek at what's going on so you know what to expect (and see all the smiling sweaty people having fun).

Start and warmup
Once it's time to start, everyone will pick a pole. It's up to you whether you want to be in front where you can see the teacher best or in back where you don't feel like everybody's watching you. Also, in some studios the poles aren't all the same--they might be different diameters, and some might be set to spin mode and some to static. But it doesn't matter much on your first day.

The norm is one student per pole, but some crowded classes will have 2 or 3 students sharing a pole. Many studios have an across-the-board "one student per pole" policy, though, and won't let the class get overbooked.

You'll probably find a place against the wall to stash your stuff and the teacher will warm you up. A warmup often includes stretching and/or conditioning (usually a lot of situp-like exercises). If it's a more "sexy" style pole class, there may be some "booty popping" in there as well.

Then you get to the meat of class. The teacher will demonstrate and explain something, and then you'll try it a few times.

And the first thing that will happen is you'll bang your shin on the pole and yell "OW!!" Congratulations, you've earned your first merit badge: your first pole bruise! Expect your legs to look "like moldy bread" the next day, as one aerialist colorfully put it to me after her first lesson. Yes, the bruising subsides over time. Most of us only get bruises when we're learning a new move. Right now, all the moves are new for you, so you have a lot of merit badges to collect.

The next thing you'll notice is the pole burn. Yes, pole burn is a thing. It's like rope burn, but caused by the pole rubbing against your skin. Expect any body part that's not bruised to be red and raw.

I know this sounds really awful and horrible, but keep in mind that everyone in the room went through this and came back because poling is amazing. Trust me, it's worth it.

So you'll try some moves and you'll probably get some and not get some. But what you will definitely get is a workout. And the best part is, you will be concentrating so hard on getting the moves that you won't even notice that you're exercising.

Some classes teach little routines, especially bachelorette party and teaser classes. In my experience, the majority of regular pole classes are not based on routines. On the other hand, some classes have a short "improv" session at the end, where the teacher puts on a song and you can dance or trick out or just practiced what you've learned. I've noticed that by the time it's "improv" time, most people are too tired to dance anyways.

After class
Make sure you eat something after your workout. A soak in the tub with epsom salts can help with the muscle soreness you'll feel. Most importantly, do it again! You might book some classes at the same studio, or maybe you want to try out every different studio you can before you decide which to make your home. Either way, I can almost guarantee you that you're going to get on your computer that night and figure out how much it would cost to get a pole for your house.

Welcome to the club.

Image of Intrigue Fitness from

Friday, November 29, 2013

Rethinking what makes you "Not A Stripper"

Polers, while most respect exotic dancers, spend a lot of effort making sure you know we are not strippers. (Well, except those of us who are. Well, no, actually, sometimes those of us who are too.) I clearly don't think that poling and stripping are the same thing, but sometimes I hear some arguments that make me go hmm. If you've ever said one of these things, think again.

"I'm not a stripper because I don't take my clothes off."
Lets talk about state laws for a second. "Gentlemen's clubs" in different areas might have various amounts of skin exposed for legal reasons. Some states you can run around in your birthday suit, some you can't bare anything, some it depends whether or not you're selling alcohol or what percentage of your square footage is devoted to adult entertainment.

The result of this legislation is that some joints that are "strip clubs" in every other sense do not have any nudity. They might be "go-go" or "bikini bars," where girls are dancing on stage and/or around a pole and/or on customers' laps have their naughty bits covered--top AND bottom.

Are you an exotic dancer if you're dancing onstage in a bikini? What if it's a thong bikini? What if it's opaque lingerie?

Some of you might be saying, "Oh, I can dance for money without taking my clothes off? Sign me up!" OK, but keep in mind that you might not just shimmy up and down a pole--you might still be expected to lap dance or do "champagne rooms." Does that change your feeling? Or is it still OK as long as you're wearing 2 inches of fabric? Is it OK to stuff your boobs in a stranger's face if as long as your nipples are covered?

Go-go bars aside, a lot of clubs are topless and not nudie bars (again, depends on state laws). Do you think it's OK to dance in a bikini but not if you take your top off? What if you're wearing pasties?

Oh, and consider the following: Nude beaches. Nude photos for a modeling career. Nude posing for paintings (I earned my grocery money doing this for awhile).  Nude because you're in a culture (much of Europe) where nudity is culturally acceptable.

At the end of the day, it's only a few inches of fabric separating all of these different categories. Maybe 40 cents worth of cloth, retail. Where do you draw the line?

"I'm not a stripper because I don't perform in public."
I honestly think this is where the whole competition culture in pole came from. Women performing on a pole is naughty, but competing? That's different! Even though every single competition is also a performance.

You can make this argument if you're poling at home by yourself. Maybe if you're in class, although I'd argue that more people are "performing" to show off to their colleagues in class than will admit as such. But once you enter your first showcase or competition, you're performing.

"I'm not a stripper because I put on a show, I don't just wave my titties around."
OK, so you're a burlesque dancer because you swing your tassles in a trendy venue instead of an upscale gentlemen's club. What if you took your entire set, including 30's music, feathery costumes, and suggestive props, and transported them directly to a strip club? What if you performed your entire set, just as you would have in your hipster bar, but now it's in a tittie bar?

Actually, something like this does happen. There is such thing as a "feature dancer" in strip clubs. Certain women have a following and will travel all over the nation, dancing themed performances in fancy, burlesquey costumes to preselected songs with props, and then pose for photos with customers afterwards. These women don't just wave their bums back and forth for a song and collect dollars--they put on a real show.

Sound like a career path you'd like to follow? Well, you usually have to be a porn star to get this gig. So get out there and build up your resume!

"I'm not a stripper because I don't do it for money."
Oh, how nice for you--you are so rich that you get to pay to do something that another woman is doing to feed her kids. Whether or not you pole for money has less to do with your moral values and more to do with how badly you need money. If you're going to use the "money" defense to explain what's different between you and a stripper, consider that that difference has more to do with being born into a world (or marrying into a world or MAYBE bootstrapping your way into a world) where you were able to achieve financial security. Maybe a single bankruptcy separates you from them and maybe it doesn't. You might have parents you can move in with, or marketable skills that will get you another job. But unless you've looked into the eyes of your child, crying from hunger, and then turned down the money to nourish them in return for doing a little pole dance, I don't give you cred for this one.

I'm not saying that polers are exotic dancers, or that there's anything wrong with poling, or that there's anything wrong with exotic dancing. We all know the famous definition of porn, "I know it when I see it." And I've covered this issue before (see Pole, where is thy audience? and The precarious ties between pole dance and stripping).  I'm as quick to differentiate my art from that of the pro exotic as the rest of the community. But I don't think it's a bad thing if we realize that the line between people who pole dance for fun, people who pole dance for profit, and people who do both, isn't a clean one.
Image from

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why is everyone standing around holding the pole?

I've never been a regular student at a pole studio (circus, yes), but I like to do drop-ins here and there. It's fun because you get to see not only different combos, but different studio cultures. Some studios are more open or friendly, some are more cliquish; some feel like a gym, some feel like a spa; some are about competitions and some are about the cocktails that everyone goes out for after class. But everywhere I go, in almost every scenario--open pole, instructed class, pole jam--I see one thing in common: students standing around, holding the poles, and looking around the room.

Things I want to say to these people:
  • Are you logging this as a workout?
  • Didn't you pay money to be here?
If you are standing around a pole studio zoning out at the hottie next to you doing tricks, you are not working out. You are not training. You are probably not learning.

And don't think I'm limiting this to pole. I have a hard time being a Patient Pippi at other aerial training when students are sharing apparatuses, and somebody's turn opens with an extensive prelude of holding the silks and staring up at the ceiling, "thinking." Forgive the vulgarity, but "shit or get off the pot!" People are waiting.

But that's how we let ourselves get away with it: we are "thinking." Unlike going to the gym and doing the same circuit workout three times a week, when we approach our apparatuses we DO have to think hard about what we're doing. We have to analyze, visualize, and galvanize ourselves into executing a scary drop. And we can benefit from watching our classmates work through the same moves.

Don't fall for it. Sure, you need to process, watch, and prep. But do so consciously, or else you're just stalling.

It reminds me of my days at conservatory. I hung out with, and often worked with, pianists. I remember them telling me how their teacher would scold them if they placed their fingers on the keys and then just sat there. Instead, they were instructed to do all their mental prep first, with their hands tucked away in their laps. Then, when they were ready, they could touch their instruments, in the tempo and feel of the music, breathing in time and ready to go.

You have to find that moment of quiet BEFORE you touch your instrument. Why? Because when you place your hands as if you're ready to start, it's easier not to notice that you're stalling. When you keep your hands to yourself, that moment of just sitting there, proverbially naked without your instrument to shield you, feels awkward unless your artistic soul is truly finding its expression. And because the way you approach your instrument--your piano, your pole--should be a part of the song.

If you catch yourself standing around holding your apparatus, your homework is twofold:
  1. Stop stalling. If you're thinking, think on purpose. If you're watching, watch on purpose. If you're not, get the hell upside-down.
  2. Let go. Find your inner music. And then reach out and go.
Think with intention. Dance with intention. Shit or get off the pot.
Image from

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The stigma of injury

I first dislocated my shoulder in 2004. The same year I started pole dancing, and as you can imagine, that's not a coincidence. It's also not the only time I dislocated it that year. It's one of those injuries that a) some people are naturally predisposed to, and b) recurs. And pole and aerial are just as dangerous for your shoulders as playing tackle football.

But these things happen, right? And while there was some carelessness on my part--I shouldn't have been doing 1-handed spins (I still don't teach them, even Reverse Grab), and certainly not throwing them as hard as I did. All athletes get injured from time to time, and pole and aerial are extreme sports. Playing baseball you can tear a rotator cuff; flipping 20 feet up in the air you can die.

I've always been very open about my injuries, partially because they can recur, and partially because I can help other people. I've talked SO many people through shoulder injuries, from subluxation to surgery (which I had in 2007). But on the flipside of that, I've felt a certain stigma that comes with having had aerial injuries.

I first noticed it at one of my first auditions to teach. I slayed at my audition for a fitness center, but didn't get hired. When I asked for feedback, the first thing out of the hiring manager's mouth was that he was concerned that I had been injured. I was taken aback. Almost every full-time athlete at my circus school had gone through some sort of injury. That's unfortunately something that happens when you push the limits of what the human body can do. Ask any Olympian.

Obviously, my teaching career went on just fine without the paranoid gym, but every once in awhile I'm reminded of the stigma of having been injured and "out" about it. It's ridiculous, but it's hardly a unique phenomenon. It reminds me of my former career as a singer. The worst thing that can happen to you as a singer is that you get nodes. If you get nodes, besides possibly never being able to sing professionally again, or needing surgery and vocal therapy, there is also the assumption, maybe by yourself, maybe by your colleagues and the fans, that you have Bad Technique. Everything you thought you knew is wrong. You are a Lifetime movie, a statistic, an example of what not to do. That might not be the case, but that's what everyone thinks.

If you've ever been seriously injured in the aerial arts--or, for teachers and studio owners, if you've ever had a student who was hurt on your watch--you've probably felt this stigma. So for everyone's sake, I want to set a few things straight.

Injuries are not necessarily caused by carelessness or *bad technique*
When you are pushing your body to the limits, anything can happen. You can be benching 300 lbs and your wrist can give out without warning. You can get distracted and lose your footing. You can throw a drop the same number of times you did yesterday, but today it's one time too many.

You can't predict everything that will go wrong.
Part of our job as teachers is to predict everything that could go wrong in a move. But you can't. People will always find new ways of hurting themselves. I once had a student cut her finger poling. I was like HOW DID YOU DO THAT, THERE ARE NO EDGES. And I've been told the way I fell out of a move was "not possible." I guess I just defied reality then. (Side note: I did break my leg in high school in a way that the doctor told me was impossible, and he insisted as much until I gave up and admitted I must have broken it some other way. In retrospect, my parents should have walked me out of that office. I don't think "empowered patients" were a thing in the 90's.)

Accidents are not always as cause-effect friendly as we want them to be.
I dislocated my shoulder 6 times over 3 years, and NONE of them was while I was doing something that you would expect to dislocate a shoulder. But there was often something I did not long before the incident that would have compromised the joint, such as spinning on one arm or stretching my shoulders too much in class the day before. I also have thrown my back out doing the stupidest shit--during periods when I was deadlifting heavy. (I mean weight deadlifting, not pole deadlifting.)

People can be predisposed to physical issues.
The funny thing is, my deadlift technique is polished. But I've also had back problems since I was 21. (True story: they mostly went away when I started poling.) And, as you've no doubt surmised by now, I naturally have loose shoulder joints that are predisposed to dislocation. (I've even subluxed my left shoulder a couple times, and that's after being crazy careful because of what happened with the right.) Just as you can have a propensity towards breast cancer or diabetes, you can have a propensity towards bad knees.

Sometimes we do have bad technique.
Let's not be overly-defensive here--some people do get injured because of one or more issues of poor technique or training methods.  These can include:
  • Not warming up sufficiently
  • Overtraining (see Are you overtraining?)
  • Stretching cold
  • "Flailing," i.e. throwing movements without control (as opposed to effectively utilizing momentum; see In defense of momentum)
  • Misinformation, such as being taught to throw your head back as you invert
  • Weakness/under-engagement from one muscle group and the compensatory actions of others
But, before you go judging somebody's bad technique, remember: We all have bad technique *sometimes.* We cheat on warmups like we cheat on diets. We get carried away and worried about upcoming performances and we overtrain. We jump into moves before we learn to glide into them. If you've never been hurt, good for you. If you've never done something reckless that could have gotten you hurt, I don't believe you.
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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do you really want to teach?

There's a standard track that polers and other aerialists tend to follow. Sign up for classes. Take beginner classes. Take intermediate classes. Take advanced classes. Take instructor training. Teach classes. Maybe open a studio.

The track seems so natural, so almost automatic, that I wonder how many students stop and ask themselves if teaching is something they REALLY want to do, or if it just seems like the next logical step in their hobby/career. I mean, I'm a teacher on purpose--I decided early on that I was more interested in teaching than performing or competing. And I have something of a pedagogical background--I've been a private music instructor on and off (and took classes in that direction in college), and my first jobs after graduation were teaching ESL (which I am certified to do). So I knew what I was getting into, and made the decision deliberately. And there are others like me, of course. But there are many people who seem to fall into the business almost accidentally, and are surprised when it turns out to be more pain and less gain than they expected.

So before you shell out for a training program, ask yourself: "Why do I want to teach?" Because here are a few wake-up calls.

Because I want to finally make money on my passion instead of spending it!
A lot of teachers go into the business hoping to finally profit, but find themselves struggling to break even on their hobby. Sure, the studio will pay you for a class or two instead of you paying them, but for most of us the math doesn't add up. Even if you never had to pay for another class at your place of employment again, you'd still have workshops, grip aids, workout clothes (now that you're at the studio more, you need more outfits!), and any other community events, such as competitions or conventions, you want to attend. And keep in mind that teaching doesn't pay that well. I've been offered as low as $25 a class (for OVER an hour of teaching) even for advanced classes. Add in travel time, money spent on gas, and time spent outside of class prepping, and you'll find that few people are even recouping their expenses.

Because I'll get so much better at my craft when I'm a teacher!
It's true that there are some skills that will improve as you start teaching--mostly, your teaching skills. You'll find that when you have to teach something to someone, it makes you understand it better yourself. This comes in handy for things like breaking down new moves you want to teach yourself. However, it does NOT make you a better poler/aerialist overall. Almost without exception, every teacher I talk to complains that they spend all their time teaching and preparing to teach, and no time on their own art. Sure, teaching beginners to fireman multiple times a week will make your firemans REALLY solid. But your goal moves, your routines, your polishing and perfecting will likely be neglected.

Because I got skills and I should put them to use!
What sort of skills do you got? You can do a fonji and a Marion Amber and even know how to break them down into step-by-step instructions? That's great, but it's not going to help you when facing a roomful of students who can't hold up their own bodyweight. If you are an advanced poler or aerialist, you may be disappointed at how little you get to teach your advanced skills. The majority of your students are just not going to have the ability to do what you can do, and they still might not after years of classes. And when you DO have truly advanced students, hang onto your hats! They're going to want to learn the "flavor of the month" moves before you have time to master them.

Because I want to share my passion with others!
There are many ways to spread the love besides dragging yourself to another bachelorette party after an exhausting week at the day job. Convert. Evangelize. Get your friends INTO the classroom, then let someone else worry about what to do with them when they get there.

Because I think I have what it takes to be a great teacher.
You probably do. You probably have SOME of what it takes to be a great teacher. Almost everyone exhibits at least a few of the following: empathy, enthusiasm, the ability to break things down, the ability to put things together, challenging the top of the class, lifting up the bottom of the class, inventing new moves and combos, mastering existing moves and combos, spotting students with your body, spotting problems with your eyes, approaching a problem from multiple angles, accentuating the positive, drawing out individual potential, drawing out individual muscles.

If this grocery list of skills makes you feel inspired rather than overwhelmed, then maybe you DO have what it takes to be a great teacher.

So maybe teaching's not right for me. Now what?
I'm a musician, and I always find it funny when people say apologetically, "I have no musical skill whatsoever. I mean, I LOVE MUSIC! But I can't make it." My response is: GOOD! We need people like you! Musicians couldn't survive if someone didn't love what we did and made up the base audience (see Pole, where is thy audience?). Likewise, there is plenty of room in this industry for those who want to be the BEST THEY CAN BE by putting their energy into getting training, and for those who want to FUCKING HAVE FUN.  Why do you have to interfere with those processes by throwing business into the mix?

And if you're still convinced that you want to teach, some final pearls of wisdom:

Teaching is EXHAUSTING.
Even if you're teaching moves that you mastered years ago, you'll find yourself wiped after that last schoolbell rings. Don't overextend yourself. Teaching a few classes in a row is normal, but don't assume you're going to be up for an intensive training session afterwards. I mean, if you are, god bless ya, but I feel like naptime after a single private.

Studios like to hire from their own flock.
Even small studios offer instructor training courses, so they basically groom their own students to take the reigns. That means self-teachers and other non-studio students, as well as newcomers from out of town, are on their own. Unless you have already made a big name for yourself, or you teach something different than what is locally offered (for example, if you're a poler who also teaches lyra, the local studios will probably eat that up), you might be too far outside of the clique to get a gig.

Your boss might be batshit crazy.
I don't know what it is about the pole/aerial arts that draws such personalities, but it's amazing how many pieces of work are out there running businesses. I mean, of course there are highly professional, sane people who own studios. But there are as many horror stories as there are instructors. No matter how OK a situation seems at a distance, decide ahead of time what kind of antics you will and will not put up with.

Teaching is awesome.
Despite all of the above, there are plenty of us. Why? Because we love it. We, the teachers, have sacrificed our weekends, our evenings, at times our day jobs, our own aerial ambitions--because the students make it worthwhile. If this sounds like you, by golly get in there and teach! And just as you want your students to be the best performers they can be, make yourself the best teacher you can be.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Teachers teaching teachers

If you're an even moderately advanced pole instructor (less so for other aerialists), you're going to spend part of your teaching career instructing other instructors. Polers, at least advanced ones, are very goal-oriented, and if they think you can teach them something, they have no qualms with taking a class or a private with you. They don't care if you are both instructors, they don't care if they are advanced as you--they don't even care if you have a pulse, as long as you can help them reach their pole goals. And as dedicated polers tend to jump into instructor training quite soon after falling in love with our art (there are plenty of instructors who can't do even low-intermediate moves), there are plenty of instructors who will fill the ranks of an advanced class or workshop you may be teaching.

This willingness of us polers to go to each other for help and instruction is one of the things I think makes our community great. But at the same time, it can be awkward. Offering constructive criticism without bruising egos is a delicate wire to walk. As a teacher who has regularly taught classes, privates, and workshops to other teachers AND been on the receiving end of the instruction, I have my own philosopies that help me balance this, and since they seem to be working (they keep comin' back!), I thought I'd share them.

We can all learn something from each other. I keep saying this, but it bears repeating. No matter how advanced you are or how basic your instructor is, they can probably do something you can't, or do something better than you can, or just be able to use their instructor eagle-eye to spot ways to optimize your performance.

Just last week I dropped into a class with an instructor who basically only taught beginner-level spins (see Studio Review: Gypsy Rose Exotic and Pole Dancing). She still helped me with my reverse grab. Don't be a snob.

Avoid hierarchy like the plague. A poler who is clearly not as advanced as you can have a standard teacher-student relationship with you, but in many cases, the person you're teaching is just as advanced as you are. If they have come to you for instruction, they have shown their willingness to "submit" to your "superiority" for an hour or two. But that doesn't mean that their skills ARE inferior, or that, if they are, they want to feel belittled. Most instructors that I've taught can do things that I can't. It's respectful to approach them as equals who happen to be in your class, rather than as students looking up to you.

Don't offer criticism unless its asked for. Of course, if they are taking your class, that means they ARE asking for criticism. But if it's a situation where you encounter someone at a pole jam or watch a performance you think could have been improved, do not offer feedback unless the person asks for it, or at least seems genuinely interested in your opinion. I know you mean well, but egos are fragile and giving unsolicited instruction can give off an implied hierarchy vibe: "I'm the teacher here, you're the student."

Exceptions, of course, for if someone is doing something that could hurt them. Even then, tread carefully.

Respect that the student/instructor has their own opinions. A pure student-student will pretty much do anything you tell them (see The Stages of Learning), but an instructor has their own methodology worked out. While they are temporarily submitting to your authority, you should respect their preferences when possible. Instructors are more aware of their limitations and what works well on their bodies, because they are constantly sussing out these facts about their own students.

Don't let your student become the teacher. If you see your teacher-student do something amazing and you want to learn it, don't ask them to take away from their class time to teach it to you. Compliment them, and book a private lesson with them. Similarly, don't let a teacher-student in your class take over teaching the class. Of course they should help other students if the students ask, and you should let them demo moves for the class, but don't let them get carried away and hijack your class.

Don't use class time to gossip. Well, generally, don't gossip ever. But specifically, we are a small and drama-prone community, and you probably know the same people and institutions. If you must chatter, go out for drinks after class. Don't let their class time slip away because you're gabbing, and try not to let them get you off-subject. It's easier to talk to a friend (you) than to hoist one's body weight into the air. We are all in danger of stalling instead of sweating.

When the class is over, you are no longer the teacher. Refrain from trying to offer criticism and pointers after the fact. Don't be quick to refer to them as your "student" in front of other polers (especially not their own students!). The student-teacher relationship has ended, and you are now equals--and, if you handled things well, still friends.

Our community is as sensitive as it is beautiful. Take every opportunity to compliment your fellow teachers and to lift them up. We all benefit when we help each other--even moreso when we like each other.
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Friday, July 5, 2013

Studio Review: Gypsy Rose Exotic & Pole Dancing, Boston

There's an unassuming storefront on Boylston St, right off the Public Gardens, with an unassuming door and an unassuming foyer and a flag out front that unmistakably says "Gypsy Rose Pole Dance." I know it's been there for years, because I remember seeing it years ago, back when I lived in New York but used to come to Boston frequently to visit friends. Truth be told, Gypsy Rose wasn't at the top of my list of places to check out. I'm a tech-savvy girl and I Google things and their website is something of a hot mess. You can see for yourself, but let's just say it has a lot of personality (and a class called "Poultry in Motion"...?). It seemed to be mostly focused on bachelorette parties and otherwise on what we call "stripper style" pole, and those are not really my focus. But, I'm open-minded, so I thought it was finally time I give Gypsy Rose a try!

I struggled quite a bit with their mindbody site, but on the 3rd or 4th try was able to book a class called "Open Pole," although it was described not as an open workout but more of a small group class for non-beginners where rep is decided based on who's in class and what they want to learn. I figured I'd either get there and the company would be as much of a jumble as the website, or it would be some more serious polers who just needed a website redesign.

Coincidentally, the night before my class I got together with a poling buddy. She suggested going out to a bar and I protested that I had to wake up early the next morning to get to a pole class. She's a serious poler/aerialist, so when she asked what studio, I said "Oh, you've probably never heard of it--Gypsy Rose?" She laughed out loud. Turns out she used to teach there. Her input was simply "Wendy is crazy!" But she smiled when she said it and didn't seem to mean it in a bad way.

So I was ready for anything when I arrived for class on Sunday morning. Except the studio not being open; I wasn't quite ready for that. There was a sign up that said Gypsy Rose clients should take the elevator to the 3rd floor (there was a yoga studio on the 2nd), but the elevator wouldn't go to 3--like someone hadn't turned the key to unlock the floor. I tried to take the stairs, but the 3rd floor door was locked. I asked a friendly lady in the yoga studio on my way back down, and she said "They're probably not there yet."

So I sat on the floor in the foyer and watched all the yoga people come in and asked a few people if they were Wendy and they all said no. About half an hour in I was reading a boring business book when a passer-by asked, "Are you waiting for me?" Wendy apologized for being late, explaining that she'd had a 14-hour day the day/night before and had overslept. She came in with a student--I'm guessing they carpooled. (Not unheard of, as bad boy pole icon Philip Deal does occasionally pick me up from Salem to go to North Shore Pole Fitness. That shows how committed these instructors are to their students!)

Wendy was exactly like I expected from the website and the descriptions. She talked a million miles a minute, cracking jokes and just generally being a boisterous person. Since she talked so much, I can tell you a lot about her: Wendy is a proud ex-stripper, 42 years old, specializes in teaching beginners, likes to teach mostly spins, has been in this location for 6 years and in business for 10 making hers the first pole studio in New England, her studio is haunted... She asked a lot about me, too, and seemed intimidated when she found out how much experience I had, but I assured her that I was just there to have fun and she promised me she could deliver on that. :)

True to the website, this studio has a LOT of character. There is a door knocker shaped like big brass balls (yeah, like that). There are various sticks and other implements of torture in the corner that Wendy claims to use for punishment. And there is a costume closet.
Dressing up in outfits is not really my thing, but in restrospect I should have tried it to get the "full experience." Would have made for some nice photos! Oh, and they have thigh-high stripper boots which would have been nice to play in. I've never owned a pair because I am too cheap.

After getting changed, we went right into class, and Wendy checked with us that we could stay late because we had started late, and my classmate Sara and I said sure.

Then class started. As if the experience wasn't already so different from other pole studios, instead of starting with a warm-up, we started by sitting against the wall. Wendy put on some music, and she freestyled a song for us. She danced a whole stripper-style song right in front of us. I gotta say, girlfriend has some moves! She didn't do anything advanced, but what she did was spot-on and sexy. I know a lot of sexy-style pole dancers from the studio world who could really learn a thing or two from watching Wendy.

Then we got onto the poles. Warning: there is no warm-up in this class; as with many hour-long aerial classes I've taken you're expected to warm yourself up beforehand so as not to cut into instruction time. That's a good thing to know before you get there. Also, it was horribly muggy outside and the AC in the studio was blasting. This would have made it hard if we were doing more aerial-style pole (cold poles + cold bodies = impossible to stick to the pole), but since we were sticking with spins, it was fine. Doing spins on static pole when it's too grippy leads to pole burn.

Wendy had me run through every spin I knew, and even though I don't know a million spins for static pole, I was winded pretty fast--but she'd learned what she needed to. She correctly divined that I don't do a reverse grab spin. I have a good excuse: I categorically reject swinging on one arm because I think it's too hard on the shoulders. BUT, as long as I stay on my good shoulder it's fine in moderation, so I took the opportunity to have an expert spinner clean up my technique.

I always say this but it bears repeating: we can all learn from each other. Even though I'm an advanced poler and Wendy doesn't do advanced moves, she was able to help me with my spin.

My classmate, Sara, was doing as well as I was with the spin and had a solid aerial invert, which is something you don't always expect to see in an "exotic" style class.

Wendy used a variety of teaching techniques, such as drawing on the floor in chalk and holding her hand out for us to try to kick as we flung around. I get the impression that she teaches a limited number of moves, but the ones she does teach she has her pedagogy worked out to a T.

We spent pretty much the whole class working on this one spin, and then segueing another spin onto the end of it. I start to feel kinked up if I do a move/routine on just one side for a long time, but in this case I just can't do a reverse grab spin on my other side because of shoulder issues, so I went ahead and worked through it.

As it was getting to be the end of class, Wendy told us we could just work on whatever we wanted. She had another student coming in afterwards though, so after awhile she offered to move us to the other studio so we could keep practicing. I hadn't even known there was another studio! It was smaller, with just 3 poles (the main studio had 5 or so and was more spacious). I would have loved to stay and play, but I was suffering from some overtraining-induced pain from the day before because I can't take my own advice apparently (see Are you overtraining?), so I bailed. It was nice of her to let us stay and use the studio for free after class was over, though!

I was a kinda bummed that I got out too late to go shopping before I caught my train home. But even though I was doing pretty simple moves and wasn't aware of getting a workout, I left exhausted and starving, so I guess I was working pretty hard after all!

In summary, I've been to several different studios in my pole career, and Gypsy Rose was different from any of them. It's almost like a response from the universe to last week's post about authenticity. Yes, most of the pole community has moved on from its stripper roots, turning towards competition and aerial athleticism. But not everyone. There is still a faction. There is still someone like Wendy who considers her years in the adult industry a bragging right, who wants you to dress up in costumes and turn the lights down and laugh and just have fun.

Gypsy Rose is going through some major business changes. They've been bought out or something, or otherwise have a team of investors advising. They'll be moving to a new studio in Allston, and adding more fitness-based classes. I wonder how things will change. Will this tiny enclave of true stripper-style pole lose its character as it makes room for Zumba and corporate sponsors? Probably not if Wendy has anything to say about it.

Gypsy Rose Exotic & Pole Dancing, Boston
Equipment: 1 pole room with 5 or more 50mm stainless steel (?) static poles, 1 pole room with 3 of the same. Not sure of make--I think my friend had mentioned they were X-Poles, but they don't have a spin mode.
Amenities: COSTUME CLOSET!! Bathroom in hallway, lounge/reception area, implements of torture.
Drop-in price: $25

NOTE: The studio will be moving to a new location and making major changes, so all of the above could be out of date by the time you go.

Photos of studio by me!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Authenticity in pole (and circus)

When I first started poling over 9 years ago, the art form was pretty attached to its exotic roots. Sheila Kelley wrote about learning to dance in a club and taught moves called "pelvic grind" and "hump." The first hardcore poling video, Pantera's Poletricks 101, had shots of the instructor unabashedly topless. Poles were 50mm and brass where affordable, because that was the standard in gentlemen's clubs. Dancing in shoes was the norm. Pole fitness classes prided themselves on having "real strippers" as instructors. Which made sense, after all--almost any industry wants its instructors to have real world experience in the field, especially full-time professional success. (See also The precarious ties between pole dance and stripping.)

But almost none of the women in those classes were trying to become exotic dancers, so why did we bind ourselves to their rules? Why did we need to use the same poles as they did, when our handymen could have installed any size and finish pole we wanted (back when it was normal for studios to have "homemade" poles, before mass-produced poles for the home became so popular). Why did people like me who trip over their own feet dance in 5 inch heels?

It was never about prepping for the "real world" of exotic dance. Rather, there was a sense of authenticity to the origins of the art form. A tango singer learns to sing in Spanish, even if it's not their first language, to be authentic. They would want ideally to study in Argentina or at least with an Argentinian teacher, in order to absorb the nuances of that authentic style. Likewise, a poler learned the vocabulary of the exotic dancer, and learned from the dancers themselves.

Today we still have a sense of authenticity, but the focus has shifted. Instead of using the clubs as our default concept, we use competitions. We learn on 45mm poles, both spinning and static, because those are the current norms for competitions. We dance barefoot most of the time. Our artistic role models have shifted from the house girl in the club to champions whose names and faces and signature moves we know. We want our instructors to be title holders, and beat down the doors to take workshops from them.

And likewise, most people taking these classes aren't prepping for world-class competition--most don't end up entering even regional competitions. Most pole students today don't aspire to careers as competitive polers any more than students yesterday aspired to careers as lap dancers. (Many want to try out a local comp or showcase, but in this analogy that's more the equivalent of doing an amateur night at the local tittie venue.) But we still have this sense of authenticity. We do things a certain way to conform to an unspoken set of external standards.

I don't decry this loyalty to a relatively arbitrary ideal. I think it's good to have some sort of baseline. It helps centralize the art, so we can have things like a shared vocabulary, safety standards, and the mobility to move from one studio, competition, or even country to another and still know generally what to expect. But I want to remind us on an individual level not to over-conform. If you're not prepping for competitions and you know a 50mm works better on your body, by all means buy that and train on it! If you dance better in heels, wear the damn heels!

I find it ironic that years ago we wanted strippers as instructors, and nowadays people look down on strippers as instructors--whether or not they have teaching skills. At the same time, we covet competition winners as instructors--whether or not they have teaching skills. Years ago we imitated moves like let splays and cat pounces--whether or not they suited our tastes and our bodies. Today we imitate moves like Allegras and iron X's--whether or not they suit our tastes and our bodies.

I'm less involved in other aerial arts these days so I can't say as much about their development in recent years, but I can say that when I was a student at Firefly/NYCAA, one of the first instructors was an old Russian man who had lived his life as a flyer in a traveling circus in Eastern Europe. Now that aerial acrobatics has been popularized to the point that hip young instructors are in no short supply and cirque nouveau is the norm, you see more people wanting to train with ex-Cirque du Soleil members and NECCA graduates than old school touring acts. As with pole, this has something to do with supply--there are more skilled polers (doing harder things) from outside the adult industry now, and there are more skilled aerialists (doing harder things) that didn't grow up on a circus train. But there is also a shifted sense of what is considered "the real deal."

If you wanted to be an exotic dancer 10 years ago, you had to get used to 50mm poles and dancing in shoes. If you want to be a competitor today, you have to master both spin and static, aerial and floor. If you don't? You don't have to force yourself. And you don't have to follow the masses to the latest "flavor of the month" move. It's nice to be authentic to the sanctioned standards, but it's most important to be true to yourself.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Studio Review: Boston Pole Fitness, Allston MA

There are only a few studios in the Boston area I can get to without a car, but I've been chipping away at them.

I had wanted to go to Boston Pole Fitness for awhile, but it's not really in Boston. It's in Allston, which is in Boston like Queens is in NY. Technically yes. Technically. But nowhere near my commuter rail terminus. Fortunately they have a pretty generous schedule, so booking a weekend afternoon class wasn't a problem.

What I really would have liked would have been to take an open pole. I'd heard they had the highest ceilings in town, and I hadn't been on a good tall pole since teaching at CircEsteem last summer. But they didn't have open pole--they list something called "polegression' which sounds like the right idea, but the class wasn't running over the weekend. Otherwise what looked like the most advanced class was "Pole Combos," which was listed for intermediate and advanced with the prerequisite of being able to invert. The instructor was Shelly Ann, who was not someone I knew, and I like meeting new people, so I'm in!

Boston Pole Fitness is on an industrial-looking side street in Allston, and if you didn't know the address you'd miss it. There's just a piece of paper taped to a door with their name and logo on it.

There wasn't a dedicated door person, but a helpful student who didn't work there but knew where they kept the waivers took my form and pointed me towards the changing room.

The changing room is on the second floor and true story: there's a bedroom up there. Like, a room with a bed and an end table. There was no bedding and it was clear that no one was living there, but maybe someone intends to live there, or they'll keep visiting instructors there, or...? That one was a first for me, though. (Unless you count Torrent in Philly where the studio is basically run out of the first floor of this building where the owners all live.)

The pole room was darkened, even while the class before mine was taking place. The lights were largely off, which I'm not sure is for atmosphere or to beat the heat. It was a warm enough day that you'd have to worry about sweat more than cold poles. The instructor came out to reception afterwards to see who would be in class and recognized me from Facebook.

The room was layed out strangely, and you couldn't really tell where the front was and where the back was, so I chose a pole near the bathroom because I always have to refill my water bottle. The ceilings were around 15 feet--I feel like I had been told 20 at some point, but 15 is plenty. :) I believe all the poles were 45mm. I'm hesitant about thin poles on such a tall ceiling, but they were permanently attached and seemed reasonably sturdy. I'm not sure if the poles were homemade (probably?), but they didn't have a spin function.

Students trickled in slowly and stretched on yoga mats. I think some people brought them from home, although they had a big stack of them against the wall, along with spray bottles of rubbing alcohol and rags for cleaning the pole and a grab bag of grip aids. (Oh yeah, fun story--the reception desk not only sells merch and Dry Hands, but Cramer's! I wonder how much they were selling them for. Cramer's is too grippy for most pole work but I like to have it for "emergencies," like "if my knee slips I will fall to my death" types of situations.)

My pole wasn't super grippy to begin with, but after a wipe down with rubbing alcohol it was happy. I started out with Corn Huskers on, which was good enough, but added Dry Hands when I got sweaty.

We started out with a warm-up that was conditioning-heavy, including plenty of ab work and even some booty cheek isolations, which is not really something I do (I'm not against sexy pole but we all draw the line somewhere), but I played along.

We warmed up the pole with spins, specifically reverse grab (which is also not really something I do, but I'm happy to report that all the students I saw were using both hands--no shoulder danger here!) and corkscrew (which is one of my favorites). Shelly Ann had us do different leg variations on corkscrew, and I got carried away and maybe left half my armpit skin on a pole in Allston, but I looked pretty doing it!

Then Shelly Ann started giving us a pole sequence, and it was lloooonnnnngg! I never got all the way through it because about 10 moves in was an aerial shoulder inversion and by the time I got to that point I was too sweaty to shoulder invert (it was a humid day). There were some moves that I know but never really use, like flatline Scorpio and Allegra, so it's good that I was forced to practice those as part of the sequence.

We weren't run through the sequence in sync like a routine, but rather just given the list of moves and left to work at our own pace. The first few moves were mostly towards the ground and beginners were told to stick to those. Shelly Ann didn't demonstrate a ton, but that was because she was about to have a photo shoot and was trying in vain to keep her hair and make-up intact. She did demo things when asked, and there was one combo we tried later (Jamilla/Apprentice to Extended Butterfly to Box Splits) that she had me demo.

By far my favorite thing about the class was the other students. I had more than one person come up to me and ask me for help with a move. That the students are eager to learn from each other says a lot about the culture of a studio. When you have a competitive environment, students don't want to ask each other for help because it feels hierarchical--like you're admitting that person is better than you. When you have a cooperative environment, students are happy not only to help each other, but to ask for help without feeling threatened. So when I see this kind of openness I take it as a sign of a healthy environment.

At the end of class we were giving a song to freestyle too. A few people were too tired, but I think most people attempted to dance or at least practice a few tricks. I did my best to dance and trick out but I was a sweaty mess by then.

Before we left, Shelly Ann announced the studio challenge of the week, which is this really cute thing they do where they have a move of the week and everyone's supposed to take a picture of themselves doing it and post it to Facebook or Instagram. The move of the week was the Marley (an innocent-looking enough move on which I once hurt myself pretty good several years ago). I knew the move so I threw one off and a nice student in a cute dress offered to take a picture of me, resulting in the above. Pippi's Tips: If you don't have a nice back arch, smile and wear pigtails and hope nobody notices!!

Oh, the instructor also encouraged students to attend or compete in the SuperShag competition/showcase (see Event Review: SuperShag's Pole Fitness Invitational Championships and Showcase). Another good sign of a healthy community, as this competition is run by another local studio who could be considered direct business competition with this one (see Studio Review: SuperShag, Charlestown MA).

As people started trickling out, some didn't. A few people stayed behind to chat or practice. Some students were even staying for the next class, and they and the instructor encouraged me to do the same. I guess if there are enough open spots, students are welcome to stick around for another class. I said no no no, I was tired and sweaty and needed to get back to Salem, but it was nice of them to invite me. :) I did take time to linger and practice some stuff I'd been working on once my sweat dried. The pole was so nice and grippy (between the heat/humidity, grip aids, and me climbing all over it for 75 minutes) I just had to take advantage!

One drawback about the studio: no mirrors. Not that you should rely on them (you don't get mirrors in performance or competition) but I like to check my position on things like flagpoles and iron Xs to make sure I'm straight.

Anyways, I'm a self-teacher by nature and will continue to spend most of my training time at home, but I would like to go back to Boston Pole Fitness some time, especially for an open workout or something.

Boston Pole Fitness
Equipment: 13 15' 45mm static poles, chrome I think? Brand unknown.
Amenities: Pole room, dressing room, bedroom (?), lounge, reception with merch
Drop-in price: $25

Image of Pippi doing a Marley taken by a nice student, image of BPF reception by Pippi

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The stages of learning

When I was a teen I would try to cook by following recipes and measuring my ingredients with teaspoons and my mom would look over my shoulder and scold me. "You don't have to measure everything! It's not an exact science!" This would just annoy me, and I don't want to overanalyse and say it's why I ended up going through most of my life not cooking, but that's what happened.

I've been reading a book about agile software development because I'm totally not a nerd at all, and the author makes lots of references to ShuHaRi, the stages of learning (from a martial arts perspective, but applicable to software development and aerial acrobatics and everything else).
Shu: Beginner, "obey." Rigid conformity to rules.
Ha: Intermediate, "digress." Coming into your own.
Ri: Master, "transcend." You don't need the rules. You are making the rules.

This reminded me of my own journeys in silks (as a student) and pole (as a teacher). Most of my silks career has been spent in Shu. I like someone to tell me the exact sequence of moves to perform. The steps to a move, the moves in a combo, the combos in a routine. My training partner once tried to make me improvise, and even after so many years of having trained in silks, I was like, "Um, no. Just no."

On the other hand, I've spent most of my pole career in some form of advanced stage--not because I'm that great, but because I've been doing it since before there were so many masters like we have today, and what "advanced" means has truly evolved. (Anyone who's been in the industry for more than a couple years knows exactly what I mean.) I was so used to improvising and inventing my own moves that performing a step-by-step routine choreographed by someone else seemed, well, naive.

And yet I quickly became a teacher, and being a teacher, especially in such a young, growing art form, means teaching beginners. And while I always tried to instill the fundamentals of improvisation and making a move your own, beginners like routines. They like step-by-step instructions. They like do's and don'ts, sequenced information, and, when you come down to it, a way to evaluate whether or not they're "doing it right."

It's easy for the advanced artists who often become teachers to scoff at the beginner's lust for rigidity. But we have to respect the fact that someone who doesn't know the difference between cinnamon and cumin doesn't know how to "eyeball it." Not in cooking and not in dancing. It takes time for the feel to develop of what is the right and wrong pose and pace. And it takes much, much longer to understand when "right" and "wrong" and nothing of the sort.

Hence you have advanced polers who feel condescended to by teachers who try to get them to conform to routines, and beginners who get awkward fits of the giggles when asked to improvise. And both teachers and students who are convinced that one or the other way is "right." When, in reality, it's not the method that's right or wrong, it's the time.

Am I saying that beginners should always follow step-by-step instructions and advanced artists should always pave their own ways? Well, no. Maybe if I had been guided towards creativity when I was a beginner silks student, improvising wouldn't have felt so awkward when I was more advanced. I might not ask less experienced students to improvise a routine, but I do try to guide them in finding and embracing their own touches. And on the other hand, advanced dancers can benefit from experimenting with someone else's choreography. Learning another dancer's vocabulary can break you out of the rut of always falling into the same transitions and sequences.

Whatever your personal preference, it's about respecting what others need at this moment in their journey. Teachers who are driven by individuality should understand that beginners need more granular benchmarks to measure their progress. Teachers who prefer to have all their ducks in a row should understand that advanced artists often have a good idea of what works for their bodies and what is uncomfortable or awkward. And while a student should respect a teacher's progression, a good teacher must respect where the student is today.

Photo from Hope no one takes offense--I know most of us aren't strippers, but I thought you'd get a laugh out of it!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Facility Review: Dillon's Russian Steam Bath, Chelsea MA

I've mostly frequented Korean Spas before, like Spa Castle and King Spa. But know what? THERE IS NO KOREAN MEGA-SPA IN THE BOSTON AREA. Wtf? Business opportunity, someone!! Fortunately, North of Boston, and conveniently on my train line, there is a Russian spa. Or, a "bath," actually. I knew some guys who had been (no women), and I had tried in vain to get girlfriends to go with me, so I finally gave up and went by myself.

Good things to know:
  1. This place has been here since 1885. !!! I love New England.
  2. It's not big enough to have separate areas for men and women, so they have "Ladies' Night" every Monday where no men are allowed, and the rest of the time it's men only.
I'd never technically been to a Russian Bath before, but I had been to bath houses in Budapest, so, close enough?

After work last Monday I made my way to Dillon's. It's not a glamorous neighborhood/walk from the train, and the building facade is no different. If I were a random passer-by I might think it looked sketchy, but I was not. I was a steam-seeker.

So I find the building no problem and can't figure out which door is the entrance. (Are we noticing a theme, here?) So I called the number on the sign and explained my predicament and a nice lady told me which door to go to. For anyone following in my footsteps: in the parking lot with the doors, it's the door on your LEFT with the doorbell and the handle, not the door on your right or the door upstairs.

Since I had made so clear that it was my first time, the receptionist, whose name was Madeleine, explained everything to me. I paid something like $17 for entry and $8 for a platza (more on that later) and recieved a towel, shoes, and locker key. Oh--and I asked Madeleine whether most people went naked or wore bikinis (I had brought one just in case), and she said: naked, but you should do what made you comfortable.

She was right--the entire night I think I saw all of 1 person in a bikini bottom. Everyone else was some variation of towel or nothing. Oh, and don't expect to hear a lot of Russian here--the majority of voices I heard were layered in a thick Boston accent.

I was a bit of an early comer, so I got to look around in peace. There was a pretty large lounge area with a big TV and snacks, a locker room area ("room" is a generous term--it was more of a locker corner), a steam room, a dry sauna, and a shower area.

The steam room was great--when it was hot, it was HOT. It was so hot that there was a cold shower IN the steam room. That was a new feature to me, and very neat. No need to kill your buzz by leaving the room when you're getting too warm!

The sauna is where people would sit and chat. It was also pretty hot, but tolerable. The sauna is also where the platza service was.

So, the platza, which they pronounced "plah-tsee" or "play-tsee," is a treatment where you're brushed and beaten with a thick cluster of soapy oak leaves. I had heard that it was pretty nice, and I figured it was just the sort of thing to try, like when am I gonna have a chance to be beaten by oak leaves again?

I indicated to Paula, the platza lady, when I was ready, and we went into the sauna where she showed me a raised table to lay down on. So here's the thing--it's right out in front of EVERYBODY! Like, it's not like a normal spa where they take you to a partitioned-off area. The sauna is full of people and they're basically sitting facing you while you're laying naked on the table. Not for the shy!!

So the platza lady asked if I wanted the table cooled off with cold water before she started, and I said no, but once she started the water from the leaf bunch was like burning my butt for some reason, so she had to douse the table under my butt off with water and then I was fine after that. They put a damp washcloth over your eyes (she kept pointing out that it was scented with lavender essential oil but I couldn't really smell it) so you don't get soap in your eyes. Then they brush up and down your body with the leaves, which have been dunked in soap water. The bushel kind of looks like a giant kabuki brush--short thick handle (needs to be held by both hands) and big wide poof of leaves. So after they brush you down, then they basically hit you with it. Then you roll over on your stomach and the process repeats. Then they throw a bucket of cold water over you. Even though I knew that was part of the treatment, it basically came with no warning, so it was pretty hilarious. And it was the best part, because you're so hot at that point.

The table was littered with fragments of oak leaves, and so was my skin. I kept finding them trailing off me as I walked around and I tried to make a joke about how I was "LITERALLY exfoliating" but nobody got it. :(

A couple other people got platzas after me--a regular and her visiting friend, who were the only people I was able to really get into conversation with. (The friend was from Idaho and told me that when I go I HAVE to go to "The Lavas" hot springs and I'm like, done!)

It was really cute because almost everyone there is a regular and they had like boxes of toiletries and products--like, facial masks, body oils, all that nice girlie stuff--and I think they just kept their stuff there. That makes it seem really fun, like not just go for a sweat but have a whole beauty day of it. 'Cause really, who has time to do that stuff at home?

I hung out for a few hours because of the awkward train schedule. I probably could have left an hour, half hour earlier, but I made the best of it, reading in the lounge when I was tired of being hot.

Anyways, they kept trying to get me to become a regular, and I don't think I would dedicate a whole night a week to relaxing, but I'd go back if I were sore from training or if friends wanted to go. They have facials, massage, waxing... I dunno, the oak leaves thing might have been a one-time experiment for me. But it was pretty nice; don't knock it 'til you've tried it!

Dillon's Russian Steam Bath, Chelsea, MA
Amenities: Steam room, dry sauna, locker room, showers, lounge. Platza, massages, and waxing available at extra cost.
Drop-in Price: I believe it was $17 for ladies' night, though the site says $23 which must be for men.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Studio Review: Esh Aerial Arts, Cambridge MA

Esh. Trevor on the floor, students milling about.
I've done silks for many years, but on a sporadic, on-and-off basis. Most recently I had my own rig at my last place in Chicagoland, but since I moved to MA I haven't found a place to set up (nor really had time, as I was both working and studying full-time this past year). So I really hadn't been on the silks since last summer. There's not really a circus school that's conveniently-enough located to me without a car (I'll get one eventually...), so I wasn't about to start frequenting anywhere locally. And I wanted a chance to review my skills (after the better part of the year off) before showing up for open training somewhere.

The perfect opportunity presented itself in the form of a silks workshop focusing on drops. I hadn't had room to do drops at my place in Chicago (just saltos and the wimpiest slack drops you've ever seen), so it was material I needed a review on anyways. And the only prerequisite was being able to do a "star drop," or a 3/4 side rotational drop as I knew it from my beginnings at Firefly/NYCAA/Circus Warehouse, so I figured it wouldn't matter that I was rusty. Either there would be some new material I'd never learned, or it would be all review and I'd just be a rockstar.

I was confused in registering because I never got a confirmation email--Esh doesn't use Mindbody but something called Zenplanner that I've never heard of? Anyone else use this? So I wasn't totally convinced that my registration went through (long story but I once registered for a marathon and got a confirmation screen but never the emails and found out like a week before the race that my registration hadn't gone through and I was SO MAD AND SAD and had to scramble to find another race in another city to expend my 4 months of training on, the upside being that Lisbon was lovely), but I checked my bank account the night before and the $50 had been deducted from my account, so I figured all was well.

The class was yesterday afternoon, and I arrived somewhat flustered because I hadn't been able to find the entrance to the school. There was no sign, I found the address but the door was unmarked so I thought I must have the wrong entrance, and there were buzzers but only 2 were marked and none said Esh. Pacing up and down the block, I went on their website in hopes of calling the front desk for directions, but neither their website nor google listed a phone number. Fortunately a lady at another local business told me which entrance to use and the door turned out not to be locked, and I was able to finagle my way to the studio's room. It wasn't obvious though, so leave extra time!

Being used to bigger spaces like the Brooklyn Lyceum and STREB, I was surprised how small Esh was. It was 2 rooms that were pretty average-sized, but with ceilings just high enough to do big drops from. One of the rooms had a boisterous class of people doing some sort of acro-balance and laughing like they were having the time of their lives, and the other was quiet and mostly empty with a pair or two of silks released from the ceiling. I was greeted by someone who was one of the studio managers or owners or something, and by the time I finished getting dressed the other workshop participants were starting to straggle in and stretch on the floor. Everyone was quiet and not talking and I felt disappointed that the atmosphere wasn't friendlier (like pole studios, circus spaces are intimidating to visit for the first time), but things warmed up quickly once we got to introductions.
The instructor was Trevor, who had trained at New York Circus Arts Academy around the same time as me, but had gone on to the pro track at NECCA while I went on to focus on my poling. So we knew a lot of the same people and drops, and fortunately for me he was able to translate terminology into something I would understand (circus move names are even more nebulous than pole move names).

Trevor gave us a handout of the moves we may or may not have been learning (we had a list of possibilities and chose from it based on our levels and what people wanted to learn) so that we could take notes, but of course I didn't because I suck about taking notes and I think I lost the handout anyways. There were 6 participants and we released one set of silks for each, but the rule was that only 3 people could do a move at a time so that the instructor could keep an eye out. Also, the ceiling was higher on one end of the room, so for bigger drops we could only use the silks on that side anyways. So while we had 6 silks open, only 3 were usually active past warmup climbs.

Trevor's teaching template was to fully explain a move, then demo it, then answer questions about it, then let us try. We also had to check in with him before throwing a drop, and like everywhere I made him say "3-2-1" before every throw so I wouldn't chicken out.

There was a good mix of drops I knew and drops I didn't. I even volunteered to demonstrate one that he called a "New York slack drop" because of what a staple it is in the NYC circus school scene. I found the other students (who had mostly been studying a couple years) to be supportive and eager to try new things, even when they were complicated or scary-looking.

Despite being small, Esh was still a fun place to spend a weekend afternoon, and I was able to leave feeling accomplished, happy, and just the right amount of sore and tired. However, the class ended at 4:30, and the train schedules being what they are I didn't get home until after 8. Sure, that gave me some quality shopping time at Downtown Crossings while awaiting the next commuter rail, but don't expect to see me there too often.

Oh, and because I know my readership is mostly pole people: Esh sometimes has classes in swinging pole. No, I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but sounds intriguing, huh?


Esh Aerial Arts
Equipment: Didn't count everything--there were at least 6 sets of silks, some trapezes and stuff, a swinging pole...
Amenities: 2 rooms, 2 bathrooms, changing stall, some sort of changing room-type situation
Drop-in price: $30 for aerial stuff, $20 for ground stuff (the workshop was $50 for 2 hours)