If Stripping Doesn't Work Out, At Least I Still Have "Showgirls"

I am officially a pole-dancer. A sore pole-dancer, perhaps, but a pole-dancer nonetheless. While the other Jezebels were busy blogging yesterday, I hauled myself to a workout studio promising that emulating the finest work of Demi Moore's career would be the best thing that ever happened to me as a woman.

The founder of the studio is a onetime actress who played a stripper in a movie and found that she not only lost the weight following the birth of her baby but a road map to self-actualization. Her "journey" began there, going from the installation of a pole in her home to setting up studios across the U.S. to instruct women to embrace their inner strippers and celebrate/exploit their sexuality for their own betterment. Pole-dancing as a means to self-discovery? I had my doubts. After the jump, my day as a pole-dancer.



The studio itself is nondescript, except for the boas hanging from the ceiling, and the corsets, stripper shoes, and thigh-highs on display and for sale. The other women look normal and seem nervous: browsing the racks, comparing garter belts, giggling excitedly. Our instructor, a petite African-American woman who looks to be in her 20's, guides us to a dimly-lit room with candles and a bordello-esque red lamp. Yoga mats are arranged in concentric circles. After choosing a place on which to sit, our instructor begins to tell us her story. NYU graduate and former head of a marketing consulting company whose crippling insecurity was solved by stripping, through which she learned to shed both her inhibitions and her clothes.

We learn a little about one another as well: In my class there is a young woman in her 30's going through a divorce who is hoping the class will help her rebuild her confidence; her friend who said she realized she had hit her 30's and wasn't in touch yet with her sexuality; several graduates of Mama Gina's School of Womanly Arts; a woman who says she simply always wanted to try stripping; and of course, me. I tell the class that I work from home and am looking for something to help get me going. "Oh, we'll get you going!" hollers the instructor. The other women join her in applause. This must be what AA feels like.

At last, class begins. We begin the warm-up, which is comprised of standard yoga/dance/Pilates moves... except for the one devoted to slapping our own asses and screaming. The moves are given sexy stripper names and we do a lot of them. One, meant to exercise the abdominals, includes the exhortation to "explore your curves". "Feel your breasts! Feel your neck! Feel your thighs! They are your curves! Love them! You look beautiful!" the instructor encourages. Clearly, the instructor has no idea that I am convinced I am moments from death as I furiously pedal my feet in the air while balanced on my ass only, groping myself all the while, praying I don't tear a hamstring, and wondering how badly I will be mocked on this site if I were to die right here and now. After we're done feeling ourselves up / working our abs, we are instructed to lounge seductively on our sides, our heads propped in our hands. "Every woman looks beautiful in this position," our instructor intones. "Let's take a moment to explore our bodies while in this position. Just close your eyes and focus on your body. She is beautiful. Listen to what she is telling you." I feel like I have stumbled, unwittingly, into The Vagina Monologues.

The instructor then talks us through the ever-important "stripper walk": Right foot over left, drag one foot to meet the other, weight shifting from one hip to the other. "You should look like you've had a few too many to drinkl!" we are told. Then comes the moment we've all been waiting for: The pole. Our instructor approaches it and effortlessly swings herself around it, then does it again, this time breaking down the motions. I break out in a cold sweat. I'm up first. I trip doing my stripper walk, take a preliminary strut around the pole, and then begin my swing. I have lift off! But then I freeze, plop my feet down on the ground, and land standing up dead-straight. "Stick your butt out!" the instructor encourages, "When you stick your butt out, you own it! When you stick your butt out, you always look good!" (A few minutes prior we'd been informed that our breasts should always arrive at the party a few minutes early and our butts a few minutes late.) Now it's time for me to give the pole a second shot. This time I succeed. The instructor gives me a big high five and tells me I will be even better if I only stick my butt out more.

The other women take their turns. The divorcee and her friend who wants to get in touch with her sexuality are naturals. I hate them immediately. This is no different from ballet class, it dawns on me, where your only option is to hate yourself because there are other women in the room and your performance can only be measured in comparison to the others. It all just makes me sad. When the girl who "always wanted to try stripping" takes her turn, for instance, she is less than graceful on the pole itself, but then finishes her trick with an over-exaggerated, RuPaul-esque finish, working her hands up all over her body, wiggling her butt out in a hyper-feminized moment of performance. And though she finishes with the biggest grin on her face and says how amazing it felt, I am not proud for her that she feels good even though she doesn't (none of us do) hold a candle to the divorcee's friend who is tall and blonde and looks like she was born to do this. No, I feel a strange empathetic hurting that she needed to grope herself up in front of strangers to feel beautiful, yet alone accomplished.

The final portion of the class — a cool-down, perhaps? — involves a "dancing" routine: We stripper-walk to a wall, press up against it, stick our butts out, roll our hips, turn around, and then slowly grind our way down the wall until we hit the floor, at which point we get on all fours and do our best "sexy crawl." We do this several times, to music of various tempos. In between sets, the other women start cooing about how liberated they feel. I can't help but feel kinda silly. Who would ever want to see me do this? Despite all the talk of loving my body and being proud for women everywhere, I think that anyone who has ever or would ever want to see me sexually sees me that way because I'm me: Clumsy, geeky and usually outfitted in giant sweaters and leggings. To pretend otherwise isn't empowering, it's just disingenuous. Nor would my female friends would think me a stronger woman. We already support one another, like when someone gets the raise she worked really hard for, or is willing to take a risk and put her heart out on the line, or drops everything to be there for her friends and family. These things make us feel good. And they take courage. Pole dancing? Well, that just takes a skimpier wardrobe.