Conquering the Pole

Lying on my back, legs spread above me in a wide “V,” I smile at the irony: I’m surrounded by women. It’s the warm-up to a beginner’s pole dancing class. With the candles lining the walls and Shakira pumping out of the speakers, everything has a fun, sensual spin to it.

Push-ups become floor undulations and leg squats become suggestive stretches. Standing up no longer involves clumsily hoisting oneself vertically — it’s now a bootylicious “stipper’s get-up.”

I’m dropping in midway through a program at 3Sixty, a pole-dancing studio on Catherine Street. As such, I have an hour to catch up on five weeks of step-by-step instruction.

Pole dancing is slowly mainstreaming and Corinne Brodthagen says she opened the studio this past June with the intention of making it a legitimate form of exercise. While her main clientele are 40-somethings, she sees everyone from university girls to 50-year-old ladies. I ask if she’s ever gotten actual erotic dancers to come in for classes. Only once, she says, when teaching in Montreal.

Sherri, the instructor, is a compact 39-year-old with spiky blond hair who looks a decade younger than she is. She promises to guide me along. First, she says, we’ll review pole tricks.

Now, when the Charlatan approached me with the idea of getting the down low on pole dancing classes in Ottawa, I went to the studio’s website to check it out. A gallery of pictures displayed stiletto-clad women suspended perpendicularly off poles, holding themselves upside down by only their legs, and generally bringing to mind more Cirque du Soleil than Lacy’s Strip Show.

I don’t care how you feel about pole dancing, or those who use it to make a living, but it’s hard not to respect the physical prowess involved.

However, this is a beginner’s class. Hospital trips are to be avoided when possible. So Sherri demonstrates “the fireman,” which is essentially what it sounds like, but circling rather than sliding straight down. I master the basics without too much difficulty.

It’s time for the “sunwheel.” Similar to the fireman, but instead of wrapping your ankles around the pole, your legs are up and out from your body. Think of sitting sideways on the floor and then imagine doing that in the air.

Stepping around the pole, toes pointed and form impeccable, I’m thinking I’m pretty good at this. Then comes the time for me to lift myself up and twirl gracefully down the pole. I grip and use momentum to lift my legs with gusto.

Sherri looks like an elegantly descending angel. I get halfway around, halt and screech to the floorboards like a crumpled pretzel. Not sexy.

With gentle encouragement, womanly support and a good deal of laughter, we smooth out the tricks and move through the routine. Regrettably, I wasn’t attending the last class when everyone dresses up in their finest burlesque-inspired lingerie and heels.

While I didn’t sweat much during the class, I was surprised to find that the next morning my thighs and forearms (arm and shoulder strength is crucial) had the telltale sensitivity of a good workout.

Published Jan. 15, 2010; The Charlatan

Adirondack adventures

I had been getting death threats for about three hours. Each promise of excruciating torture hit the back of my head and I let it slide off my back with an amused chuckle. My brother, the verbal assailant, was not so jovial. We were biking up a massive hill in the heart of the Adirondak mountains, and he held me responsible for the numbing pain in his legs.

After a summer of balancing three jobs and living alone in my apartment with my cat Earl, I needed an adventure. For weeks I’d felt stir-crazy and uninspired, and had taken to swinging mindlessly in my desk chair for hours. My wanderlust set itself on a multi-day bike trip down to Saranac Lake, New York.

My 16-year old brother Colin is pretty fit so I figured he could handle the 250km one-way trip. Two years previously, I had convinced him to go on another bike trip to Wolfe Island, right off the shore of Kingston. The trip had been a blast, but Colin had insisted that we take the train on the way back. I assured him that this time we were making it the whole way. It was destination or die.

So with 30 pounds of camping gear, clothes, and trail mix packed into our saddle bags, we set off from my parent’s house in Balderson, Ont. We were giving ourselves four days to get there.

As far as training goes, the extent of mine was biking to work every couple days. Colin tried once, a week before departure, to bike the 10km to a friends’ and almost expired. I seriously considered lashing a stick to Colin’s helmet, with a Snickers bar dangling before his eyes Looney Tunes style. I shelved the idea for worst-case-scenario and hoped that sibling love and mental tenacity would persevere.

The weather was kind to us for most of the trip and we’d covered all but 30km by the last day. On flat terrain, it should have taken us a few hours. As it was, the unrelenting hills set off an emotional rollercoaster, where downhill was a thrill-ride to see how fast we could go, and uphill meant I was hearing about how Colin didn’t love me anymore.

It was lightly raining when we got to the ‘Welcome to Saranac Lake’ sign and stopped for a rare photo-op. Our trip picture album is pitifully scarce, since whenever we passed something interesting en route, we’d acknowledge that we should take a picture of it, and then realize that neither of us cared enough to actually break the circular motion that our legs had begrudgingly accepted as default.

We peddled into the parking lot where my mother was waiting for us to the sweet haven of warm van. The drizzle was now a torrential downpour.

“Never. Again,” Colin said between wheezes. Bowlegged, we staggered off our bikes, and I laughed until tears blended with the rain on my cheeks.

When I later asked him what had been his least favourite part of the trip, he had replied with utter sincerity, “probably the peddling part.”

In retrospect, I think it’s safe to assume that Colin prefers a bit less ‘alternative-style exercise’, and a bit more classic iron-pumping in the gym; I doubt I’ll be able to get him out again any time soon.

While I’m a devout believer that people should get physical activity in whatever way works for them, I find it’s always fun to stray from the treadmill once in a while.

Previously published in 2011; the Charlatan