Saturday, June 16, 2012

My return to the horizontal pole! Or, it is totally normal for your legs and arms to shake like that. I promise.

First of all, thank you all for coming back to read about my (mis)adventures in trying to keep fit! I have a certain lovely, amazing friend who has recently become obsessed with the barre method (yes you!). I’d heard of it before, but had never seriously considered going, especially after I picked up my new favorite form of exercise, the subject to which this blog is dedicated, pole dancing. But I’m stranded up here in Palo Alto without a car for the month, which seriously limits the places I can go to for exercise. Needless to say the minute I got here and got adjusted to my horrendous work schedule, I looked up pole dancing studios in the palo alto/ SF area. All the ones that looked decent were not within walking distance, so I resigned myself to working out at home. One fortuitous day, as I was exploring sleepy little palo alto, I stumbled across this place: Ah! Yes! I committed the class schedule which was so elegantly etched onto the front door to memory, and made a pact with myself to return to the Saturday class. Saturday morning arrived (and none too hastily, might I add!), and I get up and start to get ready for class. I love and hate getting ready for new dance classes, because I have no idea what to expect! What do I wear? Will I look totally different than the other girls in the class? As most dancers can tell you, a lot of dance classes have unspoken “uniforms”, partially dictated by the nature of the exercise, and partially dictated by our inherent need to fit in.  

         A short bike ride later, and I arrive at  the studio. It is meticulously appointed, complete with candles and a very nice receptionist dressed in, you guessed it, a fancy lululemon tank top and leggings. Alright, fine. I do the whole registration things, signing forms saying that I won't sue them if I die, etc,  all the while talking nonstop about how my friend loooves the barre method and how this is my first class but it seems like fun! Do I need anything special? Is this ok to do the class in (gesture to ensemble) Did I mention this was my first class?
      The class itself was great! I have never taken an “exercise” class before, only dance classes, so the instructor walking around with a headset microphone and all the people doing synchronous crunches were a foreign thing for me. But the workout was fun, fast, paced, and most of all EFFECTIVE. I would have bet all my worldly possessions that the warm up was the whole class, because I was exhausted and shaking already, but the instructor’s cheerful “Alright! I hope you are all warmed up and ready to work by now!” combined with an incredulous glance at the clock which confirmed that indeed, only 20 minutes had gone by, dashed all those hopes. A mix of Pilates and ballet- barre inspired moves, all kicked up a thousand notches by the holding and pulsing we did constantly throughout class caused all the muscle fibers in my arms, abs, butt and thighs to revolt one after the other. My legs were literally shaking as we did a seemingly endless succession of squats and leg lifts, all with very small, isometric movements very unlike the fluid, large movements I was used to in ballet class. I gripped the barre for dear life while silently apologizing to the vertical poles I’d so fallen in love with, convinced this torture was their retribution for my infidelity. The class was only 55 minutes, but seemed to last 3 hours . At the end of it, that welcome rush of endorphins was coursing through my body, which made me feel great, even though I'm pretty positive I was the worst one in the class, except for maybe the devoted boyfriend who came with his girlfriend ! This class is definitely something I would recommend to all those former dancers out there looking for a way to stay in shape that doesn’t entail destroying your joints, as well as those brave of heart who like a workout that employs pulses and isometrics.

P.S. I never knew what isometrics were until I looked it up:
Isometric exercise or isometrics are a type of strength training in which the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction. Isometrics are done in static positions, rather than being dynamic through a range of motion.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Lessons in Levitation

Physics was never my strong suit, to be sure, but I at least could understand that one law about opposite and equal actions and reactions. Or I thought I did, until I tried to apply it in pole dancing class. Our insanely fit instructor was effortlessly gliding down the pole from a standing position (who knew there was even anywhere to go?), telling us to “levitate” as we slid down. Ok, fine! I’ve totally got this. I gripped the pole and extended my legs into a side split, but quickly found myself on the ground before I knew what was happening. How did I get there so quickly? She had taken at least four counts to glide down to the floor, and here I was, my super long legs stuck in a side split and unable to pick myself up to move and try again. Alright, no matter, we’ll try this again. I scrambled up to standing again, took a deep breath, grabbed the pole, and extended my legs, hoping this time the descent would be more graceful. No such luck. I found myself again, in a side split, confused and this time embarrassed. Sensing, and, no doubt, seeing my consternation, my instructor made her way over to where I was trying to pretend like the previous five minutes had never happened and showed me the grip I was to use in order to really push myself up the pole and not just slide down it like a sack of ungainly potatoes. The previous series of events repeated itself until she decided it was time to move on. My face was burning. What was wrong with me! How could I not get this one simple move, that was really just the opener to another fun combination of climbs, skater spins, and body rolls. The music filled the studio, and the counts “5,6,7, 8” snapped my body and my mind into that peculiar state of tense relaxation. My muscle memory took over as I went through the steps we had just learned, and to my infinite shock, the initial descend went perfectly once I stopped beating myself up about not being able to do it, and just did it. Once again, I was getting in my own way by focusing on what I could not do. Class over, filled with adrenaline and natural opiates (the best kind!), I made a mental note to be filled under “memoranda, to be thought of on a daily basis”- Focus on what you do want, not what you don’t want. Super simple, yes? Much easier said than done. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Back in the Saddle

After a 2-week hiatus during which I visited my friends and a very special friend in particular in the beautiful city of Los Angeles, I decided it was high time to get myself back into class. I was a little nervous to return after my vacation, not having done anything even remotely physical for so long. So it was that I found myself back in the familiar pink-and-black studio, surrounded by familiar faces and that warm, welcoming energy I so craved. The warm-up was uneventful, and then came the routine on the pole. From the minute I placed my hands on the pole and prepared to climb, I felt something was off. I couldn’t grip the pole as tightly as I used to before my vacation, and my attempts at climbing were almost as bad as they were that first day! I felt the frustration and embarrassment welling up within me. As I sat out waiting for the second group to learn the routine, I tried to comfort myself with thoughts of what it was like coming back to ballet class or even yoga after a hiatus. There were certainly plenty of times when I lifted my leg into what I felt was a lovely, perfectly extended arabesque, only to check my positioning in the mirror and see my leg a good six inches below where I had envisioned it! That disconnect was certainly nothing new, though this realization brought me only a small bit of comfort. But, as any dancer will tell you, not every class is a home run, and when you have a bad class, the only thing worse than staying is leaving. So I stuck it out until the end, and did what I could of the routine. The high that I was on throughout all of the other classes was notably, painfully absent during this one, but as a dancer friend of mine once said, “I will be brave. I will still dance, even though my tummy hurts.” 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The aftermath

Exhausted, and exhilarated, I decide I need to do this again. I am on a natural high that I have not felt since my ballet days, and having no such compunctions about being “bad” at pole dancing, not to mention the attractive offer of 20% off any purchase made on the day of your first class, I closed my eyes (figuratively, not literally- well, maybe both), and purchased a 5 class package for the somewhat steep price of $120. I had decided there was no such thing a “price” to my happiness, and vaguely flung my credit card in the direction of the assistant. If you ever read this, dear assistant, I am sorry, and I meant no disrespect, but rather that was a manifestation of me telling myself how many dinners and brunches I would have to be “not hungry” at, movies I “didn’t feel like seeing”, and clothes I would see while out shopping that “just weren’t that awesome” in order to recoup those costs!

Hobbling my way to the subway, I was still entranced by the magic I had just witnessed in the studio. I make my way to my friends’ apartment, and plop myself down on their couch. The thought of moving at that very moment is as foreign as that of spontaneously taking flight. Queue the barrage of questions about my first pole dancing class. (Not) to my surprise, the words come spilling out of my mouth, faster and faster, descriptions of everything from the pink and black studio with the poles in the middle of the dance floor, to the incredible apparition that was our instructor, to the other girls in the class, and to my burgeoning obsession with this form of dance. They listen, impressed with not only my physical ability to try a pole dancing class, but also with my lack of regard for “societal norms”. If only they had access to the inner recesses of my mind! But, fortunately, only I do. And now you, dear readers of this blog. At any rate, the night ended with us watching videos on youtube of pole dance competitions, and with each revolution, inversion, climb and descent each contestant made, my admiration (and envy) grew exponentially. I had convinced not only myself, but my friends, that this was a “legitimate” form of exercise and art, not so dissimilar to ballet, gymnastics, or yoga. My exhaustion from that first class completely overtook me and I surrendered, dreaming of whirling around the pole as gracefully as jeanyne butterfly (see below), all the while relishing the pain of the burn in my thighs and the bruising of my legs. All for the sake of art.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You tricked me! This is about pole dancing, not health and fitness!!

Some of you may be wondering where the “health and fitness” part of this blog comes in, aside from me getting my butt kicked on a regular basis in pole dancing class. To understand any story, you have to start from the beginning: I was born on a lovely March day in Michigan to two loving, if strict parents...wait, no, that's too far. Forget it. Start here:

Rewind 16 years. It is 1996 and I am ten years old. I am in ballet class, trying to turn my hips out in a direction they should never go, and I look down to make sure my feet are at least at 120° to each other. Suddenly, I notice some weird lumpy things (breasts, for those of you who are wondering) which are much more prominent in my leotard than in the other girls’ leotards. Skip forward a few months, to me being teased in the gym locker room by the other girls about my butt being “soo big” (cue Sir Mix-a-Lot). Being a ballerina means spending a LOT of time staring at yourself (and others) in the mirror. Couple this to the fact that my natural build is “womanly”, as my mother likes to describe it, and the seeds for a rough adolescence and early adulthood were sown.  From then on, I struggled mightily with my body image and weight. I have never been “overweight”, but as almost any girl will tell you, there is almost no such thing as being “too thin.” My adolescent years were wrought with crazy diets, fasts, cleanses, and borderline if not outright eating disorder behavior. I spent one summer in middle school exercising over 2 hours a day to combat every single thing I put into my mouth (which was not much). I was lethargic and irritable constantly, and it was only when I fainted and had to be brought to the ED for severe dehydration that my parents and I were alerted to the fact that something was not right.

I am thankful to say that I eventually grew out of that phase, and slowly and gradually learned to accept my body, at least to the point where I was not actively trying to starve or exercise it into nonexistence. But those thoughts never quite go away, and to this day I still catch myself wishing away parts of my body I wish were smaller. The fact that I continued to do ballet and stare at myself in a leotard and tights did not help. Eventually I fell away from ballet, feeling “too fat and out of shape” to ever show my face in that austere studio ever again. The ballet world is an enchanting one, but it comes with a dark side most recently portrayed so excellently by Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Even in an amateur, adult ballet class, I could not help but feel the eyes of others on me, assessing, judging, constantly finding lacking, or in the case of certain parts of my body, excessive. Truly, I believe that Sartre must have been to a ballet class when he was inspired to have one of his characters in No Exit  utter the famous proclamation “Hell is others”. 

So, after seventeen years of hating my body and trying to conform it to a mold it would never fit in, I decided to try a different form of dance. To be sure, I had a lot of the traditional preconceived notions about pole dancing- that it was akin to, if not synonymous with stripping, that “nice” girls didn’t do it, and, and that you had to be in fantastic shape and have had said shape altered by surgical means, but, as always, I decided not to listen to what other people said, and to forge ahead. Onwards to the pursuit of being healthy and happy!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My first time part deux

“Boobs on the pole ladies!” I almost died of mortification at that very moment. But I had put myself in this situation, and despite the hang-ups I walked into class with, what my instructor and some of the more advanced girls in the class were able to do was even more physics-defying than wearing pointe shoes, flying across the floor and doing impossible numbers of spins as I was used to doing in ballet class. I saw the challenge and I refused to walk away from it. Stigma or no stigma, unfamiliarity or not I was going to tackle that pole, and that was that. So up I went. Rather, I tried to go. I didn’t get much of anywhere on my first attempt to climb up that cold, hard, stainless steel torture device. Muscles that I should have known I had (after a year of gross anatomy) but didnt, started complaining vociferously . I told them to shut up, and tried again. Finally I made it up one go up the pole (which is known as ‘Level 1’) climb. I couldn’t believe it! I felt amazing. Until my inner thighs decided they had had just about enough of supporting the rest of me and decided to no longer hold on. Needless to say my descent was rather rapid, and while I tried to look graceful, I am fairly certain I looked more or less like Bridget Jones in that scene with the fireman's pole. No mind, lets go again! After all, being a dancer is nothing if its not about being constantly dissatisfied with one’s performance and striving to do better, even when physically your body is rebelling. It is always mind over matter. Oh, and me being a huge masochist didn’t help. My thighs were already bruised and chapped, and another lovely dark blue mark was developing on my inner ankle, where I had thrown my leg against the pole hoping it would be there to support me in my skater spin. By the end of the class, I was soaked in sweat, exhausted, and exhilarated. The feeling is one that defies words, which, incidentally, is very inconvenient for a blog writer! But, there it is. If you want to know what I felt, take a class yourself. Maybe it doesn’t have to be pole dancing, but if you are like me, you will understand the inherent joy that resides in not only exercising your body but disciplining your mind to focus on the task at hand, and, perhaps most of all, seeing and feeling yourself make beautiful shapes with your body while defying the principles of physics! Take that Newton!

My first time!

I am still nervous and shaking like a leaf when I stumble into the studio and stammer out my name, adding the obligatory “I bought the living social deal?” with the inflection of my voice at the end of that sentence making clear in no uncertain terms that I am not a “regular” pole dancer, and that this is not a “career advancing” investment, but rather a brave endeavor on my part, the former ballerina turned ivy league medical student, to enhance her fitness and “think outside the box.” Yes, all of that. The  assistant at the front desk asks me to sign a form saying that if I broke my neck and died, no one could legally sue them. Alright. I'm not afraid. Surely seventeen years of ballet and four years of yoga have prepared me for whatever THIS (make gesture encompassing entire studio) is.

Class starts off like a yoga class. I’m feeling pretty good, while simulataneously doing the ballerina thing of checking out the other students, and ranking myself in terms of fitness, rhythm, and flexibility. Not losing yet. Then the time comes to put away the yoga mats and take our positions at the poles. The insanely beautiful instructor tells all of us to “put our boobs on the pole, push in, and take a good baseball grip.” I am stricken with embarrassment. Despite the fact that I am not white, in certain situations I feel as emotionally repressed as any waspy girl I went to private school with. These words strike my ears, and I have no idea what to do with them. Possibly I have had a stroke, and am unable to comprehend the words that the instructor is saying. But, in true dancer form, I subtly glance about the studio and force my body mimick the position I see the other students in. What follows is a streaky blur to say the least. Spins, climbing up the pole, and sexy dance moves that would ordinarily require at least 2 glasses of wine for me to even begin to think about executing flow in quick succession. By the end I am exhausted, and every single muscle in my body  is shaking, but I have this odd sense of empowerment and exhilaration that I had not felt since I was actively taking ballet class and laughing at gravity in the face.

The gory details of this class are in a subsequent entry, for all you non-dancers out there I did not want to bore you with the technicalities of the spins, grips, and leg extensions I was indundated with at that first class. But if you are curious, see: USPDF 2009 Highlights

Days leading up to my first class

I am nervous. I want to back out. I am going alone, despite having convinced many friends to also sign up for the living social deal. I am ok with this, having the normal human fear of looking incredibly stupid and inept in front of people one knows. So, about 1.5 hours before the class starts, I don a leotard, yoga pants, and UGGs. On my way out, I hastily  grab a pair of high heeled- platforms I had acquired on my latest trip back home, thinking -Why not? I wouldn’t go to ballet class without slippers or pointe shoes! Let’s do this. On the subway ride downtown I am, to my astonishment, racked with nerves, despite the fact that I am a seasoned dancer with flexibility and strength to my name. But, instead of fleeing as soon as I get out at Columbus Circle, I bravely forge on down the street, clutching in my right hand the piece of paper with the address of the studio as if it were a lifeline as I navigate the usual barrage of Saturday afternoon shopper and tourists in NYC. It is 3:40, and the class begins at 4:00. I find myself on the doorstep of the studio, looking around like a detective for hints of what awaits me on the other side of that door. Are there dead strippers lining the street? I don’t see any, so I figure I am safe. My mother calls, and I tell her hurriedly that I am about to go to my first ballet class in 1.5 years , and that I can’t talk. I settle my nerves and waste time by walking down the street and back about three or four times. Finally it is acceptably close to the start time of class that I feel justified in going in. The doorman asks me which suite I am here for. Quelle surprise! Do I have to tell some other sentient human being about this escapade? It seems I must. I stammer out- Um, New York…..Dancing …?  What I interpret as a knowing smile breaks out across this man’s face. Were I not so dark-complexioned, I feel certain I would have been as red as... what is the reddest thing one can think of- a lobster? a firetruck? a tomato?  I make my escape from the smirk of the doorman and hurry into the elevator. 


Thus begins my adventure with health, wellness and loving myself:
I am bored at work while trying to hide from my boss. A novel concept, to be sure. In the upper right corner of my computer screen the Gmail notifier pops up. I am hoping fervently that none of them is from my boss. LivingSocial? I like buying things online. Pole dancing classes? What? Wait, what? A long pause in my mental monologue ensues while I try to envision myself tottering about on six inch stilettos and climbing up a metal pole. Well, I have been looking to get in better shape, so why not? I’m a “dancer” (read: I’ve been taking ballet classes since I was eight years old and once upon a time harbored ideas about becoming a professional, before silly things like Harvard and medical school got in the way). Another lacuna in my stream of consciousness, then - why not? It sounds like fun, it's not too expensive, and best of all, I will be getting an awesome workout. Let’s go! A few clicks later, I had a voucher for 2 classes at New York Pole Dancing. Let’s see where the adventure takes us, shall we?