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?