An air of calm efficiency encased the stark room. Two trim, attractive women came up the stairs carrying a folded mat. One went to the floor-length windows and lowered off-white roller blinds to shut out the night reflected back into the room by a wall of mirrors – if not the vibrating cacophony of cars driving past with radios blaring this year’s songs vying for bragging rights of Soca Monarch of the Carnival.
The other woman went to a wall upon which were attached eight lengths of 9’ tubular steel. Removing one from the brackets, she carried it to the middle of room, and looking up, manoeuvered it into the fittings strategically placed in the ceiling and began threading it in. The process was repeated four times. More women arrived, helping each other, straightening and tightening the poles until they were vertical and secure. Quiet murmurs accompanied the installation.
The instructor, a tall slender young woman with hair in a tight bun, a sheen of sweat across her shoulders, watched intently as she gulped water and caught her breath after finishing the previous adult ballet class. She riffled through a straw basket and finding shorts and a crop top, went to change.
Upon her return she sat on the floor, legs outstretched and waited for her class to follow suit. And then the warm-up started. An entirely different set of exercises to those of the previous ballet class, but no less grueling. I noticed she was the only one to do the entire set with her heels hovering above the floor – her stomach muscles taut – as she guided her students. There was no talking just booming music to encourage the seated, sweating women – a mix of ages and ethnicities, all clad in variations of their instructor’s attire.
The warm-up complete, the instructor sprang into action. Her movements athletic as she reached and swung her legs over her head and wrapped one knee around the pole, the other leg stretching to a long, lean balletic point. It was, to use a much vaunted phrase, poetry in motion as the pole became an extension of her body.
Her students watched intently, their respect almost tangible as she went through a flowing series of graceful movements before dismounting with a calm, controlled release. She divided the class – at least one spotter for each student of pole fitness as they attempted to emulate their teacher’s fluid movements. Some sprang with an alacrity that smacked of youth and confidence, others were more hesitant, their approach less agile, their strength less obvious but all with a palpable determination. Perseverance, interspersed with moments of laughter, floated around the music-filled room as poles were sprayed, swabbed, climbed and swung around until each tensed stomach was heaving with effort.
Each new exercise was demonstrated with a grace and ease, instruction clearly given, and as students attempted the task set, a gentle adjustment was given, a leg crooked more firmly around the pole, a quiet word of encouragement and when a seemingly impossible feat was achieved spontaneous applause gave added incentive.
But apart from the determination swinging around the poles, it was the complete lack of body consciousness that was astounding. Every student’s body was a machine to be manipulated into a rhythmic alliance with the pole. Eroticism associated with pole dancing was non-existent. It was a class of women intent on mimicking the actions of their instructor with no element of embarrassment with regard a hand touching a tush, or a breast brushed as adjustments were made, help given by the spotter whose turn on the pole would be next. The easy understanding and acceptance of each person’s different abilities.
It reminded of a play I saw in London a few years ago. Written by Dave Simpson, The Naked Truth told the story of a pole dancing class begun in a church hall. Ordinary people of all shapes, sizes and ages wanting to try something different – for a variety of different reasons. It was funny, but also elevating on many levels, with the finale being a show put on for the village to raise funds for breast cancer – a pathos highlighted when one of the students died from the disease.
There is something about the freedom given to a group of women, and men, whose learned lack of self-consciousness allows for a greater sharing emotions, of thoughts and fears buried deep which are given the freedom to surface. Perhaps the lack of physical restraints allows a greater freedom with regard the sharing of sometimes intimate details.
Pole fitness will surely be given a boost with the new Jennifer Lopez movie, Hustlers, in which she plays a pole-dancing stripper. But for those everyday people intent on learning a new skill, of challenging their body to new feats, of opening their mind to new experiences, pole fitness is is a growing expression of movement and mind.
And in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a pole-fitness teacher of balletic grace is able to to draw the shyest student into the pole’s encompassing circle to learn a skill that appears to defy gravity.
As the class ended, mats were folded as satisfied smiles and encouraging laughter floated around Harlow Studios. Each woman went home exhausted, a little fitter and perhaps a little freer in mind as well as body.
The world outside drew everyone back into its orb as another car raced past – a soca tune a reminder that Carnival is around the corner.