Since she took up pole dancing in 2015, Jennifer Lee — an instructor at Elysium Aerial Fitness — has been aware of the stigma that surrounds the activity.
“Everybody’s got a relative or a friend that doesn’t understand,” Lee said. “(They’re) like, ‘Oh my god, you do pole dancing? That’s weird.’”
For Hope, another Elysium instructor, this stigma creates a misconception in others’ minds about her personality and how she acts.
“People have not been rude to me about it, but I think that there’s been a certain level of sexualization that I think people assume I invite when they find out that I pole dance,” Hope said.
At Elysium, instructors like Lee and Hope are changing that narrative by encouraging body positivity and helping their students become more confident in their appearances, physical abilities and self-image.
The gym currently offers classes in a variety of formats, such as pole, aerial silks, chair dance, yoga and twerk. Eva Demer, one of Elysium’s three owners, said these classes can accommodate both new and experienced students and provide options for those who want to enhance either their self-confidence or workout routine.
“If you do pick an exotic style class, we try to make it so where it’s more of an atmosphere of you being more comfortable in your skin ... and moving in a way that makes you feel sexy,” Demer said. “If you pick an athletic-style class, we want to make sure you’re leaving feeling strong and empowered and capable of doing a lot more than you thought you could.”
According to Lee, these classes emphasize the importance of focusing on all areas of one’s health, even if they have to focus solely on one for an extended period of time.
“We are one being, meaning I can’t separate my emotional health from my mental health from my physical health. All those things have to be built up, they all have to be exercised and they all have to have their moment of focus,” Lee said. “By seeing these amazing things that your body can do … that really changes people’s brain chemistry.”
Demer said a lot of students come to Elysium to have fun but ultimately have their own reasons to begin taking classes, whether they were inspired by popular culture or finding a unique way to exercise.
“A lot of people come to classes (for) the same reason I did when I first started. They see shows like "P-Valley" and whatever other shows are on Netflix about the sex industry … and then we come in, and we get them hooked,” Demer said. “Then we get some people who are like, ‘No, I’ve just done ballet for a million years, and I’m sick of that, and I wanted to try a different style of dance.’”
Reminding students of what motivates them to come to Elysium is a strategy that instructor Sandra Brown said she utilizes frequently in classes she teaches.
“As an instructor, we obviously have people of all shapes and sizes, so for me, when I do my intro, I always try to remember to ask them what brought them there … (and tell them to) focus on why you’re there and not to compare yourself to everyone else because you are your own person, and this journey is individualized,” Brown said.
During class sessions, instructors teach students a number of exercises and dance moves in an encouraging and body-positive atmosphere. Demer said the feedback she receives from students has been overwhelmingly positive, as they say they feel more empowered and confident in themselves.
“I’ve had a lot of students come up and be very grateful for that opportunity to have a place that’s safe where they can come out of their shell, and they can try these new things and not be judged, and where they can build all these new skills in an environment that's encouraging, but also challenging,” Demer said.
While Demer said there are many physical benefits to pole dancing, like seeing more definition in one’s arms and legs, as well as increased core strength, she believes the most rewarding part of teaching is seeing how much her students grow from a mental standpoint.
“To be able to see them, even six weeks later, to just completely come out of their shell and be way more comfortable with what they were doing with their own bodies in general and with their abilities … it just changes your outlook on what you’re capable of, and being able to instill that in other people is a really cool experience,” Demer said.
Lee said that as time goes on, students tend to think less about stigmas and more about how much fun they have building their confidence.
“What we find a lot of times is that the students … they get hooked to the adrenaline, to the endorphins, to the empowerment and they’re like ‘Okay, who cares what my crazy uncle thinks? I’m enjoying this, and it’s good for me,'” Lee said.
Editors note: Hope asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons.