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City Folk

Beauty and the Beast

Local gym shows that pole dancing is not just for strippers

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

A tall chain-link fence encloses a gym within what used to be an underground garage. The space still looks like a garage, except for the weights, mats, pull-up bars, and, in a corner, six shiny poles aligned beside four wonky mirrors. Between the poles, a young woman in brightly patterned leggings swings from an aerial hoop, or lyra. Speakers play Rage Against the Machine, and metal barbells echo through the chilly air as they hit the concrete floor.

“We call this place the Beast Cave,” says Kate Gero, a muscular young woman also wearing patterned leggings.

The Beast Cave is a part of PUSH511, a CrossFit gym located in Brewers Hill, and is the home of Canton’s first pole dance studio, Vertical Bodies, which Gero describes as a “modern adult playground.” Gero, a seasoned pole dance teacher and performer, opened the studio last November.

The studio’s raw, industrial look suits the extreme nature of the sport. Already a popular sport in Europe, athletic pole dancing is more than grinding a metal rod in high heels. Combining acrobatics, gymnastics, and strength training, dancers climb, spin, contort, and fly using only a pole (and the occasional chair) as apparatus. People are learning that it’s not just for strippers.

“It’s becoming less of a taboo, which is nice,” says Gero. “When I first started, I didn’t tell anybody I worked with that I pole danced. Now it’s just becoming more mainstream.”

Of course, because of its association with stripping, the stigma against pole dancing as a sport still exists.

“You’re always going to have that,” says Gero. “It’s never going to go away; you might as well accept it. If you shun it and try not to recognize it, I just think that’s not the right stance to take. Just rise above it.”

Some athletic pole artists believe that strippers have tainted the name of the sport. Gero, however, sees merit in their work.

“I appreciate the girls who dance in the strip clubs,” she says. “It takes a lot of courage to get up there and do what they do. And a lot of them are amazing too. And they’re extremely strong. I think we’re always going to battle that, though. People are always going to be so close-minded that they’re not going to be able to look outside the box. You’ve got to respect your roots, though. Some of the first pole dancers I saw were in a strip club, and I thought they were amazing.”

She embraces the sensual aspect of pole dancing in her own performances. While she performs feats of strength and flexibility, she often wears high-heeled platform shoes in addition to bra tops and bikini bottoms. (This has a practical purpose too: routines often require bare skin to grip the pole.)

“I think more women are becoming more comfortable in their sensuality and in their individuality to be able to try pole,” says Gero. “Sometimes it does take a big personality to go to a pole class, because it is intimidating.”

Gero never saw herself spinning and swinging from poles to the rhythm of Marilyn Manson and Deftones. “I was shy, a tomboy. I read a lot. I did soccer and baseball, things like that,” she says. “I basically came from no dance background at all, and I’ve been pole dancing for five years now.”

A chemist by day, she now lives what she feels is a dual life. In 2009, she moved to the Baltimore area for her ex-boyfriend’s job. Without a job of her own, she had a lot of time on her hands and decided to get fit.

“I couldn’t do a pushup when I first started,” she says, “but we all have to start somewhere.”

She discovered Xpose Fitness in Towson, where she quickly fell in love with pole. That love grew into a discipline and, subsequently, a teaching position at Xpose. She also performed in several competitions, both locally and nationally. After a year or so, she parted ways with Xpose and got a job teaching at Pandora in Abingdon. Soon enough Pandora closed its doors, and Gero found herself without a studio. So she opened her own.

Vertical Bodies hosts two main types of pole classes: Pole Beauty and Pole Beast, or traditional and non-traditional. Pole Beauty teaches movements, spins, and stretching transitions. Pole Beast, designed to complement Pole Beauty, is composed of strength-based workouts, with interval training inspired by CrossFit, a popular fitness program combining diverse functional movements done at high intensity. This hybrid is unique to Gero’s teaching method.

“Pole and CrossFit; it’s never been done before,” she says. “I thought they would complement each other very nicely. A lot of polers train with CrossFit, but nobody’s ever opened a gym in a CrossFit studio. I’m hoping it catches.”

Pole Beast is not the only thing that sets Vertical Bodies apart from other pole studios. “We have the tallest poles [in Maryland]. They’re 14 feet and they spin.” The studio’s classes are open to men, unlike any other studio in the region. (In fact, pole dance claims some origins in India as “Mallakhamb,” a predominantly male sport.) Gero admits that she hasn’t had any male students yet. “But we’re hoping!” she says.

There is a strong sense of community that can develop in the studio. “When you go to pole class, everybody’s so encouraging and bouncing ideas off each other,” she says. “I just love the idea of a bunch of women who actually get along, who work out together and have fun together.”

For many passionate dancers like Gero, pole is an art form as much as a sport. The level of skill, technique, and creativity involved in choreographing and executing a pole performance matches the level of strength, endurance, and flexibility required from the dancer’s body. However, different people practice pole fitness for different reasons.

“It’s what you want to get out of it,” says Gero, “I know a lot of people go into pole wanting to get fit. Other people cross over to pole fitness, like gymnasts and ballerinas, as another form to express themselves. And then, there are other people who do it because it’s an extreme sport. So I see all three of them.”

The studio is the new home to Baltimore Pole Artists, a group also started by Gero. Six to 10 local pole enthusiasts meet once a month to “jam” and share ideas for bringing pole into the community. Twice a year, the group organizes events. In the fall, they perform in the Charm City Pole Show to raise funds for the Tri-Harder Triathlon Club of Baltimore, an organization that trains addicts to compete in triathlons as part of their recovery process. This past November, they raised $1,200 for the club. In the spring, BPA performs in the Aerial Ink Pole Art Showcase to raise money for their own endeavors, including performing in competitions.

Running a studio, teaching, performing, organizing events—Gero has it all down to a science, literally.

“I’m a chemist by day, so I’m extremely analytical about the way that I run things,” she says. “I’ve noticed a lot in the dance world that people are not as regimented as we are in the scientific world. So I bring that to the table when I run shows.”

Energetic and ambitious, Gero has lots of plans in store for Vertical Bodies, including more poles and lyras. Eventually, she hopes to have multiple studios.

“It’s getting there. I’m a perfectionist. I’ll always be adding more and doing more.”

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