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My pole nemesis

While the title might lead you to believe that I have an ongoing feud with another dancer in my pole class, my pole nemesis is in fact a move, not a person. This is a move that our instructor, Kristy, introduced in the very first class of Level 1, saying, “This one is tough, but you’ll all be able to do it by the end of Level 1.”

Well. The six weeks of Level 1 passed, and I still couldn’t do it, at all. Levels 2 and 3 likewise did not enable me to do this move. And now I’m at the end of Level 4, Mission decidedly Unaccomplished.

The embarrassing thing is, this move that I have been failing miserably at for six months now? Isn’t even a spin, or an invert, or anything else that seems like it should be hard. It’s a simple pole hold with bent knee crunches. Like so:

As usual, the fabulous Aerial Amy makes it look easy. Kristy also makes it look easy. I make it look like a person who has lost all control of her limbs is attempting to pole dance. My arms straighten, despite my best efforts to hold them bent, and I droop towards the floor, every dang time. I just did not and do not have the upper body strength to do this move right.

There hasn’t been anything else I’ve tried in pole that has felt harder to me. Spins usually come easily to me, and even the few moves that have taken longer start coming together after a few weeks. So the fact that six months later, I still can’t do a decent pole hold with bent knee crunches is somewhat…frustrating.

At the end of last week’s class, Kristy watched me desperately struggle with this move. I tried so hard, over and over. What she said was, “I like your determination!” At the time, I felt like it was kind of a back-handed compliment (although I’m sure that’s not how she meant it). But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s actually a better compliment than what I would have preferred to hear–something like, “That was great. You’re looking so strong!”

Because you know what I think? The beauty of athletic endeavor is not in what comes easily. The beauty is in being the kind of person who decides, “This is very hard for me, but I am not giving up until I get it, whether that takes six days or six months.” Because then you also get to be the kind of person who eventually does get it, and you know that you have accomplished something difficult by your effort and determination. Carrying that knowledge around with you as you move through the world changes your experience of life. It gives you a bedrock trust in your own character that is priceless.

Which is why today, when I tried the pole hold and managed to stay up for several seconds instead of immediately drooping helplessly off the pole, it made me prouder than anything else I’ve learned in pole. Prouder than a flawless Roller Girl to Black Widow on the first try. Prouder than learning to do Chair spins without ripping the skin off my inner wrists. Prouder than adding a graceful head movement to make a routine fluid and expressive.

So I’m getting a lot closer to making friends with my nemesis move. Can I do it perfectly yet? Not even close.

Am I going to keep trying until I can? You better believe it.

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My new studio

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I bought my first pole last week. It’s a X-Pole, a few years old, that I found on Craigslist for $100 (much less expensive than the $330 that a new one would have cost). Because it was used and came without instructions, it took some trial and error to get it set up. But now it’s very solidly in place, and I’m happy to say that I have my own little studio!

Part of the problem I had setting it up was that the piece that’s meant to cover the part at the top where you adjust the height would not stay up. (On the newer X-Poles, this is at the bottom of the pole, but since mine is an older model, it’s at the top.) I ended up deciding to just take that piece off and leave the threading exposed. Since my ceiling is low, that gives me another couple much-needed inches of usable pole (because the cover piece comes down a couple inches below where the threading stops).

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I don’t have mirrors yet, but I’ve got my eye on some large, inexpensive ones at Home Depot. That may have to wait until we get our tax refund. 🙂

In the meantime, I do have the other items I need: a small stereo, my iPod, a tentative framework for a dance workout, and a good start on a list of moves to practice. Actually, the list below does not include the moves that I will be focusing on this week: climbing, basic invert, and roller girl into various spins (chair, ballerina, fireman).

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Besides technique practice on these moves, I’m also choreographing a routine to a Florence + the Machine song. Video to follow eventually, but it may take me a while to finish it. 🙂

The decor in the studio is pretty basic at this point, but at least I have my antique canning jars that catch the light on the windowsill.

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It’s truly wonderful to have my own studio and be able to practice whenever I feel like it (or more accurately, whenever I feel like it and my husband is available to do kid duty). This will probably mean my workouts will be much more frequent, since I’ll still be going to the gym in addition to dance workouts at home. I’m hoping my performance on the pole will improve a lot faster. It’s hard to master challenging moves when you only get ten minutes in class to practice any given move.

Thoughts on pain

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Last week marked my return to the gym after several weeks of almost complete inactivity. Since one of my goals for this year is to complete a 5k race, all of my gym workouts so far (three last week, one so far this week) have focused on running. It’s been a while since I did anything more (running-wise) than short sprints, so I’m starting with five-minute running intervals interspersed with three minutes of walking.

I am a huge fan of barefoot running. I run in my beloved Vibram Fivefingers Komodo Sports. During the colder months, my VivoBarefoot Neo Trail Runners are my everyday shoes (because my toes get too cold in the Vibrams). All of this is to say that I am used to minimalist shoes and have stronger than average feet, ankles, and calves, so I was surprised at the degree of soreness I’ve had in those areas this past week. Interestingly, there has been little to no soreness in my thighs and shins, which used to get sore when I’d step up my running distance or speed in the past.

Leaving the gym yesterday, my calves ached with every step. The left calf in particular was not doing well. It led me to think about the place of pain in athletic endeavors.

It’s popular in certain circles to claim that “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Sometimes this is clearly the case. Just about everyone has experienced soreness after a tough workout. In my “other” sport, pole fitness, bumps and bruises are common and expected. While I have been getting away with fewer bruises these days, I used to come home from pole class looking like someone had seriously roughed up my legs. The picture below doesn’t quite capture the full effect because you can’t see the intensity of the bruises on the front of my knee.

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It turns out that however graceful dancers may look, pain is often part of the process. The inside of every pair of pointe shoes I ever wore in ballet class as a teenager had at least a few bloodstains.

The flip side of this coin, of course, is that sometimes you’re in pain because something is wrong and you really need to stop what you’re doing before you get injured. I know where this line is in dance–I can tell “good” pain from the kind that is not so good. Bruises? No problem. Soreness after a tough class? Bring it on. Pain on the skin of my inner thighs when friction against that skin is supporting my entire weight on the pole? I’ll take it as long as I can before wimping out and hopping down.

But in running, I’m not experienced enough yet to know when to stop. So I face the question of what my workout should look like tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I need to dial back on the running at least a bit and work up to it more slowly. But that’s hard for me to do–I want to see faster progress. And besides, other than the pain, I’ve been enjoying the running workouts. Of course, I really don’t want an injury that will keep me out of the gym and off the pole for weeks.

My plan for now is to scope out how busy the pool is on my way to the locker room. If there’s an empty lane or two, I’ll swim. (I hate having to share a lane. It stressed me out.) If not, I might just do some walking on the treadmill, then move on to my usual flexibility work. Either way, I think the decision to slow down on the running for now is a sound one.

Why I love pole fitness

Like most people, I used to hear the phrase “pole dancing” and see a mental image of a stripper. It was never something I thought I would be interested in doing. When I heard several years ago that fitness classes based on pole dance were being offered in some cities, I thought, “Wow, that’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.” It turns out that I have a habit of hearing about a new thing, thinking it’s stupid, and later deciding it’s one of the coolest things ever. The same thing happened with grain-free diets and tablet computers, among other things. This process can be very humbling. 🙂

So I went along thinking pole dance was for slutty, not very smart women. (Sorry, sometimes my thought processes are embarrassing, especially for a Women’s Studies major. Ouch.) Then one day I saw a link on Facebook to a video of a world-class pole dancer named Jenyne Butterfly.

My reactions were as follows:

1) Wow, she is amazing. That is the coolest thing ever.

2) Wow, that was not sleazy or stripper-like at all.

3) I WANT TO TRY THAT!

As I found more videos on Youtube, I was amazed at the strength, flexibility, and artistry displayed by the best dancers. I have a huge girl-crush on Natasha Wang, for example. If I could ever achieve one-tenth of her skill and grace, I would be thrilled.

 

Towards the end of last summer, I finally searched to see if there was a pole studio in my city. It turns out there are two. After trying both of them, I decided to stick with the larger, more professional (and unfortunately more expensive) studio. Currently I’m working my way through the leveled program. I’ve seen some nice increases in strength and agility over the last several months, and getting back to doing dance on a regular basis makes me feel like I’ve gotten a piece of myself back that was missing for quite a few years.

Pole fitness is physically challenging for me, but it poses other types of challenges as well. I do not have a typical dancer’s build. In fact, I never did, even when I was doing dance classes multiple times per week as a teenager. My shoulders are broad, my hips are robust, my torso is on the short side, and I currently carry visible padding around my middle. While I am more body-positive than your average dancer, having to confront my image in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors while wearing my booty shorts can be uncomfortable.

Another challenge for me is that the style of dance common at this particular studio is very feminine and sexy. For a woman who spent years looking very butch (I mentioned I was a Women’s Studies major, right?), this can sometimes feel awkward.

But you know what? The fact that this form of dance challenges me to see myself in different ways and to stretch the possibilities of what I can do and be is actually a huge part of the attraction. Only time will tell how far I can get and what I will be able to achieve in this art form, but it is already producing wonderful results for me, both physical and mental.

Setting goals

Cross Ankle Invert w/ pole hold

(Image from Becky Simmons on Flickr via Creative Commons)

My specific athletic goals for this year lie in a couple different areas. First, I want to finally complete a 5k race (without walking; I could obviously do it right now if I didn’t have to run the whole way). In order to get there, I’m gradually working up to being able to run the entire distance. Right now, I’m not sure I could easily run even one mile. So for the next few months, I’ll be alternating running and walking during my treadmill sessions at the gym, gradually increasing running time and decreasing walking time.

Since I live near the mountains, hiking is a favorite activity of mine. I’ve wanted for a couple of years to climb Pikes Peak. I did a Pikes Peak descent a couple summers ago, and I climb at least one 14er every summer, but I haven’t done an ascent of Pikes Peak yet. This is one of my goals for this summer. The terrain itself is not difficult, but the distance (13 miles) and the gain in elevation (over 7000 feet) makes it a challenging hike.

Pikes Peak

(Photo from Adventures in Librarianship on Flickr via Creative Commons)

While I enjoy running, my true passion is for pole fitness. I’ve been taking classes since last summer, but I still have a long way to go. I need to gain tremendous strength and significant flexibility in order to be able to do the things I want to do. That will be an important area of focus for me as I athleticize myself this year. (Yes, I totally just made up that word. I think it’s a pretty good one. 🙂 )

I also have goals that are more general. I’d like to shift my body composition more towards muscle and–I can’t think of a more polite way to say this–lose some of my rolls. I’m in the normal weight range, and I don’t have any specific weight in mind that I’d like to reach, but a change in composition would be nice.

I’ll provide updates on what I’m doing to work toward these various goals throughout the year. I’m also hoping for “Mission Accomplished” posts for a couple of these before the year is over.

Not a natural athlete

One of my goals for 2013 is to explore athleticism, to see how fit and strong I can get and what that journey will be like. I have never thought of myself as athletic. That was always something someone else (in particular, my older brother) was good at. I was the bookish one who could never even run a mile without stopping.

It didn’t help that my experiences in gym classes and on sports teams were almost uniformly negative. I did take dance classes from the age of three until I graduated from high school, but for some reason, my ability to dance en pointe never made me feel like I could be physically capable in any other realm.

So I focused on academics and became increasingly alienated from my body. I was smart, but I was also clumsy and chubby. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized I didn’t have to be stuck in that role forever. We grow up and go out into the world, and if we pay attention, all kinds of possibilities open up for exploration and growth. So my goal here is to explore the possibilities for what I can do with my body and what it can become.

Happily, I’m not starting completely from scratch. Although I was overweight, out of shape, and depressed for most of my late teens and early twenties, I did at some point figure out that it felt good to move my body. I did a little bit of running in my early twenties but never worked up to running any meaningful distance. I went through phases where I walked consistently, and I took a few African dance classes here and there.

When I was 25 (I’m 34 now), I dropped out of grad school (where I had been miserable), lost 60 pounds, and began thinking of myself in a more flexible way. Maybe I could learn to do things that I had always assumed were impossible for me. A few years later, a move to the Rocky Mountains led to a higher activity level, and after the birth of my daughter in 2009, I joined a gym because the free childcare they offered was the only way I could get a break from the demands of parenthood.

Once going to the gym became a regular part of my life, I increased my overall level of fitness quite a bit. I started a Couch to 5k program more than once, but never made it all the way to running 3.2 miles without stopping (that’s one of my goals for this year). I also rediscovered my love of dance in 2012 when I found some pole fitness videos on Youtube and started taking classes in that form of dance.

Hopes and dreams for this year will go in a separate post, but overall, I want to stop dabbling in fitness and find a way to let out my inner athlete. I have gradually changed the way I see myself so that I can conceive that this is possible, but I’m not there yet, and it’s going to be quite a journey to get there. I hope some readers will follow along with me and share aspects of their own journeys.