Sticking to a routine almost guarantees a smoother, more organized day. When it comes to hitting the gym, this strategy isn’t quite so effective. Going through the same motions is a guaranteed way to get really bored with exercise and stall your results. This is why classes are a great way to get fit. Only the instructor knows what’s coming next, which keeps your mind and body guessing the whole time. While you have plenty of options to choose from, you might want to give pole dancing classes a more serious look.
Though pole dancing classes are becoming more common, they still seem a little exotic to most fitness buffs. Even we felt a little mystified by this unique way to get in shape, so we chatted with Michelle Abbruzzese, fitness trainer and owner of Work It Dance and Fitness in Norwalk, Conn. A lifelong dancer with experience performing for professional sports teams, she knows a few things about staying fit. Abbruzzese revealed just how tough pole dancing can be and why men should seriously consider trying it out. Hear more of what she had to say in this condensed version of our conversation.
The Cheat Sheet: You’ve been a dancer for most of your life. How did that translate to pole dancing fitness?
Michelle Abbruzzese: That’s a good question because, although I have been dancing for a very long time, pole dancing was a completely different world for me. It’s kind of like going from ballet to belly dancing. Yes, you may have been a dancer, but the moves are completely foreign.
Where it did help me was more with coordination and body awareness. So if someone says, “extend your body,” I know what they mean by that. If they tell me to engage a certain muscle, I know what they mean by that. But as far as how that plays into the actual learning and getting the strength, it was an even playing field for me and everybody else.
CS: A lot of people think of a workout as going to the gym, doing cardio, and lifting weights. How can they work pole fitness into that? Can it replace a more traditional routine?
MA: Absolutely. Actually, now that I’m in my 40s, I’m in better shape that I ever was in all my years of dancing, and I attribute that all to pole dancing. You’re working every muscle in your body at the same time. There are muscles that will be sore you that you didn’t even know you had.
If you think about it, everything you’re doing is based on body resistance. You’re working and manipulating your own body weight off the ground very often. It helps to develop muscle in a very nice, lean way.
CS: A lot of people have certain goals like weight loss or building muscle when it comes to fitness. Is pole dancing just as good for these types of goals?
MA: Absolutely! We have people in our studio who come from all different types of fitness backgrounds, different types of body shapes, and all different ages. We have people who consider themselves curvy girls. We have people who are 50 or older. We have people who’ve never been to the gym before, never worked out before, who want to try something new and fun.
We also have people who are athletes. We get a lot of people who come in from CrossFit. The first thing they say is, “Wow, this is really challenging.” And all different styles of fitness backgrounds can excel at this workout. That’s what makes it so unique, that you don’t have to be a certain body type.
CS: Are there any success stories you’ve seen that really stick out?
MA: Quite a few. Without citing names, I currently have somebody who has come to our studio. She’s in her late 40s and she has bipolar disorder and was on multiple medications. Her doctor wanted her to see if she could find a way to get better and wean herself off some of these medications.
Shes been with us for less than six months and she’s off most of her medications. She’s in the best shape she’s ever been. Her doctors are amazed at the amount of strength she’s built in such a short amount of time and how her vitals have improved. And she owes it all to pole. She just recently got a tattoo of a pole dancer on her arm because she was so amazed at what this sport did for her.
CS: Are there benefits people might not expect?
MA: There are actually a lot. Not only am I seeing physical changes, I’m seeing a lot of mental changes. I don’t think people walk in with that expectation. They know it’s a workout and they know they’re going to get stronger and probably lose weight, all the usual stuff that comes with regular workouts, but what they don’t realize is they walk away with this confidence they may not have had before.
I think that’s what really draws people to this sport because it’s not just about lifting yourself off the ground or doing some cool trick or looking cute. It’s about how it makes you feel as a person and how that translates to your everyday life.
CS: The move to spinning around in the air is going to be a pretty big change for most people. Is there anything they should do to prepare?
MA: I’ve heard time and time again, “Once I get stronger, I’m going to come take classes,” “Once I lose weight I’m going to come take classes,” or “I’m going to get in the gym to get in shape, then I’m going to come take classes.”
I sit there and I scratch my head and wonder … why? You wouldn’t say, “I’m going to get in shape, then go to the gym.” That doesn’t make sense. What’s the difference?
Probably the hardest thing is getting people to realize the hardest part is signing up for class, then walking in the door. That’s all the preparation you need. Everything else will be learned in class. Your strength will come from coming multiple times and your confidence will change through being around people who are sharing that same passion with you and encouraging you.
CS: Everyone’s going to be a little bit different, but is there any way to know how quickly someone can expect to get into the swing of things?
MA: Honestly, it’s different for everybody because it depends on what their fitness background is. I have clients who come at least four times a week and they’re going to excel much quicker than someone who comes once a week or every other week.
There are studios known for teaching in levels, similar to what you would see in a martial arts school where you start at the introductory level and everybody kind of moves through together. I don’t believe in that system.
What about if you and I walked into a studio together for the first time? Maybe you, because of your background are picking things up a little faster. For me, it’s taking me a little longer to understand the movement or to be able to do the movement. I don’t think it would be fair for us to get pushed through the system at the same time because you might get bored and I might get intimidated, and neither of us is going to have a good experience.
The way we teach it at our studio is with an introduction level because, regardless of what fitness background you come from, there are certain techniques you have to have a foundation in before you move on to something harder. But if we see you’re picking things up faster, we’re going to give you more to do. If there’s someone who’s moving slow and they’re not quite getting it, we’re going to give modifications. Everyone’s walking out feeling really good about what they’ve done and wanting to come back for more.
CS: Can you speak to how pole dancing can boost flexibility and mobility?
MA: We do flexibility in every pole class as part of the warm-up. And the interesting thing about pole is you don’t have to be flexible to do it. There are moves that don’t require a lot of flexibility. There are some that require crazy flexibility.
If your back doesn’t bend a certain way, you don’t do that trick or you work toward it at a slower pace. It doesn’t put everybody in a box and make everybody learn the same thing if it’s not right for their body.
As far as flexibility is concerned, it’s something that does grow as you’re taking those classes because we’re teaching flexibility in each one.
CS: It’s easy to think of pole dancing as a women’s sport, but your husband also teaches. What would you say to men about why they might want to try it?
MA: If you look at the history of pole, women were not involved. If you look back to about 800 years ago in India, they were practicing a style that’s still performed today called mallakhamb. The literal translation, “malla” is gymnast or wrestler and “kamb” means pole.
They would use a wooden pole to do these tricks on. They would wear very little clothing to expose their skin, so that when they’re performing tricks on the poles, they’re not slipping and sliding down.
If you go to almost any circus today, including Cirque du Soleil, most of the styles you’ll see are Chinese pole. Again, that’s been around since the 12th century. Again, Chinese pole was done by men.
There’s a lot of history that ties into it that isn’t of a sexual nature. It wasn’t really until it came to America that you saw that starting to happen. As far as performing these types of tricks you’re seeing today, that was all male-based. That was not sexual. That was doing tricks and showing strength.
Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec