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Bohemienne Fitness Builds Sexy Strength Around the Pole

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Alison Mathes - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Alison Mathes

Outside, it's sunny and 50 degrees. Inside North End Studio B in Burlington, it's a sultry 70 degrees — the perfect temperature to start stripping down and doing some pole dancing.

The stereo plays a slowed-down version of U2's "With or Without You," and the clock reads 11:45. That's 11:45 a.m. Yep, it's the middle of the day, and I'm working out with a bunch of women, not hanging out with ogling men.

Pole dancing is a fitness trend that's been sweeping the nation. In the process, it seems to be stripping pole performance of its sleazy strip-club reputation. Wrap your head around this: According to its practitioners, pole dancing is now a holistic, dance-based approach to wellness.

Alison Mathes teaches this class through Bohemienne Fitness, her new business housed at Studio B. A dancer since age 5, Mathes moved to Essex in 2014 with her husband and young son. She founded Bohemienne Fitness "to inspire strong bodies and healthy minds through the unique power of pole, aerial and dance arts for adults," as her mission statement reads.

The setup at Bohemienne, which Mathes says is the only pole dance studio in Vermont so far, resembles that of just about any fitness studio. That is, except for the five brass poles spaced around the room.

We ladies — seven of us, with an age range of twenties through forties — begin to warm up by making our arms float toward the ceiling and stretching our hip flexors with a few lunges on each leg. "So we can split someday!" promises Mathes.

After a few yoga moves, such as the cobra and child's pose, we partner up on the poles and listen to Mathes' instructions. "The mantra of pole dancing is 'shoulders back and down,'" she says. "All of your latissimus dorsi muscles, down to your waist — you should feel like a superhero."

I feel more like the Joker as I attempt to wrap my right leg around the pole to perform a few oblique crunches to Rihanna's "Titanium." I'm certain I'm going to fall smack on my left butt cheek. But I manage to hang on and find that negotiating the reps is a legitimate workout.

Melaney Pettini and Alison Mathes - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Melaney Pettini and Alison Mathes

"It's great body-weight exercise," Mathes explains. "When we pull our weight up onto the pole, it creates a lot of strength in the upper body, and that's typically a place where women struggle; they feel like their upper body is a problem area."

My "problem area" may be coordination, which will be tested later in the class. But first we cheer after Mathes says, "All right, guys, we're going to dance now!"

We begin pole "walks" — essentially prancing around the shaft, using ballet-inspired moves mixed with some swagger. Think swinging hips, proud chests and bare toes dragging across the hardwood floor. "We create a lot of body awareness through our dance training," Mathes says. "It's athletics and it's artistry at the same time, and that's what I love about it."

I pause between pole walks to watch the other women in the class. (Elsewhere, men reportedly are pole dancing, too, but not yet at Bohemienne Fitness, though the classes are open to anyone 18 and up.) Wearing loose tops and shorts, they look comfortable, happy and focused on their progress while also having a good time.

Next up are the "body waves": Mathes shows us how to cave our chests and hips in and out. "We're a tsunami!" she says. "Cave, cave, wave, wave!"

The last piece of choreography for today is the dip turn, a 180-degree pivot that is supposed to end with hooking the outer leg around the pole. I swing around awkwardly, fumbling to keep my right and left ankles organized. Mathes gently coaches me into the correct sequence and finally exclaims, "Yes!"

The boost of confidence I feel attests to a benefit of pole dancing that is more debated than the workout it provides.

"A lot of women feel very empowered by it, because it does build so much strength," says Mathes. "It also builds sensual strength — they can get in touch with that female power."

Not so fast, counters Goal Auzeen Saedi, PhD, in a Psychology Today piece that questions those premises. "Why is gyrating and twirling around a pole supposed to engender sudden feelings of empowerment and sexiness?" she asks. "How come doing charitable work and [getting] a new haircut can't provide the same?"

Having done all the aforementioned activities, I can attest that pole dancing is simply more fun. In fact, more so than almost any fitness class I've taken, from aqua aerobics to Zumba. Pole dancing has an interpretive element that makes it reasonably easy to pick up: Practitioners can make up their own moves or fall back on the simple pole walks.

That openness gives newcomers to Bohemienne a solid sense of balance. Instead of barking instructors, they find Mathes, who is encouraging and supportive.

So are my fellow students in the class, including Anne Whitney of Westford. "The surprising thing about pole is that it creates a really lovely community between the dancers," she writes me later in an email. "There's so much support and positivity in Alison's classes."

Whitney also attests to the empowerment factor. "I feel empowered by any movement I initiate or yield to — as long as I made the decision to move that way," she explains. "Pole brings out a playful, dramatic and graceful movement."

Whitney, who has a training pole in her sewing room at home, adds that pole dancing has done more than build her physical strength. She says it has introduced her to other strong women and has made her an even better role model for her daughter.

Alison Mathes and Melaney Pettini - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Alison Mathes and Melaney Pettini

Such comments give the lie to the notion that women practice pole dancing solely for the benefit of their romantic partners. "Pole dancers perform for all kinds of people all the time," Mathes says. "I have no idea if my students dance sensually for partners in private." Much of what happens in Studio B appears to stay in Studio B.

Except for the women's new relationship with, well, poles.

"I see a stop sign, metal pipes or scaffolding structures, and I see a chance to move the way we do in class," says 30-year-old Belinda DeJesus, a Burlington Zumba instructor. "I see opportunities for movement in our everyday infrastructures, and it's this dialogue between my inner voice and how I exude myself with this practice that I bring home with me."

I can't yet imagine spontaneously twirling around, say, a public utility pole. But I do leave my first class feeling more like the gazelle in Zootopia than like the bull in a china shop I'd expected to be. With the advent of warmer days, I may prefer a dip in the lake to performing dip turns, but when I feel like dancing, I'll be back at Studio B.

"When you dare to try something totally new and a bit taboo," observes Whitney, "there's very little room for judging others, because you're totally dropped into negotiating your own movement and emotion around this style of dance."


Bohemienne Fitness offers pole dancing on Sundays, 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.; Mondays, 6 to 7 p.m.; and Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., at North End Studio B in Burlington.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Going to the Pole"

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