“My Neck, My Back” blasts through the speakers, red lights flash, and I slowly roll my body up and down the pole: hands, chest, belly, pelvis, knees, repeat. Suddenly, I catch my reflection—I don’t look like a stripper, but I definitely don’t see the CrossFit athlete I usually see when I look in the mirror, either.
My body type and aesthetic could be described as part Kristen Bell, part pit bull—girl-next-door meets CrossFit warrior. But here I am, swirling and grinding my scantily clad ass around a 12-foot pole with all the grace of an anteater.
I signed up for my first pole dancing class in the name of journalism… but signed up for a second because I loved it.
The classes at Body & Pole, a studio in New York City, are 90 minutes long, including 30 minutes of stretching and mobility work on a yoga mat, 45 minutes of learning the moves on the pole, and 15 minutes of practicing everything you’ve learned (so you can get down with your bad self).
For most of my first class, I felt exactly like you’d expect an inflexible jock with zero background in dance to feel in a pole class: like brisket trying to be filet mignon. But near the end of class, as the Khia song faded into Destiny’s Child, I saw my body move for the first time in more than two years.
I should mention: I love my body and what it can do.
I take great pride in how fast I can bust out burpees, my Fran time, and how quickly I learned muscle-ups. But in the two years since I’ve started CrossFit, my body has changed a lot. I know I’m strong—at a buck-twenty, I weigh the exact same as when I first started, but these days, my abs are blocky, my traps are bulgy, and my forearms are roped with veins.
In CrossFit boxes, there are literally zero mirrors—you don’t need to see yourself squat or snatch or clean because that’s what the coach is for. But in pole class, the walls are mirror-lined from floor to ceiling. Out of my element, I looked at myself and saw the body that took me through soccer, swimming, and track in high school, rugby in college, into CrossFit and now to pole.
As a woman who CrossFits and wears the evidence all over her body, I’ve been called a lot of things: big, bulky, butch, strong, athletic, jacked, masculine.
Sure, sometimes the acknowledgment that I’m an athlete is validating. Sometimes, it’s unwelcome, and at worst, it’s intrusive and threatening. People are constantly assigning adjectives to my body—I’m a woman, after all.
Just the other day, I was at my coworking space, wearing a goddamn turtleneck, when a guy in penny-loafers and a Vineyard Vine polo said, “I knew you did CrossFit before I saw the sticker on your water bottle—you have big girl shoulders.”Astute observation, Chad.
I’m sure many women feel this way, but I exist in a body that other people—especially men—eyeball and feel welcome to comment on all the time.
So as I watched my muscles contract and bulge in the light, I tried to ask myself: How would I describe my own body?
Was I just strong (and all its synonyms), or could I be strong and feminine? Could I be bulky and graceful? Could I be a meathead and someone who takes—and doesn’t suck at—pole dancing classes?
What’s that Whitman line? Oh, yeah: “I contain multitudes.”
I decided I can be it all. So I signed up for another, and then another, and suddenly, I’d bought a class package and was going almost as much as I’d been going to CrossFit.
In case you’re wondering if pole dancing is hard, the answer is “Oh, hell yes.”
Sure, it’s challenging to move your body weight around a metal rod with the strength of your muscles. But the muscular difficulty of pole doesn’t bring me to the dark place that CrossFit does (also known as “the pain cave”), where my body asks me questions like: Am I tough enough to handle this suffering?
Instead, pole is hard for me because it’s something completely new and requires me to be patient with my body in a way I’ve never had to be.
And—at the risk of sounding cocky—sucking at something is where a lot of the joy has come in for me. As an athlete, I simply haven’t had the experience of feeling like a true beginner before. I walked onto my school’s rugby team, and two months later, I was on our starting lineup for Nationals. The first time I tried CrossFit, I was able to do the recommended (or Rx) weight, and within a month, I was (and am), arguably, the best—or at the very least, the fastest—exerciser at the gym.
But at pole, I am remarkably awful. And I love it.
I don’t feel envious of the graceful folks in class with me, and I don’t feel embarrassed about being the least flexible girl in the class. With Queen Bey on the speakers and my fingers wrapped around the pole, I feel good because I’m learning. As I pull down to activate my shoulders, then spin, twirl, and walk around the pole, I feel both beautiful and bulky. I feel like both a competitive athlete and a total noob.
Sure, swapping a barbell for a pole may not be so revelatory for everyone. But when I pole dance, I’m not just a meathead—I’m a woman learning to use her muscles in a graceful way. And as I catch myself in the mirror, getting incrementally better, you can bet your neck, back, etc, that I’ll be smiling.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or yep, pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.