How Pole Dance Transformed The Way I View Fitness, Friendships, & Myself

Chanteé Joseph

For me fitness always had one goal — aesthetics. I wanted to look like the slender, non-intimidatingly toned women with inch wide thigh-gap and ironing board stomachs whose only curves were the delicate bump of abs. I filled my feed with fitness Instagrammers, copying their moves with bad form and a hope that I could paste their bodies onto mine. This soon became boring. I was impatient. I couldn’t believe after doing 25 squats in a row that I didn’t have a gravity-defying ass. I felt swindled. I began to resent my body and fitness full stop. Until I discovered pole dance.

When I attended my first pole class at university in October 2017, I knew something about this was different. Pole fitness was about me as an individual, my relationship with my body and strength. I quickly became hooked and documented my pole journey in an attempt to encourage those around me to take it up and feel the same rush I did. Post-university, I moved back home to London and, having caught the pole bug, re-commenced my journey at Kelechnekoff Studio in Peckham after following the founder Kelechi Okafor on Twitter for years. Her studio quickly became a healing space for me.

Through pole, I was able to see fitness through the lens of strength rather than aesthetics.

"I was pushed to start my own studio because I quickly noticed a lack of care for Black women and non-binary people, and for bodies that weren’t deemed conventionally attractive because of their size." Kelechi Okafor, the founder of Kelechnekoff Studios, tells me over email. "Above all, I needed to create a space that allowed people to connect with their bodies in a loving and celebratory yet disciplined manner."

It was because of this ethos that, through pole, I was able to see fitness through the lens of strength rather than aesthetics. I began to work harder perform new tricks, not because I was obsessed with looking like the women on my Instagram explore tab but because I wanted to be stronger. Eventually, my body did begin to change, but I didn’t look like the dainty, blonde Instagram gym bunnies who had a flattering muscular build, I had a more harsh-looking strength. I was sometimes discouraged by this, but my pole instructor Jenny Jaiye quickly reminded me that my body and athleticism is beautiful, this wasn’t something to be ashamed of but celebrated instead.

Part of my struggle with fitness came from feeling out of place in traditional workout spaces. Male-dominated gyms are rife with deliberate, testosterone-fuelled acts of one-upmanship and unsolicited advice, which I found uninviting. On top of that, the array of confusing machines and sea of weights left me feeling out of my depth, and I was never in a position to hire a personal trainer. Even when gyms have women-only spaces, they tend to be squeezed into a small ill-equipped room that is always packed out. Jess Gastaud, one of my pole besties, shares these sentiments. "I do not gym," she tells me, "I avoid gyms because they make me feel uncomfortable and judged."

As incredible as pole is, stigma that's rooted in misogyny and anti-sex worker sentiment is still present. Although things are changing as the sport increases in popularity across all ages, it is still sometimes seen as is lowbrow. I often catch people in jest talking about pole dancing as being a "last resort" after their life falls apart. Pole is not a bad thing nor is it a "last resort," It is empowering, great for your body, beautiful to watch and incredibly difficult to master.

"Pole dance is important because it helped me discover that my body is incredible and capable of a lot. It also helps me get more in touch with the sensuality in me and constantly reminds me that there’s nothing wrong with showing it," my pole instructor Jenny Jaiye says. "Over time, my students definitely become more confident with their bodies, they come out of their shells," she adds.

"Pole is more than being sexy for the male gaze, it is about identifying the parts of ourselves that never relinquished power to this patriarchal society, and celebrating that," Okafor tells me. "[Pole] allows us to reclaim ownership of our bodies, our sexuality, and our sensuality.’

This weekly space has become therapeutic for me.

My pole group has become a mini extended family, they have gotten to know so much about me through our weekly sessions and have become a rock to lean on in difficult times. They consoled me when I came to class the day after a very painful breakup and they celebrated with me when I told them about my new job. This weekly space has become therapeutic for me. I’m often anxious and overwhelmed with life but having pole as a consistently positive and nurturing space has helped me manage the ebbs and flows of my mental health.

"I suffered from eating disorders when I was a teenager, there's a lot in the back of my mind about my own body image," Miren Cerezo, one of my fellow pole classmates, confides in me over WhatsApp. "Having two or three hours a week surrounded by women where we hardly wear any clothes and we’re all so confident is amazing. It's like we completely forget about that what society expects from us and we just do what we love.”

"I've met some fantastic people through pole" Jess adds, "I pole with a group of women who radiate positivity and encourage me to do better. As someone with very little self-confidence, it makes such a difference to my life."

If you’re reading this and you feel you could never do pole because of your size or alleged lack of upper body strength — then stop. You are more than capable of embracing a new love of fitness and finding a new romance with your body. Pole is a space of pure unadulterated joy and growth, you will not regret trying it. I found a community I love and a new appreciation for my body. As a serial quitter, pole is the only thing that truly stuck for me, and it can stick for you too.