Poles apart from stripper image
But will the fitness 'craze' that is pole dancing lessons be able to shake off its sleazy associations and earn mainstream respectability, asks Alison O'Riordan
Tainted by a variety of man-pleasing, strip-club associations, I expect my first afternoon as a 'poler' to incorporate my preference for spindly red-soled stilettos or thigh-high boots, a face full of make-up and sparkly, sequinned hot pants.
The raunchy studio equipped with a disco ball would be thick with hairspray while ladies with flawlessly tanned midriffs would strike provocative and effortless feline poses against a pole.
I am left disappointed.
While it gets my heart pumping and I can feel my arms toning, I spend my time hovering around the bottom of a floor-to-ceiling pole while longingly looking up at the taut bottom of the Irish Pole Champion of 2010 in an eye-catching bikini as she arcs her flexible lean limbs in an impossibly entangled motion.
In a sport that demands amazing upper-body strength, my efforts around the pole fail to rival even the most tacky Las Vegas stripper stereotype. As Arlene Caffrey grips her calf muscles around the pole, holds her body weight in mid-air and dons an inward V shape, I take a 360 degree swivel and fall in a heap, giving in to my aching upper arms and bruises on my legs.
I am relieved to hear after the day's events that 23-year-old Arlene started like me as a beginner in 2006 when the fitness pole 'craze' first took off in Ireland.
"I took up lessons in Drogheda and became hooked, having had no previous experience in sport, dance or gymnastics. I developed my affinity with dance and performance through this medium and became the first ever Miss Pole Dance Ireland in 2007," she said.
Having graduated with a degree in Visual Communications last year, this meant Arlene was heading straight for dire job prospects, so she turned her focus to her pole dancing hobby and turned it into a profession. Her success at the Irish Pole Championships 2010 means she has qualified to represent Ireland in the World Pole Dance Championships in October in Zurich, Switzerland.
"This will be the first time Ireland will be represented on an international scale in the ever-expanding field of pole dancing, as it develops from a 'fitness craze' into a respectable form of dance and performance," she said.
As Arlene demonstrates pole fitness at its best, doing incredibly complicated acrobatic manoeuvres, she rubs alcohol on her hands to strip away slippy excess moisture. She makes it look anything but sleazy. As a competitive pole dancer she considers herself an 'elite athlete' in a sport that takes amazing strength and flexibility. Her face is a mask of concentration as she glides effortlessly up and down the pole.
"I consider myself an athlete, considering the amount of training that I put into it every day. I have to watch what I eat and stay off alcohol -- and I train every day for about two hours.
"I have been going to Italy to the Milan Dance Studio to raise the bar and learn new tricks. It means constantly going to master classes and learning from great dancers," said Arlene.
"It's not always about the most fancy trick on the pole; it's about your stage presence and personality and audience interaction. I think it's a performance art in the way ballet and gymnastics are."
People are flocking to experience the lure of the pole, I am told by the Labfitness studio owner Laura Armada.
"The average person that comes hates exercising in the gym; they find it too boring and are looking for a fun way to exercise. One never hears people say I can't wait to go to the gym; here, people get excited before a class," she said.
"Our 15 classes a week are constantly fully booked. Most participants are women who aren't doing it for their husband or boyfriend; they want a fun way to get fit. It takes a long time before it becomes sexy as a work-out."
Both Laura and Arlene believe that only up until four years ago the sport was tainted with the lap-dancing image, but they both prefer to call it pole fitness and are campaigning to have it as a test sport for the 2012 Olympics.
"I feel empowered up there on the pole. I used to be a very quiet person and hated sports growing up. I would never have seen myself getting up in front of 500 people and performing. It's a physical work-out, but it also works out the mind," said Arlene.
I learn how most girls have a pole installed in their home to perfect moves. Arlene has five practice poles in her house and brings them up to Dublin house parties. But in a world where pole dancing goes hand in hand with the lap-dancing image, I wonder if it will ever achieve mainstream respectability.