For the 2019 film Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez does a pole dance that involves inversions, or going upside down, while performing a Russian split at the top before sliding down to the floor, holding on with only her legs. The four-minute routine required two-and-a-half months of training.
“I would say J. Lo was already in fantastic shape,” said Amy Bond, an attorney, award-winning pole dancer and owner of Berkeley Pole & Dance on University Avenue in central Berkeley. “Going upside requires a lot of strength. It took me six months before I could do my first inversion.”
Since October, Berkeley Pole & Dance — one of three meccas for pole dancing Bond has purchased in the Bay Area in the past six years — has been joined by another studio that teaches the increasingly popular dance style: Flux Vertical Theatre, a fully accessible 4,000-square-foot facility in West Berkeley that emphasizes pole dancing performance.
Both studios are a mile apart on University, making the boulevard a center for Bay Area pole.
Like the acrobatic Cirque du Soleil, pole productions involve storytelling and pole competitions can focus on themes. In the 2021 Netflix documentary Strip Down, Rise Up, about a group of women who “explore the intersections of movement and meaning in an effort to reclaim their bodies and their lives,” Bond performed a three-minute routine on sexual assault. Flux’s second production, Whole Lotta Love, “a burlesque valentine to Led Zeppelin,” took place on Valentine’s Day.
Pole dancing “can mean so many different things, depending on the artist,” said Kirsten Gerding, a.k.a. “Mz. K,” who co-owns Flux with Leah Marie. For Gerding, the choreography can be influenced by the music and whether she’s barefoot or in stilettos or singing. “It’s amazing how one apparatus can feel like home to many different artists all over the world, each with their own style.”
Both Berkeley studios offer a range of classes at comparable prices (around $40). Both have new student specials. Bond also offers discounts for those in “historically marginalized or underpaid industries,” including strippers, sex workers, students, teachers and secular nonprofit workers. (Bond believes churches already get a lot of funding and often “undermine the progressive values our studios stand for,” such as gay rights.)
Despite the fact that both studios compete for the same clientele, the owners have a “more-the-merrier” attitude. Their friendships go way back. When Flux was being formed, Marie and Gerding practiced there until COVID-19 left them without a home. And when Bond started getting into competition, “Mz. K was my instructor.”
“Before anybody owned anything we have been friends,” said Gerding, who put on glittery, six-inch platforms to have her picture taken. “Amy has been so supportive.”
“The more kinds of spaces we have for people to express themselves, the better,” Bond said.
All different types of bodies
Pole dancing is associated with the slithering, sexualized style of strip clubs — and that version continues to attract some dancers. In the past two decades, though, the activity has also become a body-positive form of fitness that requires the same strength, agility and creativity exhibited by dancers performing tricks and feats in strip clubs while sliding up and down a stainless steel pole just shy of two-inches in diameter.
“It’s a full body workout whether you’re doing more of the sexy style or the tricks elements,” said Bond. “People see the beautiful technique but it requires an incredible amount of strength. People don’t realize it because it’s so fluid and the dancer makes it look so easy.”
Dance styles vary from region to region and dancer to dancer, as well as their motivations for learning pole.
Marie, the co-owner of Flux, had early training in ballet. So when she approaches the pole, she treats it as a partner.
“I dance around the base of the pole and rarely go up and if I do, it’s pretty simple,” she said. “For other people it might be more about strength training and tricks and going upside down.”
Some women who have been drawn to pole dancing say it can act as a way to safely explore their own sensuality, sexuality and be part of a community. Their motivation should come from within, Bond said.
“I would prefer that people come to pole dancing on their own volition and not fulfill some kind of fantasy their partner might have,” Bond said.
“Everybody has their own reason for doing it and what they want to get from the dance,” Marie said. “Everybody has their own pole journey.”
Unlike many forms of dance, especially ballet, which favor long and lean bodies, pole dancing “isn’t saddled by that kind of baggage,” Bond said. “You’ll see all different body types here,” along with various ages and genders.
One of Bond’s private clients, Stacy Desjardins, 55, of Santa Rosa, saw Bond in Strip Down, Rise Up. A month later she was taking private lessons with Bond.
During a Friday afternoon lesson in an otherwise empty 1,500-square-foot mirrored studio, Desjardins, wearing the shorts and midriff of dancewear, was practicing the handspring, an upside down Russian split. Bond spotted her. Desjardins has been working on the move since May.
“It is empowering and I wanted to build strength,” she said, of what drew her to pole. “I love the community, empowerment and strength, in that order.”
“They’re all intertwined,” Bond added. “You couldn’t be doing these things without the support of the community.”
From strip club to Super Bowl
According to some online sources, pole dancing’s origins are in the ancient Indian sport of mallakhamb, in which aerial yoga and gymnastic postures are performed using a pole.
Bond, however, debates such origins. She said that was part of a PR campaign to distance pole dancing from its stripper past once the activity became popular as fitness.
“Pole dancing originated in strip clubs,” she said with emphasis.
For a more accurate history of pole dancing, Bond recommends books by Antonia Crane and Lily Burana, who have both worked as strippers. In 2016, a viral debate ensued after one dancer created the hashtag #notastripper to distance herself from pole dancers in strip clubs, which was followed by #yesastripper, a pushback from strippers. The Netflix documentary also raised complaints from strippers about how their contributions — and interviews — were left out.
Bond told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t think strippers were intentionally left out, but that the film had a different focus. She added that the larger issue was the erasure and stigmatization of the stripper in society.
“This is largely a result of society stigmatizing stripping and sex work,” she told BuzzFeed. “As a former sex worker [she has worked as a porn actor], I can attest that it is a heavy burden to carry.”
According to Kerry Griffiths’ Femininity, Feminism and Recreational Pole Dancing, the so-called “hoochie coochie dancers” of traveling shows began gyrating on wooden poles in the 1920s to attract crowds. By the 1980s and ’90s, considered the heyday of the U.S. strip clubs, pole dancing had become the featured entertainment. Since then, strip clubs have slid down in terms of popularity while pole dancing has climbed.
According to the group United Pole Artists, pole dancing studios in the U.S. tripled between 2008 and 2013. Popularizers over the years have included Martha Stewart, who took a lesson on her show in 2010, and J. Lo who, after Hustlers, went on to pole dance at the 2020 Super Bowl. Pole dancing has also been featured on Desperate Housewives, The View and music videos by Rihanna and more recently, FKA Twigs and Lil Nas X.
‘A pole dance studio in every city’
Berkeley Pole & Dance started out in 2011 as Phoenix Aerial Art and Pole, founded by the late Hana Granados, herself a dancer.
Bond, an attorney who once worked in tech, bought the studio from the second owner, Kirsten Brown, in 2020. By then Bond had already snapped up a San Francisco studio in 2016 and an Oakland studio in 2018, renaming them with the Pole and Dance moniker. A Portland studio followed last year.
“I want to be the Soul Cycle of pole dancing and have a pole dance studio in every major city in America,” said Bond. “I want to create a space that makes people feel like they’re coming to dance with their friends, they’re coming to play.”
Gerding, who has a background in ballet and musical theater, has been a fixture on the Berkeley pole dancing scene for more than 15 years, taking her first classes at Crunch in San Francisco. Marie discovered pole dancing at Phoenix Aerial Art and Pole, learning from Granados when she was in her 60s. The two also worked as teachers there.
“Audience members would come up to us and say, ‘Where can we learn from you?’” Marie said. “We needed a home. Since our passion is performance, we needed a stage as well.”
After putting in about $300,000 of improvements, the owners got their stage, along with seating for up to 197, a lounge and the sprung hardwood floors of dance studios. The company has seven permanent members and a large rotating cast because, Marie said, “there are so many incredibly talented dancers in the bay.”