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A local exercise studio uses stripper poles to increase women's fitness—and confidence

I'm standing in front of a tall, shiny object that has a power all its own. Men are titillated by it; women are curious about it; just about everyone raises an eyebrow when its name is spoken.

I'm standing in front of a stripper pole.

The words alone may conjure up images of seedy nightclubs and scantily-clad women, their legs flying through the air as dollar bills crinkle.

Reality check: Pole dancing is now a form of exercise practiced by women of all ages, sizes and professions. Supporters are fighting for it to be a recognized sport in the Olympics. And local women have been learning how to pole dance for almost two years.

Jessica McCain opened Tucson Pole Fitness on Grant Road in November 2008. She opened a second location, off Tanque Verde Road, earlier this month, and is looking to open a third location on the northwest side. An artist by trade, McCain started her business because the economy downturn affected the profitability of art.

After attending a pole-fitness class in Phoenix, McCain was intrigued. She installed a pole in her home and went to California for training. She thought opening a Tucson studio would be a good idea. "I thought it would work, and I was right. They really love it," she says.

McCain reports that pole-fitness students run the gamut, from teenagers to 60-year-olds. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses and moms have taken a swing at pole fitness and have come back for more.

As a newbie, a woman is first taught how to grasp the pole—made of either stainless steel or brass, either 8 or 10 feet high—walk around it and eventually do a "trick," like the "Fireman." (Picture a firefighter sliding down a pole.) Techniques progress to intermediate moves like "The Crucifix," where you hang upside down with arms extended out, as if hanging from a cross. Advanced moves include "The Swan" and "Brass Monkey."

McCain explains that "pole fitness is using the pole as a way to strengthen your body and stay fit. ... It's basically gymnastics on a vertical pole. Instead of weights in a gym, you are using your own body weight. ... When you take the tricks and spins and put them together in a routine, that's pole dancing."

As I watch instructor Kat Muto demonstrate various moves, it becomes apparent that pole fitness requires strength, stamina and flexibility. McCain says a common remark from new students is, "It's way harder than I thought it would be!"

"There's always an element of difficulty, because it is lifting your body weight," she says. "But we start people at their level. We give them things they can do. They don't need to feel like they can't do it."

Muto says that her job is gratifying. "It's very rewarding to share empowerment, self-confidence and the level of fitness. I've seen women come in hunched over, saying, 'I don't think I can do that.' By the end of the class, their shoulders are back; they've spun on a pole and feel so powerful. When they touch the ceiling for the first time, they say, 'I did it!' and slap the ceiling. It's like they just ran a marathon."

McCain says a common reason that women take pole-fitness classes is to get into shape. "Our goal is not to just teach you fancy tricks. Our goal is to help you lose weight and get fit. Along the way, you learn new things."

Adventuresome women can also learn how to do a lap dance and striptease; lessons are offered once a month. McCain says she doesn't see many exotic dancers in her classes. Instead, students are usually ordinary women who want to entertain significant others. McCain also holds bachelorette and birthday parties at her studios.

The misconception is that pole dancing is something tawdry, and McCain wants to help inform others. "I want to make the fear go away. It's not sleazy. It's not some hidden element behind closed doors. I want people to stop being so afraid. I want them to know what it is." To this end, she includes a video on her website, www.tucsonpolefitness.com.

As I watch McCain and Muto, I am reminded of the elegance of silk dancing. Clothed in shorts and tank tops, the women move with beauty and grace, femininity and strength. With the added bonuses of increased confidence and killer abs, their pole-fitness classes can bring results—and maybe raise an eyebrow or two.

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