Jessica Gaus, PoleFly Aerial Fitness

Pole Positions

There’s a stigma surrounding pole dancing—as though it’s an inherently indecent act, performed only in dark, seedy rooms by clothes-shedding performers for the benefit of watchers waving bills.

Local fitness studio PoleFly proves otherwise. Its well-lit interior, much like a yoga studio thanks to hardwood flooring and some earthy decor elements, is regularly packed with dancers who are doing it for their own health and wellness.

Owner and instructor Jessica Gaus has heard new students enter the space and say, “Oh, ok. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be.” Gaus herself wasn’t exactly sure what to make of pole fitness five years ago, when she saw a friend check in online for a class. “It was a friend that I wouldn’t think would be doing pole,” she says. The friend invited Gaus to join her the next time. “It was something way out of my comfort zone. … I felt awkward and uncomfortable. But I kinda liked that.”

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Gaus found she enjoyed both the physical and the psychological challenges. She kept going back until she bought her own portable pole and “began training like crazy.”

Gaus is now teaching others how to fly, and not only on thin round pillars. PoleFly offers classes utilizing aerial hoops and silks—the latter are long chutes of fabric attached to the ceiling, with which students pull and coil their way into various positions—as well as “Fly Gym,” “a fusion of suspended athletic conditioning, aerial yoga poses, Pilates techniques and pole and aerial arts-inspired exercises.”

For those that aren’t too comfortable in the air, PoleFly also offers some grounded alternatives: Barre (a choreographed mix of Pilates, dance and yoga done with a ballet barre), Chair Dance and Contortion, which Gaus likens to a circus act in which you might “have that person who has their foot on their head and they’re twisted upside down on a table.”

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Considering the athletic nature of PoleFly, it comes as no surprise when Gaus says her classes are full of gymnasts and acrobats, as well as a high school senior who’s currently auditioning for the circus. Gaus stresses she also has plenty of normal folks, like spouses who want to entertain their partners with a little chair dance routine. And besides the occasional ladies’ night and bachelorette party, PoleFly has hosted CrossFit groups, Mpowerment Project—an HIV prevention program for young gay and bisexual men—a Yale class studying the history of dance and even a secret society.

There’s a debate as to where pole dancing originated. A more wholesome origin story credits 800-year-old traditions found in India and China—performed primarily by men and not meant to be particularly sexy. But modern pole fitness has a much more direct connection to exotic dancing in 20th-century America than centuries-old dancing in exotic lands.

Pole dancing guru Sheila Kelley, in her book The S Factor: Strip Workouts for Every Woman, traces the practice to Great Depression-era fairs, where “hoochie coochie” dancers would move suggestively around the thin middle structural columns of sideshow circus tents. By the 1980s, after poles had become staples of strip clubs, and as strippers traded moves while working together, a sort of canon developed. In the ’90s, the first pole dance fitness studios began to appear. Later, with the advent of video-sharing sites like YouTube, it became more popular than ever.

Today, pole dancing has become a legitimate discipline—a sport with regional, national and international competitions. As a result, the caliber of pole dancing in strip clubs has also risen, Gaus notes.

The stigma around the activity still remains, but before you laugh down its status as a sport or fitness program, give it a try. After a session of pole pirouettes, Russian splits or Chinese flag contortions, odds are you’ll walk away sore, winded and a fair bit humbled.

PoleFly Aerial Fitness
214 Wooster St, New Haven (map)
(203) 776-7653
Website | Class Schedule

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Image 1 depicts Jessica Gaus and image 2 depicts Lauren Popolizio.

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