The muffled sound of early 2000s hip hop pulses through the room, mingling with the shallow breathing of three women lifting and twirling their bodies around three of the six poles bolted in the middle of the floor. The room is dimly lit by a few colored LED lights fringing a wall-length mirror and the occasional shimmer of sunlight creeping through the midnight blue tulle thrown over the only window.
One of the women is Sara Broz. By day, she is an events coordinator at Sew Steady, a sewing and crafts company. By night, she is a pole dance instructor at Polemic Dance Studio in Springfield.
Broz’s body glistens as she hoists herself up the pole, her hip and belly piercings flashing in the skinny rays of sunlight and in the reflection of the mirror. Her blonde ponytail bounces as she arches her back and falls into an upside-down pike position, flexing her toes and stretching her arms outwards, away from the pole.
Pole dancing has long been associated with exotic dancing, strip clubs and the sex industry. But for the women at Polemic Dance Studio, pole dancing is much more than that. For them, pole is a sport, an art form and a powerful way to reclaim their sexuality by taking ownership over their bodies through movement.
The pole screeches: the sound of skin sliding down metal.
Broz extends her muscular legs into a full split, matching the pose of the feminine figure painted on the wall behind her.
“Starting out, the worst part is skin tolerance,” Broz says. “It doesn’t matter how strong you are. The more skin you have the better you stick to it.”
Pole dancing relies on skin contact to keep your body on the pole. So building up skin tolerance, where your skin becomes accustomed to the uncomfortable pinching and burning sensations of sliding and gripping onto the pole, is a crucial part of mastering pole dance.
Alongside the floral tattoos that paint her stomach and her thighs, Broz’s body is a battleground of multicolored bruises. The pole isn’t kind on the body, but Broz wears each bruise, each welt, each scar proudly. To her, they represent a new skill gained, a battle won.
For some of the instructors at Polemic Dance Studio, their battle scars are less visible.
Kathryn Glaspey, who goes by Pole Pixie Kat in the dance studio, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2019. MS is a debilitating disease where the immune system attacks the brain and the spinal cord.
“Before getting diagnosed, everything’s just completely scary,” Glaspey says. “Because you don’t know if you’re dying, or if everything is going to be fine. Once I was diagnosed, there was definitely a point where I had to separate myself from what I thought my life was going to be like.”
Life before her diagnosis was similar to Broz’s, a delicate balance of work and pole dance. Before her diagnosis Glaspey was working as a chemist at Willamette Valley Company, which makes synthetic paints, primers, sealers and adhesives for the wood products and other industries, while teaching classes at Polemic Studio as often as she could.
Glaspey, a self-proclaimed overachiever, graduated high school early at age 15 and went on to receive a dual degree in biochemistry and psychology from the University of Oregon.
Although she started dancing when she was 11, her involvement in dance diminished while she was at school.
And despite having two degrees, Glaspey struggled to find work in her field after graduating.
“I felt fairly desperate at the time,” Glaspey says. “I knew somebody who had gotten into dancing and I knew I could do that, too.” So Glaspey became a stripper.
Although Glaspey only worked in the industry for six months and was not keen on the job itself, pole dancing stuck with her. A few years later, she discovered Polemic Dance Studio.
Áine Inkk, who has been teaching pole dance for the last 16 years, started the studio in 2016. Inkk came up with the name for Polemic Dance Studio after recognizing the controversy both within and outside the pole dancing community. Inkk wanted to change that narrative, starting with the studio’s name.
“I came up with the name Polemic because half of the pole community wants pole to be about strippers and sensuality, while the other half wants it to be a sport and say, ‘We’re going to be in the Olympics’ and make it super clean,” Inkk says. “So I didn’t want this studio to be defined by either of those. Everybody should be able to practice pole for whatever reason they want.”
This concept, along with watching what the other instructors and students were doing in classes, drew Glaspey to the studio. “I went to a class and I fell in love immediately,” she says. “I not only loved the dancing and the pole, but the tricks are crazy. I never knew my body could do these things. I became obsessed.”
What Glaspey fell in love with was the freedom to express herself. For her, it felt separate from stripping. Instead of feeling like her body was being oversexualized for the benefit of the male gaze, she says dancing at Polemic gave her the opportunity to explore her own athleticism, while having the freedom to define what pole dancing meant to her.
“I think there is a big misconception that pole dancing is an art form about pleasing other people, which I don’t think is necessarily true of all pole dance,” Glaspey says. “I love the sexual side, and I think we should honor that and appreciate that. But we should also recognize that it doesn’t have to be a sexual endeavor, it can be more gymnastic.”
This sentiment is echoed by other instructors at Polemic.
“There is a lot of stigma around pole,” Poppy Wyld says, who has been teaching classes at Polemic for the last two years. “I think there are a lot of people that look down on pole dancers because they believe it’s dirty.”
For Wyld, the most important thing is that her students take away what pole dancing has given her: empowerment.
“Pole dancing symbolizes empowerment, confidence, capability and proof that anybody can do it as long as you put in the work and have that determination,” Wyld says. “My ultimate goal for everyone that comes in and takes my class is that I want them to leave amazed at what their bodies can do and feel empowered by what they did.”
For Glaspey, since being diagnosed with MS, her relationship with pole dancing has evolved. Although the physical aspect of pole is still important to her, she has made peace with her limitations. So instead of letting that stop her from dancing at all, she’s found a new way to appreciate pole dancing as a sport and an art form.
“Having MS made me feel more connected to the dance and less like a badass. Pole pushes you in a physical way to do things you never thought you could do with your body. And although that is amazing, sometimes it’s not great to always push yourself to your max,” she says. “I used to beat myself up about not being able to do a certain trick. So when I found out I had MS, it changed my relationship where I was able to finally give myself a little more of a break. I was able to focus on what I could do rather than on what I couldn’t.”
One thing that was instrumental for Glaspey in helping her come to terms with her diagnosis was the sense of community at Polemic Dance Studio.
“The women and sense of community here are really, really supportive,” she says. “For me, pole definitely connects me with feeling good about my body. Society puts so much pressure on women to be beautiful, to be sexual. And I don’t feel like I’ve ever really fit into that box, I’ve never stood out in that way. So dancing is a way for me to actually feel beautiful in a way that I don’t otherwise”.
For more information on Polemic Dance Studio, call 541-632-3550 or go to 519 Main Street, Springfield.