With years of pop culture imagery and sex industry stereotypes firmly imprinted on our brains, it might be difficult to convince people that pole dancing is now officially recognized as a form of exercise.
The activity even has its own accredited organization, the International Pole Dance Fitness Association. Historically, the sport can be traced back to an acrobatic dance from 12th-century China, which can still be seen today in Chinese circus acts and world-famous performance troupes like Cirque Du Soleil.
Today, pole fitness is considered an excellent strength training exercise, especially for the upper body. It improves flexibility, endurance and muscle definition — though all of this could be falling on deaf ears, as most of you are probably still thinking about strippers.
Feminists and conservatives in Egypt will likely have a field day with the sport, especially considering that the first pole fitness class in Cairo started two days after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy was declared president. You can imagine the headlines: “Oppressed Egyptian women liberate themselves by stripping.”
But here are the facts: This is not about stripping or seduction. First of all, the class is for women only. Secondly, everyone keeps their clothing on, which is basic workout gear.
Thirdly, the class is held in Fibers Club, a spacious and very well-equipped fitness center on the outskirts of Maadi, where a corner of a workout studio holds two steel poles as well as monkey bars and ropes used for other classes.
Fibers Club targets a niche audience, and the introductory session consisted almost entirely of Egyptians, including one veiled woman who was thoroughly enjoying the course. The course is called “pole fitness,” not dance. “We don’t want to market the program as a dance class, but rather as a comprehensive exercise program,” says Nirvana Zaher, Fibers’ director of fitness and training development and the course’s assistant instructor.
To Zaher, the dance moves and pole techniques are acrobatic, almost like a circus act, and devoid of any sexual connotations. Pole fitness classes have been trendy for several years now in Europe and the Americas — the trend there has since moved on to burlesque classes, among other things.
That being said, the course’s instructor asked to remain anonymous for this article. Despite her accreditation, and conviction that the exercise is “empowering, fun and excellent strength training,” she has had difficulty convincing her family of that.
Nonetheless, the Fibers team is confident that the class will attract a small crowd of like-minded exercisers who won’t be perturbed or intimidated.
For the first few minutes of the class, everyone looks intimidated and a little awkward, especially when Zaher spins around the pole at nauseatingly high speed and when the instructor suggests little, suggestive dance moves to make the overall performance more fun and, yes, sexy.
But within minutes, everyone has loosened up and is cheering on as one by one, the women take turns at the pole. Three basic moves are taught: the inward foot hook, the pirouette and the backward knee hook.
You’re instructed to walk on tiptoe in the absence of the necessary high heels, and to sashay as you walk, either dragging your pointed foot along the floor for emphasis or raising your knee while pointing your toe to work your hamstring and quads. You hold onto the top of the pole with one hand and use the arm to work your way into the next move.
The sequences feel more like a dance routine than workout steps, and the graceful, seductive moves don’t hurt either.
If this is your first time at the pole, your moves may not be quite as graceful and sensual as the instructor has demonstrated, and you may feel like an idiot after stumbling or failing to spin or landing on your butt. But it is irresistibly fun, especially in the company of laughing, easygoing women who are eager to learn and shed any shyness or apprehension.
Although the class lasts just one hour, your upper body muscles will be aching from the unexpected cardio workout and emphasis on your arm, shoulder and back muscles. When you do get to spin around the pole — no matter how awkwardly — you’ll get the same exhilarating sensation that you have when you’re on a swing or doing a headstand.
Pole fitness is quite challenging and requires commitment and flexibility, but the result is a fun exercise that is strangely empowering, despite a few bruises.
Fibers Gym; 1 Maadi Zahraa, above Dominos Pizza. Contact Nirvana Zaher at email@example.com for more information.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.