Women in masks and compression shorts watched me as I took off my jacket and kicked off my shoes on the second floor of the Butch Hiles Brazilian Jujitsu gym in Charleston.
“Are you Bill?” Maggie Wright asked cheerfully.
Maggie owns and runs Vertical Vixens in Clarksburg, a fitness studio specializing in pole dancing. She’d come to the Butch Hiles gym to teach a workshop. It was her fourth or fifth trip to Charleston to run a class.
Dressed in a dark sweatshirt and bright blue booty shorts, Maggie was petite and lean but very fit — a little intimidating.
“Who else would I be?” I replied wearily.
She laughed then waved me past four polished chrome poles bolted to the floor and ceiling. On the other side were the 20 women who’d signed up for the class, some of whom seemed reasonably suspicious of the ape in the comic book basketball jersey.
That was fair.
In West Virginia, there have been more credible sightings of Big Foot or the Mothman than of men pole dancing.
I know. I asked around.
Yet, I kept reading online articles about how more and more men were incorporating pole dancing into their fitness programs.
It seemed unlikely but possible. Lots of things people do for exercise seem possible to me these days. I used to think me doing CrossFit was unlikely. I thought it was a cult, but then I started going.
Two years in, I’m almost certain it’s a cult, but I don’t get winded going up stairs anymore and I can do pull-ups.
This whole month started out as a way to get a few laughs. We’ve had a really long year and wouldn’t it be funny for a guy like me to go swinging ‘round a pole like a stripper? But then, several female friends legitimately wanted to know what a pole dancing class was like.
They were curious. They’d considered going.
A couple of men also told me they were intrigued, but that might’ve been the quarantine talking. None of them mentioned actually wanting to participate and none asked about signing up to go with me.
I tried to take it seriously and fretted a little too much about whether to shave pretty much every body part that might come in contact with a chrome surface.
I’d worried my natural, manly furriness would either make me extra slippery or would cause me to grip the pole in an unpleasant way.
Ultimately, I decided to split the difference and used clippers to shear myself like a poodle. Less was better, I figured. And this way, I wouldn’t itch like I’d been staked to the top of an anthill all the way until Christmas.
I took a seat on the mat, toward the back of the group, hoping to blend in — which was impossible.
The students came in all shapes, sizes and ages, but there were none like me. I had something extra.
I was the only one in the room with a beard.
Maggie began class with a quick introduction and then demonstrated a dance routine we’d learn over the next couple of hours.
“Does anyone know how to twerk?” she asked.
A couple of women tentatively raised their hands. I kept mine down, though I’d watched a tutorial. I hadn’t tried to twerk in front of a mirror, but I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to do it.
The lady on TikTok said it was all in your ankles.
Maggie went through the routine, which was kind of erotic and daunting. I describe it as choreographed writhing — sensual, exciting and terrifying.
Half the movements were completely alien and beyond my ability to meaningfully replicate without dislocating my hips or abdominal muscles.
I wasn’t the only one who thought that. We were all impressed, but this looked hard.
Maggie acknowledged that not everybody bends the same way, but warned us that if anyone announced they couldn’t do something they’d owe her push-ups. It was OK if you couldn’t do a particular move. The routine could be modified to fit ability, but you had to be willing to keep trying.
She didn’t want us to find an excuse to just quit.
After we’d been shown what to do, the class broke up into five groups to work through individual elements of the routine in stations. Stations changed every 10 minutes to give each group a chance to practice every part.
Maggie came around, answered questions, and corrected mistakes.
I was placed with Trina and Ariana. Trina had signed up for the class because she and her best friend liked to take little adventures together. This was one of them.
Ariana was here because she wanted a fitness activity that suited her.
“And if I ever get married again, there’s that, too,” she laughed.
Most everyone else seemed to be in the class for the same sort of reasons. Nobody was looking to break into the lucrative world of exotic dancing.
Through the stations we moved our legs like the hands of a clock and shook our butts awkwardly.
Each of us had our strengths. The others said I was pretty good at something referred to as a “body wave” and not bad at raising up from the floor to sitting from flat on my back.
But none of it was easy for me.
While attempting to do a kind of roll on the floor, which might have looked tempting if it had been someone else doing the movement, I kicked my right leg out a little too vigorously.
A jolt of pain shot through my calf and I grabbed for it, wincing.
Maggie and a couple of others looked alarmed, asked if I was OK.
“Fine,” I said. “I just need to dial it back a little.”
Meanwhile, the actual pole was a revelation.
First off, a dancer rotates with the pole. They don’t whip around it. The pole moves, which makes sense. If the poles were fixed, the thighs of dancers would catch fire from the friction.
All my grooming, by the way, turned out to be pointless. I had no trouble latching on or moving on the pole.
I clung to it like a cat on a high tree branch, hugged it with a death grip and got dizzy going around and around and around.
The pole easily held my weight and the weight of some others who might have had a few pounds on me.
Everybody had a ball, including me.
Finally, each of the little groups went up and put the routine we’d practiced together. Maggie called out the movements and we did our best.
It was good enough.
We clapped and shouted as every dancer took their turn, celebrating everyone for stepping outside their comfort zones and being cooler, stronger or sexier than they imagined.
At the end of the class, Maggie put on her somehow smaller pole dancing shorts and did a much longer, more intricate routine.
She moved with grace and strength, creating a spectacle that was jaw droppingly sensual, impressively athletic and a seeming defiance of the law of gravity.
I was impressed, at least. I think we all were.
Maggie explained she danced probably five or six days a week.
“My husband is a power lifter,” she said. “I get the gym. I’m a personal trainer, but I don’t like the gym. This,” Maggie explained, pointing to the pole, “is fun. This is me going to play.”
Exercise is best when it isn’t a chore. You stick with something if you just like doing it.