This is the fabulous Veena in one of her poses
The last thing that most men want to hear from their wives is that they would like to go dancing with them. Fully aware of my husband’s aversion to dance, I nevertheless asked him to join me for swing dancing lessons a few years ago. There was the initial frown, as if I had spoken in a foreign language, and he could not understand; after repeating myself one more time, he shrugged his shoulders, scratched his head but surprisingly, he joined me. I’m not sure whether it was plain ignorance or his way of punishing me, but he always wore his Timberlands to our dance lessons—it made his hitch-kick quite cumbersome and painful to watch, but most of all it was uncomfortable for my poor shins. After realizing that he would not only be dancing with me, because the routine was such that we were made to switch partners all the time, he quit and that was the last time we ever danced together. No need for tissues, the way that my husband dances I’d rather dance alone any time.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I mentioned to my husband that I was going for a pole dancing lesson. This time there was no shrugging of shoulders, or wincing, or negative comments under his breath, but he certainly showed indifference to my announcement. How surprised I was, the day of my lesson, to read about it on Facebook; in fact it was the first time in years that he posted something about me—proof that he actually heard me. Usually his comments are reserved for technological updates; photos of his beloved computer; new water cooling system; mother board, or video card etc. The guys on his forums salivate at these types of posts in the same way that other guys salivate at a photo of a naked woman, I imagine. So by mentioning me, he did the typical man thing by boasting about his “wife’s first pole dancing lesson,” either because he wanted to tease his friends about it or because he was excited about the prospect of his own wife learning something that, at the end of the day, will benefit him as well.
How this came about in the first place is pure coincidence; I happened to bump into the owner of StudioVeena.Com at my sister’s neighborhood. Thank goodness for my big mouth and inquisitive nature; I have learned that limiting yourself to a cursory “hi” or ignoring people completely, will ultimately narrow down your experiences. Veena, together with her four sons became an instant draw in the way that she had displayed such calm while her sons ran all over the place. I also had the pleasure of meeting her husband, and when we introduced ourselves and our occupations, I was not expecting to hear that Veena was a pole dancing instructor. After eight years of living in Vegas one would think that I should have met at least one other pole dancer, but Veena, originally from Minnesota, was the first one for me. A quick glance at her perfectly sculpted body and one could immediately surmise that this woman was born to dance. I learned that Veena and her husband owned the most successful pole dancing site in the world!
I needed to know why Veena chose to pole dance, after all, when one thinks of dance and exercise it’s not the first thing that comes to mind; there are plenty of other outlets. Veena had been a personal trainer for a number of years until one day discovering pole dancing through images that she saw online. Intrigued, she practiced pole movements by studying those images, and what she discovered was a beautiful art form to further express herself. Later on, she watched a few YouTube videos where, for the first time, she was able to see the full extent of some of those movements. It became a sort of obsession, and within a few months she felt confident enough to post her own YouTube videos online, as well as develop a crowd of followers. At this point Veena had stopped exercising at the gym; she found that pole dancing provided her with all the aerobic and strength exercises that her body required in order to keep fit. She explained that pole dance and exercise burns calories and builds strength, muscle, and tone. It involves elements of both dance and gymnastics—combining cardio and resistance training, and working all of the core muscle groups that ultimately provide you with a thorough workout, even though you’re busy enjoying yourself and feeling extremely sexy as a result of it.
Feeling very motivated by her new passion, she decided to become a pole dance instructor; she rented a space at the performing Arts Center in Minnesota, and the very week she planned to take over the space and pursue her new career, everything came to a sudden halt. A few unexpected events happened to take place all at once: her husband lost his job, and naturally, they panicked over how to pay their mortgage, and as the tension built. Veena discovered one more thing—that she was also pregnant with her fourth child. With no other options at hand, she set her plans aside, but once her husband secured a new job, unfortunately having to move out of state without the family, Veena conceived an idea that would change their lives for good. She had already developed her unique brand of lessons, so the idea of developing a site dedicated to online classes was a natural progression of all her hard work, this way allowing her to fulfill her dreams after all. It helps when your husband is a technological wiz who can write code, because this is how the two were able to collaborate and develop a very elaborate website where Veena was able to offer pole dancing lessons, as well as a forum for people who wanted to chat and communicate about their pole dancing experiences. Theirs, became the only site to enable its members to post their own videos online. Their partnership was the genesis of www.StudioVeena.Com.
I was fascinated by Veena and her husband but, not one to hold any prejudices, I was still well aware of the fact that pole dancing was relegated to exotic dancing, something that would automatically steer many people away from it. When I logged onto their site for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find women of all ages, some in their 60s, who blogged and posted discussions touching upon a whole range of topics, but mostly I found a close-knit community of people who loved to share their pole experiences, and they did so with a very positive outlook. This site was a pure revelation to me, I had no clue whatsoever that this type of activity ever existed outside of strip joints. Now that my interest had peaked I needed to know a little bit more about the phenomenon. The notion of lascivious dance and performance is nothing new, but neither is the strict moral code that we (in the West) all adhered to not so long ago. What’s interesting, is the way in which certain customs had slowly traversed across to become part of our mainstream culture, the pushing of boundaries on all fronts was a necessary step in our cultural-evolution. Just imagine if customs had never changed since the Victorian era, for instance, in that case women would still be chaperoned when outside of their home, and their only opportunity for socializing with the opposite sex would be limited to dances where you’d still find strict rules of conduct hindering one’s contact with the opposite sex.
No matter how strict the rules, the truth is that burlesque acts in America and England provided the working class with a much needed outlet. The very first acts appeared on the scene in order to make fun of the upper class—mimicking operas, plays, and social behavior of the times. There was no serious play that did not become a target in burlesque performances. Eventually, another element was added to the show: the immodestly dressed woman was a shocker, but a sensation that plenty of men and women seemed to enjoy. In a society that went out of its way to hide the female form, losing the hoops and wearing tights was a very big dare that amused audiences everywhere. A few sexually stimulating shows made their mark at the time like The Black Crook—regarded by some as the very first musical, followed by Ixion—a show written and produced by a woman, no less—unheard of—and featuring peroxide blondes parading on stage in flesh colored tights. The press adored these shows, but quickly turned against them and labeled them indecent, because of pressure from prudish moralists. History has proven that scrutiny is never enough to put an end to a little bit of harmless fun; if anything, the newspapers’ criticisms prompted people to see for themselves what all the hoopla had been about. In those days there was always a big name featured in every show; Mabel Saintley is known as the first burlesque star in the days when a legitimate tease, with nothing vulgar taking place on stage, was all the rage.
Early cancan dancer at the Moulin Rouge.
When watching the film Moulin Rouge—a visually stunning treat featuring Nicole Kidman as sultry Satine and Ewan McGregor as the love-struck writer who falls in love with a courtesan—the film also featured a bevy of colorful cancan dancers. I was so taken by the film, loving every aspect of its explosive style and the glamorized characters of the “underworld.” Pole dancing may have some of its roots in cancan, initially performed by men in the 1830s in Paris, only later on becoming a choreographed spectacle performed on stage by women. Its name in French suggested “scandal,” indeed it was a dance that many had considered scandalous and immoral, because the dancers would kick their legs high enough for all to see their bare legs, just above their stockings, all the way up to their frilly panties. But it didn’t seem to bother Toulouse Lautrec, who memorialized his fascination with cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge in his famous paintings. The cancan dancers’ costume had also changed over the years, losing some of those cumbersome layers in favor of fishnet stockings and high heels.
Little Egypt, Chicago World Fair 1983.
In America, during Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893 people experienced many firsts: there was the Ferris wheel, hamburgers, Hershey’s chocolate, and Juicy Fruit gum among other things. And the main attraction of course was “Little Egypt,” a woman who performed a provocative dance with elements of belly dancing in it—hence the name “Little Egypt.” Soon enough other performers across the country adopted this provocative dance style. Boundaries were slowly pushed even farther with the emergence of burlesque producer Billy Minsky and the genius publicity stunts that he orchestrated before a new act. When Gypsy Rose Lee appeared at Minsky’s, the audience couldn’t wait to see her extraordinary outfits and experience her quick wit—the tease was on. They fell hard under her spell, completely enchanted, and when she made her exit from stage she would show a little bit of her hip bone or a quick flash of her breast. Today, if one thinks of cancan, it’s regarded as nothing more than an entertaining old-fashioned Parisian dance, devoid of all the negative connotations that used to be attached to it, the same with burlesque stars from the past. But that’s just it, the very things that we perceive as silly and innocent these days, were very much revolutionary and sometimes condemned in the past.
Early pole dancers.
The favorable reception of pole dancing into our mainstream culture is fairly new. I think it’s still in its infancy or transitional period, as there are still those who perceive it as a controversial dance form that should be left in the confines of strip joints, instead of living rooms of everyday moms and grannies. As a lover of all art forms, I had an instant appreciation for this dance, regardless, the sensuous part to be expected as in most performance art. After all, aren’t most dances erotic and carnal in nature—the thrusting of a leg against another, and entwining one’s body around other bodies—it’s all there, albeit performed in different styles of dance. And what of the tight-fitting ballet costumes that both men and women customarily wear in this highly regarded art form that leaves nothing for the imagination, and if anything, it serves to stir one’s imagination.
I didn’t find that members on Veena’s site concerned themselves so much with the reputation that pole dancing might conjure in some people’s minds, there’s no need for it when you are part of a community who loves pole. But people often end up on opposite sides concerning the fine line between art (of any kind) and scandal. Thankfully, we live in a country where our basic rights include the right to freely express oneself, and it’s been proven time and time again that it’s hard to estimate the social value of anything that we do, specifically because those values have changed so often. But cultural stigmas do exist, and have been attached to certain things such as nudity and dating etc., as early as the Bible. Larissa Bonfante in her article “The Naked Greek” says that, “In the Bible, nudity was a mark of poverty, slavery, and defeat,” and in art from Classical Greece, naked women represented prostitutes. Even if you’re not religious, the story of Creation and the need for Adam and Eve to clothe themselves after they had sinned is a message that’s been repeated for generations and viewed by the religious community as a way in which clothing one’s body is designed to cover up their sins etc. Our culture is heavily influenced by these early ideas. Bonfante says that in Ancient Greece the view was different, and athletes competing in the Olympics appeared naked; nudity symbolized heroism, and artists were inspired to paint and sculpt those precise images. Nudity has earned itself an honorary role among artists and art lovers for centuries. If that were not the case, then landmark museums across the world would not have housed any of this art and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan, or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo’s David, would have disappeared from our conscious. What about the Kama-Sutra, written in the third century AD, or “The Song of Songs” from the Bible describing a man’s love for his bride? Both very explicit in their descriptions and yet accepted in our culture.
I wonder whether people would change their minds about Dolly Parton, if they knew that her looks were a direct result of her attempts to mimic prostitutes. They were the very women whose looks impressed her as a child, so much so that presently she still puts on exaggerated wigs and formfitting clothes. What about the very sexually charged image of Marilyn Monroe and many other actresses whose portrayal of sultry characters on screen had made them into legends—does anyone regard them as morally corrupt for taking on such sexy roles? Then there’s the high fashion world where scantily clad women parade the runways of the world, while highly respected individuals customarily take front-row seats to observe the new fashion trends. I can go on and on with this example and highlight the hypocrisy of it all.
American children and pole dancing, 1930s.
After expounding on the multi-layered question of social acceptance, the next question on my mind was how did pole become tied in with dance? Many sources mentioned the 12 century as a concrete time period where there was ample evidence of the use of a wooden pole for exercise and dance. There were myths and biblical stories connected to the use of a pole, but for the most part it was men who utilized the pole for the purpose of exhibiting their strength. There were Chinese pole acts, and mallakhamb. The name mallakhamb translates to “wrestler’s pole,” an Indian fitness regimen which had been adopted early on for wrestlers, because it was considered the ultimate training method for gaining strength as well as a perfect physique. This form of exercise is still practiced today. In Medieval times, the women’s use of the pole is easily traced back to the maypole dances, there’s plenty of artwork that shows streams of ribbon plaited around very tall wooden poles, set in the middle of a village. Maypole dancing had developed as part of an older pagan summer tradition originally thought to have been practiced by the Romans to ensure fertility. In the maypole dance, the youngest girls danced in the inner circle of the pole, older ones on the outside, and as they danced the ribbons would become entwined and plaited around the pole.
It was only a matter of time before a hybrid dance, incorporating elements of burlesque and pole would someday emerge. During the Great Depression when traveling fairs made their rounds across the country, Hoochie Coochie dancers, known for their titillating, naughty moves drew much attention from the men. It is thought that in those very tents, where a pole was set right in the center to hold up the entire structure—the dancers had somehow incorporated its use as part of their act—either by accident or planned choreography, nobody knows. Dance steps were not recorded and thus very hard to recreate; it’s the reason that today there are very few of the old classical ballets. In any event, I doubt that anything that the Hoochie Coochie dancers performed was in any way representative of today’s pole dancing. But still, one can see how this may have been the precursor to the striptease type dances that would soon follow.
In the 1950s, striptease had become commonplace in clubs across the US and Canada. What I find interesting is that during the same era, television shows such as “I love Lucy” depicted American married couples sleeping in separate beds; the word “pregnant” was not mentioned either and Elvis Presley’s energetic pelvic moves were deemed blatantly sexual by CBS censors, therefore they did not show his entire body only from the waist up. Later on in “I dream of Jeanie,” NBC would not allow actress Barbara Eden to show her navel in her genie outfit. I wonder whether this was a decision depicting the mood and vibe of the times or should it purely be relegated to the networks’ personal decision-making-policies. Perhaps it was a little bit of both. But our rebellious nature had overpowered any censorship, proving that a once taboo decision could change, and equally, an illicit pastime could reinvent itself again—ultimately becoming more acceptable by society. This sort of attitude helped usher in dancers such as Belle Jangles who happened to perform the first recorded pole dance in 1968 at a strip joint in Oregon. A few years later in the 80s pole dance became very popular in clubs and bars all across the US and Canada; Fawnia Mondey was known as the first woman to teach pole dancing.
Demi Moore dancing pole in the movie Striptease.
Demi Moore in her role as a stripper in the movie “Striptease” in 1996, brought renewed attention to pole dancing by talking about it and demonstrating a few of her moves on late-night talk shows. It seems that in the mid 90s it achieved another big leap forward by becoming the dance that many housewives began to experiment with as they explored other ways to rediscover their sensual side. Perhaps their interest was influenced by virtue of its risqué reputation. At the end of the day, they saw pole for what it really was: a highly sensuous dance form that they were more than happy to engage in, but it also provided them with an opportunity to work out and keep fit, without the need to perform in heavily masculine sports.
It’s my understanding that these days pole dancing is split into two different groups of followers: one group stays true to its pole dancing roots, and enjoys the sensual aspects of it without having to apologize for it. The other group wants to remove itself from those very roots and prefers to emphasize the unique physical benefits of working out with a pole, and there is not so much emphasis on the dance. To each his own, but it’s awfully silly to hide behind any sort of excuse because it really doesn’t matter how pole started and whether it’s used in strip joints or not. Not long ago, other dances such as the tango, rumba, and samba, to name a few, were deemed just as scandalous, yet those make up for today’s lineup at any ballroom dance event. Moreover, the fact is that women all over the world have found pole dancing quite empowering, otherwise how does one explain its widespread success? And with the help of people such as Veena they don’t have to leave the comfort of their own home, choosing to either workout or dance in private, either with their clothes on or without, who cares.
I had tried so many other workouts in the past, so why not one more? And this is how I ended up at Veena’s place for a one-on-one lesson. She opened the front door with a clean, fresh smile; her little three-year-old attached to her leg and eager to show me his firefighter hat. Soon enough we began the session with a thorough warm up, then we approached the pole. I never experienced pole dance beforehand, only briefly in a movie or such, but standing there in front of it, I suddenly felt quite intimidated. But with Veena as my instructor, and the way she approached the pole with such grace and elegance—reminding me of a swan—the fear dissolved instantly. I wasn’t great, but I did okay for my first try. I could see the appeal and all the allure whether you are interested in this purely from an athletic perspective or from a dancer’s perspective. It is a sexy way to lose weight for sure. Veena swooshed through the air effortlessly, wrapping her legs around the pole and circling to the ground like a fallen leaf in a windstorm; it was a beautiful workout from that perspective alone. Whether or not I will ever have a body like Veena’s is neither here nor there but I have found another way to keep fit, and in the process I met a very nice woman who does a lot of good for many women around the world. She gives them confidence and the ability to make their dream of a better body and better movement come true. Her lessons are placed in a specific order and structure; members can easily get hold of her, and she responds right away.
Both Veena and her husband express surprise by their level of success, it’s practically surreal; they could have never dreamed that their little idea would branch out and become a worldwide phenomenon. When I left their home I felt rejuvenated, and although Veena had tired me out completely, I felt more poised than before, and lighter in every step I took towards my car. I became an instant fan. When I returned home, my husband wanted to see what I had learned, a little difficult without the pole, but nevertheless, I asked him to wait for a minute so that I could better prepare myself. I returned to the room wearing my Timberland hiking shoes, and he looked confused: Going hiking or pole dancing? he asked. It took him a second, but he finally understood.
Veena’s website – www.StudioVeena.Com
My new release A Cookbook for the Woman Who hates Cooking will be out in June!