SCRANTON, Pennsylvania — People hear the words "pole dance" and tend to envision women performing acrobatic feats in the altogether in darkly lit strip clubs.
But in recent years, the pole dance concept has been turned on its head, so to speak, converted into a legitimate fitness routine spawning countless Internet videos, a competitive circuit and celebrity practitioners like Eva Longoria, Cindy Crawford and Kate Hudson.
It took some time, but the craze has finally made its way to Northeast Pennsylvania.
Six months ago, Exeter resident Lucy Howard opened Pole Dance Fitness, a Scranton studio devoted entirely to the exercise routine.
The female-only studio has classes throughout the week, broken up into five levels of expertise.
The concept seems to be catching on. About 300 women are on Ms. Howard's mailing list. Of those, around 50 could be considered regulars, she said.
"I'm excited," said Ms. Howard, 31, a certified pole dance fitness instructor who also teaches yoga and pilates at local studios. "Now, there is a pole community that has grown from this space. And it's a really positive community of women that really care about each other, support one another and encourage each other through challenges."
WORKS EVERY MUSCLE
Practitioners of pole dance fitness perform dozens of different types of spins, climbing movements, inversions, holds and poses inspired by gymnastics, acrobatics, various forms of dance and resistance training. It works every muscle of the body while building balance, agility and core strength.
"It's great for toning, but it kind of tones you up and sculpts you in a different way," Ms. Howard said. "With this, you still stay curvy. It's very feminine."
Ms. Howard was first introduced to pole dance fitness about 10 years ago in her native London. Having been a longtime gymnast, she took easily to the concept.
She also found it more creatively liberating than the types of dance she had studied, like ballet.
"Out of everything that I have tried and experimented with, pole was the one thing I stuck with," she said. "I just loved it. I loved how it made me feel. There was always a new challenge. There's always something new to learn. I felt strong. I felt flexible."
"Certain tricks on the pole you have to learn. But the dance element is very free," she continued. "We're encouraged to explore ourselves and move in a way that's comfortable but not necessarily structured."
Upon moving to NEPA two years ago, Ms. Howard started teaching yoga at Balance Yoga and Wellness in Forty Fort. There, she initiated her first pole dance fitness classes.
Among her first students was Throop resident Rebecca Piekanski. She was a basketball and field hockey player in high school, so pole dance appealed to her athletic side.
"But it's a whole different kind of athletic. It's creative, it's fun. It's addicting," said Ms. Piekanski, 27. "And Lucy pushes you. Every time I say I can't do it, she says, 'Yes, you can.'
"You just really feel better about yourself. You get all this confidence when you leave here."
The classes grew until it got to the point that Ms. Howard realized she needed to open her own space.
Word of mouth has been good, but Ms. Howard acknowledged there is a bit of a stigma attached to pole dance.
"You think, 'Oh, well, this is stripper school.' And it's understandable," she said.
Even when women get over that misconception, many still find the concept intimidating, that perhaps they're not strong enough for it, or too heavy. But Ms. Howard's students vary widely in skill and body type.
Having never considered herself very athletic, Shavertown resident Alex Laver, 27, was nervous before taking her first class in July. But she was hooked from the get go.
"Now, if I miss a class, I feel my week is lost," she said.
"I always say, 'Don't knock it until you try it,'" Ms. Howard said. "Even (in) people who come once a week, I see huge strength gains. And I don't teach anyone anything they're not physically ready to do."
In addition to her classes, Ms. Howard hosts private "pole parties" at the studio for groups of women. She and some students recently put on a Halloween recital that was open to the public. And she's about to start "high heels nights" for advanced students.
She marvels at the sense of camaraderie that's built up around the studio in such a short period of time.
"I love all the people who come to class," she said. "You come here and you have fun and you listen to uplifting music, and you laugh and giggle, and you learn a skill, and you leave and feel really good about yourself."
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/