Plenty of people have mistaken Natalie Smith for a stripper.
Can’t blame them, really. It’s easy to see why someone might make that assumption when watching the dark-haired beauty slide down a stripper pole with complete control, her toned legs spread-eagle with the shiny silver pole between them and her pointed toes peeking out from open-toed, rhinestone-clad high heels at least five inches tall. She’s curvy in all the right places with a warm, approachable smile – lucrative characteristics for any stripper.
But Natalie Smith isn’t a stripper. Never has been.
The allure of the pole worked its magic on her not through a seedy strip club, but instead through the comforting glow of afternoon television. In 2003, Oprah featured pole-dancing exercise on her television show. Smith says she was carrying 50 extra pounds on her body (the effect of a boring job in an assembly building) and hated gyms, so pole dancing seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get back in shape.
It worked. She lost weight and built muscle. Eventually, in 2005, she and husband Brian opened Poleworx, a pole-dancing exercise/party company in Kansas City. Three months ago, the couple moved with their young son to Las Vegas and opened a branch, hoping to capitalize on the city’s reputation as a hotspot for bachelorette parties.
In promotional e-mails and on the web site, Poleworx explicitly notes that Smith has never been an exotic dancer. The message is subtle but clear: You will feel comfortable with Smith as your teacher because she is just like you and me. (Unless you happen to be a stripper, I guess.)
It’s a different philosophy than many other pole-dance studios that proudly tout their teachers’ former professions. It’s approachability, versus authenticity.
Lana Stewart was an exotic dancer for three years in Reno and Las Vegas before creating LearnPoleDance.com, where she books private lessons and group parties. The petite blonde has also recently hired at Stripper 101, a light-hearted course on stripping at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.
Her web site does not disclose whether she was or was not a former stripper. The decision to omit the information, Stewart says, was a thought-out one based on both personal reasons and business ones.
“It can be very polarizing,” she says. “I’m getting women in their 50s or 60s, mothers, mothers of brides, aunts coming in (for bachelorette parties). I’d rather not throw that (I’m a former exotic dancer) into a different generation’s face.”
Once they’re in the class and have warmed up to her, however, she makes no secret about her former occupation. Inevitably, people have questions. She’s happy to share stories or tips on good lap dances.
Stewart says it pisses her off when she hears teachers who were never exotic dancers talk down about the occupation. Though she hasn’t experienced such negativity from Las Vegas instructors, she says she did witness it firsthand in California during a certification course.
“(If you’re) so down on strippers, then why are you teaching pole? … The reason why pole dancing is so interesting is because where it came from,” Stewart says.
She calls those who judge strippers but teach pole dancing the “hall monitors of the industry” and says they tend to look like housewives doing pole tricks. She explains, “There’s a quality of movement that an exotic dancer has.”
Stewart concedes that many non-strippers teach great pole-dancing courses, but only if they’re skilled in teaching and have general dance/performance backgrounds – like Smith.
Or like Tracy Gray, cofounder of Aradia Fitness. Though she’s never been an exotic dancer, Gray has professionally performed non-nude pole dancing, as well as other forms of dance.
Her foray into pole dancing began as an observer in Vancouver, Canada, where stripteases are much different, often involving elaborate costumes and longer in time frame. “It was an activity people did before they went into clubs,” Gray explains. “I wanted to learn how but didn’t want to be a stripper because I was a banking manager.”
After breaking down and perfecting her pole tricks, she cofounded Aradia Fitness in 2004. Today, 21 locations exist in Canada. Due to the floundering economy, U.S. expansion has been much slower. One North Carolina branch is open. Their Las Vegas location is hosting private parties but has temporarily stopped studio classes, pending the opening of their Hard Rock casino location in January.
According to Gray, Aradia Fitness has trained more than 200 non-strippers and strippers to be certified instructors. She says she hasn’t seen too many noticeable differences between the two groups, except that non-strippers tend to stick with the classes more than strippers.
Apparently, once you get it, you get it, regardless of whether you ever did or will do it for money. That’s not such a hard concept to wrap your thoughts around.