Saved by the pole

How a device meant mainly for the stripper trade pulled one woman out of a miserable life

Photo: Justin M. Bowen
Pony Winterhart

Sometimes when we’re lost, we find ourselves in unexpected places. I guess it makes sense, because I’ve often heard that you only find what you’re looking for once you stop searching for it.

A few months ago, I was lost. My five-year relationship with my boyfriend was gradually disintegrating, an ugly process involving me being vaguely aware that something was wrong but talking myself out of an unpleasant reality because I’m just really good at that. We fought to the point of almost breaking up at regular intervals, punctuating a daily routine based on habit and our mutual ability to function with all our walls up.

And, seemingly unrelated, there was an invitation to an annual Las Vegas competition called Pole-a-palooza. “They’re not strippers,” I was assured several times by friends who were aware of my firm anti-strip club position. The event wasn’t even held in a strip club; it was at the Bank nightclub. I recall seeing the advertisement for a pole contest somewhere online and thinking that Vegas had hit an all-time low. However, I didn’t want to be the only prude in the bunch, so I went.

Pole-a-palooza, if you’re not familiar with it, is a sight to behold. The contenders are athletes, artists who possess strength and skill, who train seriously to achieve their level of performance. I had never seen anything like it. I remember the first girl to perform was not actually competing because she had won previously and wasn’t eligible or some such technicality. It was clear why they used her for an opening act. Jenyne Butterfly was sick, and I mean that in the best way possible. I leaned my head back to watch her, back pressed to the ceiling, arms spread wide with the pole held only between her thighs. She makes it look like there’s no gravity, I thought.

As someone who comes from a dance background but had never attempted anything so gymnastic, I had immense appreciation for this physical prowess. Somewhere over the course of the next few months, I noticed a sign for pole dancing lessons outside a tiny strip mall. It made me remember how, when I was back in the Midwest, my girlfriend Michele and I so badly wanted to try cardio striptease classes, but could never find one in our area. It sounded fun and edgy but safe, too. This seemed like the right place to reclaim that lost opportunity.

I attended my first pole class alone, without the camaraderie of girlfriends—all of whom were my boyfriend’s friends, and the increasing complications in our relationship were resulting in my gradual alienation from the pack. Life lesson learned the hard way: If you depend on someone else to give you a social life, when they leave, that lifeline will go with them. So, feeling a bit like a loser but determined to carve out my own identity, I took a pole dancing lesson. We learned first how to just walk around the pole, how to pole pirouette and do a fireman spin. I was encouraged by how fast I picked these moves up. It was fun. It felt right. I knew I would be back.

Pony Winterhart found inner peace on a pole.

When I informed my soon-to-be former friends of my adventures in pole dancing, their interest was piqued. Everyone agreed it sounded like a great workout, a fun and unique thing to try. I invited them to go with me, but despite their seeming interest, no one ever did. Pole dancing became something separate, an exotic and exciting realm that no one in my inner circle had experienced. In this way, it was distinctly mine.

I signed up for a membership at the pole dancing school and attended as many as six times a week. As the deteriorating state of my home life loomed larger and darker, it became increasingly difficult to ignore, even for a denial pro like myself. My boyfriend and I couldn’t speak without arguing, it seemed. Everything I did made him angry. I was consumed with jealousy watching him treat everyone else in his life better than he treated me. Between the unsightly emotional scenes taking place in my living room and the full-time serving job that I despised, my new hobby was the only thing that made me happy. After my typical night lying sleepless alone in bed while the one I loved, who no longer returned my feelings, slept in the next room, the only thing that really could have made me get up at all was knowing that I would feel better after a spin on the pole.

A big part of my feelings of well-being I attribute to Trixie. The school had several teachers who were fun sweet women, but Trixie stood out like the proverbial beacon in the storm. She was funny, irreverent and had a certain underlying grit to her personality that spoke of a woman who had seen a lot without letting it make her hard.

Also, Trixie had a gift for making us understand what we were doing. If I learned a new move in someone else’s class and couldn’t quite get it, I knew Trixie would be able to break it down for me. Her classes were often early in the day for a night owl like myself (especially an owl who cried or drank the night away with little to no sleep), but I gladly dragged myself out of bed for the happiness I felt learning under Trixie’s playful teaching style. By the end of class, armed with some new pole move I could be proud of, I would put on my cheesy ’80s hair metal and drive home happy. I felt like there was hope, that I could be my own individual, outside of my relationship. And I was working hard at pole dancing, doing pretty well, I thought. For a few hours out of each day, as my heart broke into smaller and smaller pieces with my ex’s increasing coldness, I didn’t want to just lay down and die.

Fast forward a few months, and I am living alone for the first time in years. It certainly hasn’t been easy; the breakup came and went but still haunts me daily, and the regular feelings of depression have eliminated my appetite. Everyone tells me I look great. (I joke that my diet and exercise regimen consists of vodka and pole dancing. There is plenty of truth to this joke.) But in my new apartment, which would be a very exciting thing if I had moved there by choice, I became the proud owner of a pole to call my very own—a Lil Mynx, purchased with help from Trixie and her husband. They even came to my place to install it for me. As selfless sources of knowledge in all things pole-related, they remind me of missionaries helping people incorporate Christianity into their lives. They are like pole missionaries.

I now work as a pole go-go dancer, thanks to one of the women at the dance school. Not only does it cut back my days as a server (hallelujah!), but I experience firsthand how very cathartic pole dancing can be. I knew from my time spent in ballet class every day as a teenager how dance can put into movement what one feels but isn’t able to say with words. Every night after my sets, I am sweaty and tired and rejuvenated all at once. It is a mysterious process even to me, but the energy coming from the bands playing at the club, coupled with the movement and tactile sensation that are all a part of being onstage, are a heady mix. Somehow the formula exorcises my demons. It is the only way I know how to deal with certain feelings.

I didn’t realize that I would find pieces of myself I didn’t know I had hanging on a stripper pole. But I did, and it gave me strength, both in my muscles and in my sense of self. Trixie said something once about how the pole can be trusted, how it will be there for you every time you reach for it, and I’ve found this to be true. These days, I regard my poles (yes, I’m up to two now!) with familiarity and affection, the way a cowboy might feel about his faithful steed. They’re steel horses. They keep a steady position for you to grasp onto, they will support you when you lean on them in many precarious positions, and sometimes, when they are polished to a shine, they reflect like a mirror to help you see yourself.


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