Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pole Dancing 101:
Bringing Sexy Back … Front and Center

“Sometimes, when I'm alone, I put on six inch heels and wear nothing else, and dance around in front of the mirror and do my little stripper dance.”
- Tori Spelling

“You gotta keep her off the pole!”

- Chris Rock

Vanilla-scented candles dotted the North Hollywood loft, and Guy’s “Piece of My Love” pulsated from speakers in the dimly lit room …

Sounds like the opening scene from a ghetto erotica novel. Now add to it four stainless steel poles and eight mats strategically placed on the floor and you have X-Polesitions, a pole dancing studio where women can bring sexy back, front and center.

“It’s expressing your sexuality through exercise,” says Leah Daniels-Butler, founder of X-Polesitions. Leah is a woman whom brothers back east would call “thick.” She doesn’t mind pointing out her problem areas, but drapes confidence about her like an old shawl. A former TV and film casting director with 16 years in the business, she opened her doors last October as a means of helping women feel comfortable in their own skin. “Sexiness is an attitude,” she says with a smile.

Last night, I took my first stroll around the pole. The invitation for X-Polesitions’ free intro class had been sitting in my inbox for months, but I never deleted it. To me, pole dancing conjured up clear stilettos, G-strings and crisp dollar bills. It seemed too naughty an activity for an upstanding (read: single and celibate) chick to be indulging in. But my inner siren got the best of me, so I scheduled an appointment.

On my way to the class, I shared the elevator with a 45-year-old white woman who was also attending. “You only live once,” she said, proudly displaying her new boob job. “What do you have to lose?”

Inhibition, for one thing. Seven dimepieces were lounging around the studio, half of them wearing Daisy Dukes and tight halters. I felt decidedly unsexy in my penitentiary gray tee shirt and elastic-waisted jogging pants. But I assured myself that if I felt too uncomfortable (if, say, an orgy erupted), I would discreetly grab my things and hit the door.

The first 30 to 40 minutes of class were spent warming up and doing stretches on the mat, albeit erotic ones. We learned techniques called the “Cat Pounce” and the “Ship’s Bitch.” During one position, Leah instructed us to slowly slide our hands down to our "chocha," a move that felt awkward for me. I couldn’t put my heart into the techniques because I just knew my cellulite was showing through the gauzy sweat pants.

The whole time I was sweeping my chocha across the mat, or bouncing my backside to Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy?” I reflected on the love-hate relationship I have with my body. Since I’ve gained weight, I have to sneak up on my reflection in the mirror, and I try to hide my girth in bulky clothes. Yet even when I was 125 pounds, I never felt truly happy and at peace in my own skin.

Finally, it was time to work the poles. Although the X-Polesitions Web site boasts that its routines will help “build muscle strength and build cardiovascular ability,” we weren't there for the health benefits. Every woman in the room was eager to swing around that stainless steel like a veteran stripper, but we had to earn our stripes. Forming a circle, we were instructed to saunter sensuously across the parquet floor as “Make it Rain (I Make it Rain on Them Hoes)” blared in the background. We giggled. We bumped into each other. We felt clumsy getting our sexy stroll on, little girls trying on Mommy’s heels.

Satisfied with our performance, Leah had us assume the position. I know my limitations. I’ve been called “uncoordinated” since the fifth grade, and was never chosen to turn the rope in Double Dutch because I’m “double-handed.” But I approached the pole like my name was Candy and I was two months behind on the rent. The first five attempts, I could only manage half swings because I forgot to lift my right leg off the floor. But Leah was patient. “You have to trust that the pole is going to hold you,” she said, giving me a maternal nudge.

Finally, I let go. Both feet left the floor and I was hugging the pole like a long-lost lover. At that moment, I wished I still had a weave down my back and a fresh pedicure. I felt – dare I say it? – flirty! I wasn’t going home that night to practice my new tricks on some boy toy, but every woman needs to feel sexy, if only for herself.

After Leah pried us from the poles, we were treated to a collective lap dance by Antoinette, another instructor. Contrary to my initial thoughts, the women weren’t cast-offs from the strip club looking to make an extra buck. Antoinette has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and she trained with a Cirque du Soleil dancer for a year and a half. We oohed and aahed as she sidled sinuously up the pole, performing backflips and splits like an urban aerialist. We admired her grace … but more importantly, her body was bangin’! We had co-opted her curves and her confidence as our own.

I know I’ll never wear Daisy Dukes or make my booty clap at the club, but as I donned my socks and sneakers after class, I realized that, despite my imperfections, I can find the courage to dance naked in front of my mirror again. I don’t need a pole for validation, but there’s nothing like candles, dim lights and 15 feet of gleaming stainless steel to bring out your inner sexpot.

I signed up for six more classes.

X-Polesitions, 5355 Cartwright Avenue, Suite 203, North Hollywood, CA 91601. For more information, visit the Web site:

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

De-Icing the Cryonic Woman:
The Journey from Abuse to Love

cryonics \kri- ä- nīks\ n. plural but usually singular in construction - the practice of freezing a dead diseased human in hopes of bringing her back to life at some future time when a cure for her disease has been developed.

I took a much needed break from composing my wedding vows to write this article.

How does a woman who hasn’t been on a date in two years leap from abstinence to the altar? I’m still working on that transition, hence the vows but no groom in sight. There is nothing wrong with being single, but the desire to be in a relationship, to be in love, has been strong as of late, as persistent as the sun piercing the smoggy Los Angeles skyline.

Why aren’t you dating?

I’ve been fielding that question for years, and lately, have been asking it of myself. Why aren’t I dating? I’m not a lipstick lesbian, and I’m not that picky, in spite of what some friends insist. I don’t buy into the “good man shortage,” and believe that yes, black women can find love in the City of Angels, despite statistics to the contrary. I don’t think I’m unattractive or undateable. The deli technician at Whole Foods calls me gorgeous each morning as he prepares my quarter pound of sesame kale. Every other day, unsolicited e-mails arrive in my inbox from strangers (complete with resumés, head shots and six-packs on display) wanting to do coffee or dinner. Random Negroes and non-Negroes alike stop me in parking lots, at supermarket checkout lines, in the stairwells of office buildings, at traffic lights, on studio lots and in department stores to get my number. There is no scarcity of potential suitors.

So why aren’t I dating?

I don’t believe all men are dogs, deadbeats, thugs, or abusive on some level. And yet, when it comes to intimacy with the opposite sex, I struggle to contain my inner ice queen. She emerges to sabotage relationships, deliberately pushing folks away and testing the limits of their loyalty, or more insidiously through cynical comments and aloof gestures. Although I can be loving and I want to be in love, my reality belies that desire. When I look around, I notice that I don’t have close relationships with my father, brother, uncle or male cousins, and my guy friends are few and far between. It’s as if the queen of ice has frozen me into indifference, and my heart has yet to thaw.

I don’t hate men, but I have been conditioned not to trust them. At 17, I lost my virginity to a man I both detested and feared. Jeff was one of the neighborhood drug dealers, an underling to his cousin, the kingpin. He used to cruise the streets of our small town in his mud-colored Pontiac, a giant beetle in search of other invertebrates. I knew he was trouble the minute he lowered his tinted window, and in another world, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance. Instead, I gave him my phone number.

My descent into apathy didn’t begin at 17 between the fists of a minor hustler. Years before, I had learned to be uncomfortable around men, so I made myself invisible in their presence. At 10, someone I loved, revered and was related to told me I had “a nice ass,” and fondled me between my legs. Fast forward four years, and I’m sitting on the staircase of my rowhouse wearing a Hershey Park tee shirt and jeans. Alone. An older male friend of the family drops by to chat about homework and grades, while glibly extolling the wonders of prostitution, or being a “skeezer” as it was called back then. I had recently developed breasts, and was conscious of how tightly the tee hugged my bosom during his “recruitment” speech. Those experiences, among others, taught me that men were both nice and nefarious, and I had to insulate myself against any emotional intrusion. I learned that I wasn’t worthy of love or respect, so at 17, by the time Jeff spun into my life in a brown haze, I was waiting for him.

I “dated” Jeff for one year, and God only knows what would have happened had I not escaped to college. Only a few friends were aware that I was being abused because I was too ashamed to ask for help. I was too frightened to dump a guy who slapped me publicly, attempted to smother me, yanked my hair, tried to break my arm, and who tortured me in his bedroom for three hours one winter night until I fled down three flights of stairs, out the front door, and down the street with no coat or shoes on.

Jeff never left black-and-blue marks on my skin, but not all scars are on the surface. Many women walk around wounded, like cosmopolitan Hester Prynnes, scarlet letters of Abuse embroidered into their Coach bags, Prada blouses and Victoria’s Secret bras. The summer of my junior year at Hampton, I hung out with three such sisters from my hometown, girls I had not associated with in high school. Our coming together seemed strange since we didn’t have the same interests or friends. I later learned the one thing we all had in common was abuse. We shared tales of mistreatment over dinner at Dennys, or while giggling nervously into drinks at the club. Stephanie’s* man beat her while she was pregnant, and she later lost the baby. China’s boyfriend used to perch on the roof of the building across the street from her rowhouse, like some thugged out, Kangol-wearing Spiderman, and watch her every move. Natalia, as short and cute as she was, used to get slammed against the wall by her lover at house parties. In some warped way, we were relishing our pain. For us, abuse was so normalized that we traded dating horror stories with all the gusto of old vets crowing over their Purple Hearts.

My first boyfriend was the only man who physically abused me, but after I left him, I kept attracting others who were violent on some level – emotionally, verbally, and psychically. I’m not a victim. I’m just trying to deconstruct the attitudes that enslaved me to dysfunctional relationships, and prevented me from believing I was worthy to give or receive love. Despite my past, abuse is not my identity. I have forgiven Jeff. I am told the man who choked me until I nearly passed out is now a police officer in a suburb of our small town. I have forgiven him, which is an ongoing process, and I have extended that same pardon to all the men whose names are tattooed on my inner thighs.

After years of hating men, fearing men, not trusting men, blaming men, it’s as if my heart is slowly defrosting, an ice floe sliced from a larger berg by a shaft of sunlight. I want to be in love! I want to do all the clichéd couple things: taking romantic walks on Venice Beach; chatting on the phone for hours; visiting museums; pretending to be all absorbed as I listen to jazz in Leimert Park and going restaurant hopping, Zagat guide tucked firmly into my purse. I contributed my share of toxins to relationships -- the oppressed rising up to become the oppressor – but I’m working hard not to contaminate future friendships. Despite my wounds (and those I have caused), there is no lack of love in my life, no lack of intimacy. Armed with this knowledge, I have begun reaching out to the men in my circle in an attempt at recovery. Real healing takes place in knowing that I may have nicks and bruises, but I’m not damaged goods, not damaged for good.

So pardon me as I resume my wedding vows. I hope to recite them one day soon … and not just to my own face in the mirror. I can’t divulge all the silliness I’ve penned so far, but this quote from Mari Evans’ poem “Celebration” sums up my covenant: “I will bring you a whole person/and you will bring me a whole person/and we will have us twice as much/of love and everything …”

* names changed to protect privacy