By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, April 29, 2010; GZ13
Once upon a time, when men went out for a night of pole dancing, it was their eyes that got a workout. But in the past few years for some, it's been their entire bodies. Like women, guys are discovering that pole dancing can be an athletic and artistic pursuit that feels more Cirque du Soleil than strip club.
Meet Tavon Hargett. The 28-year-old Washingtonian has developed a following on YouTube with his homemade pole dancing videos under the name "Jungle Cat." "Somebody said I looked like a cat jumping up on the pole, so that's my alter ego," he says after demonstrating some of his acrobatic spins, holds and inversions.
His hip-hop wardrobe -- think high-tops instead of high heels -- and preference for a gospel soundtrack are fairly unusual among pole dancers, but it's Hargett's gender that makes his skills so remarkable. He first experimented with a pole he ordered online. "I got into the athleticism and strength behind it," he says. When he looked for formal instruction, however, he was stuck. Most pole dance studios are for women only.
But then he met Jessalynn Medairy. Last fall, the 24-year-old launched her studio Pole Pressure (http://www.polepressure.com) inside Balance Gym. The downtown health club wanted unusual group fitness formats to lure in members, so Medairy was soon teaching Pole Level 1, 2 and 3 right next to cycling classes.
It was the ideal spot for Medairy, whose mission is to challenge people's perceptions of pole dancing. At the first US Pole Dance Championships, held last month in New York, the opera lover placed fourth with her artistic routine choreographed to "All I Ask of You" from "Phantom of the Opera." "I made it look like the pole was my dance partner," she says.
Eager to spread her love of twirling and climbing, Medairy decided not to reserve all of her classes for women. Instead, the Pole Pressure schedule is dotted with "mixers," co-ed sessions that focus less on sexy dance moves and more on tricks, making for a rigorous upper-body workout. "She wears me out," says Hargett, who's been training with Medairy to develop increasingly difficult moves and fluid connections.
He's her star male student, but others have taken the poles for a spin. Women often bring in boyfriends and husbands to prove that what they're doing is really exercise. "It's not what they think," Medairy says.
Testosterone is also welcome at Jordin's Paradise (http://www.jordinsparadise.com), a fitness studio with a wide array of classes -- including ballet fusion, laughing yoga and cardio kickboxing -- that just opened in Mount Vernon. Pole dance aerobics and pole cardio sessions are co-ed, just like everything else on the schedule. "I never intended it to be only for women. You don't just spin and grind," says owner Rania Jaziri.
One favorite exercise: Hold the pole with one hand and a dumbbell with the other, lean away from the pole and then pull back up to work your biceps.
What may surprise men the most when they sample pole dancing is that they're probably pretty good at it. "A lot of women are jealous of men because they start out with more strength and can do more things," says Steve Shergold, whose Charlottesville dance studio launched one of the country's first pole dance programs in 2003.
Originally women-only, E-Fit Dance started men's classes two years ago and has developed a group of talented chaps. "They like that it's a totally different way to work out," Shergold says.
A reason classes for men are hard to come by is that men and women tend to approach pole dancing differently. "It's power and tricks versus finesse and skill," Shergold says. The vibe changes with co-ed classes, too. It's not that men will leer at the women, Shergold says, but they're less likely to cheer. "There's a difference in the sociology," he says. "Women are very supportive and encouraging, while men tend to goad each other into things."
What really stands in the way of pole dancing's going fully coed is that it has done so well without guys. "I honestly don't know how to teach men," says Lisa Peklo, owner of DivaFit, which has established four locations in Northern Virginia in less than five years.
Same goes for Michaela Brown, whose D.C. studio the P Spot just turned four years old. "My clients are average women itching for a fitness outlet. I really wanted to home in on this demographic that's been overlooked," she says.
So it may be up to men to make sure they're not overlooked in this area. Though it's hard to believe anyone could ever miss Jungle Cat.