Ashley Fox at 2015 Arnold Classic Pole Championship Series (courtesy of Ashley Fox); badge illustration by Chelsea Beck/GMG

Ballet dancer Misty Copeland once said: “You can do anything you want, even if you are being told negative things. Stay strong and find motivation.” Two years ago, I applied this same perspective to pole dancing. I transitioned from joking about having two left feet to signing up for a pole dancing course; I left feeling excited and hopeful.

Before long, I performed in a pole dancing showcase in the middle of marathon and obstacle-course training, as another demonstration of my athleticism. But despite my sense of pride, rampant stigmas about the sport persist. I’ve experienced everything from being told that it’s too “provocative” to being personally reminded that I am a parent who needs to “maintain my integrity.” To debunk a few stereotypes about this highly athletic activity, I spoke with five fierce pole athletes about their experiences as instructors, performers and students.

1. Ashley Fox

Ashley Fox, owner and pole sport instructor of Foxy Fitness & Pole in New York City and New Jersey, is a powerhouse who’s earned numerous accolades from competitions across the world. Her extensive résumé includes several pole dancing competitions, including the 2016 Paragon Championship. She was subsequently first runner-up in the 2017 Pole Olympia Championship. She will be holding workshops at the International Pole Convention and Pole Expo in late 2018.

Despite her gymnastics, dance and cheerleading background, Fox found her athleticism in pole training. “Pole is the best because it combines elements from all forms of fitness and dance. The challenge of mastering strength, flexibility and dance really maximizes your physical ability,” she says. “Before pole, I just felt like my body was regular; now I feel strong and feminine. I see myself as a beauty beast.”

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2. Yumiko Harris

Yumiko Harris at the 2016 Northeast Pole Championships, Professional Division (courtesy of Yumiko Harris)

Fox’s general manager and pole sport instructor Yumiko Harris shared similar sentiments about the intense sport. Harris, a contemporary-dance graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, went through an artistic freeze after being burned-out by college. Before becoming the 2017 Northeast Pole Championship first place winner, she even experienced a stint of depression.

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Through a cousin’s encouragement, she signed up for her first pole class. “I wasn’t intrigued by the appeal of bringing on your sexy,” Harris says. Despite her self-proclaimed lackluster first experience, she left feeling invigorated about dancing again.

After researching the requirements of becoming a pole dancing instructor, she took a leap of faith, leaving Chicago and pursuing a career as an instructor at Fox’s New York City studio. “Pole dancing is empowering to the mind, body and soul because it’s an individual or team sport,” Harris says. “It creates that community of women becoming stronger together, not through sexuality but strength. We’ve come so far now with pole sport that they’re pushing it into the Olympics.”

3. Veronica Jamison

Veronica Jamison of Pole Haus (courtesy of Veronica Jamison)

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Illustrator Veronica Jamison took a similar route, letting her interest lead her to becoming an instructor. Jamison, a pole dance instructor at Pole Haus in Philadelphia, went from taking pole classes once or twice a week to embarking on a teacher-training program just months after enrollment. Despite her recreational dancer background, she sometimes felt out of place being a curvy plus-size woman.

“I have been a curvy woman my entire adult life,” Jamison says. “Pole dancing has been instrumental in me getting over my body image issues. It really made me appreciate my body, transitioning from wanting to change it to getting into the mold of being marveled at for what it can do. Before I started pole dancing, I was really self-conscious about my body—the fact that I work in fashion didn’t help. Being around my pole family, seeing others not self-conscious about their bodies or passing judgment, helped me appreciate what I can do.

“I’ve gotten feedback like, ‘What is your husband saying?’ And if people have something to say about it, they have their own assumptions about it. It’s not my job to convince them why I do it,” she adds.

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4. Tina Powell

Tina Powell (courtesy of Tina Powell)

Actress and pole dancer Tina Powell has been teaching for a little over a year at the Choreography House in North Hollywood and Evolve Pole Dance in Los Angeles. She admits that like many, her perception of pole dancing was initially askew:

I came to pole dancing accidentally by winning a free class. I never would’ve tried it otherwise. I am generally an open-minded person and feel women can do as they please with their bodies, as long as no one is harmed. Yet I used to have reservations about stripping and pole dancing. I assumed exotic dancers must have emotional issues [and] low self-esteem and standards if they were “selling sex” and their bodies. Because of these misconceptions, I never saw the draw to pole dancing as a hobby, and I certainly didn’t think of it as a sport.

I realize now that pole dancing is not necessarily about sexuality. There are so many different styles of pole, though I prefer the sensual type. But I know when I dance, I’m never thinking about sex or that unsolicited dick pic. Rather, pole dancing is about letting go of self-judgment, and moving with purpose. A huge part of a woman’s power is in her sensuality. That power intimidates many men and makes them feel a need to shame us.

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5. Roz Mays

Roz “the Diva” Mays (courtesy of Ray Tamarra of Ray Tamarra Photography)

Conversely, National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer and 10-year pole dancer Roz “the Diva” Mays doesn’t have a dancer background. “My first class was disaster dot com,” she says. “I love to dance and I have a Beyoncé complex. I remember coming home thinking it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it’s still the hardest sport I’ve done, but I love it.” Although she didn’t have preconceptions about the activity, she took it on as a hobby through a class offered at Crunch Gym.

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“I’ve gone through different periods of my own style where I want to be Black Swan, and other times where I want to dance like Black Chyna,” Mays continues. “There’s a stereotype that we’re a bunch of hos or wannabe strippers. We’re actually not—and shoutout to strippers, because they work 10 times harder than we do.”

Unfortunately, Mays is no stranger to hazing from the internet:

People think that me doing a sport at my size is promoting obesity. There’s isn’t anything that people can write about me on the internet that’s worse than anything that I said about myself. When people call me fat, ugly or a man, it’s still 10 times nicer than the things that I said.

Before poling, I thought I was disgusting beyond belief. There was no relationship between me and my body. After pole, I am starting to heal. Never once in my lifetime have I embraced my body. People make that assumption and it’s not true—I have a better view of myself physically, but I have 30 years of damage, and it’s going to take some years to reverse it. For the first four or five years, I thought I was too big to wear pole shorts. When I did get the guts, it was like the weight of the world lifted off of my shoulders. I remember the first class that I did that six years ago; I cried until my eyes were swimming on my bed. It was a relief cry.

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Across the board, all five instructors strongly urged potential students to attend just one class. Neither sweaty palms nor a lack of upper body strength serves as an excuse to avoid trying. Instead, be consistent and present and learn the foundation. Regardless of your shape, size, gender or disability, you should feel comfortable coming to class. If a one-armed pole dancer can eloquently pursue her passion on the pole, you shouldn’t let stereotypes discourage you. “Do your research, wear shorts and let us do the rest,” says Yumiko Harris. Investigate which style works best for you, and allow pole dancing to invigorate your life in the new year.