Harlem, New York – If you think anyone can dance his or her way around the pole (and look good doing it), then you likely haven’t tried it yet.
Six women dressed in sweats, t-shirts and workout tights realized as much during their beginner-level pole dancing class one Friday evening at Le Femme Suite here in Harlem.
Even as class instructor, Dalijah Franklin, began leading the ladies through warm-up exercises, beads of sweat soon trickled down their brows. Several took quick, intermittently swigs of bottled water they brought with them.
Then when it came time for the women to learn the sensual art working the pole that, too, was physically demanding.
“You need to get your body more centered,” Franklin tells one student.
“Left leg crosses the front,” Franklin patiently explains to another.
Anjule Weston, who was in for her second class, tried to pull her body up the pole using only her upper body strength. “Don’t jump,” Franklin told her after noticing Weston using her hips to hoist herself upwards.
Her feet barely left the floor after several attempts. Ask whether it was difficult, Weston’s eyebrows rose sarcastically as if to say, “are you kidding me?”
“Hell yeah,” said Weston, a warehouse manager at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t have any upper body strength. For me it’s a full body workout. But it doesn’t look like it.”
Tiffany Nesbit, who accompanied Weston, agreed. “It’s very challenging, she says. “Especially for a plus-sized woman.”
But she and the rest of the class giggled and had fun through their mistakes and applauded each other when someone pulled off a pole trick. “It’s so much exercise. So many calories burned,” Nesbit added. “Plus it’s sexy and fun.”
The last two points, in particular, is what, Carmen Victorino, owner of Le Femme Suite, likes to hear.
“I really wanted to make it a comfortable environment for women,” says Victorino, who opened Le Femme in April of 2010 after being laid off from a non-profit job in June of 2009. “It’s actually a serine and safe environment where women can explore new experiences. Our biggest mission is to empower women through movement, empower their sexuality and not to be afraid of themselves.”
What’s unique about Victorino’s newly renovated suite, which is located between 138th and 139th Streets on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, is that it is not just about getting a good workout. Le Femme is also designed to host parties for women who just want to have a good time sipping on wine while twirling the pole with friends on a Friday night.
There is a smaller room decked out with full wall-sized mirrors on the second floor and the back yard garden area has love seats decked out with all-black bar stools with a long, high bar table lined with candles to give it an elegant feel during the dawn hours.
Le Femme is also LGBT friendly. It doesn’t cater to men at the moment. “But when I think of some good ideas for them, then I will,” Victorina says.
Timothy Trautman, President of International Pole Sports Federation says, suites like Victorino’s just “blew up” in the past five years as more women began feeling comfortable exploring their femininity.
“Society as a whole is moving towards a more liberal attitude towards pole fitness,” Trautman says. “What you have now are people who are respected in their communities who are doing pole fitness and people around them are saying, ‘Hey! It’s ok!’”
Indeed Victorino, her clientele and pole dance instructors defy the unsavory perceptions of loose, Champaign-room serving women grinding up on sleazy men in a dark, suspect holes-in-a-wall with rough-looking, beefed up men guarding the entrance.
In this particular class, the professional titles include a lawyer and an elementary school teacher. All of Le Femme’s instructors are college-educated. (Victorino has a degree in public administration).
Neither Victorino nor any of her dance instructors have ever danced at a strip club. (All, however, have some kind of dance experience). “Though (club experience) is an added plus,” Victorino says. “Some of my clients want to learn how to do lap dancing for their husbands. The girls I have now are fine. They can do it. But that kind of exotic club experiences kind of helps.”
There is no figure on exactly how many suites like Le Femme are operating around the country as the industry is in its infancy, says Trautman. Though he estimates that “millions of women worldwide” are participating in some form of pole dancing, be it at the classroom, fitness or competition level. Profits could be as high as a billion dollars annually if you add up sales from pole dance equipment, retail products and fitness apparel, Trautman added.
Victorina, a born and raised Harlem resident, has a regular clientele of 20 clients per week along with a growing number of new faces coming in during the same period. She markets her suite on social websites such as Groupon where, in 2010, she sold more than 800 classes.
A search around the web shows the suite is producing some very satisfied customers—even from those who have never ventured up to the predominately black and Latino neighborhood where Le Femme is located.
Victorino says she likes how clients who are not from the area have a great costumer service experience at Le Femme and return to their own pockets of the city to tell their friends that it’s ok to hang out in Harlem.
Though she admits being taken aback at the number of people whose first visit to her suite is, in fact, their first visit uptown.
“It’s amazing how I have clients who have never been this far up in Harlem,” Victorino says. “They are amazed to see that an establishment such as Le Femme Suite exists in this area and still provides the same level of service or better than in lower Manhattan or other areas of the city.”
For more information on Le Femme Suite, go to lefemmesuite.com.
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