Nikki Craven grabs a metal pole dancing pole, and to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” lifts herself up on it, flips her legs over her head, does a twirl and slides down, hands first, onto the light-up tile floor.
Her students, on a Saturday afternoon at Inferno in downtown Greensboro, break into applause.
The News & Record of Greensboro reported that the 26-year-old Craven is a pole exercise instructor. She is not, however, a stripper. And though she has had some students who were exotic dancers, most are just women wanting to spice things up in their relationships or looking for a unique way to get into shape.
“Some people, when I tell them I teach pole dancing, they instantly shut down,” Craven said. “They hear the words ‘pole dancing’ and then they just associate it with something unseemly. But this is more about getting women to come out of their shells, to be confident in their bodies.”
The classes are part of a growing national trend that’s drawing a wide variety of people. Craven’s students range in age from 18 to early 50s and include college students, a pastor’s wife and even a former body builder, Jody Luman.
“I wish I had known about this, or lived close enough to someone who did this when I was competing in bodybuilding in 2005 and 2006,” Luman said. “It builds up your abs, your thighs, upper body strength. You build up a lot of tone and muscle doing this.”
“I’m probably the only person you know whose house has scuff marks on the ceiling,” Craven says.
Running the height of her living room is a 50 mm-wide pole. The scuff marks are the result of her high heels and pole inversions.
Craven’s home doubles as a studio for her business, Descending Angels. Aside from the pole and scuff marks, the living room looks much like any other, with pictures of her grandparents and 4-year-old son on the walls and a gray tabby cat named Mr. Nibbles lounging on the couch.
The Trinity resident works part time as a cashier at a grocery store and had never been a professional dancer.
She got interested in pole dancing four years ago when she was looking for something to rebuild her strength after having undergone back surgery.
“There were things, like bringing in the groceries and working in the backyard, that I couldn’t do,” she said. “But I got tired of feeling bad about myself, and when I found out about this, I thought, ‘This is interesting.’ ”
Her husband, Michael Craven, recalls that she bought a pole and put on a show for him as a Father’s Day present. The 5-foot-3-inch Nikki quickly learned to do inversions, twirls and other aerobatics. She bought a book on pole dancing and began taking lessons online from an instructor based in England.
Pole dancing as a sport and fitness activity became popular in Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia in the early 1990s, said Anna Grundstrom, founder of the U.S. Pole Dance Federation. It caught on in the United States in the early part of this decade and some gyms now even offer instruction alongside their pilates and yoga classes.
“Women want to find a new way to work out,” Grundstrom said in an e-mail interview. “They are tired of tramping around on the treadmill at the gym without getting any results. (The women want to) get in shape, find a new hobby, build confidence, befriend their bodies, feel sexy and have fun.”
Wanting to earn some extra income, Craven began offering lessons and hosting pole parties last year. Business has slowed a bit because of the economy, but has remained steady. Many of her students find out about her by word-of-mouth.
She said she typically only teaches one or two students at a time, so that she can give a good deal of attention to each person. She also heads a Meetup group, which occasionally brings a number of her students together. Prices start at $18 for a “semi-private” lesson (if another student tags along) or $35 for a private or one-on-one lesson.
“A lot of women choose to come with a friend,” she said. “It’s good to have someone with you, because then you’re encouraging each other, and you’re able to cheer one another on. But they can also get kind of competitive sometimes, to where one is getting something and the other says, ‘If she can do it then I can do it.’ And she becomes determined to get that spin or that transition.”
Craven said she starts new students out by teaching them about posture, and then showing them a few basic spins. The instructor said most women’s favorite part comes at the more advanced stages, when they’re finally able to swing upside down on the poles.
Grundstrom describes the activity as a full-body workout.
“Pole dancing helps build both upper and lower body strength as you lift your own body weight up and down the pole, climb, and use your core control while launching the body around the pole,” she said.
At Inferno, eight women gather for the Meetup group. Craven does some warm-up exercises, swiveling her hips, stretching her arms back behind her head and lifting her legs.
The women take turns on the three poles in front of the bar as Christina Aguilera, Flo Rida and other dance music artists play on Craven’s laptop.
One of her students, Katherine Schmauss, falls on her r