Walk, Run. Hop, Jump, Leap. But don’t skip ahead! Reconsidering Your Case of the Pole Gimmes

I just went to my 2nd instructor training (for Intermediate Pole, this time) and I want to talk about jumping ahead, because the topic came up a lot. We’ve all done it. We’ve waited until we’re home, or during open pole, or even when our teacher’s back is turned and done something we shouldn’t. We got on our pole without warming up or tried something we saw on someone else do even though we kind of know we aren’t ready for it, but really hope we are. We’ve gotten frustrated when it seems “impossible”. We’ve beaten ourselves up for not being “better.” We’ve given ourselves injuries.

I see it quite a lot on the internet and have talked to pole instructors who say, consistently, that they have students who try to do things they aren’t ready for, and often there are consequences. I get it. Pole is exciting! And there are so many things we want to try that it’s practically impossible to keep track of them all. But let’s think safety first. Pole is a very new type of exercise if you haven’t done something like gymnastics and there’s a definite element of danger involved in pole at a certain level that doesn’t exist in team sports like basketball or running.

And while sports like running have a cannon of literature that address common injuries, pole doesn’t yet. It’s getting there, but we’re only just discovering the long-term effects of the stresses that pole puts on a body. Let’s not forget that it’s different from most sports–even gymnastics–in that in any given pole session at the intermediate level or above, you’re usually attempting to hang upside-down or doing other things that require you to hang upside-down with your head pointing to the floor with few points of contact and your head and neck are fragile. Let me just repeat that. Your head and neck are fragile. They’re also rather important for poling and, you know, living. Have I scared you a little? Good. There’s such a thing as healthy fear.

This is where a syllabus ands specific progressions become really important. Athletes benefit hugely from structure (think of ballet dancers who dance for years to strengthen their ankles and feet and learn good technique before they’re allowed to do pointe) and now most pole studios operate in a somewhat standardized, but structured way.

Pole classes are broken down into levels, usually, and within each level there are many different moves that make up progressions. An example would be starting to invert from the floor and then learning to invert from a backbend and eventually from standing. Or learning a spin and then learning to do it one-handed. Progressions of moves are designed to help you build strength, teach correct technique, and also to teach you what to do if you have bail out of a move.

Some of my pole journey (in order) over a space of about 2 years!

Some people will whip through those progressions because they quickly master the foundational or prep moves and it will take other people longer. And that’s totally okay. While someone may have the strength to invert from standing early on, they might not have learned how to grip the pole with their legs to hold their weight. Another person might be able to hold their weight with their legs, but they don’t have the core or upper body strength to lift their body up into an invert. Everyone is different and brings different skills to the table and their progress will be different. Best of all, all of these things can be learned and practiced.

It’s really important to not compare yourself to other people. You don’t know each other’s pole journeys. People are often surprised when they hear that advanced polers at their studios started off weak and unconditioned (I will readily admit that I was not in any decent athletic shape when I started pole), or that once upon a time their teacher couldn’t hold themselves up for a chair spin or figure out how to pirouette. Everyone was a beginner once and everyone struggles with nemesis moves. Comparing yourself to someone else will not make you progress faster. Focusing on your own progress and practice will though. This is true for people at all levels of pole.

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Leen Isabel is always spot on with her comics!

 

A teacher with a good syllabus will have lots of options for all of these students so that class is still interesting, but safe. A teacher will have a good idea of what your capabilities are and when you’re ready to try the next thing. A good teacher will insist on spotting you, giving you a regression or similar move they think you should work on instead, or just telling you “no” if they think you’re going to get injured. That doesn’t mean they think you’re not good or that they don’t like you. They just might not think you’re ready, yet. Their job is to keep you safe, and when they think you’re ready to do something safely, they will help you do it. Another element you may not have considered is that you’re putting your teacher at risk if you do something they’ve asked you not to. If you put yourself in an unsafe position in class, your teacher is responsible for you and it can have consequences for them and their business if you’re injured.

Be patient with yourself and the process, have trust. It’s okay to be disappointed. It’s okay to feel frustrated. We’ve all felt that way at some point! So here are some things I’ve done when I’ve had a case of the Pole Gimmes or Can’t-Do-It-Yet Blues and they’ve really helped me.

  1. Do something different. Take a choreography class or a conditioning class at your studio. Cross-train with yoga or go for a run. It will take your mind off the thing that’s frustrating you, get you closer to your goals, and add to your skill set. Maybe you’ll even fall in love with it.
  2. Talk to your teacher. There’s nothing wrong with approaching your teacher and saying “I’m really struggling with X. What can I practice to learn it better?” or “What do I need to do first before I can learn to do Y?” or asking for a spot to try something you aren’t sure if you can do. It’s good for your teacher to know what your goals are. Likely, they’ll talk to you about conditioning you can do at home on or off the pole and regressions. Usually, they’re already teaching it to you, though!
  3. If you’re not in class, pretend you are. Imagine there is a teacher watching you. This applies to self-taught polers as well. Having a syllabus similar to how a teacher structures classes is really important. If you don’t have a syllabus, there are DVDs, online tutorials, and books you can get that provide you with one. Being in class means a warm up, practicing tricks, combos, and/or routine, and then a cool down. Wait for a spotter and/or crashmat to be available if you need one, even if that means waiting until your next class. Every time. It also means attempting tricks in a logical, progressive order over time and doing them on both sides. A progressive syllabus is there to help you learn proper technique and prevent injury.
  4. Remember what’s at stake. Maybe you can somehow muscle yourself up into a more advanced move that you aren’t quite ready for, but can you get out of it safely? Do you have the strength to hold it? Do you have the technique down? Will it even look nice or correct? Will you crash to the ground and break something?
  5. Focus on what you can do and learn to do it beautifully. The best pole routines aren’t filled with more difficult moves the person can kind of do. They’re moves that the person has perfected and learned to string together and smoothly transition through in interesting ways. Mastering moves you are ready for will always give you a better result once you get to the harder stuff and you’ll look great doing it in the meantime!
  6. Be kind to yourself. Do the things that make you feel better. Know that there’s no time limit or clock on your pole journey. Congratulate yourself for going to class. Remember that you’re doing something that’s hard and requires strength and technique that most of the people you meet wouldn’t be able to do! Remember that no one at pole class is judging you for not getting a move.
  7. HAVE FUN! If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point? Put on some heels and play. Roll around on the floor, flick your hair, or figure out how many combinations you can do with the moves you’ve mastered. Hang out with your pole buddies and come up with an idea for a killer routine. Take pictures and videos of the prettiest moves you can do. Play!

Lessons in Choreography

I’m going to preface this and say that I don’t have a strong dance or gymnastics background. I did ballet for a few years and the rest of my dance experience is theatre related. I’ve now choreographed two routines for myself and after a couple of the other girls at my studio were asking me about it after our showcase on Saturday, I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far (at least about myself) as a total amateur.

Find music you can see yourself dancing to. Maybe it isn’t your favorite song, but make sure you can listen to it on a loop for hours at a time without wanting to take a screwdriver to your eardrums by the time your performance rolls around. And above all, make sure you can dance to it. When I picked my song for this showcase, I could see myself moving to it already. I spent time freestyling and a lot of it stuck because I had a clear theme in mind and felt connected to the music.

When I started working on my competition routine, I made the mistake of choosing a really fast song and had choreographed the first minute and a half of it before I realized I was not only killing myself trying to keep up tempo, but that I was having trouble coming up with floorwork and combos. This led to me changing my song, starting from scratch, and having only about a month and a half to prepare. Which leads me to my next lesson…

Start early. Life has this unfortunate habit of getting in the way when I’m trying to come up with a routine. I’ve been sick, injured, and been inundated at work or had family obligations. One of the major downsides of not having a pole at home is that when these things happen, I don’t have the opportunity to practice because there’s only so many open pole sessions at my studio. Now, this really wouldn’t be a problem if I’d started two or three months earlier.

Think beginning, middle, and end. One of the major problems with my competition routine was not only the time crunch by the time I changed my song, but also that I choreographed my routine in fragments. A combo here, a combo there, some floorwork. Before the competition, I’d run through it less than ten times. I ended up getting confused onstage and had to improvise until I got back on track!

Practice, Practice IMG_2017Practice. This probably seems obvious, but to elaborate, had I started beginning to end, I would’ve been able to run through the finished parts over and over and get those really solid, even if the entire routine wasn’t done.

When I was working on my showcase routine, I was able to run it through the entire thing for about a week beforehand and I felt so much more confident once the night of the show rolled around. Mostly, there were some finishing touches I had to work on. That’s where your smartphone comes in handy…

Record yourself. In the midst of all that practice, I’d take a video here and there to see what I was doing wrong and then correct it. I was able to look at it with a critical eye and see what was working, what wasn’t and what might need to be changed. My showcase routine wasn’t perfect by any means, but I felt much better about it than I did my competition routine.

Don’t get too attached. If a move or combo or floorwork bit wasn’t working, I let it go, or put it somewhere else. I was better off changing a move to preserve the flow of my choreo. I’m also a sweaty, sweaty person and would have to abandon certain moves because I was slipping out of them, especially at the end of the routine. Here’s something I actually did better with my competition routine. Knowing that I’d be using chrome poles, a lot of the poses and combos I came up with were meant to be slip-proof and it worked.

By the end of practicing my showcase routine, I was sweating and slipping all over the place. Of course, one you get to the end, it’s always good to…

Seek a second opinion. It never hurts to ask your pole sisters for some help! I did this for both my competition routine and showcase routine and really appreciated the feedback.

You’ll get better. The only way to improve at something is to keep doing it! And have fun, and try not to be too critical of yourself. Keep freestyling, keep recording, keep dancing, and keep performing ❤

Goals I Didn’t Even Know I Had

Tonight, I started to write this post on my long-running, but mostly neglected, blog that I started back in college and it didn’t feel right. I don’t usually like to write anything publicly unless I feel like I have something to say–oh, how things have changed!–but I felt like I was saying it in the wrong place. This is a blog about goals. And one of my first goals I didn’t even know I had will be to blog twice a month (I almost said once a week but then felt like it was overly ambitious and changed my mind). I will give myself deadlines and hopefully get back into the rhythm of writing since I’ll soon be going back to school soon to get my Master’s Degree in exactly that–creative writing.

Today, though, I wanted to write about some things I’ve accomplished recently and look at them critically. If someone told me two years ago that, in the space of two months, I’d compete in a regional pole competition and complete a 5K mud run, I probably would’ve laughed. And laughed and laughed and laughed.

Two years ago, I was struggling to get into a regular yoga practice. I was picky about my teachers (no one too mystical, no one too hardcore), I had a pair of expensive running shoes that had barely seen the pavement, and I was still carrying around the extra twenty pounds I’d stumbled into during my study abroad. I am not (and probably never will be) a gym rat. I’ve always had this really broad goal to be in better shape, without any corporeal idea of what that meant.

In college, I used the rec center fairly often and really only spent much time there because a lot of their machines have small televisions on them to distract me from how much I dislike the gym. I took my iPod, too, for when I got too far from the TVs. At the time, my favorite thing to do was alternate between watching the National Geographic and Food channels while doing intervals on the elliptical. It was particularly satisfying when someone would be making an especially decadent looking cake and I could think “I’m going to eat that later and not gain weight, because I’ve been at the gym for two hours” or when the camera would pan over African grasslands and I could visualize myself running through them. I realize how strange this is.

But when my schedule changed or I’d been sick, I had a hard time going back and getting into a routine because I never really enjoyed it all that much in the first place. So my senior year I decided to take a swing dancing class and a running class. Swing was a total blast and the running class was helpful because I’d never really learned good form. Then I sprained an ankle for probably the 4th time and couldn’t finish either. I was pretty heartbroken, but I learned something about myself. I have better follow through when there’s some peer pressure. Some small, but vocal, part of me fears judgment and I find it hard to just walk out of a class.

Cue yoga classes. Yoga was cheap and the Sunday morning class I joined was low pressure, but required enough focus that it shut my brain off for the hour, which was something I’d never really thought possible. I found a yoga buddy and did that semi-consistently for a few years. We found the Couch-to-5K app and I started running, again semi-consistently. And then I found a Groupon for pole fitness classes. I’m the kind of person who will try anything at least once.

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While out at a teacher/friend’s birthday dinner a few nights ago, some of the girls and I were talking about the allure of pole. Some people commented that it was the sense of accomplishment they felt when they nailed something after a few classes. Another girl and I agreed that it was spin pole that had us totally hooked. It felt like flying!

I recalled that during my first few weeks of lessons I was constantly bandaging ice packs to my elbows because they always felt strained, a consequence of my hypermobility and absolute lack of upper body strength. It was so hard. And that’s what kept me going back. I’d never encountered anything this challenging. Most things came fairly naturally to me and this didn’t. My stubborn streak got the best of me until I fell in love with the sport (many bruises later).

For about two years now I’ve spent about three hours a week at least at the pole studio, learning poses, tricks, floorwork, and routines. I’ve gotten stronger than I ever thought possible and last year was promoted to the advanced level at my studio after a year, one of my biggest achievements in a long time. My teacher/friend convinced me to compete at my first pole competition, which took place this March (I’ll write a whole other blog post about this later). After that, I agreed to sign up for a 5K mud run with my pole friends (that will be blog post #3, I think), which took place this weekend. At both events, I said to myself (and occasionally others) “I’m so unprepared; I can’t believe I’m doing this right now,” and thought (quietly to myself) “I can’t believe I let anyone talk me into this.” By the end of those events I was making plans for the future and thinking “The next time I do this, I have some very specific ideas about what I want to be able to accomplish first.”

Spoiler alert: I came in last place at my pole competition and I walked most of the 5K. But that’s not really what matters. What matters is that I did it, and if I hadn’t given into my friends when they encouraged me to do this, I don’t know that I would’ve ever attempted either of these things and I wouldn’t know where to start. Both experiences were humbling and scary and exhilarating. I have my gripes about the 5K and the competition but I am so glad that I’ve done them. I accomplished goals I didn’t even know that I had and set some new ones for the future.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t run even a few blocks without stopping and I certainly wouldn’t have been strong enough to attempt most of the obstacles, much less finish a 5K mud run. Just a few years ago, I couldn’t climb to the top of the 8-foot pole, let alone perform a 4 minute solo in front of an audience. This last month and half has been a reminder to myself that when you hit the finish line of one goal it’s just the starting line for the next.