In the colorfully lit studio of Boston Pole Fitness, a young woman stands on her head. Her hands are clasped around a silver pole, and her legs are poised above her body, back arched, toes pointed.
This is a photo of Stacey D. Fabo ’25 that was posted to the Harvard Undergraduate Pole Dancing Club. Fabo, who had no prior experience with pole dancing, became interested in the club after she saw their profile on Instagram. “I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds really cool,’” she says.
The Harvard Undergraduate Pole Dancing Club, which was formed this spring, offers free pole dancing classes to curious students.
Heather H. Park ’25 is one of the co-founders of HUPDC. When Park and her peers first floated the idea of a pole dancing club to a Class of 2025 GroupMe as freshmen, other interested students quickly joined their team. This year, they finally turned that idea into a reality through funding from the Harvard Office for the Arts.
The organization seeks to “empower” its members, particularly people from “historically disempowered identities,” according to its mission statement. Although spaces are filled through a lottery process, the club has “a preference towards low income and BIPOC students.” HUPDC has been intentional in their efforts to account for the financial inaccessibility of pole dancing classes.
Park says the club has “a really diverse range of people” from different genders, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Modern pole dancing likely evolved from the pole routines of Chinese circus acrobats and the Indian pole gymnastics of Mallakhamb — two traditionally male-dominated sports created around the 12th century.
Although its significance has grown beyond its origins in the athletic world, pole dancing remains physically strenuous. At HUPDC classes, members always begin with half an hour of stretching — a slow, mindful session meant to build strength over time. Then, they transition to the pole, repeating unfamiliar exercises until every muscle burns.
Beyond teaching members how to pole dance, the club also aims to focus on body positivity through fitness and owning one’s own sexuality.
Through her work with HUPDC, Park says that she has been able to appreciate her body and “love it a little bit more through each class.”
Fabo’s feelings echo those of Park. “I’m generally very apprehensive of things that require a lot of coordination with your body,” she says. “But being able to pick up what I picked up in those classes instilled more confidence in me.”
“I have felt so utterly in touch with my body and its movement,” Arianna C. Fowler ’25 adds. “You’'re just moving your body in a way that evokes such confidence and acuity that would not be typical of typical exercise.”
The modern Western conception of pole dancing comes from the influence of circus-based exotic dance and “hoochie coochie” dancers that traveled around the United States during the Great Depression.
In the 1950s, strip clubs started popping up, capturing the essence of this idea in a new space. Strippers incorporated floorwork and choreography into pole dancing, synthesizing the sensual and athletic strands of pole dancing’s history.
Now, pole dancing has entered the mainstream through fitness classes, reality TV features, and performances by celebrities like Lil Nas X and FKA Twigs. Although its newfound visibility has helped pole dancing shed some of its stigma, those who hold power in the industry are not the ones who popularized the movement.
Because of pole dancing’s connection to sex work, Fowler says, the physicality and sexuality of the practice are often intertwined. “I genuinely believe that pole dancing should not have a stigma because it is so much fun,” Fowler says. “Just because it's in clubs and stuff like that doesn't mean it can't be a great form of exercise, as well as confidence, expressing your sexuality, and exploring body movement.”
The dichotomy that Fowler alludes to — between pole dancing as exercise and pole dancing as sex work — reflects a broader sentiment toward pole dancing that emerged as the practice came into the mainstream. Park still encounters people who are hesitant to try pole dancing.
“We do recognize the possible stigma with pole dancing,” she says. “We just want to emphasize that this is of course just another form of dance. We don’t want to differentiate ourselves from other dance organizations on campus.”
Conscious of this bias, HUPDC instead chooses to celebrate the connection between pole dancing and sex work. In their mission statement, HUPDC says that they “hope to honor the marginalized sex workers and strippers who have and continue to leverage the art.”
Many of the HUPDC members that we spoke to noted that pole dancing gives them something that regular exercise cannot. Fowler attributes this to pole dancing’s eroticism, describing an energy that puts her in touch with her mind, her body, and her being.
“I’'ve recorded myself during the whole damn thing,” she says. “And I can see the beauty of my own sexuality, my own self.”
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