By now, most people have heard of barre workouts, the ballet-inspired classes that draw athleisure-clad masses in droves. But at Vertical Barre Studios in Russian Hill, things get turned on their head, with the inspiration less from ballet and more from a different kind of performance art: pole dancing.
At their pole dancing and exercise studio opened this past April, founders Melanie Hsia and Anna Tong are working to "erase the stigma of pole dance by fostering a creative space where clients can learn a fitness regimen that combines artistry and strength," says Tong. Pole classes here will teach you all the skills you need to spin, climb, and defy gravity like the best of them at Lusty Lady, but Vertical Barre does also offer more straightforward fitness classes, focused on flexibility and strength-building. Most are taught by instructors who compete in national and international pole competitions.
While you can find other "strip" workouts throughout the Bay Area, including S Factor in North Beach and Shelly's Pole Fitness in the Outer Mission, Vertical Barre's pole classes put the focus on form and fitness instead of hair whips and booty pops (although some of their themed classes let you explore your more sultry side). Located on a stretch of unassuming storefronts in Russian Hill, near the edge of North Beach and around the corner from Capo's, the studio is modern and airy, with breezy window coverings for privacy. The light-soaked space more closely resembles your typical boutique fitness studio than the inside of a nightclub, and the instructors take technique seriously. Pole classes are offered according to degree of difficulty, with each level building upon the last. Even seasoned athletes should begin with level one or an open-level class: Working a pole is a whole new thing, and even the fittest students may struggle a bit to get the hang of things.
"What's your experience with pole?" our instructor, Vix, asks our entry-level class of 20-and-30-something ladies, mostly newbies. (There were no men in our class, though guys are welcome too.) After a brief cardio warm-up and some stretching on yoga mats, we grabbed the poles (which are secured by pins to prevent them from spinning at the start).
First there were pole tuck-ups—imagine gripping the pole with both hands as you draw your legs into your chest in a sort of reverse crunch. Then, with a soundtrack of strip club classics ("Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Here I Go Again"), it was on to the real thing. We began with simple spins around the pole, doing our best fireman interpretations, and one that involved hooking a leg around the pole while arching our backs and pretending it was easy.
Then it was on to climbs, a true test of our inner-thigh strength, as we did our best to shimmy up the poles. The brave among us experimented with releasing their arms, with Vix as a spot. After one last attempt at a spin that resembled sitting in an invisible chair, it was time to release the pins to allow the poles to do some spinning of their own.
While the static pole had presented the challenge of pole-to-skin friction, the rotating poles made spins feel simple as they rotated along with our bodies. A light hop and speck of momentum had us spinning like tops, and made experimenting with different leg positions feel like more of an option. Actually, it was thrilling.
Vix's instruction made seemingly impossible moves feasible—she taught us correct arm placement and subtle technique tweaks, and suggested we try spinning from both sides to see which was easier. Our class of novices was soon floating through the air like pros, taking frequent hydration breaks to help prevent bruising (though I still ended up with an impressive purple shiner on my hip the next day).
Having maneuvered our full bodyweight for a whole 75 minutes, our legs and arms were shaking. Class wrapped with a cool-down on the mat and some necessary stretches for our forearms and wrists, which took a beating. We all left with smiles on our faces, a few slight pole burns, and promises to return and build upon the newfound confidence that we were able to find in just one 75-minute class on the pole. There's something empowering about knowing how to lift and move your body in a way generally reserved for adult entertainers. Next time "Need You Tonight" comes through the speakers at the bar, I may have enough self-esteem to bust out a sexy move or two.
- Wear a fitted top and shorts. Although capris and leggings are acceptable workout wear, you'll find it easier to grip the pole in shorts. Consider a fitted pair if you don't want to accidentally flash your classmates during fan kicks.
- Remove all rings and bracelets.
- No footwear needed.
- Bring water and a towel, especially if you tend toward the sweaty side. And drink plenty of water post-class to lesson bruising.
// Vertical Barre offers a free introductory class the first Sunday of the month, and first classes for just $10; 1419 Stockton St. (Russian Hill), verticalbarrestudio.com, and via Classpass, classpass.com