Stories of Impact: My Experience With Pole Dance & Mental Health

I have struggled with my mental health in the form of anxiety for as long as I can remember. It’s a part of my daily being. I wake up with it, work with it, go to bed with it, every single day. Sometimes it’s like a shadow, lagging far enough behind that I barely notice it, but close enough to block a few rays throughout the day. Other times I wake up already exhausted, my throat itching at the thought of human contact.

My anxiety was crippling, dramatically affecting my mental health, until I found pole dancing.

It astounds me how people can just “run errands.” For me, a simple trip to the grocery store can be a monumental task, as questions like… What if I get into an accident on the way? What if someone laughs at me for something stupid I did? What if I forget my wallet and I’m forced to put back everything in my cart, while others are impatiently waiting? …flood my brain until I pay, grab my bags, and breathe a sigh of relief as I click my seat belt and sink into a safe space.

I used to think I was just lazy or had attachment issues when things that seemed easy for others proved more difficult for me. When I was a teenager, I wouldn’t work anywhere that my friends didn’t, and when I got my first job, I asked the manager to schedule me only during the hours my friend was working. You couldn’t get by without a car in the town which I grew up … still I didn’t drive until I was almost 18, hitching rides with my friends in the meantime.

I had a really hard time doing things by myself, but at the same time I absolutely loved being by myself, with my own thoughts, in my own realm. I just didn’t like being by myself in public, where the world was a sea of uncertainty. That’s why taking pole class on my own became such a big deal for me.

Pole Dance Changed Everything

Pole first sparked my interest after I read an article about it in the magazine I was writing for. I was working a 9 to 5 as a staff editor, enormously neglecting my body with shitty food and essentially no exercise, too exhausted for “me time” after a long day. I knew I needed something more than a gym membership; I needed to reconnect with my body and self. For whatever reason, a pole class seemed like just the remedy.

Naturally, I planned to take a class with a friend. We never made it happen, and I eventually ended up moving to a new city. I figured that while I was embarking on a new chapter, I might as well attempt to try pole on my own, in a place where I knew almost nobody. In a place where I couldn’t persuade anyone to come along to ease my issues.

I signed up for a “taster” class early in the day. The day of, I drove past the studio door a few times, at first to find parking, and then to buy time as I tried to subdue the panic swelling inside my body. I ended up driving home, tears streaming down my face, devastated that I allowed my anxiety to win.

I didn’t want my experience to set the tone for the new life I was starting for myself, so I signed right back up for another class the next week. That time, I made it through the door.

That day, I remember needing to change and sheepishly asking the person at the front desk where I could. She motioned to the locker room, an intimate area closed off only by a small white curtain. My clammy palms felt slick against the fabric as I pulled it close, carefully trying to conceal the edges and, in turn, myself.

In the midst of undress, I heard someone else walk in and ask where to change. The person at the desk assured them they could enter the locker room, an open space for students, despite my best efforts to hide there. My heart raced as the student walked in. It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable with my body, it was that once my presence was noticed, there would be no turning back.

I picked the pole closest to the corner. I wasn’t a natural, that’s for sure, but I’d be lying if I said I remembered much else about what we learned. What I do remember is the feeling I had afterward. I was not only proud of myself for what I pushed myself to do, I was excited and challenged, and I knew I wanted to come back.

I stayed quiet in my first few classes, but encouragement from students and the instructor made it easier for me to peel back layers of worry. There was no competition between any of us, just care. I never knew that a place of such support among women … strangers … could exist.

Pole dancing has not cured my anxiety, but has certainly given me opportunity to overcome fears and build confidence towards improved mental health.

It’s been almost two years since that first class. In that time, pole has changed my life immeasurably. My anxiety is still there, just alive as it’s ever been, but pole gave me a reason to confront many of my fears. On bad days, it gives me a reason to get out of the house when I’d rather seek shelter under blankets. On good days, it reminds me of what my body and mind are capable of.

It’s also made me feel more connected to myself than ever. I’ve felt strong and graceful in ways I never knew I could be, and I know I need take care of myself … by stretching well, eating well, moving well … in order to be at my best, in pole and in life. But just as much as pole connects me, it allows me to escape from all the noise in my head. When I leave class, no matter what I was or wasn’t able to do that day, the feeling of support and encouragement from all the other polers stays with me.

And since I started pole dancing on my own, I depend only on myself when it comes to how far I want to take it.

Sometimes, when I see beginners practicing, I think about their journeys. What it took for them to get to the studio, how excited they feel when they nail a new move, how inspired they are when they see people who were in their spots just a few years ago, doing tricks that are much more in their reach than they might think.

Even though people try pole dancing for all different reasons, I hope everyone feels like it has helped them overcome something in some way … whether it’s anxiety, inadequacy, weakness, or insecurity … because the profound affect pole dance has had on me makes me never want to let it go.

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About The Author

I originally took up pole dancing as a way to get fit and better connect with my body, but it has since become a lifestyle for me. When I'm not on the pole, I'm thinking about tricks I want to try, dreaming up choreography, or obsessing over pole videos on Instagram (my favorite pros to follow are Marlo Fisken, the Shimmy & Sparkle sisters, Olga Koda and Marion Crampe, but I love being inspired by the diverse talent of the entire community). I write to fund my pole habit, and in my spare time I also enjoy cooking vegan food and walking around Portland, Oregon, where I live, with my dog and husband. Visit Melanie on the web HERE.

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