How Becoming a Competitive Pole Dancer Helped Me Appreciate My Body

Like any other type of dance, it's a way to express yourself any way you want.

Tristabel Akila
Photo: Alloy Images

When I first found out about pole-dancing classes, I was really taken aback. "Oh my gosh, this is so scandalous. Who would actually do this?" I had thought to myself while browsing through the studios in my Des Moines neighborhood. But the more I investigated, the less intimidating—and more exhilarating—pole dancing looked, so I decided to give it a go.

Ten minutes into my first pole workout class a decade ago, my jitters disappeared—it felt like being in a playground as a kid—and I haven't looked back. Today, I teach pole classes on the side (my day job is as a dental hygienist) and compete as a pole athlete at tournaments (stage name: Tristabel).

Changing the Way I Thought About Fitness

In the past, I've joined gyms and felt completely overwhelmed with all the equipment and heavy-lifters, so I'd stick to my numbingly boring workout of walking on the treadmill for 45 minutes. When I started pole, I didn't realize how intense of a workout it was until I woke up sore the next day.

A pole workout is a mix of upper-body strength, cardio, and flexibility combined with music—but you don't have to be strong, thin, and flexible or a dancer. Just try, and you'll lose yourself in it.

Connecting on Another Level

For a long time, I stood at the back of classes. But like a lot of the women I teach, I started to look at myself differently in the mirror. Rather than feeling embarrassed, I began celebrating my body. (Susan Skinner, a pole dancer who started taking classes at 69 years old, agrees.)

Pole dancing gave me the chance to start celebrating and connecting with people from all walks of life too. The sport brings together so many different personalities, professions, backgrounds, and life experiences to create this huge community of people supporting one another, and I've been lucky enough to consider many of them my best friends.

Building a Sense of Empowerment

My mom had breast cancer when she was 41, not much older than me right now. I started getting mammograms at 23, and I walked around for decades feeling like a ticking time bomb. In 2016, I made the decision to have a preventative double mastectomy.

I wasn't allowed to do anything for about three months after the surgery, and I knew returning to pole dancing would be hard. But I wanted to show women how to come out on the other side of this battle doing what they enjoy and being strong and sexy. Now, I no longer look at my body and praise it—or criticize it—based on how I look. It's all based on what my body can do.

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