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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Gainesville pole dance studios find an empowering community, sisterhood with each other

Pole dancing studios rise in popularity despite stigma

Nathan Wydra dances as the opening act to Happy Kiss Pole Fitness’ Jingle Jam and Showcase on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023.
Nathan Wydra dances as the opening act to Happy Kiss Pole Fitness’ Jingle Jam and Showcase on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023.

An array of colors reflect off of the Happy Kiss Pole Dance Studio as the studio’s dancers twirl and glide into a split. The crowd watching them immediately erupted into a roar of cheers. 

These are the sounds of an uplifting Gainesville community that has found one another through solidarity and respect for the artful skill of pole dancing, said Johanna Monserratte, owner of the studio. Her business is just one of three studios that teach pole dance in the city, with several other gyms and fitness centers also offering classes.

Monserratte, a 36-year-old Miami native, discovered pole dancing classes in 2010 when her friend Abigail convinced her to take a studio class from Kitty Cat Pole Dancing in Miami. She already had previous dance experience and had taken group fitness classes, which helped her to be more self-motivated, she said.

Three years later, Monserratte moved to Gainesville and decided to hold pole dancing lessons in an extra bedroom of her house. By 2019, she opened her second and current studio space located at 501 NW 23rd Ave. Suite B.

At first, she was fearful of criticism because she thought Gainesville was more close-minded in comparison to Miami, which was a bustling hub of various pole dance studios. She then realized Gainesville’s slower pace of life was the right area to connect with people, she said. 

“It was actually the flip side because Gainesville is super open to ideas of gender nonconformity and the acceptance of different people and ideas, more so than what I find in Miami, especially when I go back and talk to people there,” she said.

Before the start of every class, Monserratte said students go around the room and practice gratitude by sharing something they feel grateful for that day. This reinforces the idea of community and bonding with other pole dancers.

Happy Kiss Dance Studio offers a beginner-friendly Immersion Signature Intro Series, where one instructor teaches students once a week for several weeks. When students are ready to advance, they can choose from different levels of classes that focus on fundamental and foundational skills.

“That’s how we make sure somebody brand new to pole isn’t taking a class where people are going to be upside down and trusting their bodies into pretzels,” Monserratte said. “It’s not a requirement we have for people, but we put that challenge in there for those who want more of a physical and flexibility challenge.”

Nathan Vyrda, a 21-year-old part-time Happy Kiss Dance Studio instructor, said pole dancing has been an outlet for his mental and physical health, which he thinks is important for college students to maintain.

“There's actually sort of a split within pole dancing itself. Some folks think of themselves as pole dancers, where they include the dance elements, the sensuality elements, the more sexy or fluid freestyle part of pole dancing,” Vydra said. 

“And then some folks say ‘I only do tricks. It's pole fitness or pole sport,’ and they don't like to associate with the sensuality side, because it's so stigmatized due to its association of sex work,” he added. 

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Jacqueline Valdez, the 51-year-old owner of Jacqueline Valdez Dance Studio, comes from an extensive professional modern ballet dance background.

However, her dance career was momentarily halted after various car accidents, and she started rehabilitating her body through pilates and other physical training. 

In 2000, she decided to take a leap and teach individual private fitness lessons in the studio she converted from a garage. Previously, she was teaching at UF, Santa Fe College and the Gainesville Health Fitness Center. 

Then, in 2011, she took a pole dancing class in Gainesville and immediately fell in love with it. 

Six months later, she auditioned for the Florida Pole Fitness Championship in Orlando, which helped her gain exposure in the pole dance industry. She then went to New York to train and received her pole dancing certification, all while bonding with a girl she met in class who is still her friend she decided to purchase poles with.

“With my background, I helped us with choreography and technique,” she said “And then with her strengths, she helped spot us. Then I put on my first performance at my studio.” 

In 2012, Valdez started offering her pole fitness classes.

“I just wanted to make pole dancing available to everybody,” Valdez said. “I know some people have not tried it because they're scared of the stigma, which is getting better because we're trying to get pole dancing into the Olympics.”

She attributes the growing popularity of pole dancing to social media, TV shows, movies, articles and competitions, including the Pole Championship Series, which is a part of the Arnold Sports Festival — an annual multi-fitness competition founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Jacqueline Valdez Studio, located at 4003 NW 18th Place, also offers ballroom, burlesque, pilates and yoga classes.

Renee Strauss, the 38-year-old owner of The Wild Sky Pole Dance Studio, also has a professional dance background and started studio pole dancing in 2017.

Previously, she was a student and instructor at Happy Kiss Dance Studio. 

On Nov. 22, 2022, she opened her studio located at 1002 NW 2nd St. Suite B, Gainesville.

The Wild Sky Pole Dance Studio offers two types of classes: fundamental movement and choreography class. 

Both classes offer different styles of pole dance where students work throughout the month learning dance-based pole dancing through choreography. 

Although pole dancing is an organic expression of sexuality and sensuality, some people are still not comfortable with its roots and connotations to sex work, sexual expression and sex in general, Strauss said. 

“There is a fine balance of not sanitizing pole dance, but also not pigeonholing pole dance to be solely a sexy style of dance because it really has evolved to include contemporary dance and gymnastics,” she said.

Danielle Duncan, a 29-year-old member at Happy Kiss Studio, said she believes destigmatizing pole dancing can be done by listening and expanding people’s personal bubbles.

“They’ll learn that beneath pole dancing, they’re human just like everybody else. They should not have a weird or stigmatized label on it because at the end of the day, these are the same activities as everything else,” Duncan said. 

Monserratte tries not to use the word empowerment because it implies a person who has not taken a pole dance class is powerless, she said. 

“You’re already powerful as you are, and the act of signing up for a class, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, meeting new people and moving your body in a way you haven’t before is a powerful act,” Monserratte said. “All we are is the key to the door, but you have to turn it.”

Contact Kat Tran at Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 

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