Happy Kiss Pole Fitness all started with a pastel pink birthday card.
Johanna Monserratte, 34-year-old owner and lead instructor of the pole dance studio, received the card from her young niece, Isabella, in November 2013. In lowercase scribbles, the back of the card read “happy kiss.”
At the time, Monserratte was seeking a personal name for her pole dancing business. When she read “happy kiss,” she knew it was the right fit.
“I thought it was the sweetest, gentlest thing and it went along with the values that I wanted in the studio which I will always say is about creating a safe, welcoming environment,” she said.
The business began in March 2014 in a 250-square-foot spare bedroom at Monserratte’s house. She had two poles installed into her home and curtained off the living room, dining room and kitchen. Students were greeted by her fluffy orange and white cat on the porch and practiced in the bedroom, spinning at Monserratte’s lead so as not to kick each other or the wall.
As her business grew, Monserratte and her three instructors at the time relocated to a larger commercial space on 125 NW 23 Ave. There, she set up nine poles and slowly, the business grew.
During their classes, students warm up with aerobics, learn choreography or basic movements, as in the Level beginner classes, from an instructor and practice the movements to upbeat music. Every day, Monserratte lights a lavender, jasmine or vanilla scented candle to enhance the smell of the room.
Classes with names like “FloorPlay,” a reference to foreplay, allude to the sensual nature of pole dancing. Monserratte said that her and the instructors enjoy using cheeky puns and sexual innuendos for their classes, such as “flexy Fridays” for their flexibility class.
“I'm usually the first one to be cheesy and say ‘that's what she said’ whenever the moment arises,” Monserratte said. “I feel like my personality is really goofy and I try to create that space for people to be like ‘okay so even though we're working on our sensual and sexy side it doesn't mean that there isn't a little bit of humor that can go along with that to lighten the mood.’”
At the end of the month, students showcase the dances they learn, wearing anything that makes them feel confident or “sexy” like makeup, lingerie, or costumes.
The studio has floor-length mirrors, which for many students can be intimidating. Even so, Monserratte said that the studio is a judgment-free zone.
One of Monserratte’s goals is for the students to “feel a little more comfortable with that face that is looking back at them in the mirror.” She said that people of any size can pole dance.
“I've seen girls that can do crazy tricks, climb, get upside down, everything, no matter what the size,” Monserratte said. “It's just a matter of learning to love your body as it is right now in the moment.”
Instructor Marina Karin, a 33-year-old Gainesville resident, encourages students to find and look at themselves in the eye through the mirror. While taking classes at Happy Kiss, Karin auditioned to be a teacher and became an instructor in July of 2017. She began pole dancing in 2014.
Karin calls her own choreography strange and macabre with movements varying based on the her mood each day.
“It looks uncomfortable and contorted and I think that a lot of times my emotions tend to feel that way as well and then I can kind of tease through and untangle them and see them a little bit more clearly for what they are,” she said. “It's definitely emotionally driven movement.”
Growing up, Karin was accustomed to feeling ashamed of her body.
“I went through a really self-abusive stage of life where I really treated my body very poorly for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t think highly of it I didn't treat it well, and so when I got into pole dancing it was this really cool shift into seeing that my body is capable and strong.”
Karin largely attributes her personal development to the pole dancing community.
“For me, coming into the pole dance community it was really important that I had found this space that had allowed me to be sensual or to be intimate and to be sexual with my body in a space that was very safe and uplifting and encouraging,” she said. “And that's not something I find very often, especially as a woman.”
With pole dancing finding its roots in stripping, Monserratte said she celebrates all sex workers, especially strippers.
“If it weren't for strippers bringing their friends home and teaching them pole tricks, the world of pole dancing would've never opened up and expanded like it did the last 15 to 20 years,” she said.
When Monserratte began pole dancing, it was a “fun little secret.” She was drawn to pole dancing because of the ability to strut in heels and roll her body without judgement.
Monserratte believes the sexual aspect of pole dancing is often overlooked, yet is crucial to pole dancing.
“Just being able to help people liberate themselves from the stigma of allowing yourself to feel sexy or be sexy, whether that is in movement or how you dress or how you carry yourself is a big thing,” Monserratte said.
Monserratte said that over time, the students evolve irreversibly. Like butterflies, they transform into more confident versions of themselves as they fly around the pole.
“I've seen students become extremely confident, dance differently, walk differently, talk differently seeing them come into their first class compared to seeing them three months, six months and even a couple years later and you'll see a completely different person and that's always really empowering,” she said.
Now, Karin said that pole dancing is much less taboo.
“I've been lucky enough to kind of be on the tail end of the social acceptance for pole dancing,” she said. “I've never felt stigmatized or discriminated against because I pole dance.”
With people from all different sexual orientations, sizes, races and cultures, Karin finds the diversity in the studio empowering.
“I think it's so amazing to see people from all different walks of life come together and find this thing that they all love so much that they are willing to love and accept one another regardless of any differences that they have and start to understand that it's okay to have those differences and to still be one with each other and a part of the same thing,” she said.
For months, Happy Kiss classes have had a waitlist. Now that the studio is closed as a safety precaution for COVID-19, Monserratte and the staff can focus on moving to the new location at 501 NW 23 AVE, a few blocks from its current location, to expand the space and add more poles.
While the studio is closed, the instructors will host classes on Zoom. These classes include conditioning, flexibility, twerk and floorwork.
Even though times are uncertain, Monserratte finds an anchor in pole dancing.“I'll always try to check in with myself and make sure ‘hey you know pole dancing is supposed to be fun’ and I try to go back to that thought whenever things get stressful like they are right now.”
Contact Katie Delk at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @katie_delk.