A trip to Brandi’s Exotic Show Lounge was all it took for Crystal Lai’s life to do a 180.
She went to the strip club to celebrate her 19th birthday almost a decade ago. She never imagined she’d be so inspired that she’d later exchange her bachelor of science degree with a major in chemistry for a career teaching and performing pole dancing and participating in competitions around the globe.
“As soon as I walked into Brandi’s, I was hooked,” Lai says in an interview at a coffee shop near Tantra Fitness, where she leads pole-dancing classes. “It got to the point where my boyfriend got really tired of me wanting to go to strip clubs.
“I didn’t see it as anything provocative; I saw it as an art,” she adds. “They were beautiful performers. The more I saw, the more I was fascinated and intrigued by how they moved so fluidly around the pole.”
To be clear, Lai is not a stripper. Rather, through achievements like being named Miss Pole Dance Canada 2010 and making it to the finals at the first World Pole Cup in 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she’s become a passionate proponent of pole dancing as fitness and sport.
“I’ve always been athletic; growing up, I played basketball and volleyball and did track and field,” says Lai, 28. “Once I got into university, I couldn’t do all the competitive sports I’d been doing and I was looking at new ways to stay active. Pole dancing is a full-body workout. It takes a lot of endurance to stay on the pole even for three or four minutes.
“I’m not a gym-goer,” adds Lai, who still plays squash and basketball, does resistance training, and swims. “I can’t stand going on the elliptical or the treadmill. The more [pole dancing] classes you take, the more coordination you get. Pole dancing also increases your flexibility and increases your strength.”
Pole dancing is, indeed, becoming increasingly recognized as a sport rather than just another act at the peeler bar besides the shower. The first International Pole Championship took place in Manila in 2008, and divisions now include men’s, women’s, doubles, and disabled. The World Pole Championships, which take place in London every summer, also include a master’s division for people aged 40 and up and a youth division for those aged 10 to 17. The Canadian Pole Fitness Association, which holds a national championship every year, is working to build regional divisions across the country. The International Pole Dance Fitness Association is even pushing to have the activity become an Olympic event.
Despite efforts to have pole dancing taken more seriously outside the realm of places like Brandi’s, stereotypes are rampant.
“People always ask me if I’m a stripper or if I want to be a stripper,” Lai says. “When I go on dates, I don’t tell men anymore I’m a pole dancer. The first thing they say is, ‘I’ve got a pole. Do you want to dance on my pole?’ If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that…”
However, Lai says her parents, whom she describes as very traditional Chinese, are extremely supportive of her work, and so is her 87-year-old grandmother, who proudly carries Lai’s picture around with her to show friends.
“When I perform, I’m not provocative; it’s just not my style,” she says. “If people really don’t understand it, I show them a video of me performing that I value as a piece of artwork. Then they see what it can be.”
Lai credits Tammy Morris, a former exotic dancer and the founder of Tantra Fitness, for helping her discover her own style of pole dancing.
“She taught me the fundamentals and how to be comfortable with my own body, with my own movements, to define my own personality as a dancer and as a performer.”
Prior to taking up the sport, Lai had no experience in dance or gymnastics, a fact that she hopes will inspire others to give pole dancing a try. And rather than feel the need to have a “perfect” body to take up pole dancing, women tend to acquire a newfound self-confidence by practising the activity, says Lai, who notes that participants in her classes are all different ages and sizes. There are men and women, lawyers, doctors, stay-at-home moms, and students.
“As women, we’re all so hard on ourselves, and because of the way the media portrays how women should look…it makes it hard to accept our bodies. But it doesn’t matter what your body looks like. Through pole dancing, people become more accepting and confident and loving of their body the way it is.”