When Joel Burns mounts a pole to striptease for a bachelorette party, he'll exit the stage 15 minutes later with $1,400.
It's mad money, but the 25-year-old Bronzeville resident—who by day works as a banker, bartender, model and security guard—is ready to share his art with all Chicago dudes, even if they're not looking to bring sexy back onstage. Burns claims to be the city's first male pole-dance instructor, making his Sept. 4 debut with a series of co-ed pole dance workshops at Good Gyrrl Studio in Bridgeport.
"I thought it would be so negative by me being a male doing pole. I kept that like my little secret," Burns said. "I didn't want to hear the judgment, stereotypes and criticisms of us until it was like, 'OK, this is a talent, it makes me unique, I'm gonna share.' Mainly it keeps me in shape—it tightens up your arms, your core and it's actually a good fitness for you, so you don't have to go to the gym."
Burns is part of an emerging movement of male pole dancers, both locally and nationally. Of Chicago's 11 pole studios, four offer co-ed classes to a handful of men overall: Good Gyrrl Studio, The Brass Ring, Stiletto Dance Studios and Chicago Academy of Pole and Dance, which opens the week of Sept. 1. Two other studios, Corporate Pole and S Factor, said they would offer co-ed classes if more men expressed interest, and Corporate Pole is looking for a male instructor.
The stereotypically feminine gyrations fuse two ancient, male-dominated dance forms—Chinese pole and Mallakhamb, or Indian Pole—with circus-based exotic dance from traveling fairs during the Great Depression. Strippers' poles didn't appear in gentlemen's clubs until the 1980s, and pole fitness went mainstream in L.A. and New York within the past decade. Pole dancing slowly made its way to Chicago, where more studios started opening in the past five years.
Chicago is a baby to the industry, and it's just beginning to make room for men on the pole, Chicago Academy of Pole and Dance owner Italia Cordaro, 35, of the West Loop said. Men come to the pole from various fitness backgrounds like cheerleading, gymnastics, aerial silks and acrobatic arts.
"Training a man is more different than training a woman—our bodies, the way we move and the way we're structured is very different," Cordaro said. "What a lot of studios haven't realized yet either is that there can be couples movements with pole dancing. It's something that studios have yet to scratch the surface with."
Often, men who want to pole dance have trouble finding a co-ed studio. James Haas, a Vaudezilla boylesque performer who goes by the stage name Willy LaQueue, learned to pole dance when he joined the Illini Pole Fitness student group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012.
When the 23-year-old Edgewater resident moved to Chicago last year, he searched relentlessly for a studio, but found nothing until The Brass Ring opened in December. Haas says some local studios require prior notice before class, so instructors can tell female students a man will be there.
"It's a lot of people's first concern that I'm not there to check out boobs or something," Haas said. "Guys have to be respectful of women's comfort. It's really important that women have a place that they can go to be sexy and judgment-free, and be fit and active without having to be stared at by men."
Haas said "slut shaming" comes with sexualized performances like pole and burlesque: "As a male performer I've noticed that for me there's not only that judgment or stigma around sexy performances, but also people have to kind of grapple with the fact that I'm doing feminine things. There are some hints of homophobia there too."
The city's pole boys exist, but they're often disconnected from each other or unaware of co-ed offerings. Haas said it's hard for male pole dancers to find each other because the only place to meet other dancers is in pole classes.
Ryan Castillo, a fitness instructor, said he hasn't found co-ed classes in Chicago and plans to check out Cordaro's new studio in September.
"I don't necessarily want a male space," said Castillo, a 33-year-old Logan Square resident. "I want a space. It'd be great if there was a place where men and women could come together and just have a place to express themselves artistically and that would be that."
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