It was a crush on a girl that led Anthony Abbonato to Illini Pole Fitness last year, where anyone could learn a new move for $1 at one of the campus group's open pole dance classes. By the end of the class, he'd spent nearly $15.
Today, Abbonato is the college group's only male pole dance instructor (and dating another girl—she's not a pole dancer). In the studio, you might spot him in short black shorts emblazed with the silver-lettered words "Pole Star" on the back.
OK, hold up: A college pole dancing club that stands out in the typical sea of language groups, honor societies and sororitastic bake sales? Genius. Miranda Dashut was a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student when she mounted two poles in her living room and started IPF two years ago.
Founded to promote pole dance and aerial arts as a sport, the group since has grown to nearly 100 active members, about 15 percent of whom are men, said IPF director Cassie Palmer, a 30-year-old educational psychology Ph.D student. Palmer also directs Pole 51 in Champaign, where IPF holds classes.
"I really enjoy feeling like my body can do really amazing things because I was always the scrawny guy throughout high school, who just ran really fast but there wasn't much to me," Abbonato, a 21-year-old senior kinesiology major, said. "I always had this difficulty in college with guys wanting to get big. I tried working out and nothing really helped until I found pole. That helped me a lot with some of the issues I was dealing with, and I really feel more comfortable in my own skin."
Both Abbonato and Palmer said that although the gay stereotype exists for male pole dancers, IPF is a mix of gay and straight men. They say the university is mostly accepting of the campus group. "I've had students mention they'll get heckled, but for the most part it's very well received," Palmer said. "We're close enough to Chicago with all the aerial stuff there that I think people understand it."
Abbonato said a lot of U. of I. guys falsely assume he joined IPF to watch the girls. In the studio, though, he says IPF breaks down traditional gender roles.
"I see guys show a lot more femininity in class than they would out with guys," Abbonato said. "When I walk in I'm very feminine. It's like seeing a new me because I feel comfortable showing that side of me."
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.Copyright © 2015, RedEye