Sept. 17, 2010 -- The recent pole dance fitness craze has taken a traditional strip-club act into the realm of sport and self-expression -- but as with any athletic activity, risk of injury is ever-present, especially when you're dangling upside-down by your ankles, four feet off the ground.
The dangers of pole acrobatics were made clear recently when a 32-year-old U.K. mother of two fell on her head while performing a trick, breaking her neck and severely damaging her spine, according to the U.K. press.
Debbie Plowman of Haxby, U.K., was no newbie. She had been pole dancing for two years and had performed the move that injured her, a cross-ankle release, many times before. She initially was paralyzed and now, nine months later, remains unable to talk or breathe on her own, though she has regained limited movement in her neck, shoulders and stomach, the U.K. press reported.
Pole-themed fitness classes like the one Plowman frequented have brought pole dancing to the masses, filling gyms with amateur enthusiasts and first-time polers. But while pole acrobatics increasingly may be seen as something fun, flirty and empowering, that doesn't mean it should be taken casually. Without proper training, students of the pole easily can get hurt.
"It's a risky sport," said Alexandra Hellquist, 24, a New York-based actor and former pole dance instructor who founded the Brown University Poler Bears pole-dancing troupe when she was a student there.
"You are upside down and using muscle groups you usually don't use in your everyday life," she said. "Any time you have acrobatics and aerial stunts, it's going to have a lot of risk involved.
"I think the fact that it has spread to gyms is a great thing for the art," she added. "But I would really hope that instructors would bear the responsibility of impressing upon their students that it carries its dangers. Safety needs to be your number one priority."
Hot Fitness Trend
After celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Kate Moss raved about pole dancing as a supreme workout, one of the first gyms to jump on the bandwagon in 2007 was Crunch gym, based in New York City, said company spokeswoman, Kelsey Kyro.
Today the gym offers both beginner and advanced classes, described on its website as a "challenging and sexy class" that will "turn even the shyest performers into toned and sultry vixens."
Though the class started out drawing from instructors with real-world pole experience, today the gym has an 8-hour ACE/AFAA accredited training program for all its instructors, said Donna Cyrus, senior vice president of programming for Crunch.
But with two or sometimes more students to a pole in any given class, how does the gym ensure everybody's safety?
Students are required to master one move before they can move up in difficulty to the next and display a certain level of strength and skill before being allowed to do more difficult moves, Cyrus said.
But even in beginner classes, accidents can strike.
Sue Ann Wee, a New York City dermatologist, is suing Crunch for an alleged shoulder injury sustained last January during her first time attending one of its pole dancing classes, according to the New York Daily News. She allegedly fell while upside down because, she claimed in court documents, she was not properly supervised and assisted.
Crunch declined to comment on Wee's lawsuit.
The Ins and Outs of Pole Safety
Safety concerns are no reason to swear off the pole altogether, instructors say.
Like other acrobatic sports such as gymnastics or competitive cheerleading, dancers need to work up to more difficult moves slowly to pole dance safely, said Wendy Traskos, 39, who owns NY Pole Dancing, a studio in New York City.
"We have a strong structure of progressed levels of training in our studio with an emphasis on building strength and timing," Traskos said.
Beginner classes at her studios in New York and Michigan only allow students to spin and climb on the pole.
Inverts, moves where you suspend yourself upside down, are not attempted until more advanced classes, and crash mats are put down for students attempting such moves for the first time, she said. Most students also are spotted by instructors when attempting more difficult moves.
For those practicing at home or without spotters, other safety precautions can ward off injuries, Hellquist said.
"Always attempt inverts from the ground first," she said. "If you're going to discover that you can't actually hold yourself upside down, you definitely want to discover that one inch from the ground rather than five feet up."
Once you're actually holding yourself upside down, keep your head tucked into your chest, she added, so that if you do slip, you're less likely to hurt your neck.
Patience and safety go hand-in-hand for this sport, instructors said. Jumping into more difficult moves without the proper training, strength, focus and precautions is a recipe for disaster.
"It's a beautiful, challenging acrobatic art form," Hellquist said. "I'd love to see pole acrobatics embraced by people of all gender identities, ages and body types. One of the things that will make that possible is to make sure it's taught in a safe, responsible way."