Light as a feather: Aerial classes break taboos at Phoenix Dance Studio

Dance instructor Erica Barga hoops it up at Phoenix Dance Studio, where she also teaches pole dancing and silks. Photo: Amanda Maglione Dance instructor Erica Barga hoops it up at Phoenix Dance Studio, where she also teaches pole dancing and silks. Photo: Amanda Maglione

Erica Barga has been living and breathing all things dance since she was a kid. Tap, jazz, ballet, ballroom—as long as she was moving across a dance floor, she was happy. It wasn’t until 2004, when she was teaching ballroom at a studio in Washington, D.C., that she first took a class with her feet off the floor.

“The studio had just started offering pole dancing, so I thought I’d give it a try,” Barga said. “My background was in ballet, so everything was from the waist down and I didn’t really use my arms. I’d never done any aerial dance or upper-body stuff before, and I kind of wasn’t really sure what I was even getting into.”

She took the class on a whim, and quickly got sucked into a style of dance and fitness that, despite being considered risqué and taboo, she ended up building her career around. It’s been 11 years since she did her first spin around a pole, and she has since moved to Charlottesville and opened the Phoenix Dance Studio, which offers classes in pole, exotic, burlesque and belly dancing, plus lyra (hoop) and silks, the aerial dance style seen in Cirque du Soleil. The studio also offers private lessons, workshops and parties in addition to regular group classes.

Particularly when it comes to pole, Barga said one of the most compelling aspects of aerial dance is its versatility.

“It’s something you can do purely as fitness if you want,” she said. “Or you can do it to explore your sexy side. It can be sexy, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s totally up to you.”

The stigma around pole dancing undoubtedly still exists, but even so, Barga said it remains the most sought after style at the studio.

“The pole is really a constant in terms of popularity,” she said, noting that other classes like lyra and silks tend to ebb and flow. “It’s just always something that people want to at least check off their bucket list.”

At the Friday evening pole dancing class last week, about a dozen women (all at least 18 years old, per the studio’s age requirement for pole) filled a narrow room with hardwood floors, wall-length mirrors, and six floor-to-ceiling poles. Instructor Brynne Levy, whose only prior dance experience was a few years of Irish dance as a kid, led the group through a series of basic warm-up stretches before dividing us into pairs at each pole. Most of the women had been to enough classes that when Levy handed them sheets of paper with a list of moves to practice, they began twirling and sliding around the poles, laughing and casually chatting with one another between moves.

In our own corner, two other newbies and I watched Levy as she walked us through the basic beginner moves. With straight backs, pointed toes and one hand grasping the pole high above our heads, one at a time we practiced walking slowly and confidently around the pole, pivoting 180 degrees in a full turn, and spinning halfway around the pole with one leg at a 45-degree angle. When Levy had me hook one leg around the pole, slowly bend into a forward-fold, and then snap my head back up—you know, with the hair-flip, like you’ve seen in the movies—I couldn’t help but comment on how hard it was to take myself seriously. A woman who had just climbed the pole next to ours and spun around several feet in the air in a bow-and-arrow position laughed and said “That’s kind of the point.”

With a few minutes remaining in the hour-long class, Levy flipped off the lights, instructed me and the other first-timers to have a seat along the wall, and announced that it was “freestyle time.” She reminded the class that it wasn’t a performance, but an opportunity to improvise and practice putting moves together with music.

“The idea is to not let anybody know that you don’t know what you’re doing or if you just messed up,” Levy said.

The class didn’t leave me feeling like I’d just had a workout, but it was clear from the moves that Levy and the more experienced students displayed that after a couple classes I would certainly drive home with sore arms. What did result in a couple days of soreness and a surprising desire to return to the studio, however, was a silks and lyra class with Barga. Channeling my 8-year-old self on the monkey bars, I found odd satisfaction in swinging from giant swaths of silk and hanging upside down from a metal hoop. Pulling my body weight up into the hoop and through the silks worked forearm and shoulder muscles that I didn’t even know I had, and at the same time it turns out being graceful is a lot easier in the air than on the floor. 

“It’s just fun,” Barga said. “I don’t want to go to the gym or walk on a treadmill. But if you tell me I can dance around and do it in the air, I’m on board.”

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