Photograph by Jessica Breault
“As you learn to hold yourself in certain ways, you access your internal power,” explains Natalie Abeja, a business owner, dance teacher and mom.
Abeja and her business partner, Naomi Leitu, are the proud owners of Body High Pole Dance in Arcata, California. A micro-sized studio, the main room is painted hot pink, accented by floor-to-ceiling mirrors and tooth-picked with gleaming silver poles. The funky and inviting space is a study in contrast from the cold misty landscape outside the studio window at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning.
Body High’s pole-yoga fusion teacher, Amy Jo Molloy/Aijun, turns on a small space heater and begins warming up her students, leading us through juicy, feel-good iterations of downward dog and plank. Moments later, we’re plenty warm as we begin moving from our center, a place far more sacred (and further south) than the core everyone talks about at the gym. At Body High, teachers invite students to move from a more primal place or what Abeja calls, “our little energetic portals.”
“In our culture, women [femmes] don’t have permission to move in overtly sexual ways. As a stripper, I was given that permission to move in that specific way,” says Abeja. “But if you walk down the street dressed like Jessica Rabbit, you’re going to be seen as inviting unwanted energy. So often, there’s no space to do it.”
Enter Body High Pole Dance: Abeja and Leitu first started teaching impromptu pole classes in a friend’s garage. They steadily expanded into larger and more public spaces as the word got out. People would flag Abeja down on the street, asking, “Do you teach pole dancing?” They realized there was something there. Abeja developed her athletic prowess and toolbox of sexy moves while working as a stripper at Humboldt County’s legendary Tip Top Club. Abeja is unabashed about the classic hard-times tale that led her to the strip club, but she’s equally candid while sharing how dancing, and now teaching, have positively transformed her life. When her students started reporting back about breakthroughs in intimacy or having new confidence in public, Abeja realized how much the community needed a space like Body High.
When students sign up for “Beginner Pole” or “Stripper Style” courses, they’re guaranteed a safe, inclusive and stigma-free public space to explore bold and sensual movements, absent from the male gaze. After getting hooked on strengthening their bodies and tapping into their sexual power, they can advance to “Pole Tricks” or “Choreography in Heels.”
Watching students find another side of themselves in the mirror, the Body High teachers love encouraging dancers to try new tricks, or simply channel their inner Janet Jackson while rocking eight inch heels for the first time. Since opening last year, two simple rules have helped to engender a body positive atmosphere that helps keep classes full: no photos without consent, and no boyfriends!
Abeja self-funded Body High through cash she earned as a stripper, allowing her and Leitu to divorce their business from dependency on financial institutions and investment offers from male customers. Molloy/Aijun adds that having two non-white women owning a business is, “a big deal..” for the area, and does much to strengthen the culture of inclusivity at Body High.
When the studio first opened, it was a female only space; Abeja and Leitu believed it was their duty to safeguard their students from the exploitive male gaze. Tweaking the business model based on their student’s diverse backgrounds, today Body High welcomes non-binary individuals and men, with students ranging from ages 15-65. (Their first male teacher, Ben, teaches “Pole Tricks” every Friday night at 6 p.m.). The social history of deriding pole dance as something done by a “certain kind of woman,” makes the art form an ideal conduit for empowering individuals who have been historically disrespected.
“Don’t let go of the pole!” Molloy/Aijun tells me. “That’s the most important thing.” Anyone whose braved a pole-dancing class knows that mind over matter is fundamental to enjoying the experience. But the Body High teachers aren’t shy about denying the raw strength and physicality required to gracefully whip your body around a slippery pole. A fiery red-haired yoga teacher, Molloy/Aijun has taught belly dance all over the world and understands how embedded primal movement is within non-Western cultures.
“That dormant stuff in the spine is no joke,” explains Molloy/Aijun, recalling how many student’s she’s seen release emotional blockages through moving the hips and pelvis. While an effusive and endlessly encouraging teacher, Molloy/Aijun doesn’t lie – pole dancing is hard! A credit to the athleticism required to fly around a pole, the International Sports Federation is currently observing pole dancing as a sport. If approved, it would be an official event in future Olympics. Though an exciting proposition that would honor hard working female dancers who paved the way, Body High isn’t too concerned whether people consider it a sport or an art form. They view pole dancing as way to heal trauma – and cannabis as medicine that can help.
When Abeja and Leitu named the studio, they settled on Body High as a nod to the regions iconic cannabis economy. Abeja believes that using cannabis helps students access deeper flexibility and can be a powerful learning tool. Students at the Arcata studio feel comfortable vaping in the parking lot before class, blending the historic rituals of herb and dance, as culture allows. In the future, the owners hope to teach classes where students can engage in “ritualistic medicine” together.
“A pole studio puts the power back in women’s hands, taking apart a femininity that’s been fragmented, and saying you can be all things, not just one thing,” explains Abeja.
Turning judgments about stoners and strippers on their heads, Body High Pole Dance is thriving as a cultural center for body positivity, education, healing and femme-centered athleticism.
Visit BodyHighPoleDance.com for more information and schedule of classes or drop-in during your next visit to beautiful Humboldt County.