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That one time I took a pole-dancing class in Portugal….


Thumbnail for That one time I took a pole-dancing class in Portugal….
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Photo: @shanti via Twenty20

One of the things I love best about my job as a journalist is that it forces me to do things that make me uncomfortable. So, when my editor asks if anyone on staff wants to try taking a boutique fitness class in a foreign language, I jump at the opportunity.

The week-long solo trip I have planned for Porto, Portugal seems like the perfect time to check out a sweat sesh that’s not taught in my native tongue. As it turns out, however, it’s not as easy as you might think, despite the country’s reputation as a new healthy hotspot, and specially not within the span of the just 1.5 days—a Friday, when most studios seem to be closed, and a Saturday morning—I have left in which to make it happen.

Long story and several stressful snafus—lost wallet, a nonexistent studio Google Maps swears exists, etc.—later, I finally walk into the last class I’m able to find scheduled anywhere in the city that’ll still allow me to make my flight home to Los Angeles. It’s a pole-dancing class, which is a genre that seems popular in Porto. (Not just a U.S. fitness fad, go figure.)

It’s 10:30 a.m. when I enter the little fourth-floor studio breathlessly, relieved to find that there is, indeed, a studio. A well-toned man sits at the front on a yoga mat and behind him, staggered between poles, sit a woman my age (inexplicably wearing a dress) and a woman twice my age. “Can I join?” I ask the man shamelessly in English, too frazzled to try to figure out how to form this particular phrase with my remedial Portuguese vocabulary. “Yes,” he says reluctantly, seemingly none-to-thrilled by my accent. “But it’ll be taught in Portuguese.”

I smile and grab a mat, happy to be fulfilling my mission at long last. Things, however, get weird, like, immediately

I smile and grab a mat, happy to be fulfilling my mission at long last. Things, however, get weird, like, immediately. To begin the class, the instructor turns on a soundtrack that maybe strippers in purgatory would dance to, but no one else. It’s slow, dreary music. Then, he hands us each a tissue. “Obrigado?” I say—meaning “thank you”— though I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it. As I tentatively wipe my hands, the others began to blow their noses in unison. I quickly follow suit, not wanting to offend, though my nose is clean. Perhaps, I think, this is a courtesy at the beginning of class so that snot won’t go flying in all directions as we work the pole?

Next, the instructor, begins to slowly, and I mean slowly, lead us in some stretches, which seems like a normal course of action…at first. They quickly became painful and tortuous. This isn’t a man who believes in “listening to your body,” as he expects the three of us—all approximately at the same level of (non) flexibility—to conquer each stretch fully. As in, the guy pushes me down into the splits, which I haven’t been able to do since I was 14, and makes me stay there as the clock on the wall slowly and loudly ticks away the seconds.

Here’s where I feel I should mention, at the risk of TMI, that I’ve acquired angry-looking rashes in both of my armpits, which seem confoundingly-resistant to the remedies prescribed them by pharmacists in both Spain and Portugal. In an effort to keep them from further irritation, I have ceased shaving in the area. This double-whammy does not endear me to the instructor—himself clean-shaven everywhere I could see, including the under-arm region—but neither does it stop him from pushing me into my discomfort zone. He just does so with a look of utter disgust on his face—he’d definitely be more comfortable in a Hazmat suit and frankly, I don’t blame him.

Stretching leads to posing—the likes of which my Y7 vinyasa-loving self has never attempted.

As stretching leads to posing—advanced-level posing, the likes of which my Y7 Vinyasa-loving self has never attempted—I begin to question whether or not we’ll be getting on the poles at all. And here again, the instructor pushes us to be as good as he is at all kinds of contortions and balances. When we aren’t, or when I give up (as I do…a lot) he gets frustrated and insists we try again, pulling and manipulating our bodies into the shapes he desires. Even the girl in the skirt who, it turns out, has nothing but a thong on underneath, does not escape his punishing attentions.

Oddly, it seems I’m the only one hating every minute of this endeavor. Or maybe I’m just the only one who feels as though the instructor has pulled more than two of my muscles within 45 minutes. The other women are smiling, particularly the older one. Though no more adept than I, they seem to like this strange form of torture.

Perhaps, I think, this is where I’m getting lost in translation.

Perhaps, I think, this is where I’m getting lost in translation. It’s likely the instructor is cooing words of encouragement at us that I cannot understand, providing instruction that’ll help us place our body parts with greater comfort, and even offering words of wisdom to make the pain feel like a part of the plan. If so, I’m missing all of it, understanding only “seis, cinco, quatro, três, dois, um” because this countdown means I’m close to being allowed to vacate a posture.

Long story longer, we never do make it to the pole. Instead, for a full 90 minutes, my body is pushed and pulled into various shapes unnatural. It’s a yoga class, I suppose, but most of the moves seem to have been invented by this man.

The funny (or funniest) thing about the whole experience is that I’d purposely avoided yoga when trying to book a class, for two reasons. The first is that I take yoga classes often, so I assumed it would not be challenging, and the second is that I’d figured yoga would be easy to follow in any language. What I discounted in that assumption was that much of a yoga practice depends upon the teachers’ words. Without them, this practice wasn’t practice but rather punishment.

It was in these last 90 minutes of my trip—which I’d spent largely questioning my life back home, barely taking in the sights as my mind looped through regrets and fears—that I was finally present.

Still, it was in these last 90 minutes of my trip—which I’d spent largely questioning my life back home, barely taking in the sights as my mind looped through regrets and fears—that I was finally present. And there was a moment in the midst of all the pain that I thought, “Wow, how amazing and wonderful is it that my life has brought me here, to this pole dancing studio in Portugal?” Mindfulness, it seems, is a yoga-specific benefit that translates no matter the language.

I still don’t know what happened to the pole, though.

Love combining travel and fitness? Here are 7 healthy destinations to add to your bucket list, stat. Plus, get all the deets on Well+Good’s next wellness retreat.

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