It’s 7:15 p.m. on election night, and I’m wondering if the Democrats have taken Congress as I lie on my back, resting my weight on the balls of my feet, and giving my pelvis a run for its money while Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited” echoes off deep red walls in a dimly lit room.
I have decided to try pole dancing at Poleates, a fitness/pole-dancing studio in Westlake Village. Purely to get in shape.
During the routine, I hit all the “core muscle” spots that are targeted in more conventional Pilates classes while I am technically learning marketable skills. That’s the point of it — to strengthen core, specifically abdominal, muscles.
“I call them sensual moves,” says instructor and studio owner Caterina “Cat” Gennaro of the exotic dance routine. “It’s body awareness. I think any kind of body awareness is sensual.”
It isn’t just Pilates; there are traces of yoga as well.
“It’s a full body workout — it’s kind of like an adult monkey bars,” explains Gennaro.
The monkey bars in this case run vertically instead of horizontally: four poles affixed, floor to ceiling, in corners of the room. And yet, for all the blue associations I might have with such a feature, spinning around one does feel like being on the playground again.
The last Pilates class I took was in a musty gym, led by an extremely fit woman in her sixties who was given to yelling “Zip! Tuck!” in a strong Scottish accent while I wavered to the best of Billy Idol. Though there was a bond among all the students — the kind of bond that comes only of knowing how weak you really are, at your center — on my return to Pilates, I look for something a bit edgier.
As Gennaro points out, fitness doesn’t come easily, specifically to her demographic, a large portion of whom are wives and mothers. In my class that Tuesday night, participants are mostly young, hovering around the 25 to 30 range. But there is at least one woman who could be accurately described as middle-aged.
And the numbers don’t lie: Gennaro estimates that about 70 percent of her regulars quit their other gyms.
Still … I expect to be straddling a folding chair by the end of the night.
Not so, although “lap dance” is an optional component of the class. (In all fairness, there is a fitness component to even the most personalized of stripping routines. With the rigid “no touching” rules of most gentlemen’s clubs, one has to figure that a special dance calls for a lot of resistance in the arms.)
I leave the class, preparing myself for frenetic election updates on NPR and what will be two days’ worth of muscle soreness (specifically my arms — evidently, kneeling while circling my body weight in the most sensual way I know how puts a lot of stress on the bi’s and tri’s).
Gennaro is so adept at the spins and pole pirouettes that on my way out of the class I hear one of her young students ask, “So is this, like, all you do?”
Not at all, although the answer to the implied question — whether Gennaro goes straight from her studio to take the stage at the Spearmint Rhino — is “no.”
It’s not an uncommon question, according to Gennaro. “They ask me, were you an exotic dancer? None of us were.”
Gennaro was recently contacted by a writer from Ladies Home Journal who delivered an unusual pitch: The magazine’s May 2007 issue was slated to feature “mothers with dangerous jobs,” and Gennaro was chosen as one of only five women from the U.S. to be interviewed (taking her place beside an astronaut, a fire jumper, an FBI agent and a stunt woman).
Her reaction? “I didn’t know pole dancing was that dangerous!”
It took the mother of young twins only a moment to realize that the man was referring to her other life filming and producing documentaries, notably documentaries that entailed free-diving among great white sharks.
Going in headfirst
Now, Gennaro describes it as a certainty that diving in that manner, habitually, will eventually kill someone.
“I had to do it, almost.” She recalls the bar of the safety cage getting in her way while filming. “You want to be out in the open to get the ultimate shot.”
The first 10 minutes in the company of a great white are the safest, she asserts, as long as you are constantly sure that there isn’t another shark behind you. And even though it is typical to dive with a companion, a safety diver, they generally only stay an hour underwater. Gennaro would remain hours longer.
Her subjects weren’t always marine life, however. She was once contacted by the producers of Wildboyz and asked to work as field producer on the “Jackass”-style show set in the extreme wilderness.
One of the show’s clips features two of the hosts dressed as a convincing zebra, roaming what appears to be the savannah. They throw other zebras for a loop, but juvenile lions in the area are quick to attack. The guys escape, but only after breaking the integrity of their costume.
Gennaro’s work on the show took her to Papua New Guinea, Central Africa, Indonesia and Australia, and entailed figuring out the logistics to questions like, “Can we dive in the Great Barrier Reef and climb into a giant clam?” or orchestrating shots for, among other things, ostrich racing.
An eclectic résumé
“My poor parents,” Gennaro shakes her head as she recalls her colorful career thus far. “I go from one thing to another.”
They might take some comfort in the fact that their resourceful daughter has found considerable success in various professional avenues. After winning her fair share of awards in youth gymnastics, she began to model at the age of 14, and during her 14-year career — launched in New York City — mixed her experience of seeing the world with getting a good education. While living in Rome and Tokyo, she made a point of attending classes and, after a stint at the Fashion Institute, ultimately received her B.A. in international business. She went on to study at New York University, and remains one thesis short of receiving her master’s in finance.
She might have continued down that path were it not for the disheartening job interviews she experienced. Wall Street paid less than modeling.
By 28, she had had enough — of New York, of the fashion industry — and while sitting at a bar with a friend, a quick glance down at the U.S. map decorating the table inspired her to leave it all behind. Maui, she estimated, was as far as she could get from New York without leaving the country altogether.
With one suitcase and no acquaintances to meet her there, Gennaro landed in Maui and found work on a boat. Saying goodbye to her manicured nails, she worked from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. and took home about $350 weekly.
“It was humbling. I was cleaning toilets. I worked my ass of so I could learn,” she shrugs.
But she was also snorkeling and scuba diving, and ultimately got her captain’s license. She also returned to school, pursuing a new bachelor’s in marine science.
“I didn’t know how to use a camera — I flooded so many,” she remembers. “I got scraped by coral, got a few stitches … you learn.”
She started her own production company, then left Hawaii for Park City, Utah. She filmed extreme skiing before she was lured to Monterey, where she would film eight shows for the Discovery Channel.
Gennaro fell in love and founded a production company with her former husband. And then she landed in Thousand Oaks.
She didn’t need a journalist to tell her that she did have one of the highest-risk jobs available, and so, in month six of her pregnancy, she stopped traveling and turned her attention to fitness. Somewhere along the way, she had received her certification as a personal trainer.
While her young twins — Austin and Taylor — have given her pause for thought about taking risks she might never have questioned before, they have also waded in the world their mother knows so well, having been introduced to dolphins and sea turtles in their natural habitats.
“I want them not to be afraid,” Gennaro says of her children. “I want to expose them as early as possible.”
She is more cautious now. The woman who would easily spend nine hours a day in a cage suspended among great whites recently found herself in an underwater cave with about a dozen significantly less threatening grey sharks, and felt, “I gotta get home.”
She was a Pilates instructor for a spell and then, on the advice of a friend, she took a class that combined the excitement of exotic dance with the benefits of what she had already been teaching.
“The first day of pole dancing in L.A., I saw this place in my head,” she recalls. “It’s like with my shows — if I can see it clearly, I know it’s going to happen. It manifests.”
It is a relatively new aerobic field, and Gennaro wasn’t always happy with what she saw. In some facilities, she found classes actually taught by strippers who had little or no background in fitness. She even stumbled upon one location in a strip mall, where shoppers could easily stop and stare in through the window.
Other classes focused too much on performing, with students going through the routine in front of their classmates. Gennaro remembers participating in such classes and feeling more pressure outside of class to assemble the proper ensembles, and even to diet. Rather than helping her stay in shape, the class became a stress factor.
“I wanted it to be more about the fitness, learning how the body moves and what feels comfortable for me,” she concludes. “It’s almost like a moving meditation. It’s an outlet for women because they can come in and be women, they don’t have to feel like oh, I have to perform in front of the other people or the teacher.”
Deciding against a more exploitive approach to pole dancing, Gennaro crafted her studios to be intimate and dimly lit. With four poles in the room, the small size-controlled classes ask students to participate simultaneously. In my Tuesday night class, none of us were looking at each other; trying to navigate yourself around a pole while in sweatpants is distracting enough. Nor could we scrutinize ourselves; there are no mirrors on the walls, which Gennaro explains is to prevent self consciousness but, more importantly, to force women to simply learn the movements.
And no men are allowed.
There is still the show-woman edge to Gennaro’s classes: advanced students are given the option of incorporating clear plastic heels, should they so choose.
“By the fifth class I tell the girls in level one that they can buy the stripper shoes,” Gennaro states. “It definitely makes a better workout for you — it’s like walking on your toes the whole time, it helps develop calf muscles.”
And as it turns out, there is even a fitness component to wearing patent leather boots with stiletto heels: the fabric helps to hold a person up on the pole.
But there is no pressure, and unlike some of the classes Gennaro has experienced, participating at Poleates does not become a constant investment in scandalous outfits and impractical footwear. Gennaro herself prefers to dance barefoot, and always dresses as though she’s about to practice yoga.
“I’m not going to say strip, but if [students] want to layer their clothes, to take off layers, again it’s all optional, it’s fun.”
Poleates, although it might appeal to a new wave of feminism that pushes for the reclamation of previously exploitive realms like stripping, is more than the Jazzercise of a new generation.
“It incorporates every single muscle of your body when you’re pulling yourself up on a pole,” Gennaro observes. “The whole pole trick aspect to it is really just a quarter of it. It’s a lot harder than lifting weights; you’re lifting up your own body onto the pole. It’s a constant, and it’s not like a spin class where it’s the same thing — you’re always doing something different. It’s very slow; you always need to control your body, control the muscles. The slower you go, the more it challenges your muscles.”
And if you’ve ever seen Striptease, you know: there is a lot of slow movement in pole dancing.
Stored among gym paperwork at the front desk is a box of wildlife documentaries Gennaro has shot and produced herself — Air Jawz, Air Jawz II and Jaws of the Pacific among them. On her computer is a PowerPoint presentation of still shots from the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, the first sketches of a fledgling project that follows the plight of young seals swimming through shark-infested waters, a sort of deadly rite of passage. The area, called the “ring of death,” highlights the constant peril the seals face: sharks in the water, hyenas on the coast.
The varying circles of Gennaro’s life intersect in this office. Her children are often in tow, practicing their own stretches in the studio while she tries out new routines in front of them.
She often finishes teaching a class to write a proposal at the front desk, or work on a plot outline for a project in the works. Currently, she is working on a film about “tow surfing,” an extreme kind of big-wave surfing wherein participants have to be hauled to the crest of the wave by jet ski, then released. In the increasingly extreme surf industry, it is a sport that few know about. And although Gennaro has in the past found herself harnessed, camera in hand, hanging out the side of a helicopter as it dove through 30-foot waves, she is having second thoughts about saddling herself to the back of a jet ski to run through waves twice that size. Often, waves only break that high in the middle of the ocean, over reef.
“I might have Dave do the filming,” she laughs.
That would be longtime friend and 20-year documentary veteran Dave Ogle, whom Gennaro refers to as one of the most talented people she knows in the industry. He recently lent his keen cinematic eye to Gennaro’s studio to help film a brief demo.
The result, Gennaro says, was “artsy, upscale, clean.”
“We’re finally going to work together,” she says. “He added a reality spin to it.”
Also in the works is an upscale reality show that aims to develop women’s confidence, inspire body changes and shift body image. The Poleates studio would be heavily featured.
“I can see like a Kirstie Alley hosting it,” Gennaro considers.
Making it local
Admittedly, it was a gamble for Gennaro to open her studio, with friend Colleen Ballew, in Westlake. She wasn’t entirely certain that local women would sign on.
“[Poleates] still has a little bit of a stigma, but I think now, with Access Hollywood‘s reports that celebrities are doing it, they realize it’s not a stripper or pole dancing venue; it’s a gym.” She adds, “I think ever since it went on Oprah last year, it’s really become mainstream fitness.”
The studio offers unlimited Poleates classes for $49 a month, or $400 for eight weeks of unlimited pole dancing classes. Otherwise, pole dancing is $25 per class.
And, in the hopes of spreading what she views to be a valuable approach to fitness, Gennaro is now offering a teaching certification program. For a regimen as new as pole dancing for fitness, there is a need for creativity.
“Most of the greatest dance moves I get are from my students that make mistakes,” Gennaro admits. “Of course, like I always say, you have to correct the alignment if it hurts. I give them the foundation, teach them the foundation, and they just build on it.”