By Jenni O’Connor
“Just come keep me company… I’ll pay for your entry.” These were the words my friend used to convince me to join her at a pole dancing class. It was 2010, and I was 32, obese, and applying for disability for my Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The severe pain, fatigue, and depression did not allow me to work a full-time job.
On an average day, I feel like you do when you have the flu… achy, exhausted, and my brain is a little fuzzy. On a bad day, I literally can’t walk. My husband carries me, or I use a wheelchair. I lack the fine motor skills to pick up a pill, and the strength to hold something “heavy” like a water glass. Constructing a simple sentence takes major effort, and my words slur as if I’m drunk. Sometimes the pain is so overwhelming, my body just trembles, as if it doesn’t know quite how to process it.
There’s currently no cure for Fibromyalgia/CFS, and the knowledge that the rest of my life would look like this caused me to entertain suicidal ideations. My beautiful daughters, and knowing how much my death would hurt them, were the only things that kept me from ever following through. I was painfully shy, and had no self-confidence. Photos show me turning away from the camera, or hunched over in a subconscious effort to hide myself and my “flaws” from the world.
This was the condition I was in when my friend asked me to join her for class. I had seen a few celebrities take pole dancing for fitness, and was curious. But in my mind, it wasn’t for me. I was very conservative, and definitely not what I considered to be sexy. I went to “do her a favor,” and wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into!
In our first class, the instructor used supportive and encouraging words that made me realize how little I valued myself. I quickly realized how much confidence the experienced students at the studio had, and how much I was lacking. I knew I needed this class… physically and emotionally. What finally sold me was watching a certain upper level student dance. She wasn’t an overly athletic 20-year-old. She looked like me. And she could flip her body upside-down and hold it in mid-air. She rocked a tiny pair of booty shorts, with no self-consciousness about rolls or cellulite. She was so strong and confident… I wanted that for myself. And so my pole journey began. Not only did I take weekly classes, but I also got courageous enough to perform… both in showcases, and in pole dance competitions. I started to see my body changing, and my pain levels decreasing.
As I grew in strength and confidence, I realized I wanted to share this experience with other women. After a bad experience with my second studio, I realized I not only wanted to teach, but wanted to open my own studio. I even chose the name and bought the website, believing that this dream would happen for me. I named it Studio Phoenix, after the mythical creature that rises from the ashes in rebirth. I returned to my original studio (with the owner’s knowledge that I wanted to eventually open my own), became certified to teach pole dancing, and started teaching for them.
A series of events transpired that resulted in Studio Phoenix opening in October 2013. With the help of my amazing staff of 15, we have grown quickly. I teach several hours of pole dance classes a week, as well as floorwork classes, aerial yoga, and parties. It’s a level of physical activity I never thought I could accomplish. Having experience in working through a pain disorder gives me the unique perspective to compassionately and safely teach my students who also live with pain.
Through pole dancing, I’ve been able to improve my health and strength to the point that (with my doctors’ blessings) I no longer need daily prescription pain medications, anti-depressants, or sleep medications. I primarily treat my symptoms with nutrition, exercise and natural methods (with the occasional assistance of prescription medication). While I still deal with depression and anxiety, I am no longer suicidal. And while I am still curvy, pole dancing has taught me to value my body for its strength, and not focus on the “imperfections.” While pain conditions can cause us to resent our bodies, or see them as the enemy, pole dance helps train me to work with mine.
I’ve learned to love myself. Most importantly to me, I’m able to pass this along to other women. To help them see their value, and show them they’re capable of things they never imagined. To show them you don’t have to fit a certain stereotype to be a strong, beautiful woman. I can use my weaknesses to inspire others to overcome.
I still have Fibromyalgia/CFS. As I said, there’s currently no cure. On my bad days I can’t walk, and I work on my business from bed. But on my good days, I can suspend my body upside-down on a pole using just my arms. I can soar through the air gracefully in a beautiful spin. And that’s the balance of life with a pain disorder. Some days I can’t walk… but some days, I can fly.