“I’ve seen it all,” says Sally Sutton. “Every type of venue, from topless, to nude, to burlesque, to bikini, pole, every level of every club in six different states.” Over the course of two decades, her career took her “from a girl to a woman,” and now she wants to do the same for her clients at the Brooklyn Pole Dance Studio.
Sutton got her start as a dancer at clubs on Long Island before moving downtown to a burlesque venue called the Harmony Theatre. “It had a nice long catwalk. The place was very intimidating at first, but once people start boosting you up, you start getting the confidence,” Sutton recalled. “I always made a lot of money and the girls were really cool over there.”
Brooklyn Pole Dance Studio is located in an unremarkable building on Manhattan Avenue. The large open room on the ground floor — where classes will be held starting Sept. 8 — resembles both a ballet studio and a strip club. Five enormous solid brass poles, standing eleven feet tall, are spread out in front of a wall of mirrors lined with vanity lights. The rest of the space is painted purple, and a red shag carpet cordons off a corner for the enormous leather sectional. The aim, Sutton explained, is to create an environment where women feel comfortable and can let loose with their friends.
Sutton greeted us in skin-tight athletic shorts in impossibly tall white-and-gold heels, though you wouldn’t have known it by her stride (the studio’s website suggests students “come with or without heels” for more advanced classes). “Don’t mind the smell,” Sutton said, nodding toward the gleaming poles. “We just finished polishing them.”
Back in 1998, when the Harmony Theatre was shuttered during Giuliani’s crusade against strip clubs, the Times reported that dancers were “filing out of the place with coats over there heads”; since then, pole dancing has benefited from something of a rehabilitation, reemerging as a fitness craze and legitimate sport. “It’s nice to see it taken out of a dark place and brought into the light,” Sutton explained. “I come from the place where it all began. I think that all women who were in the business, like I was, are happy to see that women have started to take ownership of this.”
Pole dancing competitions are now held around the world and there are several organizations dedicated to the sport in the U.S. alone. Fitness trainers can now obtain official certification for pole instruction. “I always thought it would be a good thing for women. It’s a good thing physically, for the mind, for the body, and empowerment,” Sutton explained.
As pole dancing has grown in popularity as a sport, it has become increasingly technical, more physically challenging, and less “theatrical,” according to Sutton. “The younger girls take it very seriously these days.”
“Back in the day when I was dancing, whenever there was a pole there we’d swing around it, we’d climb it, do a few suicide poses, or whatever. But we were more into the hustle of dancing,” she recalled. “There’s so much focus on the pole these days, so it’s a challenge for a lot of the dancers to master it.”
Sutton’s studio welcomes women of all ages and sizes — and men, as well. While Sutton, who’s a grandmother, says she’s leaving the pole instruction to the “younger girls” (she has a male instructor on board, as well) her style permeates the studio. Burlesque classes will be offered, as well as chair dancing instruction, and one course called “Fiercest Heels,” which promises to “break open your sexy side with everything from liquid floorwork and bodywaves to aggressive heel clacks and gunshots.”
So what about Chris Rock’s famous joke: “as a father, you have only one job to do: Keep your daughter off the pole”? Well, Sutton says her 16-year-old daughter loves the pole, and encourages interested young women to participate in the sport, though Sutton is the first to admit her dancing career was a mixed bag. “They were all fun, don’t get me wrong,” she says of her various gigs. “I made money everywhere, but I got exposed to a lot of things– a lot of good things and a lot of bad things, but I like to take the good with me and leave the bad behind.”