Published April 27. 2014 4:00AM
Jewett City - It's pole dancing, but it's not what you think.
Though pole dancing seems indelibly intertwined in the American psyche with strip clubs and bachelor parties, aerial fitness has long been recognized as a great way to gain upper-body strength and flexibility.
In both Indian and Chinese cultures, men have been exercising on poles for generations, but at Aerial Arts Fitness, a nearly 2-year-old business in the old Slater Mill here, it's largely women who enjoy the workout.
"It's a little bit controversial still because people don't really understand what the sport is," said Angela Chabot, owner of the 1,300-square-foot fitness studio, who fell in love with pole dancing after attending a class in Providence.
"National level competitions drive amateur students and blow away the misconception that pole is only done in strip clubs," she added. "It definitely is an art form. It is a way to express emotion."
The art of pole dancing is similar to ballet in that synchronicity, effortlessness and body alignment are supremely important.
"It's dancing on an aerial pole," Chabot said. "That takes dancing to a whole new level."
Chabot, a chemist at Pfizer Inc. for the past 13 years who now works there part time, said she decided to open her own pole-dance studio after realizing there was no other similar facility between Providence and Hartford. She is looking into opening another studio in the New London area.
Chabot, a Voluntown resident, said her main clientele revolves around women from 18 to 45. But she has some attendees up to their 60s - others as young as 15 - and men are a growing part of the business.
"An increasing number of men are getting into it once they realize what this sport is vs. what they thought it would be," Chabot said.
Men, who are integrated into classes, can increase their flexibility using pole-dancing techniques, while women's main benefit is in improving upper-body strength. And strength, for women, equals confidence, Chabot said.
Chabot pointed to one young woman who weighed 232 pounds when she first started taking classes, and a year later had lost more than 50 pounds. She now teaches classes at the studio - one of six part-time instructors - and has become an inspiration to others, she said.
Classes, lasting an hour and a quarter, have mixed levels of ability, and variations of different gymnastic moves - in the air and at ground level - are taught depending on a student's level. The studio's nine poles limit class sizes.
"We don't teach people a move they're not ready for," Chabot said.
Given that Chabot is marketing largely to millennials, social media is the preferred way to spread the word about her business, so she is constantly posting photos and informing clientele about upcoming classes through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. She also uses an online scheduling system.
People new to the studio receive one free class to be introduced to the sport. Some studios, she said, may try to cash in on the strip-club mentality, but Aerial Arts Fitness is strictly a competition-level space - a place that delights all the senses with its piped-in music and subtle essential oils.
It's a place, Chabot pointed out, where women used to sew clothes in the former mill for well over 100 years.
"This space is very special to me," she said. "It has a good vibe."
Chabot said she received help from the business-advisory group SCORE to help jump start her business. Among other things, SCORE advisers helped her to analyze numbers and focus on costs as well as income, and a survey they suggested led to the realization that being consistently on social media would reap dividends.
Classes run $20 for drop-ins, but the usual payment is in 20-class increments that work out to about $12 a class. The studio also features classes in yoga, insanity, Lyra (a hoop exercise) and Turbo Kick, but the popularity of pole dancing has been the driving force behind her success, Chabot said.
Next month, the studio will host nationally known aerial fitness guru Marlo Fisken, who has been seen on television shows such as "The Colbert Report." People like Fisken are helping bring a new popularity and respect to the sport, Chabot said.
"It's really starting to pick up now," she said.