By Lingnan Ellen Chen, Alice Kozdemba, Larisa Manescu and Alex Vickery
To passersby, the small, unassuming studio on Manor Road doesn’t look like much. The big, yellow “Brass Ovaries” sign is the only thing that hints at what’s inside, and that doesn’t say a whole lot if you’re unfamiliar with the name. Every now and then, someone will knock on the door and ask if it’s a bar.
But for many locals, it’s an empowering safe place, where pole dancing and aerial arts can be practiced without judgment. It’s a welcoming environment where beginners can take up a new sport, dancers can sharpen their skills and even bachelorette parties can get free lessons.
“There’s such a wide variety of what people are looking for when they come here to Brass Ovaries,” said Sophie, studio director and lead instructor. “We have people that come that just want to train to do competitions and want to be the best pole dancer in Texas…but usually people just want to have fun and to have a workout that’s interesting and not at a gym.”
An intimate setting like Brass Ovaries provides a camaraderie among clients that is hard to find under a gym’s fluorescent lighting.
“We make a very unified sort of feeling in our classrooms,” Sophie said. Whether athletes come in to try pole or the fitness-challenged want to get toned, everyone starts at the same level, she said.
Brass Ovaries was founded in 2007, formerly located in a “seedy” spot behind a car wash on South Congress. Natasha Bajic, owner and “head ovary,” is a Bosnian war veteran with a degree in neuroscience.
After focusing on anthropology and the human brain, she has dubbed her approach to pole dancing as “releasing your inner monkey.”
“Everybody’s a natural pole dancer,” Bijac said. Being on our iPhones all day contradicts our natural body movements, and pole allows people to reconnect with that physical activity, acting as an antidepressant that has the power to change people’s lives both physically and mentally, she said.
Pole dancing is a lot less glamorous than it’s made out to be. On a daily basis, you’re more likely to find class participants doing pull ups and nursing bruises, better known as “pole kisses,” than strutting around a pole in stilettos. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the performance aspect of pole dancing, a service that Brass Ovaries also provides.
“Beauty is pain,” Sophie said. “Pole dancing is beautiful and painful. Your body gets more accustomed to the abuse of pole dancing; your muscles get stronger and your skin does less work…The bruising never stops, but it does get easier.”
Instructors can even tell what moves someone has been practicing based on what bruises they have.
“I have gotten bruises in places where I never thought I’d get bruises,” said Alice Liu, a UT business honors senior and avid, though novice, pole dancer.
Liu first visited Brass Ovaries about a year ago for fun with a friend. After one class, the lifelong dancer was hooked.
“After learning the basics, pole is fundamentally a type of dance, which is what I love,” Liu said. “[You] build on that foundation with different techniques and your own artistic stylings. It’s a lot of fun because you can basically come up with your own routines to whatever music you want.”
She has even installed a pole at home so she can follow up weekly classes with at-home strength conditioning. Liu has noticed a significant physical change in the tone and strength of her body, but pole dancing is a mental workout as well.
“Pole dancing is so empowering,” she said. “You don’t need to have a big butt or bust or conform to any kind of ‘conventional’ view of beauty. You don’t have to be anything that you aren’t to feel sexy or strong and pole dance.”
Sophie thinks that this is one of the most important aspects of the sport.
“There’s this balance of real physicality, and then self expression, grace and beauty,” she said. “I think our clients get that confidence through the self expression that they’ve maybe never found before in any sort of fitness aspect.”
For Sophie, pole is empowering, sexy and fierce. She worked in gentlemen’s clubs to finance her bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Dance from the University of Texas, which she received with honors in 2007. Since then, she’s made her passion for erotic performance a full-time job.
For Bijac, pole is strictly a sport. “There is no dancing in my poling,” she said. “But my friend explained it like this: same pole, different swing. People can explore pole dancing on their own and make their own decisions about what pole means to them.”
Everyone has their own interpretation of pole; the community is supportive but by no means exclusive. Brass Ovaries encourages people of all levels and backgrounds to join. A few men come into the studio on a regular basis, and one of the instructors is male.
Sophie tells us a story of how a man began taking classes there after seeing his wife participate. Now 60 pounds lighter, he has been a regular part of the pole community for years alongside his wife.
That type of addiction is quite common, Sophie said.
Head pole instructor and city planning engineer for the City of Austin Odette Tan began as a client before working her way up at the studio. She’s dropped from a size 12 to a size two.
“It’s such a weird tangent of fitness, but people that love it become obsessed with it, and it’s a really healthy obsession,” Sophie said.
Despite being a tight-knit group, sometimes outsiders have a hard time understanding the intricacies of pole dancing as a sport and art form. Among the positivity–the studio won the Austin Chronicle’s award for “Best Fantasy Fitness” in 2011–the studio has also received its fair share of backlash due to the stigma often associated with pole dancing culture.
There’s usually two reactions when men come into Brass Ovaries, Sophie described. They either think it’s really “crazy and intimidating” or they treat it with a “snide condescending embarrassment.”
“Men that have a healthy respect for women and feminism come in with an open mind and a huge curiosity, but there’s still a stigma,” Sophie said.
Natasha even prefers to call them pole athletes as opposed to pole dancers because “pole dancers” comes with a negative stereotype.
Some of the women we spoke with were reluctant to share their names, as they don’t want pole dancing associated with their professional or public lives.
“In my private life, I’m proud to be a part of such an empowering and supportive community,” Liu said. “However, professionally, I typically withhold the fact that I’m an avid pole dancer, unless someone happens to outright ask about it. I think the stigma comes from a lack of understanding, as is true for many stigmas.”
Liu added that she hopes that one day pole dancing will be treated with the respect and admiration it deserves.
“In the end, pole dancing is an artistic outlet, an athletic feat, and empowerment movement all in one.”
*Some of the Brass Ovaries students preferred to use only their first names to protect their privacy.