Sara Elisabeth Kelly is a 31-year-old executive assistant and musician in New York. A classically trained singer, she’s naturally self-expressive and drawn to a variety of artistic pursuits. It’s little surprise then that her primary physical activity is pole-dancing — a demanding and rigorous practice that compliments her penchant for artistry. Her story is not only a great example of the sense of self-fulfillment that can be created through fitness, it also shows how fitness can change your relationship with your body for the better and establish strength, balance, and self-acceptance.
WB: How did you end up getting into pole dancing?
SK: A friend with a GroupOn for pole dancing said to a bunch of her friends, “Does anyone want to join me for one of these classes; I’m going to an intro class?” So I said, “Yeah, I’ll check that out with you.” I did it and I said, “Oh my God; this is really fun.” What stood out to me was that I was in an hour and a half long class and I didn’t look at my watch once. I was completely not focused on how many reps I was doing, or how many calories I was burning. The focus was on something else. I was thinking, “This is a cool thing. Can you teach me how to do this really cool thing?”
WB: How long have you been doing it?
SK: Roughly two and a half years. Obviously I’m more serious about it now than when I started. At first, I was going once a week, then I wanted to get even stronger, so I started taking 2, 3 classes a week. I go three times a week now.
WB: You’ve done a couple of competitions right?
Yep. I signed up for my first competition because I knew it would make me not skip class. I’m a very goal-oriented person. Doing something because it’s good for me in some abstract way is not the world’s best motivator. With my theater background, the pressure of getting ready for a performance is something that I’m really familiar with. It was also neat to be able to choreograph a piece to music of my choosing. And, you get a video and professional photos. You get to be like, “Look at that! Look at that thing I did!”
WB: What do you think your participation in pole dancing says about you?
I love feeling sexy and as a performer I’m very extroverted. I definitely think choosing pole as my workout highlights those aspects of my personality. A lot of beginning pole dancers worry that people will think they’re a stripper, or something like that. That doesn’t bother me — I sort of love it. You have to acknowledge that pole-dancing’s origins are in stripping; that’s where it comes from. Obviously it’s gone in many different directions at this point; my teachers are professional athletes and haven’t ever worked in clubs. But, I don’t care. If you think I’m a stripper, that’s fine. I wish I could make that much money doing this!
Society has all these perceptions about what is lady-like and what isn’t, and pole has a lot of baggage there — people have even asked me if Raab [my husband] disapproves of me doing it! I feel like pole dance fits really well into my personal concepts of feminism and body positivity. It’s great to be able to say, “Yeah, you’re right. This is a thing that strippers do — really strong, sexy strippers. And really strong, sexy athletes, too. And you know what? I’m strong and sexy, too.”
WB: What are both the physical and mental benefits you’ve derived from it?
SK: From a physical standpoint it’s interesting, because I’m never going to be skinny. It’s not my body type. If you look at the people I resemble in my family, going back a few generations, many of them tended to be heavy. So it’s interesting because in class you wear a sports bra and shorts, and that’s it. You can’t wear more, because you need skin contact with the pole, or you’ll fall. It’s been an interesting exercise in becoming comfortable wearing less in public. It’s been an interesting exercise in comfort in my body, being comfortable in my own skin and recognizing that I’m not a Size 4, but maybe that doesn’t matter. And the relationship between size and strength, or the lack of relationship. Because I’m very strong. From a mental perspective, how self-conscious can you be looking in the mirror if you can do this crazy upside down trick? You have things you can do that demonstrate that you’re not unhealthy, that you’re not lacking just because you’re not a Size 2.
WB: Has pole dancing made you feel differently about yourself now, in contrast to other times in your life?
SK: I had an extremely hard winter filled with a lot of personal challenges and there were times that I felt like the pole classes were the only times I didn’t have to think about all the crap going on in my life. It was awesome, It was like a little mini-vacation. I may have a slightly exaggerated view of how awesome it makes me feel. It was a good association to build up, that this was a place I could go to get away from all of these problems.
Again, it’s made me feel differently about my body. If I try something on that doesn’t look flattering, it’s not because I’m an unattractive human, it’s just that I’m not built for that particular item of clothing. There’s so much pressure on women; there’s this formula of, “If you do X, Y, and Z, you will fit into this article of clothing.” It feels very toxic. It’s why I hated gyms for so long. But I don’t feel that as much.
WB: What are some routines and rituals you do that help keep you in a good mind body space?
SK: Self-care is so important. Take a bubble bath. Get a pedicure. Tiny things like that. Giving yourself permission to acknowledge that something was hard for you, or hard on you. I think it’s really life changing. It’s something that I’m trying to work on more now. You don’t have to have a $200 spa day to take care of yourself. Even if you have goals, or want to make changes, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of the person you are now. A lot of times for people, the motivation to work out comes from feeling like you’re not good enough. And I think it’s important to take steps to acknowledge that you’re worthy of taking care of yourself. Self-worth is an important place to start
WB: Are there any parting words of wisdom you’d pass on to someone trying to become more consistently active?
SK: There’s a lot of emotional baggage that comes along with telling yourself you need to lose weight, or having someone tell you that you need to lose weight, and doing something just because you need to lose weight. So, find something to do because you like it, not because it burns a lot of calories. If you’re interested in learning how to salsa dance, go do that. It’s not a workout class, but it’s moving around. If you’ve always wanted to spend more time outdoors, go to a rock climbing gym. Find something you’d enjoy even if weight loss wasn’t a factor. Very few people can say, “I want to be this size, and I’m going to work every day until I’m this size.” But if your motivation comes from something else, like learning a skill, or being around people that you like, it’s much easier. It helps you get through the times where you’d otherwise be lazy or cancel class.