Pole To Pole: The Business Of Pole Dancing

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pole dancing isn't as easy as it looks. Neither is turning it into a successful business.

One of comedian Chris Rock's famous routines involves his musings that as a new father his sole duty is to keep his daughter "off the pole." The pole. It really doesn't need any further explanation. The word conjures up images of naked women wriggling about in shady nightclubs, not the kind of thing most parents envision for their babies. It's a good thing, then, that Christine Boyer and Tracy Gray have a sense of humour. As co-owners of Aradia Fitness (Aradiafitness.com), the first pole-dancing-for-fitness studio in Canada, they've heard all the jokes. But as the entrepreneurs stress, there's a big difference between pole dancing for lucre and pole dancing for fitness. "We're in the business of female empowerment," says Gray, a former branch manager at the Bank of Montreal who quit her job in October 2004 to focus full-time on growing Aradia. "There's a real trend of women wanting to bond with other women and do more feminine forms of exercise." Make no mistake. The kind of pole dancing Aradia offers is exercise. Indeed, it might be even better than Pilates, says Boyer, who holds certification in that discipline from Boditree Pilates & Healing in Vancouver. Women learn how to hold their own body weight, build muscle without bulk, and increase their flexibility, rhythm and balance--"all with a little sexy pizzazz," Boyer adds. But, as anyone who has ever done a chin-up can imagine, holding yourself up on a pole for several minutes while shimmying up and down through a series of manoeuvres is not exactly a cinch. Moves such as the "fireman spin" and the "sexy bicycle" sound teasingly erotic, but women really do work up a sweat, which takes away a little bit of the sexual imagery. So does the fact that women from a wide range of demographics seem to like the idea, including a 72-year-old, who is the oldest poler Aradia has taught.

The lurid nature of pole dancing certainly isn't lost on the pair of entrepreneurs. Their new marketing video is definitely a bit on the, er, steamy side. It features Aradia's co-founders in provocative (but tasteful) clothing getting jiggy on the pole. And some of the other classes their studios offer sound a little like those for strippers in training: Pole Flow, Sexy Sweat, Lap Dancing, Wake Up Sexy and Get Ready for the Stage. With such titles, it's no wonder one of the challenges Boyer and Gray face is convincing women there's nothing especially dirty about using a pole as an exercise centrepiece--instead, think of it like a mat for yoga or Pilates.

Education is a short-term issue--one that a little marketing savvy should sort out. But a longer-term challenge for Boyer and Gray is figuring out when to take a step back and hire others to oversee many of the day-to-day responsibilities they currently take on. For example, when they decided the time was right to expand into Toronto in 2005, they decided to open their own studio, rather than franchise, as they have done in other places. "Toronto is a major market, so we needed to be here," Boyer explains. Maybe so, but there are always going to be opportunities and obstacles that will demand attention. The trick is realizing that a company's continuing success often depends on how willing the founders are to let go--something many small-business owners are loath to do. It's easy to see why. Entrepreneurs typically fail three to five times before hitting on an idea that works, so when they get to the top they want to stay there.

Bob Glandfield, CEO and president of the Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham says entrepreneurs can generally get away with holding full responsibility and authority for their company's operations until they have roughly 15 employees. At that point, they must start delegating responsibilities, although they can--and likely will--maintain final authority. "When an entrepreneur is so involved in or busy running the business, and keeping authority, at some point the company starts suffering," Glandfield says. Warning signs include losing contracts or sales opportunities, running out of cash or having to bring in an investor. When entrepreneurs start referring to their business as "our company" as opposed to "my company," they're ready to start passing on some authority.

So far, Boyer and Gray have managed to do quite fine by themselves. The pair met briefly at St. Mary's University in Halifax, where Boyer earned a commerce degree and Gray studied political science and marketing. (Gray also has a business administration diploma from New Brunswick Community College in Saint John.) But they didn't become friends until Boyer moved to the West Coast in 2001. Two years later, they heard about the fitness benefits of pole dancing, and checked out some professionals strutting their stuff in a Vancouver bar. They noticed that strippers generally have taut abs and defined, but not masculine-looking, muscle tone, and thought they'd like to try it. "We had to order a pole online and then screw it into the ceiling to erect the pole," recalls Boyer. "We watched the strippers, practised every day, and it was really hard." When they finally got it right, Boyer says, they realized that they both felt more confident and empowered--and decided "every woman should be able to feel this way." So the pair invited 30 women to Gray's place to test some of their teaching methods. The gals had the time of their lives. Armed with $3,000 and a system that people could follow, Boyer and Gray started offering classes at local gyms. "We did six classes, two back-to-back sessions at three different locations--and we sold out immediately," Boyer says.

Back then, the two partners had to cart a pole mounted on a four-by-four-foot platform around in Gray's Dodge Neon to various gyms--stripper poles not being standard equipment in the fitness world--and store it in Boyer's bachelor apartment. They also took the pole into people's homes to do parties, which often posed a bit of a problem since most houses aren't set up for such activity. The solution? Boyer and Gray decided to design and then market their own line of removable brass poles. Their classes became so popular that they eventually needed to have their own dedicated studio, which they opened in Vancouver in January 2005.

Later that year, they started franchising, with the first outlet opening three months later in Edmonton. Since then, franchises have sprouted up around B.C., Alberta and Ontario, and two studios are scheduled to set up in the United States very soon. So far, Aradia--named after the Italian goddess who offers guidance and protection for women--has taught more than 10,000 women the ins and outs of pole dancing and sensual fitness.

While it might be easy to dismiss pole dancing for fitness as a fad--even Oprah has jumped on the bandwagon--the Aradia duo have been making some nifty moves to keep things pumped for a few more years. Now, they're hoping they'll be wise enough to know when it's time to let go of the pole.

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