At Revved Up Pole, we are interested in the personalities behind the big pole names – how did these pole icons start on their personal pole journeys and what is the personality behind the amazing performer we all know so well? As part of our series of interviews with true icons of pole, we caught up with pole star Michelle Stanek. Michelle has won 5 out of 6 competitions she has entered and is the 2012-2013 United States Pole Dance Champion. When she is not touring, Michelle lives in New York City and works at Body & Pole. Prior to her full-time pole dance career, she was a program curator and art history professor.
REVVED UP POLE: How did you first become interested in pole dancing and make the switch from professor to pole instructor?
MICHELLE STANEK: in 2008, my co-worker at AIGA, fellow-lifelong-dancer and friend was a member of Crunch Gym and coerced me into coming to this “pole dance” class she had been taking on Friday nights. I went. I was horrible. I slipped, fell, collapsed and got really frustrated. But I knew I could be good one day! Plus we all were having so much fun! The teacher was Kyra Johannesen. I went back every week. Then twice a week, three times and more. Kyra saw my potential and hired me as a teacher at Crunch. I was ecstatic to be teaching something I loved in a great, positive, fitness environment. Then at the end of 2009 I got laid off from my job as a program director/curator. It was a shock. But clearly a blessing! To make ends meet, I started picking up more classes, training, competing and before I knew it, pole dance turned into a full-time career. Once pole took over, I didn’t have the time to teach Art History anymore. I taught one class/semester. It was a 3 hour lecture class once/week but required about 20 hours/week of prep work. I do miss it sometimes. I also miss having my stripper shoes next to my museum lecture and grade book in my bag!
RUP: You have an extensive academic background and are renowned for your beautiful choreography and execution – do you feel that your passion for art is a contributing factor in your artistry in poling and choreography?
MS: Thank you! My academic background obviously had a huge influence in my Pole Art 2012 (Michelle’s piece, a highly sexualised and artistic routine, was inspired by the sculpture “The Ecstasy Of St Theresa”). Having studied and taught Art History for years, I think I just have my eye open to any possible inspiration. I also obsessed and wrote my thesis on a tiny detail in a painting that unlocked many insights and now I obsess about the tiny details in the choreography. Big canvas, lots of paint, sure. 4 minute piece, lots of tricks, sure. But having the viewer say, “Wait, what was that little thing or moment? THAT was beautiful.” That’s what mattes to me in all art. That, and composition. The composition of a painting, song, film, poem is very important to its effectiveness and its reception. It’s the same with [pole] dance. How you compose a piece requires a lot of thought.
RUP: Have you ever been inspired on the pole by a particular work of art?
MS: Pole Art 2012 was inspired by “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,” by Bernini. It’s an Italian Baroque sculpture that I adore. And the story behind it is revolutionary and sexual – perfect for pole! It was St. Theresa, a nun, experiencing an intense orgasm. But to her, it was her communion with God via an angel and his “spear.” (Watch the performance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV-LRsnplQY
RUP: You are known for your clean lines and extensions and perfect execution – does this come naturally to you? And how do you pass this on to your students – is it a case of shouting “point your toes!” from the start?!
MS: Yes, it comes naturally to me. And I am thankful everyday for my many years of ballet training! I have cultivated my lines, extension and form from an early age. So I honestly never have to think about pointing my toes or straightening my legs. I know they will always be. My dance teacher as a teenager used to walk with a cane and if you didn’t keep your leg up and perfectly extended….well, you just wouldn’t do that! I did NOT adopt that tactic in my classes! But I have a few exercises that allow each student to think about *how* they point their feet, focusing on their quads, knees, calves, arch and toes.
I also talk a lot about alignment. Proper alignment is not only prettier, but it makes your more stable and stronger and you have to work less! Think about when you are 70% of the way to a butterfly—it’s hard! But once you push all the way and your body is stacked in proper alignment…ahhhh! You can relax there. You are stable and strong there.
I also use the mirror a LOT. I will have a student hold the position, then give them simple verbal cues like “engage your quad,” “press your leg down,” “engage hamstring and kick your butt,” “point your toe,” “drop your hip,” “open your chest,” etc. As they make these corrections and SEE the huge difference it makes in their alignment, its always a major “A-ha!” moment that sticks.
RUP: Describe your training schedule:
MS: Well, here is the *ideal* schedule. I like to take 2-3 pole class/week that are Intermediate – Advanced. Being a student is the best thing I can do for myself. Of course I train alone or jam with my friends 1-2 times per week too, but I am so much more focused and successful in class. I love being a student! I also take 2-3 flexibility classes/week. Outside Body & Pole, I like to take contemporary dance classes. Dancing free from a pole is liberating, makes me find my centre and also provides me with unique movement vocabulary you don’t usually find in a pole class. I also LOVE Spin classes. I try to do that once a week. I love the pure cardio, sweat and visualization time. If I have time, I do a lower body workout as well. When I am choreographing, I can spend anywhere between 5-20 hours/week holed up alone in the studio driving myself crazy, obsessing over minute details of movement!
RUP: What do you find most rewarding about pole dancing/instructing?
MS: I think being a “Teacher” is one of the most fulfilling roles one can have. Being a part of someone’s growth and development is priceless. Whether I am teaching art history, pole dance or a craft, someone is learning a new skill or gaining knowledge that they can use in life because of me. And I can’t imagine anything greater.
Dancing makes me feel complete. It defined me as a teenager and in college. I went years without it as an adult as I focused on a more “reliable” and academic career. That turned out to be not reliable at all! I didn’t start pole until I was 28. And even though I danced my whole life, it wasn’t until my 30s that I could actually call myself a dancer by profession. Because of pole, now life makes sense again, because I am doing something I love.
RUP: What are your three favourite moves?
MS: Three!? This changes all the time. I always love the Jade. I love the Full Moon and Juliette spin right now. But ask me in a month and I promise my answers will be different! My favourite part of pole dance might actually be the floor work, spins and transitions in between them. That’s where I feel the most creative.
PR: Were there any particular moves you struggled with?
MS: Umm…ALL of them! WHY can’t I do a brass monkey press?! WHY?? I hate that move. It’s my least favourite. I also have to work very, very hard at my lumbar spine flexibility. So any move that requires that kind of back flexibility, well, it might take me a few more months to get it!
RUP: Do you ever feel demotivated? And what do you to to feel motivated again?
MS: Oh, yes. These factors are demotivating: Cold weather and lack of inspiring music. When it’s cold, my body is stiffer and sometimes I don’t even want to bundle up and step outside. Living in New York, I walk everywhere, so it’s a process! But to get motivated again, it’s just ONE step out the door. Just go. Go to the gym for a workout, go to the studio just to freestyle, go to class, go buy healthy groceries for the week. Just GO! Music, gah. If I have nothing I am imagining a routine to or just a song I can dive into for fun, I’m lost. So, I start to listen to the music in movies and tv shows or ask friends for their top 5 songs. And go from there.
RUP: You have obviously reached the heights of pole idol yourself, but who would you say is your pole idol?
MS: Marlo Fisken. She has it ALL: Extreme strength and flexibility but most important to me, versatility in styles of movement—hip hop, modern, lyrical, acro, everything. And the one thing I admire most about her is her dedication. She is always expanding her skills and knowledge through lectures, classes, workshops and more. I also admire Laurence Hilsum, Michelle Shimmy and her sister Maddie, Amber Ray, Natasha Wang, Nadia Sharif, Prana. They are incredible dancers but I also really LIKE them and am happy to call them friends.
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