Midway through climbing a 12-feet-high pole, Aarifa Bhinderwala, a Mumbai-based certified pole dancer and trainer, gracefully suspends herself upside down in a 180-degree split (also called the Dragon Tail) using her hands alone, to the tunes of O re Chori from Lagaan.
As the song continues, the 31-year-old beautifully transitions into a whirl with one-handed spins and pointed toes.
Watching Aarifa’s Instagram videos, you cannot help but marvel. It’s evident that what she is doing, requires her to carefully channel every bit of strength that she has, but her face shows no sign of the effort required for the task. It is relaxed; the moves delicate and executed to perfection.
This contrast is what she loves about pole dancing, and the reasons she believes that it is a perfect blend of art and sport.
“Besides being an absolutely blissful experience, pole dancing develops your full-body strength and endurance while allowing you to artistically express yourself through factors such as music and stage etiquette. It is a whole-body workout that helps develop strength, flexibility, endurance, stamina, control and balance. For me, this is the perfect blend of grit and grace which creates,a dream mid-air around an apparatus,” Aarifa tells The Better India.
Although she is miles away, it is easy to sense the child-like excitement on the phone as she speaks about her 6-year-old passion which is also her profession now.
Tracing The Roots of Pole Dancing
While Aarifa is deeply passionate about pole dancing, not everyone links it grace or spirituality, let alone think of it as a career. It is infamously synonymous with dubious bars or strip clubs.
Pole dancing’s roots can be supposedly traced to Mallkhamb, an Indian athletic sport where men bend their bodies and do stunts around a stationary pole, or even circus performances in China.
In the late 1800s, it was labelled as an ‘exotic international dance’ before it emerged as a sensual dance in strip clubs in the early 20th century. In the ’80s, pole dancing began to incorporate athletic moves, and in the ’90s a Canadian woman created the first pole training video to use in fitness exercises.
Over the last decade, it has evolved into an art form, and its popularity as a mainstream form of exercise across the globe is gradually increasing.
In fact, in October 2019, pole dancing was officially recognised as a sport by the Global Association of International Sports Federation, and it may become an Olympic sport as well.
Swirling Her Way Into An Unconventional Career
“I feel a natural affinity to this art and fitness form,” declares Aarifa before I complete my question about why she chose pole dancing.
However, the revelation that she has no background in any sport or acrobatics and that has never lifted weights comes as a surprise. “That’s the beauty about pole dancing; there are no prerequisites,” she chuckles.
Aarifa’s tryst with pole dancing began six years ago when she visited her sister in Perth, Australia. There, she came across a flyer about pole dance classes and decided to give it a try. There has been no looking back since.
‘‘I was so mesmerised by the gravity-defying tricks, strength, grace and flexibility of the trainers that I had to sign up for the course, even though I had no prior knowledge about it!”
What followed were the conditioning exercises on the pole and a lot of practice to master the moves. Turns out, dancing around an apparatus was way more challenging than Aarifa had anticipated.
Bruises and burns on underarms, palms, calves and legs due to friction with the stainless steel pole and sores from workouts became an everyday affair.
But, not once, did all such difficulties deter her. “The sense of freedom, positivity and empowerment I experienced after every class was such a high. When I did my first inversion (going upside down), I knew that it was no longer just a hobby. I wanted to do this for life,” she mentions.
For the next two years, Aarifa juggled between her Diploma in Counselling and the advanced-level course in Perth.
With each class, she mastered her moves, got stronger, more flexible and developed more control, balance and stamina. She even managed to execute incredibly advanced moves like the ‘Dragon Tail.’
“It took me weeks to learn this move; it involves a lot of strength in your back, shoulders and your core. That was certainly a milestone,” says Aarifa.
She completed her course from the ‘She Moves’ studio and went on to get training from other places in Tasmania, Sydney and Spain. When she returned to Mumbai in 2016, the first thing she did at home was to set up a pole to practice routines.
“I am incredibly grateful to my sister and parents who supported me unconditionally. My mother was the one who encouraged me to build a set up at home. So, I started my first ever business venture from my home studio,” she says.
Shedding Inhibitions & Gender Norms
Aarifa eventually shifted to a studio in Juhu, and today her classes are a hit! Over the last four years, she has taught approximately 10,000 students from all age groups (the oldest student is a 50-year-old!), body types, and fitness levels.
“At ‘Pole Burnt,’ the classes are an amalgamation of fluid movement and hardcore exercise. Every week, I teach around 60 students with 8 new entries. My oldest students have finished Series (level) 5 and are starting with Series 6. As my students progress, I will add more levels.”
Aarifa started her classes with just four students, and within a month she was flooded with calls from Mumbaikars who wanted to join in.
She also gained social media fame after she appeared on ‘The Creative Indians,’ a Netflix show.
For Aarifa, teaching this art form is profoundly gratifying not only because she helps people improve their fitness levels, but it also helped many women from varied backgrounds shed their body-related insecurities.
Many of her students have shared how they regained their confidence and self-esteem.
“Skin contact is very essential to be able to grip the pole and execute most moves on it. I’ve also witnessed so many women embrace their bodies in the whole process, because of all the challenges that their bodies have had to overcome to achieve various gravity-defying tricks on the pole bringing in a renewed sense of self-confidence. All shapes and sizes are beautiful,” she shares
Sayunkta, her student, echoes her trainer’s words. “I joined the class two years ago to get fit. I faced no backlash of any kind. When I uploaded my routine on social media, all I received was appreciation and positive feedback. Pole dancing has taught me that there is no bigger barrier than our own mind. I feel like a queen every time I climb on the pole,” she asserts.
Kabir Jain, another student, believes pole dancing has contributed to his personal growth while also keeping him fit. “It takes time to master a move and make it look easy. While having patience and perseverance is critical, it is equally important to have fun while exploring new steps.”
Apart from helping women explore their potential and get stronger, she is also breaking stereotypes with men like Kabir.
“As the word spread, there were inquiries from boys as well to learn pole, and I was happy to help! Why should any craft have a gender barrier? I now run co-ed classes as well. It is beautiful to see the healthy competition between boys and girls.”
Aarifa never thought that pole dancing was something that would pursue professionally and yet here she is helping people identify and unleash their strengths in more ways than one. So, when I ask her if pole dancing has changed her life in any way, there is a pause, before she speaks.
“My brand name ‘Pole Burnt’ signifies the transformative quality of letting one’s strengths shine through like a rising phoenix. Teaching pole is a very grounding and gratifying experience for me. There is a sense of community when people from different walks of life come together to share their struggles and celebrate their victories on the pole.”
With people like Aarifa taking the charge to bring unconventional professions to the mainstream, it is inevitable that years of societal conditioning and norms are slowly coming undone. And that is always a good thing.
You can follow Aarifa’s epic journey of pole dancing here.
All images have been sourced from Aarifa.
Edited by Gayatri Mishra