POLE & THE ECONOMY
In a Struggling Economy, Can the Pole Industry Thrive?
By Irmingard Mayer
Pole dancing has been a growing fitness trend ever since Sheila Kelley introduced America to the hip circle on Oprah in 2004. The industry has experienced unique growth during a time of deep economic crisis in America. While most American businesses were struggling in the late 2000s, many pole fitness studios opened their doors for the first time and experienced success.
The industry’s growth has reached far beyond just pole classes. Bachelorette parties have been a popular spinoff. National and international competitions have been held, catapulting the careers of competitors such as the US Pole Dance Federation’s 2011 champion Natasha Wang. National conventions have drawn crowds. Clothing lines have been launched. Gripping solutions tailored for pole dancers have been created. Entertainment companies such as Cirque du Soleil have incorporated pole dancing in their shows. Heck, there’s even a pole dance summer camp.
It is no secret that the message of pole art and fitness is gaining national and international momentum. YouTube has become a powerful vehicle for the message of pole. Videos of famous pole dancers such as Jenyne Butterfly have gone viral with views reaching in the millions. Many dancers without access to pole dance studios are self-taught with the help of instructional videos online. Karol Helms gained national popularity as a pole dancer, in part due to her highly trafficked YouTube page.
The number of pole fitness studios has grown exponentially in recent years as hopeful entrepreneurs notice the trend catching on. New York has gone from a handful of studios in 2005 to nearly a dozen places where dancers can practice today. In Miami, the number has gone from one lone studio in 2006 to nearly ten in 2012. Denver went from two studios in 2007 to six currently operating. Many existing studios have expanded their spaces while traditional gyms have opened up to the idea of including pole dancing on their group fitness schedules. This increasing presence seems to signal positive growth. Yet if you speak with studio owners across the country, you will hear mixed stories of failure and success. Many agree the rising number of studios during a recession only means more people sharing from a smaller pie. Studio owners have found ways of coping with the changing economy by creating new promotional and marketing opportunities. One popular and almost essential way of operating a business during the recession has been participating with websites such as Groupon and KGB that offer users substantial discounts. One such site, LivingSocial, stated that their second quarter of 2011 showed 19,972 coupons for pole dancing classes sold, compared to 16,125 gym memberships.
These numbers may seem like a victory for the pole dance studios offering the deals. But the reality is, the average person is more likely to try a one-time class than commit to buying a one-year membership. Introductory pole dance classes may be consistently full, but advanced level classes have seen drops in attendance. Many studios admit to finding it difficult to retain beginner students. Even dedicated pole fitness students say they struggle to find the money to consistently take classes.
The fact that pole dance coupons are popular on these websites could indicate a bit of trouble in and of itself. Many owners have been forced to use such sites to lure in new customers that simply have not been paying full price. In this new economy, consumers expect great products and a deal. With high insurance rates, expensive equipment costs and high rates to hire qualified instructors, class prices can quickly rise. “The students that come from Groupon really do not come back. They are loyal to Groupon and whatever other deal they can get for nothing,” says one Miami-based studio owner who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The fitness trend is undeniably more alluring than walking on a treadmill though. “It’s way more fun than the gym and there are always new and challenging moves to try,” says Karen, a Dallas-based pole dancer. This seems to be the consensus across the board for the majority of students. Many have discovered pole dancing doesn’t just provide physical benefits, but emotional ones as well. “It empowers me as a woman reminding me that if I can do this, I can do anything I put my mind to,” says Maria, a pole dance student from New York.
“If we weren’t controversial we wouldn’t be doing so well.”
These are the type of clients studios naturally wish to attract. Are there really that many students like this out there though? Jen Kaminiski, owner of Tease Studio in Denver thinks so. She insists the key to success is offering a variety of classes and retaining beginner students. “We make sure to educate our new clients about how working out (at Tease Studio) can be a complete gym replacement,” she says.
Lian Tal, owner of Body and Pole in New York, agrees that the demand is there. She claims the recession hasn’t affected her business at all. She recently upgraded to a 5,000 square foot studio after outgrowing her old space. “It’s an escape for people. They come here to forget about their day,” she says. “They find the money,” she continues. Body and Pole definitely has an edge by being located in a culture-rich and highly populated city. They do not have a shortage of potential clients. They also have national champions teaching classes, which doesn’t hurt either. Urban Studio in Nashville opened its doors during the recession, but owner Lacie says she has experienced fluctuations in business. She believes it’s mostly the high cost of classes that leaves students hesitant during rough economic times. Pole dancing stereotypes may also leave a disadvantage for studios in such areas. I asked Lacie if she saw negative perceptions towards pole dancing changing in her neighborhood. “Not much, my studio is in the buckle of the Bible Belt,”shesaid.
Pole dancing has come a long way in recent years and signs point to its popularity only increasing as the economy turns around. If it was merely a novelty fad, it wouldn’t have such steady growth and a dedicated following. The reason pole dancing sticks with so many may just be that it is so much more than it seems at first. It’s initially enticing, partially for purely superficial reasons. But once students become more involved in classes, they realize how transformative it can be to both mind and body. I asked Kyra Johannesen, co-owner of Body and Pole, about her thoughts on the stigma attached to pole dancing. “I really don’t care,” she said shrugging her shoulders. “If we weren’t controversial we wouldn’t be doing so well.”