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Jessica King, a pole fitness student, practices her workout. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Pole positions: Fargo woman says she's not a stripper, just teaching people to get fit on a pole

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The scene at Pam Thorson's last party: a group of bachelorettes - some draped in feather boas, some thinking up stage names - gathering around a pole to learn some moves.

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It's not what you think.

Thorson is Fargo's newest pole fitness guru, an evangelist for a form of exercise centered around dance routines on a vertical stainless steel pole. As far as she knows - and as far as The Forum can tell - she's the medium's first and only instructor in town, or in North Dakota, for that matter.

Give Thorson an hour and she'll show you a workout as exhausting as anything you'll find at the gym. Give her a few months, and she'll have you pulling off acrobatic pole stunts you never thought possible.

"I'm still kind of in shock sometimes at some of the things I can do at my age that I could never do when I was a kid," Thorson says.

She's 54 now and has been into pole fitness for four years. It started as a hobby - she was looking for a workout that was easier on her knees than conventional cardio routines - and has since blossomed into a business venture. Last month, Thorson launched Total Woman, a pole fitness instruction service.

For $30 an hour, she'll show you the ropes of pole dancing moves. Pressed for time? She'll bring the pole to you. Thorson has three portable floor-to-ceiling poles at her disposal, plus a free-standing unit for open spaces and outdoor use.

It's a workout that covers everything from upper body strength (pulling yourself onto a pole isn't easy) to muscle toning (neither is hanging on with your thighs) to cardio (an hour on the pole can burn as many calories as several miles of jogging, Thorson says).

Right now, Thorson has four regular clients - she wouldn't say who they are or what they do but described them as working professionals in the area.

They're all women - Thorson did work with a man in his early 20s at one point but says he stopped "because he's too nervous about people finding out."

One of those clients is also her niece, Jessica King, whom Thorson originally enlisted to help with group events.

King, a 22-year-old Minnesota State University Moorhead student studying accounting, had her doubts at first.

"When I saw her go upside down, I was like, there's no way I can do that," King says.

That was four months ago. When The Forum sat in on one of King's lessons last week, she was zipping around the pole with ease, executing gravity-defying inverted moves and supporting herself in mid-air with nothing but her legs.

"I hated going to the gyms, and I wanted something fun," King says.

King liked her newfound workout so much that she got her own pole. It's set up in her living room, right next to the coffee table, and seldom comes down.

And what did her friends think when they saw it?

"They were like, 'No way, you have to teach me,' " King says. She held an impromptu pole party in the garage.

Thorson herself does pole parties through Total Woman. Last month, she was hired for a bachelorette party on a farm outside of Hankinson, N.D.

"They're kind of shy," she says of the guests. Thorson provides a few accessories to help set the tone - hats, makeup, feather boas - and lets participants pick a stage name if they're so inclined.

She likens the atmosphere to that of a slumber party: "They dress up, play with makeup, and hang out with their best friends."

Not 'adult entertainment'

Seeking out potential clients has been a challenge for Thorson, who has butted up against a series of roadblocks and misconceptions about the nature of her work.

She's seeking space for a studio, but has heard horror stories of insurers who "don't know how to handle" pole instructors. And she's tried to advertise, but has been told her services can only be listed under adult entertainment.

"I'm not in the adult entertainment business," Thorson says. "That's not the kind of attention I want."

A retired nurse, Thorson doesn't have a background in dance, let alone exotic dancing - an assumption she sometimes needs to dispel.

"I've been asked that - 'Do you teach strippers to strip?' I'm like, 'No, I don't.' " she says. "I'm not transitioning out of a strip club. I'm not transitioning into one. I'm just using a pole."

In defending pole fitness, Thorson points out that other forms of dance have far more sordid histories. The tango, for instance, is said in some accounts to have originated in brothels where the women turned their heads aside to avoid the smell of unwashed customers. Next to that, Thorson says, pole fitness is downright tame.

She says women are easier to convince than men. The former are concerned with whether they're in good enough shape to pull off the dance moves, she says, while the latter sometimes veer into less savory territory.

Thorson recounts a recent conversation with a husband and wife about her work. "She was like, 'Oh, that sounds like a really cool thing,' " she says. "He was like, 'Oh yeah, a pole in the bedroom!' "

Model of success

Thorson isn't the first pole instructor to run into that misunderstanding. Her mentor, Julie Brand, a Minneapolis-area pole instructor and Regan, N.D., native who runs an online pole studio, had a similar issue while organizing a birthday party last month.

Brand, 33, wanted to order custom M&M candies bearing her studio's logo. "It's an image of me doing a very difficult move," she says. "It's not sexual at all."

The company's response?

"They said, 'We can't use this because it's a picture of someone on a stripper pole,' " Brand says.

Still, she says pole fitness is making its way toward mainstream acceptance. Pole fitness instructors have appeared on "Oprah" and "The Martha Stewart Show" in the past few years, and the medium has gained traction on the coasts. After Brand explained her business, even M&M's reversed its position.

A certified personal trainer, Brand first tried pole fitness at a party four years ago. The next day, she went online to order her own pole.

Two years ago, she launched Studio Veena, an online pole community, with the help of her husband. There, she posts instructional videos of herself performing pole moves. Members can purchase subscriptions to watch the videos. If they need extra help, they can sync up with Brand via webcam for one-on-one instruction.

The site, named for the stage name Brand adopted when she first started posting pole videos, has grown into a viable business venture with about 15,000 members. Brand declined to discuss how much income Studio Veena generates, but confirmed that it's "way more than a hobby" at this point.

Thorson hopes to emulate that success. Beyond that, she says she wants to carve out a bigger niche for the pole.

"What I'm trying to do is change attitudes a little bit," she says. "It's a form of art. It's expression. It's gymnastic. It's physical. It's fitness, it's all of those things wrapped up into one."

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