• Abigail Hall

Former OU student brings confidence, empowerment to Norman women through aerial performance, dance

Originally published at OU Daily March 14, 2018

In a small building off South Crawford Avenue, an energetic group of people gather to perform aerial movement, defy stereotypes and build community at Anti Gravity Dance & Fitness, a dance studio and fitness center.

Anti Gravity teaches classes in pole dance, aerial silks and lyra hoop. While pole dance is more widespread as an aerial practice, aerial silks and lyra hoop are less known.

Aerial silks is the performance of aerobics while hanging from a piece of material attached to the ceiling. Lyra hoop is the performance of aerobics on a steel, round hoop suspended from the ceiling. Both lyra hoop and aerial silk are often seen in circus performances.

While some may associate pole dancing with a strip club, Sarah Norred, owner of Anti Gravity and avid pole dancer, sees it as a form of fitness, strength and, most of all, empowerment.

Pole Control Studios describes pole dance and aerial aerobics as “a performance art which is a combination of dance and gymnastics involving dancing and acrobatics around a vertical pole. It is an increasingly popular form of fitness and dance, practiced by many enthusiasts in gyms and in dedicated dance studios.”

According to the Pole Control Studios' website, pole dance and other forms of aerial dance are becoming a popular form of aerobic fitness and dance, and they are in practice at many gyms and dance studios.

On a Thursday night, women gather in Anti Gravity’s pole dance room, a wall of mirrors with six poles running from the ceiling to the ground and circular mats lying on the floor for protection.

Norred stands in front of her pole in her hot pants and a black, strappy tank top. She chats with her students as they get ready for class. Girls filter in and out, laughing in the hallway and doing yoga-like stretches to prepare for the class.

Norred coaches from the front of the room, showing her students different moves as she pulls herself up on the pole with her arms, holding her body up while her legs entwine around the pole. Her students follow her lead, laughing at the difficult moves, moving their bodies in circles and turns against the pole.

The history

Norred spends every day at Anti Gravity, instructing classes and attending others. She has created an active environment of encouragement and achievement in her instructors and students.

In October 2016, Norred bought what was then Norman Pole Dance from Jenae James Goodin, who was selling the 3-year-old business.

Norred had been attending classes at Norman Pole since August 2016. When the business went on sale, she quickly bought it and reopened in November. She renamed it Anti Gravity Dance & Fitness a few months into her ownership in order to include the aerial silks and lyra hoop dance aspect of the business.

Norred said she always wanted to open her own studio eventually, but when Goodin announced that she was closing the doors to Norman Pole, that timeline shortened.

Norred said taking over the business was almost out of desperation. She couldn’t lose a place where she could grow in her pole and aerial skills and build community with other women. She knew that she had to take over and run it herself.

“I asked (Goodin), ‘What do I have to do to get this place to not shut down?’ and she said, ‘You have to buy it.’ So I took what I had, and I gave it to her,” Norred said. “I took over because no one else was going to.”

Norred’s entry into the world of pole was unplanned. In 2014, she attended a friend’s birthday party, and pole dance was an activity the guests took part in.

“I was opposed to it because it sounded stupid. But then I did it, and it was the best thing in the world,” Norred said.

After her first experience with pole dancing, she immediately found classes in Oklahoma City to attend. Within a month of starting pole dance classes, she had bought a pole for her home.

She was still studying for a math degree at OU when she bought Anti Gravity at the end of 2016, but she decided to drop out in order to devote her time and money solely to her true passion.

Before Norred took over, Goodin held seven classes a week. Today, Anti Gravity has that many classes in one day, Norred said.

When she bought Anti Gravity, Norred continued to hold the same classes, but only a few previous members continued to come. Those women who stayed through the transition are still active members, Norred said.

By January 2017, Anti Gravity had gained popularity within the Norman community, and now a small but vibrant community exists there. Norred works with five other instructors and about 30 members who take classes there.

In addition to teaching classes, Norred discovered a need for a stronger community aspect within the studio. She began to organize outside-of-class events for students and instructors, as well as host workshops and game nights.

Body positivity

Anti Gravity quickly became a strong community of women learning to be more confident in their bodies.

Norred said that while pole dance and aerial dance can be perceived through a sexual lens, they are not entirely based in embracing sexuality.

“We’re taught it’s not okay to move any part of your body, or it’s (not) okay to take up space. So (pole is) really a way to break out of that shell we’re taught to be in,” Norred said.

However, even as pole progresses in the fitness world, there are elements of it that will always appear sexual. Norred said she has witnessed an important empowerment in herself and in her students by moving the body in that way and accepting the sexual movement premise of pole dance.

In pole classes and other aerial workouts, it is not uncommon for the women to build up calluses on their hands or be heavily bruised from learning a new move.

In order for their bodies to stick to the pole in performance, the pole must be sprayed with rubbing alcohol and wiped smooth to remove old skin cells. Students and instructors must have either skin contact with the pole or tight clothing that has grips in order to stick to the pole.

At Anti Gravity, Norred sells pole and aerobic fitness clothing such as hot pants made by Cleo The Hurricane and "PoleFit" tops from Bad Kitty.

Hulda Johannsdottir, a native of Iceland, teaches beginner and intermediate aerial silks classes at Anti Gravity. She began attending classes in December 2016 after she saw them promoted on Facebook, and she thought they sounded like something interesting she wanted to try.

Before Anti Gravity, she had never experienced pole or other forms of aerobic dance besides taking gymnastics as a child. On a whim, she took an aerial silks class and instantly fell in love with it.

“I’m kind of addicted to the whole environment,” Johannsdottir said. “The classes are so much fun. It’s a destressor, it’s like being on a playground for adults.”

When Johannsdottir began practicing, she quickly gained a sense of accomplishment from the moves she learned. As she began to learn more difficult moves, she experienced triumph by being able to move her body in new and demanding ways.

When Norred asked Johannsdottir to teach classes in November 2017, she immediately said yes. She now teaches six classes a week and attends at least three classes a week as a student.

For Johannsdottir, Anti Gravity has been an empowering experience.

“We come from this place where all (that) matters is what you look like, but (when) going to classes, it doesn’t matter what you look like — it matters what your body can do,” Johannsdottir said. “We’re all shapes and sizes here. It’s just a matter of what our strengths are, it’s totally empowering.”

Norman local Debora Valenzuela, 22, began taking classes at Anti Gravity in June 2017. Valenzuela takes three or four classes every day but sometimes gives herself a rest day.

Valenzuela takes classes in intermediate pole, lyra hoop dance and various fitness classes. She was curious about the idea of lyra hoop, resulting in her signing up for a class and becoming infatuated with the world of aerobic fitness.

“It helped me (gain) confidence. I’m really glad I started going there because it helped me reach my goals,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela said she instantly felt welcomed and accepted by Norred and the other instructors and students. The instructors took the time to get to know Valenzuela, helping her feel proud of herself on the pole. The community is what brought Valenzuela back time and again, she said.

Once Valenzuela began regularly attending classes, she stopped judging her body by the way it looks but rather by what she has learned to do with it physically. She has gained confidence, physical ability and a community she looks forward to seeing every day.

“I think we need places like this because women are so conditioned to be a certain way,” Norred said.

Variety of art forms

In the middle of class, Norred hoists her body up with her arms, her legs wrapping around the pole above her head, dangling, attempting to grasp the pole while sliding downward.

The other pole dancers follow her lead, some succeeding, some falling. They stand again, bruises forming, their bodies shaped from falling and getting up once again. They choose to lift themselves and teach their bodies to move in new ways.

Valenzuela falls with her legs entwined, laughing loudly. She stands up to try the move again, and she will do it again and again until she learns it by heart.

Anti Gravity offers a variety of classes including pole dance, lyra hoop dance and aerial silks with beginning, intermediate and advanced levels, as well as a body flow class, a pole in heels class, a "twerkout" class and a floor work class.

Anti Gravity offers a monthly package for $99, a three-month package for $265 and a six-month package for $500. Members who choose any of these packages can attend an unlimited amount of classes and are billed once per the package stipulation.

Norred also offers another option: to attend one class for $20 or five classes for $65, good for five weeks and regular 50-minute classes only.

Anti Gravity has an updated schedule of classes on its website, with the various times of classes available for every day of the week.

All genders are welcome to attend classes at Anti Gravity.

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