Relegated for decades to the darkened confines of gentlemen's clubs and erotic gatherings, stripper poles aren't just for strippers anymore.
The polished metal poles are part of an emerging workout regime found to be both fun and effective for people of all skills and fitness levels. Pole fitness studios are popping up all over the world, including Key West, where Monica Matroci opened Gravity Studio Key West about a year ago.
A physical trainer with 20 years of experience and a laundry list of instructor certifications in pilates, aerobics, weight management, boot camp, nutrition, spinning, kettle ball and kickboxing, Matroci also has run five marathons.
She returned to her hometown of Mexico City, Mexico in 2006 to run the Mexico City Marathon, and visited a childhood friend, who had started a pole fitness regime.
"She had a pole in her house, and started showing me all of her bruises, and everything she had learned in pole fitness classes," Matroci said last week, barefoot in her Key West studio, where eight poles are permanently installed from floor to ceiling, and can hold up to 3,000 pounds.
"I tried a few things, and immediately felt how many muscles I was using, and you literally couldn't get me off the pole," she said laughing.
When she returned to Key West, her adopted hometown for the past 22 years, Matroci installed a pole at her house -- not in the bedroom, she emphasized, but in her own workout space.
"I started taking classes online, learning the exercises and practicing at home," she said, remembering how intense but satisfying the workouts were. "My husband watched me practicing early on, and said, 'That's great, honey, but you really should lose the scary face while you're doing it.'"
Practice makes perfect, and Matroci soon became certified to teach pole fitness. She then spent a week in Las Vegas, where Fawnia Dietrich, a former exotic dancer and current pole fitness instructor, opened the country's first pole fitness school.
"After talking about it for months and months, my friend in Mexico City and I developed our own curriculum and certification program, which was accepted by and registered with the Aerobic Fitness Association of America," Matroci said.
She made arrangements with Tom Wheaton, owner of Paradise Health Fitness, to rent some studio space in the gym to teach pole fitness classes a few days a week.
"I got four removable poles, and would set them up and take them down before and after each class," Matroci said.
A few months into the pole adventure, Kelly Goss, a trained dancer, took one of Matroci's class and a partnership was born.
"We decided to team up," Matroci said. "And we also decided we didn't want to have to keep putting the poles up and taking them down every day."
Gravity Studio Key West opened Aug. 11, 2011 in the shopping center locals know as either "the old Perry Plaza" or Roosevelt Suites, depending on their length of residency.
Matroci's childhood friend in Mexico City also opened pole fitness studios in Mexico, where she currently has eight locations.
"The perception of people seeing pole dancing as being just for strippers is slowly but surely changing and is really becoming a sport," Matroci said, adding that Goss is preparing to compete in a national pole fitness competition in Houston. "You really learn control, flexibility, balance and how to use your core, which is just key to fitness. It's so empowering."
The studio teaches hand positions, leg positions and eventually inversions.
"The beauty is that pole fitness can be taught to anyone," Matroci said. "It doesn't matter their age, shape, ability or level of coordination. I've had students from age 17-60, and everyone has a good time."
She acknowledged that many first-time students "probably hate me the day after their first class because they're so sore, but you're having so much fun during the class, you don't notice it while it's happening."
The classes are an hour or 90 minutes, and are taught progressively so everyone works at their own levels.
In addition to the pole fitness class schedule, Matroci, Goss and the other instructors also offer aerial yoga, which uses hammocks strung from the ceiling, and TRX suspension training classes that utilize your own body weight for resistance and strength training.
"TRX forces you to use your core, strengthen your core and all with your own body weight," Matroci said. "And I love that, because even though I'm a fitness instructor, I've never been much of a gym rat."
Gravity Key West offers several classes each day, and members have access to unlimited classes each month. The studio is currently offering a first birthday special of $80 per month for three months of unlimited classes. Regularly priced memberships are $100 per month. Matroci also offers a 20 percent discount for students, military, law enforcement and corporate groups if one person from an office brings at least three or more colleagues.
Individual classes without a membership cost $15 per class, but the first class is always free, Matroci said.
Visit www.gravitykeywest.com for a complete schedule and more information.