PORTLAND, Maine — The harsh overhead fluorescent tubes are turned off. A string of lavender lights burns in a soft glow and the hip-hop is turned up loud.

At the front of the room, by the mirrors, a teacher stalks around a floor-to-ceiling pole. With both hands, she lifts herself off the floor and points her feet at the ceiling in a controlled curl, performing a split on the way up. Her ankles grasp the pole and she gracefully slides down headfirst, rolls into a ball and emerges on her feet.

Then, her students attempt the same moves as she walks between them, offering support and tips.

It’s not what you might think. It’s not a training ground for exotic dancers. It’s a fitness class.

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to it and I feel like you should just come and try it and see for yourself what it’s all about,” said Jonessa Ramos, 24, before teaching a class at 207 Pole Fitness in Portland on a recent Friday night.

Ramos, who has a background in dance and figure skating, opened her business in 2013 and now teaches a steady six classes a week at the Movement Lab studio co-op on Dartmouth Street.

“People think that it’s burlesque, or that there’s a lot of sexy dancing, or that you have to be sexy in order to come into the class,” said Ramos. “But it’s very physical fitness-oriented.”

Classes at 207 Pole Fitness are real workouts. Sessions start with stretches and dance warm ups followed by intense core exercises. Friday night’s level one students performed crunches while suspending themselves off the wooden floor by their arms, hands gripping the chromed vertical poles.

Lindsey Kimura, president and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Pole Championship Series, said a typical hourlong workout burns 400 to 600 calories. Exact numbers depend greatly on effort and the fitness levels of participants.

Kimura said most workouts combine the cardiovascular exercise of dancing with the strength training and core exercises associated with the aerial maneuvers. An added benefit is increased flexibility.

“It’s exercise that benefits you in all areas,” she said.

Nearly every sequence Ramos taught had the three women in the class dangling by their legs or spinning around the pole by their arms while twisting and inverting their bodies. Upper body and core strength were a must.

When Kimura started pole fitness in 2008, there were only a handful of teachers and studios in the country.

“Now there’s over 2,000 in the United States,” she said.

A Google search turns up about a half-dozen studios in Maine and several national and international associations dedicated to the fitness practice, as well as the competitive sport version.

Kimura said pole fitness has nothing to do with stripping, despite what may come to some minds at first mention.

According to the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association’s website, modern pole dancing is a fusion of 12th century Chinese and Indian traditions as well as more modern circus performing.

Ramos, in addition to teaching her weekly classes, is a student at Circus Atlantic, the recreational program of the Circus Conservatory of America in Portland, where they offer classes in Chinese pole.

“The energy here, the vibe, is integrity, art, dance, fitness passion — there’s no type of stripper vibe,” said 207 Pole Fitness student Buffie McLaskey. “As you can see, I’m not a stripper. I’m just a regular person.”

Ramos said people sometimes ask her if she is, or was, an exotic dancer.

“Meaning, like, ‘Were you a stipper before?’” she said.

She tells them, no. It’s just a hobby that grew into a business.

“It’s just for somebody who wants to get a really great workout and feel empowered and feel good about themselves,” McLaskey said.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.