Several months ago, I nervously walked into a room filled with strangers and stripper poles. I had stepped into my first Fluffy Kitty class at Defy Gravity. And I was early. I cursed my perpetual punctuality and tried very hard not to stare into my scared eyes in the mirrored wall. As a plus-sized woman, I never thought pole dancing was something I could do. Maybe this was all an elaborate ruse to make fun of the fat chick, and pig’s blood would rain down on me in a strange scene taken from both Carrie and Flashdance, and I would discover previously dormant telekinetic abilities and burn the entire place to the ground in my shame. I was kind of freaking out.

Before I had time to psych myself out and bolt, a vivacious instructor welcomed me and showed me where I could leave my belongings during the class. I forgot my self-consciousness while I watched someone practice for an upcoming showcase in an awesome display of grace and sensuality. As I slowly peeled the winter layers off, a friendly face struck up a conversation. Turns out we have a mutual friend. After the performer finished her practice set, she came by to gather her things and complimented my sweater. By the time the class started, I was 85% sure no one was going to drop pig’s blood on me.

Five minutes into the class, I was 100% sure. The previously mentioned and vivacious Jamie Hines led the class with an infectious energy and patient spirit. My fellow classmates were encouraging and affable. No one cared that I needed something explained twice. No one batted an eye when I didn’t know a move. No one laughed when I fell on my butt. But they did cheer when I got up and did it right the next time.

Liana Alcantara, the manager of the pole fitness and aerial arts studio, describes Defy Gravity (DG) as an “unconditional love community” where all are welcome “regardless of your size, regardless of your current fitness level, age, sex, gender, race, or anything like that.” Alcantara recommends that all who are interested or curious come to the official Open House this Sunday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. because “the exact second you meet anyone who works at Defy Gravity, most of your fears are going to go away because we’re just a bunch of weirdos. We just want to hang out and do cool stuff…Yeah, it’s a really fun workout, but you’re there for the community.”

The Open House will introduce folks to their new location at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana. No longer do class takers have to fight with Google Maps. No longer will you have to tell your phone that you most certainly have not arrived at your destination. To get to their old studio, I took a left through a Chinese food restaurant’s parking lot after passing an adult boutique. Now, I can just head toward Lincoln Square’s food court.

Alcantara admits it is “nice to be in a more visible space,” but she is particularly excited about how welcoming Urbana is to small businesses, and that bringing Defy Gravity to Lincoln Square means they are now “supporting businesses I care about,” like Common Ground Co-op. Many folks from the DG community have been raving on social media about another perk of their new location: Stango Cuisine now offers brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A more practical benefit of their new space is an extra room to expand their class offerings. “We added Chair Dance, Contemporary & Sexy Jazz Fusion, Adult Ballet Pointe, Gymnastics-style Floor Work, and Inversion & Arm Balances.” As tough as it is to pick a favorite class, Alcantara’s favorite classes to teach are Pole Fundamentals and Fluffy Kitty, both beginner level courses, because “everything is new and exciting, and they’ve never tried it before. And they get that rush you get when you’re first starting something new.” From a stylistic point-of-view, her favorite class is Embrace Your Sexy because “everybody’s sexy is different…It’s beautiful and it’s gorgeous, and it makes you feel strong…I never had muscles before I did Defy Gravity.”

One downside is the loss of their aerial warehouse at the old studio. The 20-foot ceilings “opened a lot of doors for our higher level aerial training.” Defy Gravity was the only aerial location in Illinois outside of Chicago that had the high ceilings required for the advanced training needed for instructors. They’re on the look out for a space that would accommodate their needs in the area, but until then, the 14-foot ceilings they have now are more than enough for the less advanced classes, and instructors will head to Chicago for advanced training.

The staff at Defy Gravity are certainly excited to introduce the community to their new space at the Open House. A lot of fun things are planned, including instructor demos, $1 to learn a move deals, and a raffle of goodies from local businesses.

Another exciting event is an upcoming Pay What You Wish: Pole Fundamentals course available on Sunday, April 7 at 5:15 p.m. Alcantara admits that the cost of their regular classes at $25 each can be costly, “and unfortunately it has to be. When you dangle people 14 feet in the air, your insurance is expensive.” They are committed to doing “everything a small business can do to get classes in the hands of people who want to take them.” They have a sliding scale for folks with lower incomes, frequent discount codes and passes, occasional Pay What You Wish classes, and everyone’s first class is always just $10. In addition, UIUC students who are members of Illini Pole Fitness receive a discount on all classes.

Another reason Illini Pole Fitness members receive a discount is because Defy Gravity grew out of a registered student organization. DG owner Sarah West was one of the administrative members of Pole Fitness and registered DG as an LLC out of the need to create a usable (and well insured) space for folks to practice and learn together.

Alcantara credits West with cultivating the welcoming and inclusive community that Defy Gravity has become. DG staff attended a weekend retreat based on West’s doctoral thesis “Feminist Inclusive Queer Leadership” that Alcantara called a “life-changing moment.” She explains that DG is “trying really, really hard to be as transparent of a work in progress space as we can. Because I think especially in the world of social justice there’s this idea of being ‘woke.’ People think it’s this thing that you do once and then ‘I am woke’ but you are awakening. There’s always going to be a thought pattern that you’ve internalized that you didn’t realize or maybe a phrase that you shouldn’t be using. There’s always something to learn. If you’re not constantly being a student of what the most marginalized communities are saying, and also really internalizing that work on your own and really thinking about what you’re doing to dismantle these things, if you’re not constantly reflecting on these things, then I honestly believe you’re kind of part of the problem.”

Their inclusive nature has led DG to be one of the few pole studios in Illinois that is open to all genders, including cisgender men. Alcantara admits that many cis men may feel like DG “isn’t a space for them” because they are “a very queer and feminist space.” But Defy Gravity wants to “challenge the narrative” that pole fitness is a “female identifying sport.” DG is “intentional about who we have here and creating a safe space.”

This summer, that inclusive, safe space will extend to summer camps for kids. They will offer three choices for younger children:  aerial, combo (aerial and contemporary pole), and contemporary pole (pole and dance). Teens will be able to attend a circus intensive, and they are toying with the idea of an adult summer camp, as well.

Children doing pole dancing? Isn’t that for, you know, strippers? Alcantara addresses any concern a parent may have: pole dance and stripping “are very different worlds. It’s like a computer designer and an author may both use a computer, but they’re using it for totally different things, for totally different mindsets, in totally different worlds. While pole dancers and strippers may both use pole, pole dancing is not stripping and stripping is not pole. People who do both will be the first person to tell you that…Pole has so many different hats that it wears, and I promise I will only teach your kids the age appropriate ones. We’re going to do super cool ballet/jazz/contemporary-styled movement, gymnastic-styled movement. We’re not going to be into the more exotic things.”

In fact, kids pole was the most popular class from DG’s summer camp last year. “They had superhero day, animal day. They did all sorts of games, crafts, and scavenger hunts. They had a blast.”

Is your curiosity piqued? Are you willing to put aside any concerns that you have latent telekinetic powers that will be awakened by public humiliation? Step one is to come to the Open House. It’s free and there’s no pressure to perform. An open house for Defy Gravity is where Alcantara got her start as a timid student, then an instructor, and finally as the studio manager. “Give it three classes,” she recommends. “Your first one, you’re going to be a little terrified, and that’s okay. You’re going to be a little nervous. Your second class, you’re gonna be, ‘Okay, I’m not as nervous as my first one, but I’m still not totally sure…’ And by the third class, there’s usually at least one win. All it takes is one moment when you’re like, ‘I think I got it.’ And from there we got you; you’re hooked.”

Defy Gravity
158 Lincoln Square
Urbana
Monday-Friday 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sunday 12 to 7:15 p.m.

Top photo by Elisabeth Paulus