Britney Spears’ song Toxic is blasting from the sound system, and all eyes are on Alishia Sala as she strides like a stripper, hips cocking with every step, toward a brass pole set up in the centre of a packed nightclub in downtown Toronto. She wraps one arm around the pole, while using her free hand to quickly rip off her black miniskirt, revealing barely there red spandex shorts.

Sala, a 28-year-old career counsellor, is one of six contestants in the Sensitille Naturals Pole Dance Invitational organized last fall to celebrate the opening of Aradia Fitness (, the city’s first pole-dancing-for-fitness studio. What starts out as a slow and sensual tease turns into an impressive show of strength and sexy athleticism as Sala spins and inverts her body around the pole.

Sala is part of a growing number of women who have traded in their yoga mats for a fitness program that offers them the same sort of conditioning through slow, controlled movements. Like other trends, pole dancing has A-list devotees, such as Kate Moss and Teri Hatcher. Actress Sheila Kelley was so taken with the sport, which she learned while preparing for her role in Dancing at the Blue Iguana, that she launched her own pole-based exercise program, called the S Factor ( ) to the sport. “I always knew that this form of physical expression was inside of me,” she explains. “When I saw an episode about pole dancing on Oprah, that clinched it.”

Studio co-founders Christine Boyer, 34, a certified pilates and yoga instructor, and Tracy Gray, also 34 and a former corporate bank manager, say that while not all of their students are as confident as Sala when they sign on, they’re just as curious. “We wanted to offer a workout that burns calories and builds core strength,” says Boyer, who looked to the lean and toned bodies of strippers for inspiration, “but we also wanted to introduce women to their sexy side. The movements we teach can help you express your sensuality and trust what your body is feeling.” Students of all ages and body types learn to let down their guards and overcome their fears of self-expression.

Since opening their first studio on Granville Street in Vancouver in February 2004, the partners have expanded to 11 studios across the country, including Whistler, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa, with more locations coming soon. But even as the business takes off, Boyer and Gray recommend a slow approach to learning the basics of pole dancing. Instructors at Aradia break down the moves into small, progressive steps, starting with a series of mat stretches to open up the hip and pelvic areas, followed by a walk around the pole and a lesson in how to position your hands on the brass.

“Once you’ve mastered the basics, we teach you your first spin,” says Boyer. (The “fireman,” where you wrap your leg around the pole and swing around.) After that you can gyrate and spin your way through five levels of difficulty, working abs, arms, back muscles, lats, legs and glutes.

Expect a few bruises in the beginning, but it’s the enhanced inner connection that leaves the most lasting impression. “Pole dancing makes your sex life a lot more fun because you’re much less inhibited,” says Boyer. Sala, the winner of the Toronto competition who walked away with her very own portable pole, agrees. “I sought to push the boundaries of expressing my own sexuality, and by doing so, my confidence has really grown,” she says. Now Sala looks people directly in the eye when she’s speaking to them. “It’s like I’ve got a dirty little secret that I carry with me wherever I go, and I love it.”

Strap on your stilettos and try our step-by-step beginner’s work-out!

It is advised you consult a physician or a qualified fitness professional before starting any new fitness program.