Nicki Dark spins around a pole. She's using deep, sculpted, and meticulously worked muscles to control her movements. There's much more to it than stripper-style pole dancing; what she's doing, based on her muscle movement, is a feat of strength. It's pole fitness.
Dark, whose real name is Nicole Bennett, is one of the few instructors in pole fitness who teach co-ed classes, much less have an all-male class. Since her studio in Bartlett, Nicki Dark Fitness, opened just over a year ago in 2014, her classes have grown to more than 50 students, many of them men.
Dark got into pole fitness, which builds upper- and lower-body strength through exercises performed on a vertical pole, about five years ago and quickly became enthralled.
"The difference between what I teach in pole fitness and pole dancing is technique," Dark said. "I show my students how to build their foundation in order to create a beautiful home. Pole dancing is more how you decorate. It's how creative you are with your technique."
That technical foundation she teaches — which Dark says is based on techniques developed by men in Russia — can lead students to national pole fitness competitions with the American Pole Fitness Association, which hosts national championships every year, or the Pole Sport Organization, which features competitions that can branch off into aerials and complex maneuvers.
"When I got into pole fitness, there weren't really guys [doing it] in the city of Memphis," she said. "We live in the Bible Belt, so pole fitness is already unorthodox. When I sought to get my certification, the majority of my trainers were male. So when I saw that, I said, 'Wow, there are men who do want to do this and not look at it in a negative light.'"
The Dark Spartan classes cater to Dark's male students, who develop muscles differently based on their physiology. It's not unheard of for pole fitness classes at other studios to turn men away, particularly when female instructors may not be able to teach them correctly.
"Guys want to do it as much as girls do," Dark said. "I do not discriminate against guys. They're so welcome. My guys love it, because a lot of places are very uneasy about guys. On top of that, they don't know how to actually teach them, because they're not strong enough to accommodate what they need to learn based on their strength."
The all-male classes focus far more on upper body strength than the all-female classes. During the co-ed classes, things are broken down for both.
"Believe it or not, pole fitness does not [require a lot of upper body strength]," she said. "The way I teach it, no, because I actually teach you how to build it during the classes."
Since Dark has started her Dark Spartan classes, the number of men who have signed up has been slowly growing.
"It took a little while, because a lot of them were not allowed in certain places to do pole," she said. "It's amazing watching men do pole, because in Russia and Asia, they actually have more male polers than female polers. The pole I teach is more the strength and athleticism of it, not the seductive side of pole dancing."