I’m no Normani, but I’ve kind of always been blessed with the gift of dance. I can easily pick up on choreography in a dance class and you’ll almost always find me two-stepping and/or swaying at a party. Sadly, as I found out at a recent class at the New York pole dancing studio Body and Pole, this does not mean I will be starring in Hustlers 2 any time soon.
I showed up to the class taught by Hustlers lead choreographer Johanna Sapakie dressed to impress: tank top and sports bra for support, above-the-knee compression shorts to easily grip the pole with my legs, and six-inch Pleaser heels with a three-inch platform. If ankles could speak, mine were probably screaming “You tried it” when I slipped on my pair of Pleasers immediately after putting them on. But the show must go on!
Sapakie, a professional dancer and teacher, makes spinning in the air look as easy as walking. Her background in acrobatics helped her land a spot on the Cirque du Soleil roster (she worked there for 10 years), where she was later introduced to pole dancing. “The first show I did with them involved a pole act, so I started learning about pole dancing through Cirque du Soleil and I fell in love with it,” she told ELLE.com. “I started really actively searching out other places to learn and practice. From there, I gained my own aesthetic and then I actually got hired back at Cirque for another show where there was a female pole dancing act.”
Sapakie’s fascination with pole dancing also led to several other jobs, including as the lead choreographer for the upcoming Hustlers film, starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo and more. The movie chronicles the lives of strip club employees who band together to seek revenge on their Wall Street clients. When J. Lo’s longtime choreographers, director team—Nappytabs, Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo—heard about the Hustlers film, they reached out to Johanna, who dropped everything for the opportunity to personally train J. Lo for her role as Ramona.
Pole dancing isn’t just about the moves you can perform on the pole; nailing the sultry walk plays a major part in the routine, something my class of pole dancing newbies learned in the first few minutes. Sapakie led us to one side of the studio to form two lines to start our lesson in how to walk sexy and gracefully—two words I wouldn’t immediately use to describe my awkward self. “What you want to do is not think about how you walk, so you’re not picking your foot up so much. It’s not a stomp, it’s more of a drag so your foot always has contact with the floor,” Sapakie said before turning on Aerosmith’s “Crazy” for us to practice to. “When you get to the pole I want you to touch it, give it a little push, whip your hair. Let the shoes and the red lights move you.”
To warm up, Sapakie took us through the same warm-up she did while training J. Lo, including some glute and core exercises, and a lot of stretching. While we had Body and Pole’s mirrored walls and dimly-lit room to practice in, Sapakie had to improvise when it came down to training J.Lo, as the singer’s schedule didn’t allow room for many studio sessions. Two and a half months before Hustlers began filming, Sapakie traveled to J. Lo’s homes in New York, Miami and Los Angeles ,where they set up portable poles in her living rooms to practice. “Can you just buy them on Amazon?” I asked. Sadly, no. Sapakie said she used Lupit Pole and X-Pole, who also supplied the poles for the film.
Sapakie spent the next hour teaching us the three different spinning moves she taught J. Lo for the movie, including the Carousel, the move Ramona taught Destiny (Constance Wu) in the Hustlers trailer. But the “front hook, ankle hook, knee hook” wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Sapakie instructed us to partner up with the other ladies in the class and then take turns learning how to grip the spinning pole, which give spinning moves a little more oomph than stationary ones.
Attaching the right side of my hips to the pole, I raised my outside arm and gripped the pole right above my head. I used my right hand to grip right under my bust, then lifted both of my knees to my chest. “Just don’t jump,” our instructor warned. I checked myself out in the mirror: I looked about as graceful as a little kid climbing the jungle gym. But Sapakie later admitted that even J. Lo struggled with getting comfortable with the pole because “she’s a perfectionist.”
“She feels like a superhero, but she’s a human like the rest of us, and there was a learning curve. She wants to be perfect the first time, and that’s not reality for anybody, even someone as amazing as her,” Sapakie said. So Sapakie took a dancer’s approach, from the terminology she used down to how she choreographed the routine. “We basically patterned the movement like it’s choreography. And that would help her remember the sequencing of things and would help her grasp the routine quickly.”
The pole became slippery after a while, so Sapakie doused our hands with Dry Hands Gripping Lotion and moved on to teaching us how to spin. Depending on which side of the pole we chose to stand on, Sapakie instructed us to “step your inside foot forward, swing your outside leg and pick up knees up to form a chair position.” After a few attempts and signs of impending calluses—or what Sapakie would call “pole kisses”—I started to feel more confident dancing. As it turns out, I was having fun: Sapakie and the other ladies in the class cheered each other on, and every song Sapakie played slapped.
“There’s something about being in this environment that makes you feel comfortable to explore the sexy side of yourself and you’re not going to find it without exploring it,” Sapakie told me at the end of class. “I think the best thing to do is put yourself outside of your comfort zone and leave your ego at the door and allow yourself to look ridiculous until you find what looks right and feels right.”