CHAMPAIGN — If you walked into Cassie Palmer's Champaign apartment, you might be surprised to see in her living room a floor-to-ceiling pole.
She's not a dancer at a strip club.
The fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in educational psychology actually is a classically trained dancer who essentially brought pole fitness, one of the latest exercise crazes, to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois campus.
She became hooked on pole, as practitioners call it for short, after she "accidentally" took a pole class in Chicago a few years ago. Now she tries to have at least one pole in her home.
"I always arrange my furniture around the pole. It's the most important thing," she said.
So what is pole fitness?
It's a form of dance gymnastics, using a steel dance pole, that requires strength, endurance and flexibility — with emphasis on the arms, shoulders, back and core, says the International Pole Dance Fitness Association.
Skilled pole athletes like Palmer can perform spins, mounts and climbs — and acrobatic moves such as uprights, inverts and rotations.
Palmer teaches pole fitness at Pole51, her business at Venue 51, a campus facility owned by The Refinery, a Champaign fitness club. And she directs Illini Pole Fitness, a registered student organization.
One of her former students, Catharine Bedard, who's also a trained dancer, taught pole at Evolve, a fitness club downtown. (Bedard is no longer there, but the club continues to offer classes in the sport.)
Bedard said pole fitness requires an interesting set of skills: "Definitely a lot of stretching — kind of like yoga and Pilates — and dance and gymnastics."
She, Palmer and other pole athletes said the sport also helps them build self-confidence and express themselves.
UI senior psychology major Marissa Moxley, who studies with Palmer, said pole allowed her to reclaim her body after she left an abusive relationship.
"I didn't realize until after I started that my grandfather was into trapeze and aerial art," Moxley said. "My friends think it's cool. My girlfriend really supports it."
Donna Carnow, a UI freshman dance major, got into pole on an impulse; she discovered she really enjoys it.
"It takes you out of your comfort zone," she said. "There's a lot of artistry and athleticism involved, and I find that very satisfying."
Kahlilah Cooke, a UI junior kinesiology major, called pole meditative.
"I feel very at peace when I leave," she said.
April Porter, another of Palmer's students, said she achieves a sense of accomplishment after she masters a new move.
"It's different than going to a gym and running on a treadmill," Porter said during one of Palmer's classes at Pole51. "This is a really supportive atmosphere. It's not judgmental. You can be yourself."
As for that sticky subject of strippers and pole: Palmer's students took a field trip last summer to a strip club. They said they could tell which dancers hadn't studied pole fitness.
Those who don't, they said, grind and shake around the pole; their feet don't leave the ground.
In pole fitness the athletes sometimes lift themselves from the ground to perform aerial poses such as flag, J-split and lotus — those basically resemble what their names mean.
Bedard said people who study pole fitness tend to "adore" it. And they have different reasons for taking classes.
"I think there is a contingent that wants to learn how to dance in a sexy way, and then there are others who look at it strictly as a fitness regimen," she said. "I wouldn't tell either group of people what they feel is wrong or incorrect. Learning how to bring out that sexual side of yourself is very empowering and can make you feel confident."
The Guardian newspaper reported last week that pole-dance fitness is gaining momentum around the world — earlier this year, photographs of the Chinese national team rehearsing pole in the snow went viral.
Also, the International Pole Dance Fitness Association is pushing for pole to be included in the Olympics. Toward that goal, the association is improving its instructor accreditation system and promoting the sport through international competitions.
Recently, the third annual Pole World Cup in Rio de Janeiro attracted more than 150 competitors — men and women — from 36 countries.
Palmer said she plans to compete later this month in Chicago in a Pole Sport Organization-sanctioned event. You can see pole athletes in action closer to home, though. Palmer and some of her students will demonstrate the sport at a showcase Sunday at Pole51 at Venue 51.
Even with competitions and a push for inclusion in the Olympics, pole fitness continues to have an image problem.
The Guardian recently reported the Swansea University Students' Union banned its student pole society last year, saying pole upholds "raunch culture and the objectification of women and girls."
Palmer addressed that issue by posting recently on Facebook a video (vimeo.com/79401610), with the comment:
"Watch this and tell me that pole dancing is raunchy. Go on. Do it. Seriously people. Enough with the pole dancing shame."
If you go
What:Illini Pole Fitness presents two shows as part of its second semi-annual showcase, with emcee Matt Fear of Carnivale Debauche.
When: 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Venue 51, 51 E. Green St., C.
Admission: $5 for one show; $8 for both. Payment accepted at the door only.
Online: facebook.com/ EventsAtRefineryOnGreen.