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Redefining the pole

Pole-fitness artist and UW medical student Kari Rousseau performs a trick using a campus tree as an improvised pole. Photo by Lucas Anderson

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Rousseau hangs upside-down on a stop sign on Memorial Way Northeast.

The pole sits vacant on a dimly lit stage.

Music begins playing and Soleil Rousseau, 20, heel-clad and striped with zebra body-paint, glides over, grabs a hold of the pole and begins performing a slow, graceful routine to the Lion King theme song.

Rousseau is a pole-fitness artist. She has performed at lounges, theaters, benefit shows and competitions all over the world. This past spring, she auditioned for season six of “America’s Got Talent” and made it to the “Las Vegas Week” round of the show.

But to many around campus, she is simply Kari­­­ — a second-year UW School of Medicine student, member of the Husky Marching Band, volunteer firefighter and youth director at a local church.

Pole dancing was added to her list of hobbies after work one day in 2008 when some of her fellow firefighters teased and encouraged her to dance on the pole in the firehouse. Rousseau complied with their joke for the laughs. But rather than stopping at just that, she was drawn to the fresh challenge presented to her.

“I love to try new things,” she said. “Pole fitness and pole competition is a lot of acrobatics and strength; it’s really hard.”

Rousseau has been dancing since middle school, mastering a range of dance styles including jazz, hip-hop and tap. She completed an undergraduate degree in dance at Seattle University and trained at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

“[Pole dancing] is comparable to gymnastics and ballet mixed together,” she said. “There are ballet aspects of it because you have to point your toes — you have to have strong lines or you look sloppy. But at the same time you have to be able to tumble and slip on a pole.”

Rousseau taught herself the unique art by having a freestanding stage and pole installed inside her Newcastle condominium. She said that the atypical addition to her home has brought some amusing reactions from maintenance workers and strangers who happen to get a peek inside of her living room.

“They don’t say anything, they just act like it’s not there,” she said. “They make it really awkward.”

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Rousseau leans on a stop sign after performing pole tricks around campus.

Despite preconceived notions of pole dancing as strictly adult entertainment, the performing art is technically divided into three distinct categories, with exotic dancing as just one. The other two — pole fitness and pole competition — are what Rousseau chooses to devote her time and efforts to perfecting.

There is even a petition to include pole dancing in the 2016 Olympics, and Rousseau said she hopes to be there — although she said being mistaken as a stripper at times can be frustrating.

“There are so many people that the minute you say ‘pole’ and ‘dancing’ in the same sentence they’re like ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I think it’s dumb,” she said. “I’ll be honest, I’ve seen a lot of strippers dance before, I have a lot of fans that are strippers that look up to me.”

Rousseau noted differences in style between pole dancers in adult entertainment clubs and pole-fitness artists.

“Strippers don’t really use the pole very much — they don’t do a lot of tricks. Pole fitness artists such as I use the pole and have a scene, have a story — that’s what you’re telling through your performance. But at the same time, we’re not naked or anything.”

Vincent Ruden, 20, Rousseau’s boyfriend of two years, remembers when he first heard of her unique hobby.

“I thought it was a bit strange; I had that negative stigma,” Ruden said. “I never expected anyone to do that for like a career type of thing. But after I saw her dance a couple times, it just blew my mind like how graceful she was on the pole.”

Free Movement Zone, a pole-dancing studio located near campus on Northeast 45th Street and University Way Northeast, offers classes through the ASUW Experimental College for those looking to give the form of workout a try. Robert Orr, owner of the studio, sees some take his classes for the first time who don’t know the level of fitness it will require.

“There are always at least a few people in every class that are surprised at the level of athleticism that it requires to perform,” Orr said. “I consider anyone who does any kind of dance to be an athlete. Dancing is extraordinarily difficult to do for any length of time. As soon as you start lifting your body weight, that differentiates you — there are many people who can’t lift their body weight even for one minute.”

Ruden has tried pole dancing at Free Movement Zone with Rousseau and said that he was surprised at its difficulty.

“You wouldn’t believe how much of a workout it is, honestly,” Ruden said. “Not only just pulling yourself up on the pole, but some of the poses take an intense amount of core strength. The workout you get is intense.”

For now, Rousseau is only looking ahead. Ultimately, she is hoping to help give the performing art a new reputation.

“For women, it’s just totally empowering because they can do this thing that was once looked upon as being bad and slutty, and now they can take it and turn it into something awesome,” she said. “We are trying to make that movement from nasty, grindy pole dancers to art.”

Reach reporter Kirsten Johnson at lifestyles@dailyuw.com.

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