It is no secret that childhood sexual trauma follows its victims into their adult lives. That was certainly true for California-based fitness expert Gina DeRoos. While she spent years in therapy and had her husband’s love and support, she couldn’t escape feeling angry and bitter.
DeRoos’ answer materialized in what some may think of as an unconventional practice: pole dance fitness. While the name might bring to mind movie-reel images of so-called “gentlemen’s clubs,” people of all ages, genders and body types curious to try the demanding exercise form can now do so in specialized fitness studios all over the country. These studios emphasize pole dancing as a performance art that blends dance with strength-focused acrobatic movements.
For DeRoos, it just clicked. “Pole dancing is incredibly empowering,” she says. “It connects me with the music and with the fluidity of my body. I don’t even know if I can put it into words. It’s mesmerizing.”
“I think it’s got to be on everyone’s bucket list,” DeRoos says. “It changed my life.”
Evolving Toward Empowerment
Dance had been part of DeRoos’ life before the sexual assault. Holding back tears, she says, “It was taken from me. Every time I tried to come back, I was still so hurt. When you steal something like that from a child, there’s so much trauma surrounding it. I couldn’t dance. Mom tried. We moved. But I just couldn’t feel the music anymore.”
She adds, “I knew I had to go back there if I was going to heal the little girl inside me that was broken and love myself again.”
At first, DeRoos explored what she knew. She spent a little time in ballet and then tap. And though they connected her with her childhood love of moving to the music, neither seemed to fit.
Her breakthrough came in the unlikely form of a Groupon for Venus Pole Fitness, a studio in Modesto, California. “I tried to rope some cousins into it, then let it go for a good year. One day, I opened an email newsletter from [Venus owner] Diane Flores. It was like she was talking to me — a real ‘do it now’ moment. So I put on my big-girl panties and went over to the studio. It was everything I loved about dancing. The connection grew from there. It became my sanctuary.”
Today, DeRoos passes on what she’s learned as an instructor at Venus — the same studio where she started as a student in 2012.
The Spiritual Practice of Letting Go
Pole dancing didn’t always feel spiritual for DeRoos, she admits. For the first month, all she did was giggle. “Sometimes I still do,” she says. “There’s a lot of floor work. Doing those slinky moves — it’s really not my thing. I feel like I look silly. But I can be open and honest with students, because I understand that feeling when you start you look at yourself in the mirror and think, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Eventually, though, you master the moves.”
In addition to the healing and even meditative qualities that pole dancing holds for DeRoos, she also shows off her grace and athleticism at the studio’s twice-yearly exhibitions for prospective students, friends and family. She says, “When I do, people see the joy and the love. It’s spiritual.”
She’s also competed and done very well in several bikini competitions — though she discovered her heart is in the studio, not on the stage. “[Competing] became another part of this amazing journey of learning to love my body. It showcased the hard part of something I’ve done. It’s also something I’ve let go of.”
A Supportive Community
The studio offers a community of support the likes of which DeRoos never dreamed possible. She has seen women of many ages and body types come into class, grow past their fears and inhibitions and experience their own personal transformations. Every day she works to pass the positivity she’s experienced on to others.
“As women we have so many problems with our bodies. We feel we can’t love ourselves the way we are right now,” she says. “I tell my students, ‘Don’t wait until you lose 10 pounds. Love yourself in this moment. You are masterpieces and works in progress at the same time. You can love yourself and work on what you want to work on.'”
And while she knows that what works for her may not work for everyone, she encourages anyone curious about “ballet around the pole” to find a studio in their area.
Helping Others Find Their Way
Perhaps the most amazing thing to DeRoos about her own transformation is how it has helped others. “Because I have put myself out there — and it was hard to do — there are many people who come to the studio and pull me aside and say, ‘Your story touched me.’ They are going through similar things.”
“When you learn to love yourself, you drop the guilt and shame,” she explains. “It opens so many doors and aligns everyone and everything around you. For me, [the dance] has been the last piece of the huge puzzle of putting myself back together.”