Photo: William Luther /Staff Photographer
It’s a Tuesday night at SMASH Dance Studio, and Marie-Louise Tangu is feeling it. The burn. The beats. The fun. And of course all the seismic hip-shaking.
Oh, did we mention this is a weekly twerking class?
As tunes such as “Booty” by Blac Youngsta and “Big Ole Booty” by Taylor Girlz thump through the studio, which is dimly lit like a dance club, Tangu and 10 other women stomp, squat and even crawl on all fours along with instructor Shayla Smith, who leads from a small stage before a wall of mirrors in that racy New Orleans dance move that Miley Cyrus made viral.
It’s just the kind of twerkout, er, workout that Tangu said makes her feel confident, empowered and sexy.
“I’m a big goofball. Like, a huge goofball,” said Tangu, who works in the medical field. “And I want to also be able to embrace my feminity and my sexuality. Those are things I like that I get here. And when I leave, I’m like, ‘Ooh, yes, I’m a woman.’”
Such is the joy of sexy dance fitness in San Antonio, where a handful of select female-only exercise classes hone women’s muscles and minds with fitness routines that would look more at home in the strip club than the gym.
In addition to weekly twerk classes, SMASH also is home to Vegas Stiletto Fitness, which for almost a decade has combined everyday aerobics with the chair-straddling burlesque of “Cabaret,” heels optional. SMASH’s stiletto fitness class resumes in September.
Meanwhile, Soft Sensuous Moves in San Antonio has specialized in pole-dancing classes for more than a dozen years, welcoming women of all skill levels and sensibilities, from giggling beginners to serious competitors, to make a 45mm diameter pole their pillar of strength and self-expression. Soft Sensuous Moves offers twerking classes, too.
Even in the era of 21st century feminism and the #MeToo movement, such workout classes continue to offer women a fun and fit way to strengthen their bodies, as well as their body images, by tapping into their inner beauty and bad girl, which need not be mutually exclusive.
“We try to build that self-confidence in women through the dance and through music,” said SMASH and Vegas Stiletto Fitness founder Lisa Romero. “It doesn’t matter what size, shape they are. They can just come in and (they) can just feel like Beyoncé.”
Romero launched SMASH in Las Vegas in 2005, then moved it along with the Vegas Stiletto Fitness program to San Antonio in 2010. The dance studio, which sports a life-size standee of Wonder Woman in one curtained window and a banner with the silhouette of a burlesque chair dancer in another, also offers Zumba, kickboxing, kettlebell classes and other fitness programs.
Romero said many of her twerking and stiletto fitness clients are moms and wives trying to reconnect with their bygone nightclub dancing, only now in a judgment-free zone minus any gawking guys. Other women use the classes, Romero said, as a break from the kids or a bad breakup.
And while many women first walk into SMASH a little timid, they often leave a whole new person after rekindling some inner missing spark, she added. Plus they burn off a ton of calories, especially in an intense cardio workout such as the twerking class.
“So they’re exercising without feeling like they’re exercising,” Romero said.
Erin Ruiz took up twerking as well as hip-hop fitness at SMASH two years ago. She said the classes are a welcome breather from work and school and help her mentally and physically.
“I think we all need to feel a little sexy every now and then,” Ruiz said. “So it feels good to actually come out here and get it all out there on the floor and not be judged (when) doing it here with your fellow girlfriends. Because we’re all like a big family.”
That feeling of sisterhood extends to the shiny, squeaky poles in the pink-and-red dance studios of Soft Sensuous Moves.
“I created this because as a personal trainer I was working in all-women’s gyms, and body image was horrible in this country,” said Soft Sensuous Moves owner René Mulholland. “I wanted to bring something that was fun and exciting, but I also wanted women to bring (out) that sensual fun side to them that all women have.”
Mulholland started her business in 2004 with a class called Art of the Strip, a six-week course that ended with a pole dance, which she ran at several San Antonio dance studios and women’s only gyms. She later brought her work home by knocking out a bedroom wall to create a pole-dancing room. Soft Sensuous Moves is now located in the Castle Creek Village shopping center, its home for the past eight years.
A hallway in the studio features black-and-white photos that showcase its pole-dancing instructors hanging from poles in various contortions.
Those instructors include social workers, a physician’s assistant, an electrical engineer and an insurance adjuster, while their students come from equally diverse backgrounds, including high school teachers, soldiers and accountants. Even women in their 70s and 80s have given the pole a whirl.
Mulholland said of the more than 20,000 women they’ve taught over the years, only 100 have ever been strippers.
“Not that a stripper’s a bad thing,” she said.
In fact, all the fitness-certified instructors at Soft Sensuous Moves have stripper names, a knowing nod to pole-dancing’s more erotic origins. Though Mulholland stressed, “We don’t take our clothes off in here.”
Skimpy shorts and sports bras are encouraged in pole-dancing, but only because the skin-on-pole contact makes it easier to pull off slinky, spinning moves with names such as the “candy cane” and the “split spins.”
Shanel Watkins was one with the pole on a recent Wednesday morning at Soft Sensuous Moves, as instructor Carla Wetzel, aka Elektra, guided her and another pole-dancing classmate.
Watkins has been pole-dancing at Soft Sensuous Moves for about eight months. The full-time biology major at the University of Texas at San Antonio also power-lifts in her spare time, and she said some of the pole-dancing moves are far more challenging.
“Something that you see your instructors do, it looks so easy,” Watkins said. “Then you try it and you’re just like, ‘Oh, this is actually difficult and actually requires a little bit of strength and flexibility.’ It’s a little bit more than what people think it is.”
“It’s like weightlifting your body,” said Wetzel, who stood extra tall at the end of the class in 8-inch heels. “And the shoes are like ankle weights.”
Mulholland stressed that any woman who considers sexy dance fitness such as twerking or pole-dancing should do it for herself, not for her partner.
That “me first” approach also goes for women who have suffered abuse or harassment; Mulholland said she sees many women who have been mentally and physically abused, and that her pole-dancing classes offer a safe environment for them to find themselves again.
“I think when that comes to the #MeToo movement that’s very important, because even in the #MeToo movement you have sensuality and sexuality,” Mulholland said. “And that’s (being) a woman.”
Which is why women such as Marie-Louise Tangu find fitness routines such as twerking so good for the body and soul.
“Women are kind of suppressed, especially with their sexual desires and their female health in general,” Tangu said. “And I like doing things like this because it encompasses all of that, and it emphasizes it and allows you to be you and enjoy your womanhood.”