Pole Empress owner Tara Johnson in her studio. (Photo: Kiersten Adams)

Briana Taylor lives in the Northeast neighborhood of Oxford Circle but makes the short hike out to Germantown for her Saturday morning fitness class on the 4500 block of Germantown Ave.

The Saturday class, occupied by nine people, is mainly filled with new students who drop their bags and layers of warmer clothing by the door before picking one of nine stations around the room. Some women immediately start dancing in front of the mirror to get comfortable in their surroundings. Others may start the session with a deep stretch. Rich Baby Daddy by Drake, featuring SZA and Sexxy Redd, starts to play over the speakers, signaling for the class to begin.

What may sound like an average warm-up to a fitness class is followed by a considerably atypical way to work out. These nine stations are actually poles extending from the floor to the ceiling in front of a mirror wall waiting to be shifted from their static setting to spin. Suddenly, these women embody the studio’s name, which hangs as a neon sign on a decorated rose wall reading, “Pole Empress.” 

After a year of taking classes at Pole Empress, Taylor moves through the lesson without much difficulty. Climbing the pole, which takes an immense amount of upper and lower body strength, is done quickly and gracefully; the same goes for spins and the dance routine that rounds out the class. By the end of the session, Taylor is sweating along with everyone else—after an hour and thirty-minute full-body workout, most are left out of breath. 

“This is a workout!” Says Taylor. After taking a class at Pole Empress for the first time last February, Taylor was immediately hooked. 

Outside the studio, she’s an athletic trainer at La Salle University, working with the women’s basketball and soccer teams. Taylor looks for diversity in her workouts, and Pole Empress provides classes dedicated to dancing and fitness, such as core training, flexibility, and more.

“I like to strength train, I like weightlifting, but I just wanted something different,” Taylor says. 

As she packs up to leave, Taylor doubles back to share that she enjoys the sport not just for its physical effects but also because the activity does wonders for her confidence. 

“I’ve been trying to work on my confidence and find my inner sexy, and Pole Empress is the best place to do this,” says Taylor. “I’ve never been in a community that’s so welcoming and comfortable.”

That’s the atmosphere that Pole Empress owner Tara Johnson aims to create: a space of acceptance, body autonomy, sexual liberation, and fitness. With a master’s in Public Health from West Chester University, total body wellness is of the utmost importance to Johnson. 

She shares that since opening Pole Empress in 2018, it’s been her passion to aid her community in obtaining healthier lifestyles through an activity that activates every muscle in the body.

“Pole dancing kind of tricks you into working out; you don’t realize you’re doing it, but you’re getting a full body workout,” says Johnson. “Anybody can do it. You just have to be consistent and have the right mindset because it’s very challenging.”

After her class, Johnson’s body is notably relaxed—as if she didn’t lead an intense workout. Like Taylor, Johnson says pole fitness releases tension and stress in the body and mind. 

“You’re releasing endorphins [and] it increases your strength, confidence, flexibility, relieves stress, depression and anxiety,” says Johnson. A form of therapy to Johnson, she’s become a vocal advocate for alternative fitness, especially in her community. 

A Germantown native with roots laid on Tulpehocken Street, Johnson says she’s thrilled to have a studio located in her village where community development is a central focus. A few blocks away from Attic Brewery and other new restaurants, the owner is motivated to grow her business in the rapidly changing neighborhood.

Seeing the impact she’s created in Philly, it’s become one of Johnson’s goals to open a second location in Delaware County for folks outside the Philadelphia area to reach conveniently. Johnson believes opening a second location would be a chance to make Pole Empress a more recognized studio. She sees it as an opportunity to bring more exposure to pole fitness.

“In Russia, kids are pole dancing—we’re behind,” says Johnson about other countries embracing pole fitness. Despite pole still being viewed as a taboo activity, there are groundbreaking sporting events like the Pole Championship Series (PCS) that recruit top pole athletes from women’s, men’s, and junior categories to compete in performances around the US and countries such as Brazil, Australia, and South Africa. Not wanting to fall behind any further, Johnson’s currently entertaining the idea of a kids’ pole class for the future. 

Pole fitness has been a popular yet niche activity since the early 2000s. The demand for alternative fitness was the driving force behind studios like Flaunt Fitness and The Pole Studio’s seemingly overnight emergence. But while pole fitness continues to garner attention from the mainstream, stigmas linger.

“I think people assume pole dancing is stripping,” says Taylor. “I’m having a good time, I’m working out, and if I was stripping, mind your business.” 

Pole fitness is commonly associated with stripping or pole dancing, and Johnson wants to hold space for both the sport and the profession. Having faced criticism from the family in the past over her work, Johnson isn’t deterred by negative comments or critiques; she wants to continue offering a unique and exciting way for people to engage with their bodies, regardless of whether they’re doing it for leisure or work. 

“Everyone has their reasons for pole dancing. We don’t discriminate against anyone. Unfortunately, there are still people out there who are like that, but my job is just to educate and keep doing what I’m doing,” Johnson says.

Staying true to her word, Johnson will host a student and teacher showcase this Saturday, January 27th, at Pole Empress from 3 to 5 p.m. and again from 5 to 7 p.m., highlighting students’ progress for friends, family, and neighbors. 

Johnson encourages folks within the Pole community, both new and old, and those curious about the activity to join in to celebrate the student’s work, the studio’s fifth anniversary, and the community growing and flourishing around Pole in Germantown.

“We’re a family here. We’re that studio that gives you that safe space to come, grow, explore, [and] be your best self.”