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New pole dancing studio in Poulsbo draws neighborhood scrutiny

POULSBO — Emily Boberg Courts isn't a stranger to the unexpected. As case in point: Only a few years ago she made the nonconforming career switch from Type-A accountant to exotic fitness instructor.

Even so, the reaction Boberg Courts received to her new Poulsbo Place studio, where pole dancing classes occur, was something she hadn't foreseen.

"I was really surprised that there were people who were concerned whether it's some sort of salacious business or dangerous to children," she said, in response to an anonymous email circulated last month.

In part, the email reads: "We feel this business is not appropriate for our residential/commercial area and especially due to the proximity of Martha and Mary's children school on Front Street and child care facilities on Third Avenue."

It goes on to suggest concerned residents should contact Poulsbo Mayor Kathryn Quade or members of the city council.

The opposition left Boberg Courts, 25, slightly nonplussed. She said pole dancing fitness studios have risen in popularity since 2003; there are a handful of similar studios in Seattle. When talking with others in person, she said their responses tend to be positive, especially when they understand the true nature of what goes on inside Dolphin Dance Studios.

"We're not doing stripper training," she explains. "It's not just about fitness, it's also about self-esteem."

Exotic dance and pole classes are offered only to women, there are no audiences and participants don't strip off their excess weight — they remain fully clothed. Boberg Courts said routines offer women a chance to honor their female figure and connect with themselves and music during a "full-body, woman-centric" workout.

"I'm very passionate about it," she says. "We've had women crying because it's been so long since they felt good in their own skin, and it's hard to be around that and not become passionate about it."

But the residents' concern wasn't as much of a shock to Dolphin Dance franchise founder Kristen Titko, who started the business in Ohio only to catch animosity from a community assuming the practice involved stripping behavior.

"It's not a surprise that there are people who, when first hearing 'exotic and pole dance,' are offended," Titko said. But the pole fitness craze is spreading internationally and receiving national news coverage, she added. "For somebody to have had such vehemence against it, they had to have been living in a hole."

Titko, a professional dancer, has studied ballet, jazz, modern dance, and gymnastics. Before founding Dolphin Dance, she earned less innocuous experience as an exotic dancer during college. She was a featured pole dancer in the movies "Showgirls" and "Exit to Eden."

"This is now a new and exciting way for women to get together and work out," Titko explained. "I really know that it doesn't matter what anybody thinks my business is about. What matters is what's actually happening in the studio and what my students are experiencing."

Julie Krucek, owner of the studio's business neighbor Jak's Cafe & Espresso, didn't have any qualms to express — in fact, she's glad fitness is being promoted.

"I believe that it's good exercise," she said. "To me, it's a fun thing for people to do. I don't look at it as dirty or nasty."

Martha & Mary director of development Rob Gelder said the organization had no formal plans to respond to the email, and personally he had no concern.

"I don't see it being really any different than a spin class that uses bicycles," Gelder said, adding it's not as if a night club is opening in the area. "If it's just an exercise studio and people are entertaining a new way of getting healthy who are we to say that that's wrong? It's January and a lot of us are looking for ways to engage and get exercise and get healthy. There's something different for everyone."

Pole fitness has certainly made a world-wide impression: there are some now moving to have it considered as a sport for the 2010 Olympic games. More than 1,000 have signed a petition to such end via the Pole Fitness Association Web site.

Still, concerned Poulsbo residents aren't alone. Last year a Pennsylvania township refused an occupancy permit to a pole dance instructor on the grounds her business was sexually oriented. The instructor sued, and a settlement was reached providing written assurances the studio wouldn't become a strip club or massage parlor.

After circulation of the anonymous email the city of Poulsbo received messages from those both concerned with and supportive of the studio. Quade said roughly two dozen emails were received, and the city is currently researching zoning conditions to determine whether the business is in any kind of violation, or whether the neighborhood regulations of Poulsbo Place should be the ruling matter.

According to city code, adult entertainment facilities are prohibited in all zoning districts except light industrial zoning. An "adult entertainment facility" is defined as an "adult arcade, adult cabaret, adult motel, adult motion picture theater, or adult retail store."

It's a term Boberg Courts assures her studio isn't. Many of her students are housewives or mothers, and the transformation they often make, from harried parent to confident woman, is what the business is about.

She'll hold a studio demonstration from 10-11 a.m. tomorrow for those with concerns or who'd like to learn more. A free 1-hour introductory pole dancing class will also be offered at 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.dolphindanceexotic.com.

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