This week, we’re honored to chat with Divine Em, founder of Chicago’s Fly Club, about how she discovered and fell in love with pole dance, after many years of dance training, and how a need for community and inclusivity led her to open up a pole dance studio in her own neighborhood. Join Divine Em this Wednesday, February 16 LIVE on B&P Online for Dominate Tricks.
Why pole? How did you get into the industry?
I’ve been a part of the pole community for a REALLY long time now – going on 14 or 15 years? I dunno, I’ve kinda lost count. I come from a dance background – my parents put me in dance classes from age 3 – ballet, jazz, tap, modern, African, salsa. Movement has always been a part of my life. When I moved here to Chicago, a colleague of mine from my muggle profession told me about pole dancing classes and she was positively RAVING about it. She said, “You’ll really love it because you get to dance AND be athletic and strong – at the same damn time!” So I started to look into it and this was back in the day, when there were very few studios. I took my first class and fell headfirst down the rabbit hole. I think because for me, although I had always had movement in my life, I had never danced competitively or professionally. It was more like my form of exercise. To be able to find that kind of mashup between art and athleticism really appealed to me. I’ve been hooked ever since. I took classes for two years from the studio where I began, and ultimately my love affair evolved to where I knew I needed to teach. I believed so much in this movement and what it had done for me in my life that I felt compelled to share it with as many others as possible. That decision was a true milestone for me because I had never experienced any form of desire to teach movement, in spite of the fact that I am an educator in my “real life” or that I’ve danced since I could walk. Something about pole made me fall into an unconditional kind of love and I needed to share that and help people find the same empowerment and ownership over their bodies that I had found in mine.
What inspired you to open your own studio?
Such a long story! After I was wrongfully terminated by my original studio, I went into a sort of depression. The movement had become such an integral part of my life and to have that so violently ripped away from me was beyond devastating. After wallowing in my despair for a couple of months, several of my former students began to reach out to me and tell me that it was time for me to start teaching again. I knew they were right – I just had to find the way! So I had the big idea to sign myself up for an amateur night at a local strip club. MASSIVE respect for and to all strippers and sex workers! I invited ALL of my former clients and my squad came out in full effect to support me! Talk about a fish out of water! I have no roots in the exotic industry but I went out there and bared my soul – and a lil bit of my ass – on the stage that night. Not only did I win first place, they gave me $1K! I took that money, bought three poles – 50mm, non-spinning, Platinum Stages one-piece poles – had them installed in my living/dining room area and the rest is HERSTORY! That’s how old my ass is in this world, y’all! We danced on tree trunk-like poles that did! not! spin! The Living Room chronicles lasted for the subsequent 8 years and I am NOTHING without all of the women who supported my bootleg business back then! I loved teaching from my house – the convenience and the intimacy. But after 8 years, I knew WE deserved more – myself included. Even though more studios had popped up in the Chicagoland area at that time, I had never been able to find my pole home here in my own zip code. Unfortunately, the pole scene in this area has been pretty cliquish and segregated historically, and I was tired of having to hop on planes and head to either California or New York to learn and train for competitions. I was ready to create an inclusive and inspired space, a place where everybody and every BODY could feel welcome, valued, and safe. From that dream, Fly Club was born <3 Eternal gratitude to my business partner, Caitlin, for helping to manifest this destiny. So yeah, even though Fly Club has just celebrated three years of being in business, her studio seeds were planted in my living room. If those walls could talk?!? #fuggedaboutit
Who is your biggest cheerleader/mentor/ who inspires you?
My ultimate pole idol, mentor, and coach/choreographer is Phoenix Kazree, beyond a shadow of a doubt. After everything unfolded with my original studio, I began to seek out more about the pole world and “higher learning.” My research led me to Phoenix and I bamboozled her into working with me almost 7 years ago. She’s been stuck with me ever since. Hella water under THAT bridge. I also think of her as Fly Club’s fairy godmother because she’s believed in me and the studio from day one. Phoenix has been our most influential supporter and advisor. So much so that many people thought Fly Club was HER studio for a hot minute. Lol
What’s kept you going during this pandemic?
Wanna hear a funny story? At the onset of the pandemic (March of 2020), Phoenix was scheduled to come out to Fly Club for a two-week residency. She agreed to proceed with the residency, even though there was much uncertainty about what the future held, as it related to this illness and situation. Cut to, she ended up getting stuck with me in the Chi for THREE WHOLE MONTHS! Prolly a bit of purgatory for Phoenix, but the ultimate mix of heaven and hell for me. Because we were trapped and there was nothing we could do but go to the studio and train every day. Phoenix also pushed me to provide a virtual studio option, as the sole way for us to keep our studio head above water. She encouraged me to find a way to stay connected to the clientele we had begun to service leading up to the pandemic. When I tell you that I sold the poles from my living room, my stage pole, my crash mat, gave away yoga blocks, leant out folding chairs? Anything and EVERYTHING I could do to stay connected and keep my business from going under! Truth be told, the pandemic was the best thing that could have ever happened to Fly Club. As I mentioned before, the Chicagoland pole community has historically been quite cliquish and segregated. We built Fly Club to be a state-of-the-art pole facility but for our first year, I could not PAY people to come and take class. I couldn’t even give class away because of how staunch and steadfast this community was in its exclusion and segregation. But something about time being frozen and people being trapped inside, combined with the catastrophic circumstances of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, turned the world inside out and upside down. These combined crises gave people the courage and curiosity to consider stepping outside of the status quo and explore beyond their original parameters. Slowly, but surely, we were able to resume in-person classes and the new faces started to trickle in. When I decided to step out of the protection and comfort of my living room into the brick-and-mortar that is Fly Club, I vowed that it would be safe space – free from judgment, bullying, discrimination, ostracism, and “Mean Girls” mindset. A field of dreams, if you will. If you build it, they will come. From our resilience was born an ever-growing community of like-minded individuals, passionate about pole and hungry for growth and creation. Not to mention, we are one of the few studios across the nation to still offer our classes in a hybrid format – simultaneously irl and via zoom. This process has revolutionized our studio and exponentially increased our following and visibility. We are beyond grateful. Not every studio was able to survive these unprecedented circumstances but here, at Fly Club, we not only made it, we’ve skyrocketed. Sky’s the limit, baybee! While other studios went under, we were able to not only keep our heads above water, but skyrocket.
What are you looking forward to in 2022?
For 2022, my desire is to continue cultivating our studio and building our beautiful community. These past three years have been full of maximum grind and hustle. Many trials and tribulations. As such, Fly Club has yet to be able to host any grand opening or any anniversary celebrations. I look forward to being able to put on an event that expresses gratitude for how far we’ve come – in spite of continued adversity – while simultaneously setting our intentions for where we’re headed. I eagerly anticipate a time when I’ll be able to step back for a moment and appreciate all of our efforts and hard work. I am giddy with the excitement of what the future holds and how our brand will continue to flourish. Last, but certainly not least, I cannot wait to be done with these cursed masks. Cheers to the day when I’ll be able to see people’s bare faces again – the purrfect complement to their beautiful bare asses!! ;-P