A Longmont studio is a leader in evolving pole dancing for fitness and working to shed its naughty nightclub stigma.

Vertical Fusion pole studio has expanded into Boulder -- as a permanent fixture in the Apex Movement parkour and freerunning facility.

The vast majority of Apex participants -- an estimated 80 percent or more -- are male. And increasingly more of these male athletes are hopping on board what the studio is now calling "acro-pole," as an extension of the athletic challenges of seemingly physics-defying parkour -- but with an artistic potential that is likely to catch the eyes of Boulder's thriving aerial dance and circus performance community, too.

Things are changing quickly in the pole community, as it pushes hard to get its sport into the Olympics. The local crew is helping lead the way; one instructor competed in the national pole competition this past weekend.

The movement started about 41/2 years ago, when Longmont native Melanie Piek was looking for a way to spice up her mundane workout routine. She saw a television commercial for a pole fitness video.

When Piek attended her first pole fitness class, the former cheerleader, dancer and 911 dispatcher says she was excited by the prospect of doing something new and challenging but she wasn't excited about telling her friends and family.

"I told my husband 'Don't tell anyone I'm taking this class,'" Piek says. "I was embarrassed, and I didn't know what people would think."

After one class, Piek fell in love with pole dancing and decided to let her family and friends in on her new hobby.

Today, both Piek's husband, who runs an HVAC company, and 14-year-old son both do acro-pole. Her daughter is a teacher, as well as a home health care nursing assistant.

Since Piek opened Vertical Fusion in Longmont February of 2012, the studio has moved from Main Street to a larger location on Ken Pratt Boulevard, to accommodate more clients. She opened a branch in Fort Collins last year and the grand opening of the newest studio in Boulder was Sunday.

The studio's success was initially a surprise, Piek says, but as the popularity of pole fitness spreads, she anticipates continued growth.

In the fitness world, pole dancing is still relatively young, Piek says, but it is becoming more mainstream. Pole fitness came to Denver about five years ago, Piek says, but the alternative workout is still catching on in smaller and more conservative communities around the state.

"Besides being a full-body workout, it's expressive and creative and social," Piek says. "You don't get a lot of chatter in a yoga class, but in pole you really get to know your peers. Even that taboo of doing pole bonds us."

The studios can accommodate 14 to 20 students at a time, with up to two students per pole, Piek says. The 1,000-square-foot Boulder studio in Apex Movement has 10 poles, each 12 feet tall.

All of the branches offer classes ranging from gentle pole, which focuses on strengthening muscles through grounded moves with a dance focus, to the new bailout classes that teach students how to react during a fall.

The studios will have two tracks, one focusing on the dancing and the other emphasizing acrobatic tricks, which will likely attract more athletic clients and most of the studio's male clients, Piek says.

Stereotypes of strippers in platform heels create hesitation for some considering classes, Piek admits. Students often wear short shorts and sports bras to more advanced classes because exposed flesh helps grip the pole, Piek says.

Sensuality does play a part in pole fitness for some women, Piek says, but it's more about building confidence then impressing others.

Clients will embrace their curves in introductory to advanced acrobatic classes, working at their own pace and taking advantage of their individual strengths.

The studios offer designated co-ed classes, where participants expect both men and women in class. The are other women-only classes for women who want to explore sensual movement.

Bob Zamora, 56, is a rarity at Vertical Fusion, as one of the few men focused more on the artistic side of pole dancing than the acrobatic tricks.

Zamora began taking pole fitness classes in 2008 after attending a Halloween party at a strip club with his wife.

"I hate costume parties, so I decided to wear the most outrageous thing I could find, hoping they wouldn't invite me to these things again," Zamora says. "I dressed in drag with 4-inch heels and a mini skirt, shaved legs and all."

Someone at the party offered Zamora $25 to dance on one of the poles and though he turned it down at the time, the seed had been planted.

Four months later, Zamora began taking private lessons in Denver and has been dancing ever since.

Now, he attends two pole dancing classes and two ballet classes -- which he started about a year after pole dancing to improve his movement -- every week and is preparing to perform on a national stage.

Zamora will perform at the Midwest Pole Dancing Competition and Convention later this month near Chicago before joining Piek and other instructors from Vertical Fusion at the Colorado Pole Championships, the state's first pole fitness competition, on Sept. 21 at the Oriental Theater in Denver.

A handful of students and instructors from Vertical Fusion have participated in pole fitness competitions, including former instructor Sara Newman, who took first place in her division at the Southern Pole Championship this summer. Instructor Waeli Wang qualified for nationals.

However, Piek says, client response has been the only measure of success.

Building muscle is a bonus for students who attend Vertical Fusion classes, but the studio's real goal is building confidence in its clients.

Maya Jairam, 34, has been taking classes at the Fort Collins branch since November. She says she didn't realize how insecure she was about her body until her body image started to improve.

Jairam says she works out often, but like most women, she was working toward an unattainable image of herself. After about nine months of pole fitness, her philosophy has changed.

"Vertical Fusion contributed to the way I view myself and my attitude toward the human body in general," Jairam says. "'Every body is beautiful' is now my philosophy and it's emphasized over and over in a subtle way through the instruction, and I've noticed my tendencies to compare myself to others has diminished."

Pole fitness is for everyone, regardless of gender, size, shape or strength, Piek believes.

It may be curiosity that attracts most first-time clients, Piek says, but it's the confidence that keeps them.

"I'm a mother of four, and I know what it is to feel insecure about your body or just need some time for me," Piek says. "That's what we're hoping to give to our clients, that thing that's just for them and makes them feel amazing."

Whitney Bryen can be reached at 303-684-5274 or wbryen@times-call.com.