Kenneth Kao describes his four years of pole dancing as "life changing."
As a parkour instructor at Apex Movement in Boulder, Kao was intrigued by the strength, balance and agility that pole dancing requires.
"One of our parkour students walked in and showed me a really cool move," he says. "I tried it and could not do it."
He began looking for a nearby pole studio, but initially couldn't find one.
By coincidence, Kao, a chiropractor at Vital Balance Chiropractic in Lafayette, saw a patient who turned out to be a pole instructor. He started going to classes and learned more than just some new moves. Although Kao is married, he had felt awkward among groups of women.
"I wasn't very comfortable with a certain sexuality that comes into play when you're in a pole studio," he says. "I had to be listening in on girl conversations."
Despite the athleticism required, he found that pole still has a stigma.
"I honestly think guys have a harder time socially with (labeling) than women do," says Melanie Piek, owner of Vertical Fusion, a pole dancing studio in Longmont, that has just expanded into Apex Movement. "It takes a man very comfortable in his masculinity."
Kao explains the stereotype this way: "The first assumption is that I'm a gay stripper. What I'd like to do is show like any other dance or art -- it's whatever you make it. It's extremely athletic, extremely beautiful and emotional. It doesn't have to be sexual."
Still, movements on the pole are by their nature sinuous, which some can interpret as sexual. Men also must step out of their gender roles to an extent simply because pole is dance that expresses emotions, Piek says.
"There's a fluidity to it."
Kao says pole is more akin to a theatrical performance than a workout or sport.
"It's all about expression, a very beautiful art, all about the lines," he says.
Kao adds that he had never listened to music much before picking an accompaniment to his pole performance.
"I was forced into listening and interpreting it through my movements," he says. "I found I enjoyed it. I'm a little addicted to it now."
He says the experience of combining strength, balance and agility with emotion in pole dancing has changed him. His wife had always encouraged him to show more emotion, but he didn't know how.
"In a way by tapping into those emotions ... and being aware of them, that's changed quite a bit," he says. "I had to be a lot more honest with myself and her."
Piek says she has been seeing more men interested in all the challenges that pole requires. Thus the move into Apex.
"I am seeing men coming from parkour and other forms of dance. Former gymnasts would have an interest. I'm also seeing more men willing to have open minds about it."