Exploring sexuality + dance at Boulder’s pole dance studio Vertical Fusion

Shifting gravity and changing lives through self-expression

By Tatyana Sharpton Dec 5 2019

Sunlight flooded the wooden floors of Boulder’s only pole-dance studio, Vertical Fusion, on a recent visit. Tucked between Arapahoe and Hillcrest Reservoir in far east Boulder, the studio presented an opportunity to finally try my first pole experience.

I put my feet close to the base of a pole and grab it with my arms high overhead. I lean out and let gravity take me for a spin. It feels a bit uncomfortable; I didn’t realize how something so natural could feel so strange. Not that the instructor, Angela, taught any difficult moves, but the actual opening of the body — chest out, booty pop, knees bent, hair flip — felt raw compared to the tighter composure we’re taught to enforce.

Melanie Piek opened Vertical Fusion in 2012 to create a safe space where women could explore their sensuality outside of societal taboos, judgement and shame. She wanted to empower visitors embrace their sexuality through the artistic expression of dance, and do it solely for themselves.

Today, the school, which opened its Boulder location at 6655 Arapahoe Road in 2013, teaches a variety of classes from intro to pole to sensual movement, Pilates and aerial and has expanded to also include men, becoming one of the first co-ed pole studios in Colorado. (Melanie sold a Fort Collins Vertical Fusion location to an instructor, who runs it there).

Melanie Piek, founder and owner of Vertical Fusion. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Pole dance has a long history tied to stripping and sex work. Parallel to the complicated stigma of self-expression through sexuality, captured well by Boulderite  Isa Mazzei‘s lauded new book about working as a cam model “Camgirl,” pole dancing has become a powerful way for women to express their bodies and sexuality — and not just for dollar bills.

As Melanie and I chat, sunlight bounces off the eight stainless steel poles reflected in the mirror and dances through glass double doors where lyras, aerial hammocks and other circus toys live in a second room.

When class starts up, the two-room, mirror-lined studio becomes a sky playhouse and tingles with possibilities.

Melanie danced at a club in the early 1990’s for about six months. A life-long lover of movement, she explored various fitness programs but found they always lacked an artistic element, and adult dance classes often attracted people half her age. The search to find a creative movement outlet led her to her first pole class in Denver.

Stunned by the immense impact pole movement had on her, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, she felt she found a home. She initially opened her tiny studio in Longmont in 2012 and added a second studio in Fort Collins that year. Eventually, she found the Boulder space in 2013 and poured her energy there.

Melanie Piek demonstrating an inversion. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Taboo and transformation

Growing up in a religious household, Melanie experienced push-back about her career and business choice.

“We’re all sexual beings,” she says. “If our sexual expression is defined by someone else then that’s exploitative. If its defined by ourselves its expressive.”

Melanie says that students frequently tell her how pole dancing has changed their lives. That’s the real focus — the pole is secondary.

“The apparatus is like the crumb that brings them in,” she laughs. The real magic happens through the community and internal power supercharged there, according to her (and the many others who have found home at Vertical Fusion.)

“They start going out of their comfort zones, they shed things that don’t serve them anymore,” Melanie says of the effect pole dancing at Vertical Fusion has had on some of her students. “They start to expect more from the things and people they accept into their lives, become more selective about where their time and energy goes.”

Vertical Fusion teaches classes from basic pole to sensual movement, lyra (a hoop suspended from the ceiling) and aerial hammocks that all gear toward personal exploration. The studio hosts three showcases a year at the historic Dickens Opera House in Longmont where students create and perform their own pieces.

While these adult dance recitals gear towards further pushing the students out of their comfort zones, only a very small percentage of its students end up dancing in strip clubs such as Nitro Club.

A neon night at Nitro Club, Boulder’s last and only strip club

“It’s quite rare, actually,” says Melanie. “At most of the clubs I’ve been to, there isn’t a heavy focus on acrobatic pole work. Though pole dancing’s roots originated in strip clubs, my experience in the clubs is that there is less focus on pole work and more focus on more intimate dancing such as floor work and building rapport with customers.”

For pole work, local dancers head to Vertical Fusion.