Yoko Miura could have broken out of her shell several ways. She chose to pole dance.
The activity typically associated with strip clubs appealed to the 41-year-old single mother because it builds muscle, boosts her confidence and requires the once-shy Japanese hairstylist to shed most of her inhibitions.
And her clothing.
Miura used to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants that reached down to her ankles. Now, she wears bikini tops and bottoms and other body-bearing outfits. She needs the skin on her arms, torso and legs uncovered so she can grip the pole. Fabric is slippery, while flesh isn't, she says.
Pole dancing is catching on as an exercise and performance art, says Tammy French, who owns PDF Medford, an exercise studio where pole, aerial and other dance is taught to people of all fitness levels. French's pole dance students range in age from 17 to 64, and have different shapes, sizes and fitness levels.
The workout tones biceps, abs and calves and improves flexibility, says French, who compares it to dancing, gymnastics and acrobatics. The pole is like a gymnast's horizontal high bar, only more difficult since the thin surface must be climbed from floor to ceiling.
"It's harder than it looks, but it's empowering to realize you are strong inside and out," says French, who taught Miura how to elevate her 110-pound body and secure it against a pole. "Yoko has found her comfortableness. She has undergone a complete transformation."
On Friday, Miura, French and a few other dancers demonstrated their pole skills during First Friday events at the Plaza Salon in Ashland, where Miura has worked for seven years since she moved here from Tokyo.
As people sat in salon chairs or stood around an area cleared of workstations, the women swung, spun, hung and flipped on three portable titanium poles finished in gold, the same color as Miura's hair.
For several hours and with few breaks, Miura wrapped her 5-foot-2-inch frame around a pole, the 7-inch acrylic heels on her Bond Girl shoes hovering in mid-air.
Plaza Salon owner Kevin Huggins says some people objected to him allowing the demonstration. "Pole dancing is controversial," he admits. But he told those who discounted the skill to "knock it off."
He's protective of Miura, whom he and his wife consider family. He says that more than the type of dance she does, he respects the artistry and athleticism she shows. "I would not define her as a pole dancer, but a dancer," he says. "She has found her style and it's been my privilege to work next to her all these years."
When he first met her, she was quiet and hesitant to speak English to her clients. "She's come a long way," he says. "Her ability to really connect with clients on an artistic, professional and emotional level surpasses most hairstylists."
Pole dancing is the polar opposite of her day job, where she stands on her feet at the salon, cutting hair, dying locks and chatting with clients. On the pole, she is airborne and silent.
"It's extreme," says Miura, who works out on one of two poles she has in her living room. "You forget everything else."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.