LAKEVIEW — Sasja Lee started pole dancing five years ago.
"I went with a friend who wanted to try out this new exercise, this new craze," she said. "I wasn't sure what to think because there's a stigma attached to pole dance ... but I just got hooked immediately."
Lee said she was drawn to how athletic and challenging the class was. She soon quit her job as a post-production supervisor and began to tour, perform and teach internationally.
Today, she's the reigning National Arial Pole Art champion.
The California-based dancer will perform in Lakeview this weekend at Stage 773's "Girl Next Door" pole dance revue. The show mixes dance, burlesque, trapeze, aerial arts and athletics.
More than 25 performers will hit the stage in hopes of demystifying pole dance and breaking down some of the stigma behind it.
"This is the strongest, the most flexible, the most comfortable-in-my-skin I've ever been in my life," said a performer who goes by Divine Em. "It's just a total mind-body workout, a lot of core. ... It's definitely where sport meets art."
Divine Em lives in Bronzeville and teaches preschool.
She said she fell in love with pole dancing seven years ago and now splits her time between L.A. and Chicago, where she keeps "a total alter ego" during the week.
"It's unfortunate because there's nothing seedy or illicit about what we're doing," Divine Em said. "We're not taking our clothes off or just kind of hopping around and objectifying our bodies. We are totally empowered — owning our sensuality, owning our femininity."
Still, she said, many of the performers keep their private and dance lives separate — but that's starting to change.
International pole dance competitions are growing in popularity, and many dancers are fighting to make pole dance an Olympic sport.
"There's a sense of community in what we do. It's just a lovely art form," Divine Em said. "We've made this our lives, and every bit of our day goes into what we do."
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., is hosting "Girl Next Door" shows at 6 and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost $50-$70.
The "Girl Next Door" crew is also offering retreats Saturday and Sunday at The Brass Ring in West Town, 2539 W. North Ave. Individual classes — such as "Empower Tricks in Heels," "Drops" or "Creative Spin Pole Tricks" — cost $50 each. An all-day pass is $240 ($40 per class). A two-day pass is $420 ($35 per class).
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