“I was a hot mess when I started, but it was the most fun I had ever had being a disaster in my life, so I just kept doing it,” Mays, 32, tells PEOPLE.
The New York City-based dancer and personal trainer said she had always struggled with body insecurity, and being on stage is a way for her to let go of those insecurities for a moment in time.
“People assume I’m incredibly confident, but I’m far from that,” she admits. “When there’s a good beat, it’s not that I’m past my insecurities, I just forget them because I just like the song that much. That’s how I can stay on stage. I’m a stage whore and I’m addicted to the roar of the crowd. One person cheers and I lose my mind. That’s what gets me going and keeps there.”
In August 2012, Mays founded the “Dangerous Curves” performance event to invite other curvy women to showcase their talents on the pole.
“I started it because at that point I had been poling for a few years, but I was the only one who looked like me on stage,” she says. “I just got lonely. I was like, ‘There’s got to be more people who are around my size,’ and there are — there are a lot more.”
Seven shows later she has passed on the torch, but is proud of the fact her last two years of self-funded shows have actually been profitable. And while that is a testament to audiences embracing all types of bodies, not everyone who sees her dances are quite as accepting. Mays regularly shares photos and videos from her performances online, and says receiving negative comments and backlash is unfortunately par for the course.
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“For better or for worse, there isn’t a single comment that is just as mean as the things that I’ve called myself,” she says. “When you’re a minority on multiple fronts, especially racial, them calling you a ‘fat b—-‘ it’s like, ‘That’s the best you can do?’ If you haven’t had your character tested before, then it’s easy to freak out, but when it’s tested every damn day just for existing, somebody writing something mean about you is to be expected.”
In addition to hate from online commenters, Mays has also actually lost jobs because of her pole dancing.
“The only people [in my real life] who have thrown shade are employers,” she says. “I’ve been fired from a few jobs because of this.”
But that doesn’t make her want to stop.
“It makes me want to invite them to a class!” she says.
Recently, Mays was featured in a New York Times documentary created by her high school classmate Merete Mueller made from a year-and-a-half worth of footage from Mays’ performances, family time and daily life.
“I am absolutely thrilled with how the documentary turned out,” she says. “[Mueller] hadn’t had any work in the Times before and neither have I. That was exciting!”