Johanna Sapakie taught us all of JLo's best moves
Who Tried It: Carly Breit, PEOPLE.com editorial assistant, digital platforms
Level of Difficulty: 7/10. The tricks on the pole required a lot of upper body and core strength, but with practice and patience, getting the hang of it was empowering.
When I walked into Body & Pole in New York City for my first class, I was handed a pair of six-inch black pumps. I wondered how I would even walk into the studio without twisting something, let alone dance or (attempt to) spin on a ceiling-high pole.
Jennifer Lopez wasn’t so sure about the Pleaser shoes right away either when she started training for her role as a dancer in the upcoming film Hustlers, according Johanna Sapakie, Lopez’s pole coach for the movie and mine for the next hour. Lopez initially wanted to learn her moves in sneakers before switching to the shoes her character would wear. “Even Jennifer was like, ‘Woah,’” said Sapakie, who encouraged her, and the class, to jump right into heels first. “There’s a learning curve for us all.”
With that in mind, Sapakie took us through the same warm up as she did with Lopez when they trained together in her Miami, Los Angeles and New York City homes. We stretched and did core and glute exercises. Then, it was game time. We strapped on our heels and gathered at the side of the room with the well-lit, daunting poles staring back at us. “All you’re gonna do is walk,” Sapakie said, perhaps sensing the nerves in the room. She demonstrated the Hustlers-style strut, letting her toes drag behind her with each new step.
“When you get to the poles, all you’re going to do is touch them,” she explained. This would help us get more comfortable with the poles before learning more advanced skills. Sapakie encouraged us to hold onto the poles and walk around them, making the movements our own. If we stumbled — which even Lopez did when she first walked in the heels — Sapakie said to make the “Bambi” steps look like they were part of the routine.
After we went across the floor, we each paired up with another member of the class next to one of the room’s seven poles. Sapakie explained that we’d be using spinning poles, like they did in Hustlers. When you push on this type of pole, it starts to spin with the momentum of the push, then slows down until it eventually stops, like a merry-go-round on a playground. In the same way, the momentum of a dancer’s body can control the spin of the pole.
To start, Sapakie had us stand next to the poles and grip them with both hands — the hand closest to the pole grabbed above our heads and the other hand next to our ribs. Then, we bent our knees and lifted them onto the pole, relying on the pole and our upper body strength to hold us there. (I’m not necessarily skilled in the upper-body-strength department, so at times this felt more like ungracefully and accidentally sliding down a fireman’s pole.)
Then, we moved on to three spinning tricks that Sapakie taught Lopez for her performance in Hustlers. The first was pretty simple: We grabbed on with both arms, just like before, and spun toward the pole. Because the pole itself spins, I found that if you can keep yourself up with your arm strength and core strength, all you need to do is ride the wave to keep going around and around.
Next up was what Lopez’s character calls “The Carousel” in the beginning of the Hustlers trailer. As Lopez’s character teaches Constance Wu’s to “knee hook,” “switch” and “wrap,” Sapakie taught us to do the same. “I lean back, and then I kick and cross my heels,” our instructor narrated as she spun. When it came time to try it ourselves, I found that the momentum of the outside leg kicking and wrapping helped to keep the pole spinning as I held on.
Finally, we learned one more trick — a spin with one leg on the pole and the other straightened behind it — and practiced on our own while Sapakie walked around the room, energetically shouting “yes!” as we started to get the hang of it.
For our final scene, Sapakie taught us a quick dance routine that combined the struts, hair-flips and all three of the spins. The song, Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” was the same Lopez used for her solo pole routine in the movie. “You get this understanding that this woman owns this [strip club] environment,” she said of the soundtrack, motivating us to own this short and sweet dance number in the same way.
After class, Sapakie told PEOPLE what it was like to work with Lopez, who had “never touched a pole before.” “Everyone starts at step one. No one touches a pole for the first time and is a master,” she said. “But her work ethic is so intense that she wants to get it. And she will work until she gets it.”
Of course, with her extensive performing experience, Lopez went from novice to professional faster than “the average human,” Sapakie said. For those walking into class without quite that level of experience (read: basically everyone), Sapakie said “building your core” with exercises like planks will help you master the art.
“Beyond that, just doing pole as a practice builds muscle,” she said. “And part of it is because you’re not thinking about it as a workout, you’re in there having fun. So you’re more likely to do things one more time when you enjoy it.” After training with her, I can see how that tracks: Even after the class wrapped, many of the participants returned to a pole to give the tricks one last go.
For Lopez, becoming her powerful character while practicing her routines at home was crucial. “Usually it was just me and her because she wanted to be in character,” Sapakie said. “Her family is around, her children are around, and in order for her to really get into that ‘club’ feel, it needed to be just the two of us.”
Verdict: Walking (or stumbling) into a pole dancing class sounds intimidating, but at Body & Pole, the environment was welcoming, inclusive and really, really fun. “There is nobody who does not fit a pole mold,” Sapakie told PEOPLE. “Any gender, any race, any size human can do this. It’s really just about being open enough and willing enough to try.” Like J.Lo, I pushed away my insecurities, felt confident and got into character. My character just happened to be J.Lo.