Stripped of stereotypes

Pole dance artist takes art form back to its roots and beyond

by Zilia Papp

If you ever have the chance to meet Lu Nagata, you will never forget her style and determination.

A highly accomplished artist and entrepreneur, the 29-year-old Nagata is responsible for introducing pole dancing to Japan as an art form and as a form of exercise.

Since 2007, she has also owned and managed Art Flow, a dance and fitness studio in Tokyo’s uptown Akasaka area.

Largely due to the strip bar version of the dance form, Nagata is continuously confronted by a wide range of critique and criticism. It’s a fact of life. Negative criticism usually comes hand in hand with standing out in the crowd, especially in Japan.

“I can accept that some people confuse pole dancing and strip dancing, given the way the dance style started out in Western society.” she says with a sigh in perfect English, having spent most of her adult life in the United States and Europe.

Few critics of pole dancing realize that the difficult and highly complex standard movements of pole dance and fitness stem from Chinese acrobatics. In China, gymnasts, not strippers, perform the movements.

Independent and eclectic, an artist with a background in dance, punk rock music and even tattoo art, Nagata realized in early childhood that she didn’t fit the mold for a typical Japanese upbringing in her native Fukuoka.

“Since I was very little, I didn’t want to go to school in Japan.” At 15, Nagata asked her mother to let her go to the U.S. or Europe. “But, my family wasn’t rich, so she told me, ‘stay three more years and then make your own money and go, do whatever you want.’ ”

“Even at a young age I thought the mind-set was a bit too conservative in Japan, especially when it came to gender roles.”

Nagata remembers her time in high school and how she was ridiculed for being different. “I really had a hard time when I was a kid, because I was doing something different. People would say, ‘stop talking to her,’ ‘she is doing something wrong, something different from us,’ or ‘she doesn’t wear the same clothes as us,’ things like that. I grew so tired of it.”

Nagata left Japan at the age of 18. In her 20s, she backpacked throughout Europe, Canada and North Africa. It was during this period in her life that she encountered pole dancing while watching a circus act of Chinese acrobats in Europe. She was hooked from the very beginning.

She later trained in Japan and New York. Then, three years ago, she decided to settle in her native country and start her own business.

Success came early for Nagata after establishing her studio, where she trains her own instructors and enjoys a following of some 550-600 students.

“Pole dancing is a wonderful fitness exercise and it’s great fun. You can dance with the pole to any style of music, including rock, punk or hip-hop. You can wear hip-hop clothes or a belly dance costume, and still dance with the pole. There are no limitations.”

In her studio, several standard stainless steel poles are set up for practice. The studio offers classes not only in pole dancing, but pilates and belly dancing as well.

“Pole fitness is good for all sorts of muscles. To do big spins you have to concentrate on your core muscles while you focus on your center,” Nagata says.

Classes are made up of between five to 10 participants and run from early afternoon to the evening on all days of the week.

The students are mostly independent, professional women ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-40s and most join to stay fit while having fun.

“I joined Lu’s class because this style suits me better than other styles of dance,” says Yulia Uehara, a 26-year-old aesthetician. “It is just so much fun. After I tried it for the first time, when I saw a lamppost on the street, I just wanted to go spin on it,” she says laughing.

On stage, Nagata fuses pole dance with ballet, using the pole to express her emotions. “My shows don’t particularly aim to be sexy. For example, when we dance African dance, it can channel very raw energies, and we wear dark makeup. The movement is very energetic, not particularly feminine.

“My pole dancing expression is an artistic expression, the focus is on art, the same as in other dance such as jazz, ballet and so on.”

Trained in the art of tattoing, Nagata’s costumes are enhanced by her own intricate and colorful tattoos. She considers the tattoo an important art form often overlooked by Japan.

“Unfortunately, with my tattoos, I can’t go to public hot springs, sports gyms, swimming pools, spas, golf, tanning salons, restaurants, bars . . . It is quite sad, because the Japanese tattoo is one of the best tattoos in the world and Japan has so many wonderful tattoo artists. There are so many beautiful designs, but no one shows them on the street. Everyone hides them,” Nagata laments.

Nagata’s latest performance at the Ginza bar Desert Rose on Jan. 30 drew an audience with more women than men, largely because Nagata’s students attended. Nagata performed with ballet dancer and aerial acrobat Mai Sato and contemporary dancer and gyrotonic trainer Narumi Naito in a show that could not be described as titillating, but was definitely top-notch.

Divided into three 3-4-minute sequences, Sato performed a ballet standard reminiscent of Swan Lake, followed by Naito performing in Bjork-style costumes to an indie rock song by Yoko Kanno from the anime series Macros. The performance wrapped up with a surreal spinning number by Nagata.

The audience was enthusiastic. “I keep watching Lu’s shows because, in her case, it is artistic and graceful,” said Christian, a 30-year old engineer from Germany who follows Nagata’s shows regularly. “It’s special.”