Too fat for fitness? A Pole Dancing Queen
The award-winning pole dancer has survived an elitist fitness industry and a rude awakening from Howard Stern, but she remains unfazed
Roslyn Mays is too fat for fitness – or at least that was the official reason for why her 15 seconds of fame were cut short earlier this summer.
Headhunted on social media and flown to Chicago, Roz the Diva found herself in front of Howard Stern, Heidi Klum and Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown on America’s Got Talent.
In a sparkly top and hotpants, she climbed, grinded and twerked the pole for 90 seconds before Stern’s brutal verdict: Mays should never have left her old job to become an athlete. She’s kind of a joke, he said, so why was she even here?
“It was no surprise because I go through life expecting shit,” Mays recalls over breakfast in Brooklyn two months later. “I’m a PhD in minority, so … This is just part of the course. But it still hurts.”
Plus-size athletes may seem a paradox – and that’s part of the problem. For Roz, 31, who grew up in Long Island’s suburbs and has battled weight issues for most of her life, fitness wasn’t an obvious career path.
“I’m black, I’m plus-size and I’m a woman – that’s a triple negative in fitness: I’m the antichrist. I’m just missing being a lesbian Muslim and then everyone can hate me.”
As a personal trainer, gym instructor and award-winning pole-dancer, Roz witnessed the darker sides of fitness: an excluding, elitist and racist industry that doesn’t practise what it preaches.
On paper, everyone is welcomed, Roz explains, but in reality it’s a not-in-my-backyard mentality. It’s like them saying, “we like you to change, but don’t change around me please. Take your change elsewhere. Just not my gym,” she says.
Heavy people are encouraged to lose weight but once at the gym, they’re stared at or even mocked; merchandize and clothing is not available larger than size L, and instructors almost never look like them.
The aspirational image projected in fitness marketing is almost invariably white and slender. As a result, in the eyes of many someone like Roz represents the “before” rather than “after”, and if she can’t reach her goals, why would her clients?
A plus-size instructor isn’t great advertising, a colleague pointed out, urging Roz to lose weight. Her response: a comeback Youtube video – viewed more than 23,000 times – full of attitude and expletives as she called out the hypocrisy, a glass of top-shelf liquor in hand.
“The racial aspect of that type of marketing perpetuates the stereotype that black women don’t work out, we don’t care about our health, and all we do is to be that comic relief as the fat mama who’s happy being big, fat and loud.”
Roz may be 228 lbs but on the pole she’s defiantly weightless: spinning around, doing splits, upside down with no hands. Some moves took years to learn – this is strenuous exercise demanding intense upper body strength – but for plus-size dancers, it’s even harder: due to sheer physics, carrying more weight requires more muscle.
It’s a sport best performed in as little clothes as possible – nothing grips the pole like skin – and it took Roz 4.5 years to dare being semi-nude in public. These days she doesn’t mind being different, but she says there’s a ton of plus-size men and women who don’t have the support she enjoys.
Her advice to them? “Ditch your personal trainer and get a diva. No diets, no cleanses, no bullshit – just sweat.”
Following that promise, she has established a fitness empire where everyone’s welcome – especially the misfits. She’s also the founder of Dangerous Curves, America’s first pole-dancing contest specifically targeting plus-size women, featuring a “twerk-off”.
Her classes feature a much higher proportionfitness outcasts. There, she makes a point of never using the word “fat” – except for when talking about body fat. She also uses Instagram to spread the word, posting unorthodox motivational quotes and photos (a few seconds of twerking, or a semi-nude video: “today’s superpower is leaving gym without my shirt on and not caring”).
Her students, in turn, are greatly inspired by her work. “She makes you feel like you’re Miss USA Pole Dancer,” says Jessica Noele Dewitt. “You feel like a million bucks in her class.”
“Pole has really saved my life in New York,” Jessica adds. “I was just not into it, I’m a west coast person, and then I found pole and I was like, ‘well I’ll stay for that’.”
The classes didn’t just help her feel at home in a new city, but also made her more comfortable in her own skin; it was a chance to figure out what her body could do. Today she’s a teacher too.
Yet, a lot of outsiders still don’t get it.
“People keep saying, ‘oh you’re a stripper?’” says Nkenge Simms, a petite who stumbled into pole via African dance and ballet. “And I explain, no, no I’m not.”
Even within the community, associations to the flesh industry are divisive. Some rather cut any ties in order to gain full social acceptance. Others, like Roz, appreciate the roots – pole-dancing wouldn’t have become a mainstream sport and hobby if strippers hadn’t introduced it – and is a regular at exotic venues in the Bronx.
“Part of that stigma is that America is terrified of sex. We treat people in the sex industry like they are child molesters and murderers and serial killers – people look at strippers like they’re death and the one thing you don’t want to do in life is to be a stripper”, Roz says.
There is a crucial difference between what they do and exotic dancers, Roz emphasises: striptease is about livelihood, and by definition pleasing someone else. Athletic pole-dancing, by contrast, is about your own pleasure – emotional as well as physical.
On a recent Sunday morning in Incredipole studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, her class warms up with Beyoncé’s Diva blasting from the speakers.
“Slow twerk!” she commands her students, singing along loudly before climbing New York’s tallest pole, which stands at 16ft.
Like its practitioners, pole-dancing too comes in all shapes and forms: infused with ballet, jazz, Latin or belly-dancing, with the pole often replacing a partner. It doesn’t have to be sexy, though for many dancers that’s a by-product of the newfound confidence dancing brings.
Roz encourages everyone to find their own style and one by one, her students perform an improvised stunt to a self-selected song amidst applause and fervent encouragement.
Technically, Roz made it onto TV in the end: a few seconds in a montage, so short “you kinda miss it if you blink.” While her mother wrote a long, furious Facebook post, Roz is over it: the only audition that truly matters is that day she’ll run into Beyonce on the street. All lyrics and moves learnt by heart, she’s ready.
“All I wanted my whole life is to be on stage with my pole next to her. But in the meantime, I’m dancing in class to nearly every single or her songs – all day, everyday.”