I Am Her: Kayleen Ortiz On Changing People's Perceptions

Redefining strength and grace through pole dancing

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

Pole dancing is one of the biggest artistic fitness activities in today's wellness scene. The undeniable grace and strength that comes with a single number is truly awe-inspiring. However, its sensual nature is still not completely accepted by some, relegating its messages of power, strength, and freedom. 

This is why we turned to Kayleen Ortiz, one of the founding members of Polecats Manila and the highest certified aerialist in the Philippines, to talk about her journey on finding strength and identity in pole dancing. We asked her about her thoughts on empowerment and essentials, as well as breaking free from the objectification that is often associated with the sport she loves.

Name three words or phrases to describe yourself. 

"I’m a Movement Artist, Fitness Creative and International Pole Champion."

How did you make your way into the world of pole-dancing?

"I was in my senior year in University when I first tried pole. I was completing a requirement for my Art Appreciation class, and I saw an ad for a pole doubles performance happening in Makati. I’ve never seen a pole performance before and was genuinely curious. So I went for it and wrote about it for my paper.

I loved the performance number, and I had never seen strength shown in that manner before. It was graceful yet undeniably powerful. At the end of their performance, I came up to the performers and asked them to teach me. That was when I met my first teacher, CD. I went to the studio, and little did I know that one day, my pole classmates in that room will become the Polecats Manila we all know now."

Can you tell us more about the challenges you faced and how you eventually overcame them?

"Not a lot of people took us seriously at first. The idea of a pole dancing school was almost unheard of 10 years ago, let alone a group of people who would decide to invest in making it a thing. We got objectified in a lot of gigs, but that’s just how changing perceptions work. You keep creating, you push on. You continue to fight for what you feel is unique and powerful.

Today, Polecats Manila is the biggest aerial arts school in the country. We run 50 classes a week, with a team of 28 active instructors and growing. I could not ask for a better team."

Are there any misconceptions about pole dancing that you'd like to debunk?

"People can think whatever they want. There was a point in my pole journey that I was hell-bent trying to make people see that pole is not just about the 'sexy stripper kind of dancing'. But really, so what if it is? It’s not my personal style; I gear towards the more athletic side of pole, admittedly. But each person will have a different take on the sport and no matter how we choose to practice pole is the artist’s decision. All I can say is that it changes you — from the inside out. You learn things about yourself that you never thought you had in you. Pole makes you realise how strong you are and upon realising that strength, you are able to help others gain theirs as well."

What would you say to ladies who want to try their hand at pole dancing but find it a bit overwhelming? 

"Just try it. Come to the studio and leave your inhibitions at the door. All you need is a pair of short shorts and an open heart. You’ll be surprised how much your body is capable of. I’ve had students in their 60s trying a class for the first time and they are great at it. I’ve had women who have never taken a single dance class in their life that surprise themselves with their own strength. Just come to class. The rest will follow."

What’s next for Kayleen and Polecats Manila? What can we expect in the future?

"Personally, I’m moving towards refining my movement practice. I'm exploring new styles, collaborating with more people, as well as creating more classes and performances for my audience. Even going back to competing, maybe. I’ve been in it a while but I always feel that it’s like a brave new world. 

As for Polecats Manila, we’re turning 10 years old this year. Yay! We are now the longest running aerial studio in the Philippines. We’ve just expanded our space into three studios. We’ve also launched a whole lot of new classes. Plus, we have an upcoming recital this 28 July at the AFP Theater. Come watch."

Lastly, what are your Clozette (closet) essentials?

"A good sports bra is a must and good aerial leggings. I have my Adidas family to thank for making sure I’m always covered."

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

(Cover photo from: @kayleenortiz)

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