[Kaitlyn Krasselt | The Hour]

“It’s everywhere, people just don’t realize it… People still link pole with sexuality but one has nothing to do with the other. This is a judgment free zone.”

With one leg bent at the knee and wrapped around a pole and her other foot braced for support, Michelle Abbruzzese appears to float effortlessly at a 45 degree angle several feet off the floor.

With her hands on her hips and a bright smile, she holds the pose for nearly 30 seconds without flinching. She makes the intense test of strength look easy, but that’s her job.

“We try to mimic what you would see at Cirque du Soleil, not a seedy nightclub,” Abbruzzese said.

With a background in athletic performance and a desire to empower men and women to feel confident through dance-based fitness, Abbruzzese, 45, opened Work It in South Norwalk six years ago, offering pole dancing and fitness classes, bellydancing, burlesque, cardio dance and more.

Pole dancing, while historically associated with strip teases in dark rooms, has gained popularity across the country as a popular strength-building and cardio fitness workout that gets people out of a traditional gym.

And while her goal is to bring more people to the world of pole, even Abbruzzese had to learn to put her own preconceived notions about the sport aside.

Abbruzzese has always been a dancer and a performer, but when it came to pole dancing and burlesque, she wasn’t sure if it was for her. She also never considered cheerleading until college when she was asked to audition for the cheer team at the University of Connecticut.

“I fell in love with it because it was athletic, there’s a dance element and an acrobatic element,” she said.

Those are the same reasons the Bridgeport native fell in love with pole dancing, despite her initial skepticism.

“Just like everybody, I wasn’t sure about it,” Abbruzzese said. “But from the first class I was hooked. It played on my love of dance and athletics.”

Abbruzzese was a professional cheerleader from 1993 to 2008, cheering for nearly every sport and, most notably, for the New England Patriots. When her career as a cheerleader ended, she sought a similar outlet. A former cheer teammate from her time with the Patriots was teaching pole in New York City, and invited Abbruzzese to be a makeup artist for the studio in exchange for classes.

Abbruzzese began taking classes several times a week, traveling from her Norwalk home to the city. She eventually began teaching, and in August 2010 worked up the courage to open her own studio in Norwalk.

“I wanted a place for men and women to have dance-based fitness (in Nowalk),” Abbruzzese said. “The pure athleticism of what we do has attracted a lot of people. It’s a place where people can come and feel supported. Getting in shape is a byproduct of dancing and having fun.”

In addition to providing an alternative fitness option, Abbruzzese said her goal is to break down the stereotypes that surround pole dancing by disassociating it with sex and encouraging more men to try the classes. Abbruzzese’s husband, Tony, 49, started dancing pole by practicing on the one they installed in their home. He had no prior dance experience, save for tearing up the dance floor at weddings.