Valerie Schrader didn't enjoy dancing in what are euphemistically called "gentleman's clubs" when she was 18 and 19, but it sure was great exercise.
"It was not an industry that I really wanted to be involved in, but what I did love was the physical shape I was in because of what I was doing," she recalled last week. "It made my body incredible, because it was so freeing.
"There's a certain element of creative, organic freedom."
Pole dancing is part of how Schrader, now 32, makes her living these days -- but not that kind.
Since 2007, she has owned and operated Infinity Aerial, a physical fitness business located in the Busch Center on Mediterranean Avenue, helping women and men get themselves into shape with, among other things, classes in dancing using a pole.
The programs also include aerial and acrobatic fitness regimens and have become so popular, Schrader said last week, that she's looking for a larger space, one with higher ceilings for the aerial classes.
Schrader attended Westerville South High School before switching to Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. She said she initially planned to pursue a career in art, although she said dance had always been a part of her life.
"It definitely wasn't my career choice, or I didn't think it was," the Westerville resident said.
After giving birth to her daughter at age 20, Schrader, who had dropped out of Ohio State University, returned to school and eventually found work to support her child -- nothing that particularly appealed as a career but a job that paid the bills as a single mother. She began teaching some cardio dance classes at various studios around Columbus, but then, remembering what pole dancing had done for her body, began experimenting with that form of exercise.
Friends became interested, and she taught a few private and semi-private classes.
When a gym featuring pole dancing for fitness opened, Schrader said she took a class right away. She was offered a job teaching that first night, and found "a very happy niche."
"I immediately figured out that this was exactly what I wanted to do," Schrader said.
She's been an instructor since 2005.
Schrader struck out on her own to open Infinity Aerial six and a half years ago "as a place for students to learn, have fun and get in shape," according to infinityaerial.com, which describes the business as "a unique aerial and fitness studio with personalized attention, smaller classes, highly skilled instructors, incredible classes with the safest most up-to-date training and techniques and a friendly atmosphere that welcomes all backgrounds, ages, shapes, sizes, genders, races and lifestyles."
Schrader, who performed in the 2012 Michigan Pole and Aerial Showcase and last year was chairwoman of the pole fitness committee for the Arnold Sports Classic, said she has assembled a good team of other instructors at Infinity Aerial.
"I've been really, really fortunate to have gotten these very intelligent circus and dance performers who are working with me and teaching for me," she said.
While some standard fitness offerings such as Zumba are available at Infinity Aerial, pole and aerial dancing are what tend to draw the most students.
"They're looking for something different, something that's not going to leave them bored when they work out," Schrader said.
And one that offers some very real challenges, she added.
"It's the most frustrating because at times, it does require a lot of work and dedication, but at the same time, it's the most satisfying," Schrader said.