Stephen Jones joins the hottest exercise class in town to prove that it's possible to be a fully-clothed male pole-dancer
"The important thing for you guys to remember," says Nicky, "is to protect the crown jewels." The seven men she is addressing are about to hurl themselves akimbo at an unyielding metal pole.
Firemen, she points out, stressing the necessity of keeping the knees firmly together, have to learn the same technique if they expect to arrive at their fires still speaking in their normal voices.
Nicky, with no crown jewels of her own to worry about, demonstrates the move first. "You leap," she says with enthusiasm, "and clutch with your knees. I can't stress enough: grip the pole with your knees."
The bravest of the bunch - all complete beginners - tentatively approaches the ten-foot pole. He leaps, grips, and swings. "That's it," enthuses Nicky. "Believe in yourself. Use as much oomph as you like."
We are in an otherwise deserted nightclub in London's Soho district, which, in a previous incarnation, was once one of the area's many notorious strip clubs. Across the road, Madam Jo Jo's and a clutch of similar establishments remind us that, although Soho has seen changes in recent years, the trade in exposed flesh lives on.
But that's not what's going on here, says Alison Hudd, the moving force behind Polepeople, one of a growing number of organisations running pole dancing classes in the capital and elsewhere in the country. "It's true that once it was something just for strippers and the like," she says. "But now large numbers of women want to do it for fitness and fun."
Alison was a television researcher with an interest in dance when she started up Polepeople in her spare time three years ago.
Very quickly, however, the business turned into her full-time occupation.
"When I first set it up, I had no idea how much it would grow." Now she employs 10 dance teachers running 14 courses for 200 women every week at venues across London, as well as one-off sessions for hen nights and birthday parties. The men, Alison explains, are important, particularly given her desire to shift public perceptions about pole dancing. "Society is quite new to pole dance as a form of fitness and an art form," she says.
"We're keen to promote it as a dance form, free from its original connotations, and we think getting guys involved will help this along."
Art form? Watching our magnificent seven struggle with the demands of the pole emphasises how far they still have to go. Samuel Johnson's famous dictum on women preaching comes to mind: the surprise is not that it's done well, but that it's done at all!
But come on, let's be fair. This is their first class and Nicky is not going easy on them. Having first learned the simple stuff, like how to grip and walk around the pole, it's straight into the hard numbers: the knee hook spin; the knees apart spin; the corkscrew (ouch!) and the hip-hop handstand "on the pole". I feel exhausted just watching.
The men take it in turn. Christian is a Danish ballet dancer and choreographer, planning on making a short film, designed to combine the art of the pole with more traditional dance forms. His trained body makes light work of some of the trickier stuff, but for others it's more of a struggle.
"What grace!" Tom declares ironically as he drops off the pole like an overripe mango. At 38, he's the oldest pole dancer in town, or at least in Brewer Street's Shadow Lounge, and cheerfully admits to taking no other regular exercise.
Adrian, a science teacher who's not looking forward to dragging his aching body into class next day, says he feels like he's spinning out of control.
"Yeah, yeah," says Nicky, "but it's your first lesson. You've got to get used to the equipment."
As a finale, Nicky gets them all to do a quick shimmy up and down the pole.
At least she gets them to try. First she does it herself, moving from floor to ceiling with grace and ease. Then Christian does it. Adrian tries. Tom decides it's time for a drink.
So what, I ask them all as they change out of their dance gear, did they get out of it? "It's just such great fun," says Christian. "You expect it to be a girl thing, but this is boyish too."
Having done his research, he has high hopes for the film project, which he sees as helping to break down the barriers between dance in its different forms.
Despite his aching limbs, Adrian, 27, says he's determined to carry on but, personally, I couldn't help thinking how wise I was not to take up the offer of having a go. Like other journalists in Soho basements, I made my excuses and left.
Not just for strippers: Men learn to dance at classes in Soho run by Polepeople. Demand for such courses is surging and the firm now draws 200 women a week to classes at venues across London, as well as one-off sessions for hen nights and birthday parties