Where I've traveled.
This is one of the most frequent questions I get, so I've finally decided to write the complete version of the story here, with personal pieces that I've never shared anywhere publicly, before.
The parkour days
At the time, aside from being the owner and doctor of Vital Balance Chiropractic, I was a senior instructor of parkour and martial arts at Apex Movement… and I was going through a divorce.
Rachel was my first girlfriend ever; I started seeing her in college at 17 years old. We dated for 7 years before getting married for 5. We went into practice together as we became Chiropractors together.
We grew up religious, and we did everything "by the Book". And yet we were still getting a divorce after challenges that seemed impossible to resolve.
Aside from having my faith shaken, it was particularly hard because, for nearly a year, we were pretty sure we were going to separate, and after the decision, it was another year before we were able to tell anyone we were separated.
See, we wanted to do things "right" and tell the important people in the correct "order of operations". Parents needed to be told in-person, patients didn’t need to panic, and church—we mentored youth—well, we were worried about the judgement we’d face. This meant that I was suffering in silence and playing the part of still being married when we were sleeping in separate rooms, and later, even after I’d already moved out. This led to strong feelings of loneliness and abandonment. And, the sense of being dishonest was tearing me apart. I isolated myself from friends to avoid this feeling.
Mimi showing me some moves.
While teaching one of my parkour classes, a student, Mimi, revealed that she was a pole dancer. She showed me a knee hold on a bar at the parkour gym. I was amazed, and I wanted to learn it (a move I still can’t do, btw). After researching and calling nearby studios, it seemed as if no men were allowed in general. So I gave up on that mission, and instead focused on my parkour training.
Three months later, a patient came in to the clinic and I learned that she taught pole. I asked her to speak to Mel, the owner of Vertical Fusion, if I could attend some classes.I was given permission because, in Mel’s words, she just hadn’t considered that men might be interested.
I took my first class with Mel in Sep, 2013, right before a "family trip" in China with the in-laws for a month…and all I could think about was continuing pole training…and Harry Potter. I read all the books on that trip to avoid talking to people.
I climbed everything back then. Don't ask me why I'm under the bridge.
When I got back, I purchased a pole and trained constantly. In five months, I did my first performance (What a mess.I really shouldn’t share this, but if you’re truly curious, you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFoLAplI06c).
It was soon-after recommended that I study with another instructor, someone quite popular in the pole industry at the time and elite in terms of skill. I took her classes for the next 4 months. Then, one day, she said, "I have nothing to teach you anymore."
To be clear, she was a trained dancer her entire life. I had plenty to learn (as you can obviously see in my videos), but I’ll come back to this thread.
Most training had become watching videos online and jamming with Mimi. I tried to catch Mel’s classes when I could, but the schedule wasn’t ideal. Still, no one knew that Rachel and I were essentially divorced, and I was using pole as solace. One day, Mimi showed me a video of Marlo to convince me to take her workshop; I grudgingly agreed.
Marlo’s workshop was the most challenging class I’d ever taken in movement, and yet it was taught in such a way that I immediately considered Marlo to be the best instructor I’d ever had. There were so many new concepts that I struggled to grasp that I was inspired to study even more.
After the workshop, during a picnic, Marlo and I found ourselves talking inside a chicken coop about food, nutrition, and Weston Price with one of Vivienne’s (the host) son.
There was a connection that day that we both felt, but she was dating someone at the time, and I was still technically "married". We wouldn’t speak again for 3 months.
I did my second performance after about 9 months of pole training, convincing that instructor to help me with choreography. I intended to use the video to apply to a random competition called "Pole Expo". You can see the application video here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doI8yg0Gku0). I didn’t know anything about music, so don’t judge me (kinda still don’t). I put in moves that I’d been creating and my "best tricks" in hopes of impressing Pole Expo. I’m clearly dying at the end of this performance.
Starfish became my go-to move. I started to starfish everything.
I was thrilled when Pole Expo accepted me. I didn’t know, prior to seeing the line up, that this was actually an internationally recognized competition. I saw performers listed that I’d stalked online during my home studies. I figured that starfish wouldn't be good enough, since at the time, I thought moves were what made people good (big oops).
At the time, competitions weren’t nearly so frequent. As things continued to strain between Rachel and I, and I became further depressed, lonely, and frustrated—I contemplated suicide. I needed to throw myself deeper into training.
I frequently found myself alone at the studio at midnight into 2-3am. It became my meditation. I asked that same instructor to help me choreograph, the one who said she couldn’t teach me anymore, and she obliged me a second time. I’m very thankful for her help to this day.
For Pole Expo's Pole Classic competition, I decided to rely on my background as a martial artist and parkour athlete. The attempt at dancing in the last performance clearly didn’t work. I needed a big, big, trick. At the time, I was naive and believed performance stages would be as-described in the competitor documents; the distance between the poles must be accurate. So I trained to jump between the poles at an assumed 8 feet apart.
It was bad luck while teaching a class and demonstrating a a 23ish foot wall run up the "ninja warrior" wall, I decided to bail and I sprained an ankle one week before the pole competition.
You can't tell, but that's my super awkward face.
When Pole Expo arrived, it was almost exactly 1 year after my first class. I remember the feeling of not knowing anyone. Aside from sharing a room with five other people from Vertical Fusion, I was a ghost through registration and the Expo.I didn’t know what I was doing there since none of the products were marketed at me, and I am naturally shy, so I didn’t approach people or begin conversations.
Me, being alone.
All I did was think about the competition, and sweat, and wiggle at my ankle hoping that it would hold up. I didn’t speak to anyone new the first two days of Expo (In those days, Expo was longer and the competition was nearer the end rather than the beginning).
I remembered Marlo, so I made sure to attend the "Pole Stars Q&A" on stage the day before the competition. Aside from listening very carefully to Marlo answer questions (in which someone asked if she were dating "any guy," and she said, "No.") I remember Karol Helms answering someone’s question about new skills on pole. Karol is an OG pole dancer. She announced, "There are no new moves in pole.Everything has been done, except for maybe…" she chuckled "…jumping pole to pole or something. That’s only been done in Chinese pole, but that’s different because the poles are different."
I was sitting next to one of the Vertical Fusion friends, Kira N., and after the Q&A, I showed her a clip of my rehearsal—the pole to pole jump from static to spin pole. Her eyes bulged and she said, "She just set you up perfectly!"
The day of the competition came, and the competitors were allowed test runs on the poles. I went on stage between all the amazing people that seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and I felt the poles just so that I knew what they were like. Unfortunately for me, the poles weren’t the distance I expected. I couldn’t be sure, but they seemed further apart than expected. That said, I did not try the jump. I knew that if I did, word would spread and "give away" the surprise.
This was to be my first solo performance ever, aside from piano and violin rehearsals as a child, and so "nervous" is quite the understatement.
View from the warm-up area.
I remember meeting other contestants in the very dark prep area, above the stage, and feeling like I couldn’t watch any performances at all for fear of being intimidated or being distracted. I kept forgetting my choreography. People changed freely in front of me. I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t know where to look, so I put my head down and focused on warming up even though my heart was racing so much that I was definitely warm no problem. I did meet Michelle Natoli and Samantha Star and Accro Brandon who would remain friends for many years to come.
I was 3rd or 4th to compete, with Alex Magala right before me. Alex is a bit of a wild card. You’ll see what I mean in a moment, but he was one of those male pole dancers I stalked online during my home training. You may know him as the dude who swallows swords and pole dances while doing backflips on various "Got Talent" shows.
I must have washed my hands and gone to the toilet ten times before my turn. I was going to do a downward facing Iron X (Skydiver) to "Starfish" (Foot flag), so I had to make sure my feet were dry and grip application was well timed.Dust on the bottom of my feet before getting on stage could mess both the jump and Starfish up.
Alex performed—and then he was disqualified in 20 seconds. See, the prior year he had hung on the trusses, and so the rules were changed to explicitly say that no one was to hang on the trusses. As an act of protest, he did it anyway.
He was pulled from his performance…And then it was my turn.
My opening was on floor. I was visibly shaking. I couldn’t find my balance. Was it my ankle? I kept telling myself to look out at the audience, to send my energy outwards. Ugh, the lights were so bright.
As soon as I touched the pole, though, it felt like I’d found home. I stopped shaking.
I did the Skydiver to Starfish, and it went well. I remember the singular thought as I bounced right before my jump: it would really suck to fail this on stage in front of everyone. I would never let myself off.
Once, I’d competed in Ninja Warrior, and I’d torn a ligament in my finger as I swung rope to rope. To this day, I replay that moment with regret—what could I have done differently?
I did not want another Ninja Warrior regret in my life.
Even if the poles were further than expected, I needed to jump with everything I had.
So I did.
I heard the screams, faintly, as I caught the pole, and I remember panic as I realized the pole was spinning much too fast because of the extra distance. I wrestled my way into the next move, but I couldn’t hear my music at all. Were they still cheering? I did all the next movements with a sense of uncertainty, guessing at where the music should be. A full 30 seconds later, I found the music. You can see the full performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSl3Tctpi-I
After the performance, in a daze, I thought it probably went well. I went back upstairs to the prep area. Samantha, who I didn’t really know well enough for this, punch me in the shoulder. I thought it might be a friendly gesture, but it was hard enough and she was cursing at me so I couldn't be sure.
I remember watching the other performances with a sense of relief. I’d accomplished my goal and performed, and I did the jump. But then my name was called out for People’s Choice Award, sponsored by Mighty Grip. It took a while to realize I was supposed to get back on stage. I got lost on the way back down to the stage. I remember seeing the judges table, and everyone, standing when I did finally show up.
I got second place (I had no idea how to flow, point my toes, or move to music). David Owen, one of the judges, was the first to congratulate me with tears in his eyes, saying that my performance touched him (which was very confusing because I didn’t know my martial arts performance could be touching). And then Marlo was next, telling me that I "stole her heart". I wondered briefly if that could mean more—but also, apparently all judges were strange people who said strange things.
Photo by Nina Reed. This became such a special photo to me over the years.
I remember needing to pee, really bad, but the crowded edge of the stage prevented me. I was asked to take pictures with so many people. It was surreal. My smile cramped from exhaustion.
Twice I was groped in the butt by strangers while I was taking pictures. Was that normal in the pole industry?Seemed odd.
I remember finally getting upstairs to use the bathroom, and then I checked my phone to see an annoyed message from Rachel that she had to find out on FB that I'd done well rather than me telling her.
I checked Facebook and found hundreds of friend requests from people I never met.
And I remember taking notes, me being a writer of science fiction and fantasy, on what it felt like just in case I needed to write it convincingly someday.
After the Competition
That night, and the rest of Pole Expo, people kept coming up to me. I was no longer the ghost. In fact, it felt impossible to go anywhere without getting a picture taken, or having someone ask me to sign something and having questions thrown at me. Most everyone was calling me "Pole Ninja", and I accepted it even though I was Taiwanese and only my uncle and grandfather lived in Japan.
People asked my relationship status. I’d done the competition as a personal challenge, to focus on something aside from the divorce, and so it was all very overwhelming—especially since it still wasn’t public that I was divorced. I didn’t know how to answer the question. Every answer felt like a lie. People asked me to teach in a number of countries, and I didn’t feel like I had any right to; I’d only been poling for less than 1 year, after all. Sure, I’d been teaching movement since I was a teenager, but not pole.
It was all too much. I left the hotel and I walked to a nearby Japanese restaurant and ate ramen. Then I sat in a coffee shop avoiding the rest of Pole Expo.
Now what? What would I focus on next? The idea of teaching internationally stuck in my mind as "that would be cool."
I messaged Marlo, and asked if we could talk. I didn’t know exactly what to talk about, or how to phrase things, but I had a strong feeling that I needed to hear her advice.
We met at the hotel for only an hour because it was between things and we were constantly interrupted by people asking Marlo for pictures and signatures, and then (still surreally), me as well. We didn’t get to talk much, but there was an obvious connection between us. She invited me, later, to see a show with her and a few of her friends.
Marlo and Dawei, after we watched Jabbawockeez.
I remember the Vertical Fusion room giving me a hard time, asking if they could come along, too, and what, was I now "too good" for them? Then, as I apologized, they teased me and made a big fuss about how Marlo messaged ME to invite me somewhere and they were SOOO jealous. I don’t think I knew how popular Marlo was until these moments.
Marlo and I found more moments to talk during that trip to Vegas between the insanity. She began to introduce me to other people, and take me under her wing. That was the beginning of our relationship.We texted constantly for the next several months before I would see her again. She traveled 9 months out of the year, and the seed of knowing that, if I was really interested in her, the only way to "see" her would be to travel with her.
And as for that pole instructor that helped me choreograph this performance? She sent me a heart breaking message soon after Pole Expo.
If you can't see it, it reads:
"Hey Ken -
"I'm not mad at you anymore. What you did was uncool but it was my fault for including you in my own training. I thought that we had a mutual respect especially when it came to rehearsing our pieces but I was your teacher and you were my student. I'm really happy for you and all of your success that you gained at Expo. But I'm really sad for myself. When I look at you now, I am only reminded of my failures. It's not about you."
See, I'd cancelled training because the divorce conflict had escalated, and Rachel and I decided to try to make peace by celebrating her birthday together. I wasn't able to communicate that with my instructor as the divorce wasn't known. I could only say that Rachel's birthday got moved up. I didn’t know what I’d done to push her away, and for all I cared, I’d done one cool move but that didn’t define my career, nor did I want to be known as the one truck pole jumping guy (I already found it annoying enough). But the last line, that I reminded her of her failures, was too close to home. Rachel had similarly said that she couldn't do the same things I could, simply because I was doing it.
These events felt like more abandonment, especially since I couldn’t understand as I saw her as my instructor, and not peer.
We’ve not spoken since.
This is where the story pauses. Thank you for making it this far, and I realize that this is probably more for me than for any reader. I do have a note, though:
I wish I could say, "happily ever after", but Marlo and I have indeed separated after 6 lovely years together. We still care very much for each other, and it is a big reason that I am writing this story (these stories?) now; I feel like it honors who we were together and brings back much of the love and joy that we shared over these amazing, adventurous, and wonderful years, but also, I should have been writing about my journeys this entire time, so better late than never.