Plus-size Roz Mays embraced her "tree trunks" to become a pole-dancing instructor
In the world of pole fitness, Roz "The Diva" Mays, 31, is an anomaly. At 230 pounds, she's not the type of woman you'd expect to see spinning on a pole -- let alone leading the class. But the certified pole instructor and personal trainer in New York City is doing just that.
Mays grew up in a household in Huntington, Long Island, where she and her sister were raised to embrace their thick "gams," which her father affectionately called "tree trunks." The expression could have easily been taken the wrong way, but Mays knew better.
"My dad was coming from a place of love, like he was describing Serena and Venus [Williams]," Mays says. "Thank God we took it in a good way, because telling some teen girls their legs look like tree trunks could've turned out really horrible."
Mays recalls her upbringing as fortunate and says her family was extremely supportive of her activities. She participated in fencing, soccer and, her favorite, softball.
Despite her physical activity, Mays never had what most would consider the typical athletic build. A chubby child who became an even chubbier adult, she is the complete opposite of lean and muscular and was often judged for her physical appearance.
"As much as I loved playing sports, it was also around that time when I was younger that I sort of cemented the idea in my head that I wasn't valuable to sports because I couldn't run fast," Mays says. "Even before puberty weight hit, I was just never a quick body, and it was the quintessential story of the last person picked for tag. And I think because it was so normal for so long, I didn't realize how damaging some of those thoughts were."
After earning a business degree from George Washington University, Mays got stuck working a sedentary job at a nonprofit that wasn't her ideal career path. As a result, she developed bad eating habits and was wearing the biggest size that Old Navy had to offer. She describes that time as her rock bottom, the moment she realized she had to make a change.
She signed up for a gym membership and immediately got hooked on the dance classes, particularly pole.
"Your first pole class will tell you about muscles you didn't know existed. I left in pain and couldn't raise my arms for a week, [but] I couldn't wait to get back in the class," Mays says. "I think pole is one of those things where with the first class you either love it for life or you never touch that pole again."
Despite being one of the biggest students in her classes, Mays found confidence and support in the pole community and began to embrace her body.
In the spring of 2010, she competed in the first Polesque, a pole-meets-burlesque competition where the winner is determined by a combination of crowd opinion and judge's ratings. Mays didn't win, but she made an impression. When she returned to the stage for Polesque's second season, spectators couldn't recall her name but remembered her sassy performance to Beyoncé's "Diva."
A year later, Mays was so skilled that she took home top honors at Polesque, thanks to her racy performance to Christina Aguilera's "Nasty Naughty Boy."
"Pole stuck with me because I can be as sexually extroverted as I wanted to and it was appropriate in that forum. It was like I get to live my truth in this moment," says Mays, who ranks the win as one of her greatest sports, pole and life moments to this day.
Mays' performance style is much like her teaching style: It's sexy, but also playful and inclusive. Singing along to tunes while she sashays and struts around the stage has become her signature move, and it draws audiences into her performances and students into her classes.
Beyond the routines and rhythms, Mays has a following primarily because of her personality. She's a born show-woman who takes over the spotlight the moment she walks into a room. It's that uncanny energy and charisma that made hiring Mays as an instructor a no-brainer for Sharon Goldberg, owner of IncrediPOLE, a Brooklyn-based fitness studio.
Teaching pole dancing began as a discreet side hustle, but when Mays' online footprint began to create a commotion at her desk job, she eventually found herself unemployed. This prompted Mays to pursue a full-time career in fitness focused on pole work. She now leads group fitness pole classes at IncrediPOLE and Body and Pole and offers personal training to clients.
Word of the mesmerizing plus-sized pole instructor and performer led to the producers of the Adam Sandler movie "That's My Boy" scouting Mays as a stunt double for comedienne Luenell, who played a stripper in the 2012 film.
Despite all of her success and body positivity, Mays has had her fair share of critics, the most notable being radio personality Howard Stern, who she says told her she was too fat for fitness during an "America's Got Talent" audition.
"My audition didn't air on TV, other than in a quick montage, but he said that in front of 1,000-plus people -- including my parents -- but I wasn't bothered by it," Mays says. "Some people were so shocked by his words, but it takes a lot to shock me, especially someone calling me fat in relation to pole, because I expect to hear stuff like that. So I consider myself extremely lucky because his comment led to a lot of subsequent interviews [about fat shaming and body positivity]."
On any given day, Mays' classes begin with a not-so-easy warm-up tailored to whatever techniques she's demonstrating that day.
When it comes to pole, students engage in joint-stabilization moves along the lines of Pilates and yoga, along with flexibility workouts, as Mays' lively playlist -- which usually consists of artists such as Beyoncé, Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige -- booms in the background.
Mays sings along to the tunes to help ease students' anxiety as she prepares the class for the work (and fun) ahead. In other words, she has grown accustomed to becoming people's cheerleader.
"She's an obviously energetic person, and sometimes when your instructor can do everything perfectly every time, it's a little intimidating," says Alyea Canada, one of Mays' students. "So the fact that she is very real with us about when she has difficulty getting into stuff, being like, 'I can't do that, but I'm gonna help you figure out how,' that's just really amazing."
What Mays' students don't know is that appearing before them in just a sports bra and short shorts -- a necessity in pole because you need direct skin contact for grip -- wasn't always so so easy for Mays.
"One day I was getting dressed and before I put my shirt on, I was like, 'Roz, you might be able to do this.' I was wearing these really high-waisted shorts and a sports bra and I had an inch, literally like an inch of rib showing, and I was like, 'I think I can try to teach the class in this,'" Mays says. "So I taught the whole class like that, and after class I told them what I did and everybody clapped for me. It was fun, and when I got home I cried harder than I've ever cried in my life because there was so much relief. It literally felt like the entire weight of the world was off of my shoulders that first time of being out and my gut hanging out."
Today, Mays' confidence and self-image are in a good space, but she acknowledges the proverbial elephant in the room -- her eating habits. She admits that she's still working on portion control and finding balance, but The Diva has the final say in her own fitness journey. She's not Instagram-trainer perfect, but she values transparency over everything, even if it means telling the truth about her own shortcomings. Mays' ultimate #bodygoal is to not focus on the number on the scale, but to lean out and muscle up.
"I want to get into power lifting. That's gonna be my new obsession [because] my body needs some new thing to do," she says. "Pole is still gonna be there, but I want a new hobby. I have dreams of putting a fire truck on my shoulders and just straight chilling down Flatbush Avenue. I [used to] think that strong was the equivalent to skinny before, but not anymore."
Starrene Rhett Rocque is a Brooklyn-based writer and pole fitness instructor. She's also author of the self-published novel "Bloggers Can't Be Trusted." Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.