Pole dancing in Sin City was not the plan.
Is it ever? Few kids grow up aspiring to earn a living on the pole.
Timber Brown, 26, certainly didn't. With his background -- an abusive childhood, alcoholic parents, a period of homelessness -- he's lucky he grew up. He planned to be a Texas cop, right some wrongs, maybe help someone escape a hard life. The kind of life he knows all too well.
But Brown believes people are born with a purpose. Just as surely as some are meant to be doctors, lawyers, teachers or plumbers, Brown was destined to be a pole dancer.
It gives him a purpose the police academy never did. It also has been his savior, soothing him in a way nothing else has.
He knows that many people, the uninitiated, won't get it. But that's because they haven't seen the things he can do on a pole.
If you could, he would make a convert out of you.
• • •
Brown knows what you're thinking: A guy, on a pole? Weird. He must be a stripper.
He is a guy but he is no stripper. And weird is so subjective. Who isn't at least a little odd?
In Las Vegas, pole dancing is mostly associated with strip clubs or bachelor parties or bored housewives who take a pole-dancing class to spice up their marriages. While male pole dancers are uncommon, they're far from unusual.
Brown prefers to be called a pole artist but he openly embraces the pole dancer moniker. You can't get away from the exotic roots of pole dancing, he says. And there's no shame in that background.
What he does is more of a cross between acrobatics and rhythmic dancing on a pole. Yes, that's very similar to what strippers do, but Brown's style is less erotic with more high-flying acrobatic feats. He does flips 10 feet in the air and catches himself before falling to the ground. He slides head-first down the pole, twisting and back-flipping on his way to the floor.
"My kind of style is a lot different than most," he says. "It's painful."
It was five years ago, when Brown discovered his affinity for pole art, that a new method of performing began to take off. Members of the local pole-dancing community say it grew out of all those striptease classes. People wanted to make it less erotic and more sportlike so they adapted gymnastic moves usually associated with Chinese pole acrobatics, something not at all related to stripping. There is a Chinese pole act in Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere."
Pole fitness studios opened, promising to teach anyone how to use a stripper pole to lose weight, strengthen their core muscles and improve their self-esteem. This new breed of pole dancer began holding competitions. At first, it was all women, but over the years, men, such as Brown, joined in. He's an award-winning pole dancer, named the 2011 Pole Athletes Champion at the International Pole Dance Fitness competition in Denver. He often teaches women how to be more athletic on the pole.
"This thing has gotten bigger in the last few years. A lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon," Brown says.
Brown works as a freelance pole artist and aerialist, pairing with his girlfriend, Alyssa McCraw, on silks, trapeze and other flying apparatuses. He's been in a few Las Vegas shows since moving here in 2007. He and McCraw were a featured act for several months on a cruise ship. They do a lot of convention and private vendor work.
But that's separate from his pole dancing/pole fitness work, which has become his driving force in life. He wanted to be a cop so he could help others. He is convinced there is a way he can help people through pole dancing.
"I have a lot to contribute to the community," he says. "I just have to figure out how to do it."
• • •
Fearless. Unbreakable. Gravity-defying.
These are a few of the qualities that make Brown one of the best pole artists in Las Vegas, says Amy Gale, producer for San Diego-based Imagination Entertainment.
And they are the qualities that inspired her to hire him for his first pole gig in the summer of 2006. Gale's company provided entertainment for SeaWorld . After watching his audition video, she cast Brown as a Chinese pole acrobat.
"His video was so crazy and nontraditional as far as a gymnastics video," Gale recalls. "It was kind of extreme acrobatics. He was hanging on the rafters of his gym and dropped off. It was amazing, very impressive."
Brown was living in Texas at the time, attending the criminal justice program affiliated with the Fort Worth police academy. He wanted to be a Marine, like his father, but it wasn't conducive to his long-term plans for marriage and kids. He worked part time at Texas Tumblers, teaching gymnastics to kids. One of his friends recorded his crazy antics in the gym one day and persuaded Brown to send the video to Gale.
"I grew up climbing everything. I did my homework in trees," Brown recalls of his childhood.
The past is not something he talks about a lot, not because it bothers him but because it's just the way things were. It does no good to constantly rehash old hurts.
"I know that he has a lot of hurt and pain," says his mother, Donnia Harris. She still lives in Texas. "And I hate that. But he uses it to motivate him instead of letting it get him down."
His father, a former Marine, drank a lot, Brown says. His mother abused drugs and alcohol. Both are sober now, but Brown's childhood was chaotic and unsettling. He ran away from home at 15 after butting heads with his father one too many times. He stayed with a friend for a while before trying to live with his mother, but life was too uncertain with her. Brown found a boys home that agreed to take him in, the Anchor Academy for boys in Montana. He lived there until he was almost 17.
It was for troubled teens, he says, but he wasn't troubled. Just homeless. After that, he moved to Texas to live with his mother, who had remarried and was newly sober. His alternative high school in Texas introduced him to organized gymnastics.
"These kinds of things hinder people," Brown says of his upbringing. "I feel really blessed to have done the things I've done and to do what I do now. It didn't seem like anything like this was ever in the cards for me."
• • •
Alyssa McCraw, 27, was first attracted to Brown's enthusiasm.
They met at SeaWorld in 2006 where they were both part of the high-flying entertainment. A seasoned performer in her early 20s, McCraw was struck by Brown's gleeful approach to their act.
"You could see he was definitely different from the rest of us," she recalls. "He was full of excitement, even after long, exhausting months of rehearsals. He was almost childlike."
He reminded her of just what she loved about performing. They started hanging out together. Soon, they were dating casually. Then they were living together. At the end of the SeaWorld contract, they decided to leave Southern California for the more affordable Las Vegas. Work was plentiful and housing cheaper. McCraw does not share her boyfriend's love of pole work. She dabbled in it during circus school and thinks it's impressive but it's not something she aspires to do, mainly because it hurts.
"I have a lot of respect for it," McCraw says. "It's neat to see that it's grown so much as a separate entity. I just don't enjoy doing it."
Brown is exuberant. Involved. Committed to his pole artistry. He is driving his girlfriend crazy. She can ask him 100 questions but he won't have an answer to any of them, unless they involve poles.
Brown knows he is a pole-aholic.
"She is not very supportive of me and my pole endeavors as far as the pole dancing side of it, which makes sense because I have been involved in quite a few events that have ended up costing me money," he explains.
It's not that she isn't supportive; she thinks he is immensely talented. Pole work is in his blood, she says.
McCraw just doesn't want him to put all his eggs in the pole-dancing basket.
"He has such a passion for it and I do want to support him," McCraw says. "I have to play devil's advocate and bring some reality to him, though. He has a hard time letting some things go."
There are so many other interests he could pursue, she says. McCraw is afraid he will miss out on them with all this focus on poles.
• • •
Pole dancing lets Brown indulge his creativity. He loves to think about tricks and routines.
"I had this dream of doing an act with one pole, a spotlight and a woman in a chair playing a cello," Brown says during rehearsal one day. He dreams a lot.
Pole artistry gave Brown so much. He has been able to earn a living with it and it's given him a sense of peace. He feels as if it has healing properties. Because he has gotten so much from his art, he wants to give back.
"There are still issues I have from my childhood, I know. I just feel really fortunate. I don't think a lot of kids will end up being as fortunate as me," Brown says. "I wanted to do something with kids who've had lives like mine. I just have to figure out how."
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.