WHEN a scantily clad woman performs on a pole, you don't expect onlookers to get all emotional. You expect leers. Cheers. Even jeers.

But tears? Not so much.

Still, peepers moistened more than once on a recent Saturday in Manayunk, when a few dozen students at Awakenings Pole Fitness pulled off backbends, arabesques and other positively poetic dance moves - all while clinging to shiny brass posts.

In the evening's first solo, a Rubenesque blonde lovingly dedicated her elegant aerial postures to her boyfriend, who sat in the front row. Later that night, advanced students from Awakening's King of Prussia studio swung around, upside down, to A Perfect Circle's deep, dark version of John Lennon's "Imagine."

Earlier, in the afternoon recital, a swanlike solo to Kate Rusby's "The Lark" symbolized one pole performer's struggle with Asperger's syndrome.

Sure, the day saw its share of flirtatious, hip-grinding group numbers that elicited whistles and hoots of "Go, girl!" But there were also pieces straight out of Cirque du Soleil.

Most of the ladies wore two-pieces - in order to dance on a pole, you gotta be able to stick to that pole, so less fabric is essential. There were a couple of burlesque acts that bordered on risque.

But, all told, the amateurs and instructors who performed in Awakening's annual fall recitals weren't out to shock, much less to strip. Instead, they were there to showcase their gravity-defying, much-practiced moves, to have a little fun, to show a different side of their day-to-day personalities and to make their partners, pals and families in the sold-out, buttoned-up crowd . . . proud, actually.

"My mom said I looked really strong and powerful," said Sarah, a Chester County mom and mental-health therapist in her mid-30s who took part in the "Imagine" group.

Sarah was one of Awakening's students who asked to go by first name only for professional reasons. It was the first time that her parents had seen her perform on the pole.

She said that her dad, age 70, was "really impressed by how many different women of different shapes and sizes were walking around confidently, showing what their bodies were capable of doing as physical instruments." Her husband, she said, "told me how much stronger I looked."

Heather Day Slawek, a Lafayette Hill resident and mom, founded Awakenings in 2009. The business owner has become accustomed to such spectator reactions. It's how she felt herself, watching her first class.

"It's so freaking impressive," she said of the pole moves.

If Slawek's name and likeness seem familiar, then you're probably from here. In the late '80s to early '90s, she was known as "Princess" on Channel 17's "Dancin' on Air" and the USA Network's "Dance Party USA." There were other stars on those locally taped and, in the case of DPUSA, nationally broadcast shows.

There was future hip-hop dance pioneer Rennie Harris. Wayfarer-wearing heartthrob Bobby Catalano. Cute, curly-haired Kelly Ripa (that Kelly Ripa).

But Princess - with her funky, handmade clothes, crazy post-disco moves and signature lavender teardrop (worn next to her eye, in homage to Prince) - was the star.

When the shows ended, Princess went back to being Heather. She went to college. She took up a career in fitness. She got married (her marriage is now ending), had her girls and kept working.

But something changed after her second daughter arrived. Slawek's go-to workouts just weren't, well, working.

A friend suggested a pole class at a West Chester gym. One session, and the second-time mom was hooked. "I fell in love with it," she said. A few months of classes, and "I lost my baby weight, finally. People noticed, too. They were like, 'Oh. Wow.' "

But it was more than a challenging full-body workout - more, even, than a chance to dance.

It was sexy.

"Every woman wants to feel sexy and empowered, to, once in a while, let your hair down, to dance around a pole for yourself or for your significant other."

Awakening's 75-minute pole classes, all taught by instructors certified by the American Council on Exercise or the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, are women-only. Students test in to levels, and, more often than not, sign up for a season, in order to learn enough moves to make a difference.

"It's a very welcoming, structured environment," Slawek said.

But Stephanie Greer, 39, a teacher and new mom from North Philly, wasn't so sure at first. She met Slawek four years ago in an adult gymnastics class. When the former Princess credited her fit bod to pole dancing, Greer said she "reacted with snickering, but Heather was like, 'No, it's not like that!' "

So, Greer, a self-described "no-makeup tomboy," gave it a whirl.

"In the beginning, I couldn't get through a class without cracking up," she said. "To me, if it was sexy, it was hilarious." But pole grew on her. It made her explore her girlier side, "that part of me that I don't use outside the studio."

Awakenings did the same thing for Liz, 30, a King of Prussia resident diagnosed at age 27 with Asperger's syndrome. "I've always had a lot of difficulty expressing myself emotionally," she said, "and to go to a class where everyone's very supportive, where we go over how different moves can mean different things . . . I'm really starting to be able to express myself - to have the courage to be feminine and express myself as a woman, to really feel like I am a woman."

Leigh, 59, a Main Line hospitality executive, said pole classes have given her improved muscle tone, new friends and a sense of accomplishment - "not many people my age do this," she said.

Plus, it's fun. "You feel very free when you're spinning around the pole in the air."

Pole dancing as women's lib?

Why not?

Said Sarah, the therapist: Doing moves most associated with strippers "is not about making women look like strippers. It's not an objectifying environment. . . . It's about using your body as an instrument, a vehicle. It's the opposite of what people think."

On Twitter: @LaMcCutch