No Funny Business, Please; We’re British
Guest article by Emma Mitchell aka Miss Glory Pearl (pictured left).
No one can deny that pole dancing has come a long way in the last decade. These days, if you want to see someone pole dance, you don’t need to sit at a table in Spearmint Rhino drinking overpriced Champagne, and it’s likely the dancer won’t end up wearing rather less than she started with at the end of her routine.
If you want to learn to pole dance, you go along to your local gym, or find your local purpose-built pole dance studio, and sign up for a class. Few people will raise their eyebrows or judge you for doing this. Even fewer will assume you’re a lap dancer but interestingly, within the UK pole community itself, a gulf has opened up between pole dance as exotic dance, and pole dance as ‘fitness’. As a pole dancer, you can wear high heels, in a pole fitness class, it’s bare feet only. In pole dance, your floorwork is an intrinsic part of the package, while in pole fitness, it’s the tricks that matter. Pole dance is about flow and sensuality, pole fitness is about strength, flexibility and stamina.
Pole fitness seeks to distance itself from pole dance - you’ll hear people saying that it’s nothing like what goes on in strip clubs, that it’s not sexy, and that proponents are athletes or gymnasts, not strippers. Technically, this may be true, but to be frank, this rather annoys me. However you pole dance, the origins of what you have learnt come from exotic dance. To deny this is a bit like denying the Holocaust - fantasy flying in the face of empirical evidence.
Pole dance as we know it today may have links to Chinese Pole, Mallakamb or even ancient pagan May Day rituals, but it also has links to belly dance, strip tease, Hoochie Coochie, and exotic dance. The pole dance class you take today may ask you to wear sports gear, but not even a decade ago, if you wanted to learn to pole dance - that is to dance on and around a fixed metal pole - you took a class in a gentlemen’s club, put on by exotic dancers, who taught you what they did as part of their job.
Historically, we have sold pole dance - and justified our practising of it - through the fitness benefits as well as through the mystical notion of ‘female empowerment’. As a pole dance teacher myself, I noticed that if women wanted to just lose weight and tone up, they went to the gym, took spinning classes and lifted weights. The women in my pole dance classes were after something else as well. Yes, back in those early days, it was still seen as a bit risque and naughty, yes, there was a bit of ‘stripper tourism’, but I saw women who were disconnected from their sexuality, who wanted not only to feel sexy, but to feel comfortable feeling sexy, and pole gave both license and expression to that. As they lost the weight and toned up, their confidence grew further, but the real draw was that naughty old pole and sticking their bottoms out as they bent over to stroke it. And for me, there is nothing wrong with that.
Model pictured right - Jamie Alexah-Taylor (Defy Gravity)
The British have always had a fractured relationship with sex. Our natural reserve and Northern European sensibilities make indulging in anything slightly embarrassing. That coupled with second-wave feminist notions of female objectification, our tendency to categorise sexy women as vamps or bimbos, and a belief that to be taken seriously, women need to eschew traditional ideas of femininity, meant that many pole dancers felt the need to consciously step away from the strip club and promote an alternative idea of pole dance, one that didn’t involve nudity and the exchange of hard cash. This is perfectly reasonable; broaden your appeal, broaden your target market, increase sales and business is good. However, the reality is, as much as you may try to call a spade an ergonomically-designed, calorie-busting, aerobic workout implement, it’s still a spade. And so it is with pole. Most of those beginner moves you learn originated in strip clubs and they stuck around because they show off your body and make you look good - pole is a means to an end in clubs; you advertise yourself on the pole and punters then pay you for private dances. If you don’t look good, you don’t earn.
What is interesting about the UK however, is that unlike the US, Europe, and particularly Australia, we have become polarised in our attitudes towards pole, seeing it as ‘sexy’ or ‘sporty’. Many of our competitions now include strict clothing requirements ensuring competitors’ bits and pieces are completely covered; if your unmentionables do pop out, disqualification results, and on the whole, heels are not permitted. For years, Miss Pole Dance Australia has been the competition to watch, consistently showcasing extraordinary talent and making stars of people like Felix Cane. Our Aussie sisters wear a lot less than their UK counterparts, they wear heels, and they are unashamedly sexy. This fascinates me - why do so many UK polers want to desexualise pole so completely? And for years, I’ve wondered and watched as two distinct camps set up shop. What’s changed recently is that battle lines are being drawn. As the profile of pole has risen, and with the campaign to get pole dance into the Olympics, the hardcore fitness polers aren’t taking any prisoners. Interviews, articles, blogs and social networks all bear testimony to the contempt being meted out to ‘strippers’. Rising stars on the UK scene are heard to declare their intention to ‘change people’s perceptions of pole dance’ and brag that their performances are not in the least sexy. But the pole dancers aren’t taking it lying down anymore, refuting criticism and objecting to the terms they are being described in - quite rightly, in my opinion as much of the language is patriarchal, anti-feminist and downright offensive. Whatever happened to solidarity? It’s all getting a bit tense.
Fundamentally, this in-fighting does our industry no good. To the outside world we appear unprofessional and add credence to outmoded stereotypes about women in business. And internally? Well, there’s a lot of bad feeling about, a lot of sniping and lot of people feeling rather uncomfortable about being pushed to take sides. To go back to the beginning, when pole dance came out of the strip clubs and started showing ‘ordinary’ women what fun dancing around a metal pole could be, it was inclusive, friendly, supportive and yes, empowering. Whether you choose to wear six-inch heels and a bikini, or a sports bra and shorts, the joy of a pole dance class has always been women (and some men) coming together to cheer on, help, grow and bond with each other. For me, that’s what matters, and that is what is being eroded by a minority who want to further their particular cause by denying our heritage and attacking those who celebrate it. What’s at stake is our integrity as an industry - we should be proud of where we came from, not seek to obscure and deny it - that just makes us look weak and as if we really do have something to be ashamed of. However you practise pole dance, your response to it’s origins should elicit nothing more than a ‘so what?’, because quite simply, it changes nothing. You don’t need to apologise for it to be taken seriously by the mainstream and you certainly don’t need to airbrush it.
Live and let live and the pole dance industry will be a richer place for it.
Image above left - Photography by John Fox Photos. Model - Jamie Alexah-Taylor (Defy Gravity)