The Great Pole Dance Divide

The Great Pole Dance Divide

The Great Pole Dance Divide

Comments Off on The Great Pole Dance Divide

Pole dancing faces many challenges in being accepted by those outside the community as a legitimate sport and art form. There are many quick to judge those who perform it, those who teach it and even those who simply enjoy it as a recreational activity. There is another battle many pole dancers face, and it has nothing to do with the world outside. This battle is fought within the community itself and standing strongly on either side can lead to controversy and alienation.

This battle has existed for awhile and has been written about before. I feel its intensity rising the more mainstream pole dancing becomes. With the recent release of Why I Dance (a film about pole dancing and female empowerment) this separation between pole dancers has become increasingly evident. Before I discuss this video and my thoughts, let’s review the two basic schools of thought….

Those Who Welcome Pole Dancing’s Connection to the Sex Industry 

“It’s pretty gross to appropriate something from sex workers & make it “legitimate” but hate on sex workers who use your “hobby” to make money.” -Cassandra Smith (Buzzfeed Commentator) 

“It’s funny coz strippers created pole dancing. If you have a problem with being associated with ~*us whores*~ then don’t fuckin’ do our sport.” -Shiloh Hartley (Buzzfeed Commentator) 

The first group is made up of those who support strippers and sex workers. They believe pole dancing’s roots can be traced back to strip clubs. They think it is hypocritical for people to borrow from a culture and then go on to criticize or belittle it. These supporters have usually been pole dancing for a long time and practice various forms of pole dancing. They do not shy away from wearing heels or dancing sexually though. There are many in the community who have been at some point (or maybe still are) strippers. This group recognizes and supports that. They do not see this as a fact to be shunned, and many are proud or at the very least indifferent on the subject. They support open sexuality. They hold a strong distain for those who empathically preach, “I pole dance…. but I’m NOT a stripper.” They believe this mentality is damaging to pole dancing’s reputation in the long run. 
Those Who Seek to Distance Pole Dancing’s Connection to the Sex Industry 
“how is pole dancing for fun appropriating? That is like saying it was STARTED by sex workers, which shows a lack of understanding. Sex workers took pole dancing and turned it into a form of sex work – it never started that way, it traditionally started in Asian regions as a form of athletics and dance.” -Jaz Barnard (Buzzfeed Commentator) 

The second group consists of those who believe pole dancing was not created by strippers. They use pole’s historical roots in Chinese Pole and Mallakhamba as evidence of this. If they do recognize pole dancing’s history in strip clubs, they strongly seek to remove its link from the kind we practice today. This group consists of a range of people from those who are new to pole to those pushing for pole to be accepted into the Olympics. They pole purely for artistic or athletic reasons. They may even be supportive of children pole dancing. If they do pole dance in any sexy way, they are sure to have friends and family recognize they are not stripping. They want to separate themselves from the stigma society places on pole dancing and stripping as a whole. Some may not perform pole dancing in any sexualized manner whatsoever and it angers them to be labeled something they are not.

Now back to the video that resurfaced this debate for me…. I don’t believe this video was an attack on strippers and/or sex workers. I don’t believe its creators meant harm. I don’t think they were claiming superiority for having cleaned up something so smutty that could be associated with the likes of the sex industry. I think Producer Julie Roth’s polarizing comment came when she addressed the topic of stripping to Buzzfeed. “Pole dancing is so often associated with stripping, which isn’t always true. And this is an empowering movement for so many people.” 
I understand why Ms. Roth would want to clarify this in a statement for the general public. It is true that pole is not always associated with stripping. It can be completely removed from it, even if it has been used as a form of sexual titillation in the past. Children can pole dance with complete and utter innocence. The most straight-laced person can engage in recreational pole dancing where they are not removing any clothing whatsoever. I also understand why those who support strippers would be upset by Ms. Roth’s comment. It does seem a bit condescending taken out of context. However, it is true that those outside the community need to constantly be reminded that pole dancing is not always directly connected to the sex industry and not all pole dancers are strippers. They cannot wrap their heads around the concept of a pole dancer who performs and/or works in the pole industry with no ties to the sex industry but still supports those who are affiliated with it. There are so many layers to this that those outside will just never understand in a media segment loaded with succinct soundbites. 
I believe pole dancing does have ancient roots in China and India. I believe the form we perform today (on stainless steel/chrome poles) was born out of strip clubs though. The sport/art form now borrows from various forms of fitness, dance and aerial arts (including Chinese Pole and Mallakhamba). But I believe that average women visiting strip clubs back in the 90s inquiring strippers about lessons are the reason we have pole in the form it exists today.   
I support strippers and sex workers. I support their safety rights and freedom to pursue whatever line of work they enjoy, excel at, and make a healthy living doing. As many strippers have rightly proclaimed, there are so many consumers of the sex industry but not many open supporters. It is a shameful industry to be part of in society’s eyes whether through employment or enjoyment. With that being said, I don’t think it is the most desirable job prospect. I don’t think it’s right for everyone all the time. There are many conditions that lead women (and men) to unsafe working conditions, abuse, addiction and sex trafficking. This is not true of all people working in this industry but there is a danger and vulnerability that cannot be ignored. 
I think pole dancing is inherently sensual. That is not to say it is always sexual. To me, sensuality is defined as the experience of being alive. It is a specific type of awareness and presence in your own body. It is feeling your limbs wrap about the pole. It is engaging the proper muscles and aligning your limbs to execute moves. It is being in touch with your breath. It is expressing emotion through movement. It is feeling connected to your body. It is accepting your body’s limitations and celebrating its achievements. 
I believe expression of sexuality can come only after you have truly experienced this type of sensuality. I believe that any human should be allowed freedom of this type of expression. Any race, sexual orientation, gender, or culture. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a waitress, a doctor, or a stripper. You should be able to express your sexuality and not be vilified for it. 
Pole can be nasty. It can be athletic. It can be contemporary. It can be whatever you want it to be. I think the majority of people who pole dance for a length of time begin to recognize and respect this. Even if at some point in time they haven’t always understood. It’s a truth they come to learn through experience. 
When I first started pole dancing, I was apprehensive. It’s a funny thing that I still witness as an instructor of beginner classes to this day. There are people who come in with preconceived notions and judgements. They are there to learn, but at the same time they are dismissive. Yet they are still there… I can identify with this skepticism. Their presence in the room is at the very least curiosity. I was this type of student on my first day. I was the type of person to never be caught dead visiting a strip club. I thought… Oh I can do this, it will be easy. 
Pole Dancers Post Jam Session at Body & Pole in NYC
Well guess what? It wasn’t. My journey first led me to realizing that pole takes coordination, flexibility, strength and a whole lot of determination. I decided I wanted to learn and get better at it. I made friends in the community, some were “average” women like me, and some were sex workers, porn stars and strippers. Some were cool, some were assholes and some are my closest friends to this day. It took me a long time to realize one very important fact…. I do not have all the answers to all the questions. And sometimes I need to close my mouth and open my mind. Of the many gifts pole has given me, this may be the greatest. The ability to continuously seek knowledge and reach out to those I do not understand. 
It is true that the longer you pole dance the less you care about what people think about what you do. I understand that its mysterious nature can be enticing to a segment of the population and what may initially drive some to try a class. I think pole dancing’s longterm success will come in the form of its mainstream acceptance though. This will broaden its reach for both genders and all ages. This will open professional pole dancers up to major endorsement deals and increase overall traffic in studios across the world. For those that fear pole may lose its edge if this happens, don’t worry. I think pole dancing will always hold some kind of forbidden allure. There will always be a place for naughty, nasty and raunchy pole dancing. 

Remember that nothing will strengthen your opposition’s rage more than berating them. No matter what side you’re on, I challenge you to reach out to someone whose views differ from your own. Reach out not with answers to enlighten them, but an ear to listen. With time, we can begin to understand one another and why we hold certain beliefs. We may over time discover truths we had previously denied or remained ignorant to. If we are both receptive this bridge will strengthen and our community as a whole will with it.



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