Many people have sent me the “why I dance” video. In this seven-minute short, women of various ages, races, and body shapes dance sensually around a studio, with some of them eventually ending up on a pole.
Obviously, knowing me, the video rubbed me the wrong way.
Part of it was because I automatically roll my eyes at anything that smacks of inspiration porn. Like, seriously. Can we call a moratorium on any video where women hold up whiteboards while smiling shyly but triumphantly at the camera?
Now, to be clear, it’s not the women in the film or their inner journeys that I’m criticizing. Dance can indeed be a powerful route towards self-esteem, empowerment, and embodiment. I’ve even written about it before.
What I am criticizing is the use of the pole.
Over the last decade, pole dance has become an increasingly mainstream sport / exercise / art form. There are classes at your local gym, international pole dance competitions, and even a petition to have pole included in the 2016 Olympics (following the failure of the petition to have it included in the 2012 Olympics).
However, in efforts to bring pole into the mainstream and to market it to an audience wider than that of the average gentleman’s club, there have been some very deliberate efforts to detach it from its history as a dance form used by strippers.
Instructors insist on calling their classes “pole fitness” classes. Some competitions forbid the inclusion of any kind of “sexual” moves or gestures in the choreography. The competition rules for the International Pole Sports Federation stress over and over that the costumes must be “athletic” and that no part of the costume may be “intentionally removed” during the performance – in fact, doing so can get you disqualified.
This is crappy. Who do they think developed pole dance? Who created the moves and style? And don’t even think of jumping in with “but Chinese pole!” or “but Indian pole!”. While some of the holds and moves in these gymnastics forms may resemble those in pole dance, that’s like me claiming that synchronized swimming is actually water polo because they both take place in a pool.
But there are a lot of people who seem to want to “destigmatize” pole dance; many of the articles I read for this post talked about changing the “stereotype” of pole dance. The thing is, it’s not a stereotype. It’s a history, a community, an art form with its roots in the strip club.
Separating your pole class from its stripping past (and present) effectively erases its history, as notoriously murky as that may be. And while many of the top pole dancers of the last decade or so come from a dance background, they are clearly inspired by a stripper aesthetic – an aesthetic that is integral to pole itself. To me, doing pole dance while denying its background begins to smack of appropriation.
This insistence by many schools on calling their classes pole fitness, not pole dance, and stressing its athletic aspects while pushing the sexual ones aside is crappy and hypocritical. Yes, pole is an incredible workout. However, there are about a bazillion other ways to get a great workout. You chose pole. There was something particular about it that drew you to this particular kind of dance. And that’s okay! While I get that some people are worried that participating in pole might be seen as self-objectifying (something I’ll address in a later post), trying to sanitize pole is not the answer.
See, if you try to distance yourself from the context of pole dance, you’re implying that there’s something shameful about what’s sexual. More importantly, you’re demeaning women who do strip or perform pole for a living. You’re basically saying “oh, but I’m a GOOD pole dancer, not like those dirty dirty STRIPPERS”.
That, my dears, is not cool.
Also, by doing so, you’re giving yourself permission to not think about the more serious issues involved with pole dancing and stripping, including exploitation, prostitution, and trafficking.
The “Why I Dance” video focuses very much on individual women’s empowerment and joy in their own bodies, which, again, I think are all excellent benefits of dancing. However, when they hold up signs proclaiming their titles and jobs, like teacher, writer, or psychologist, you’ll notice that none of these women list “stripper” or “exotic dancer” as a profession. And I wonder if this has to do with the fact that, for someone who does dance in clubs for a living, dance may not be empowering. It may not be a way to reclaim one’s sexuality. In fact, it may be the opposite.
Now, I’m going to tread lightly since this is something I have no direct experience with. I don’t want to claim that all strippers are exploited or prostituted, nor do I want to demonize sex work. However, it’s pretty well documented that abuse and exploitation happens (or is at least attempted) in this industry.
This, more than fears about sexual self-expression, is what we should be concerned about when we try to “clean up” the image of pole dance.
So when videos like “Why I Dance” (whose inception was actually rooted in the director’s own experiences with sexual violence) try to sanitize or destigmatize pole, or come at it from an angle of “nice girls pole too!”, they’re doing a serious disservice to the women who developed pole and influence its aesthetic, but also to those who dance for money.