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There has been a lot of discussions about pole dancing and it’s strip club origins lately, actually lets be honest, there has ALWAYS been a lot of discussions on this topic (perhaps nauseatingly so). It is the go to angle for journalists covering pole dance competitions and events, and the first questions we have to answer from family and friends when falling in love with pole. I’ve been in the world of pole dance for about 3 years now and my general response its just a *sigh*, cause come on people there is so much more to talk about and really who cares?! So this is not a post on what non-polers think about pole’s stripper ways or pole dance vs. pole fitness or even the power of discovering your sexy self (though that is important), but how it’s stripper past put pole in the unique position as a form of dance, fitness, and art that at it’s best is a magical community-build, body loving, and empowering creation to be share by all.

I was recently interviewed for Beutiful magazine, an online magazine covering body image and social justice, and the last question I was asked was this:

Culturally, pole dancing is sometimes seen as degrading or “something that strippers do.” How can women learn to appreciate this form of movement as a more positive and expressive activity that empowers them?
I am so thankful that pole dance comes from a non-mainstream source. However you might feel about strip clubs it is because of its’ origins that pole dance has been able to live in this grey area of art, fitness, self-expression, and sensuality. It can take all the best parts from each of these areas and discard the rules that have left a lot of people out in the past. All bodies are welcomed in pole and because of its “adult” history most pole dancers don’t get their start till their late 20s with most in their 30s & 40s. Pole dance isn’t just about fitness or dance, but it is a medium that actively encourages self-expression and self-love… ” (you can continue reading here)

Yes, I am quoting myself, I know that puts my pretension level at 11, but in the way that only writing things out helps you discover your true thoughts, answering this question made clear something I always felt, but had a hard time expressing – Pole dance is magical because of its roots, not in spite of them.

Almost all forms of fitness and dance develop out of an organic process of experimentation, collaboration, and growth, but unlike ballet or soccer almost all of pole’s initial development was behind closed club doors. Western pole dance (i.e. not Chinese pole or Mallakhamb) was created by  performers experimenting and teaching each other their own signature pole creations based on their personal skill set and dance/fitness background (or lack thereof). These are essentially amateur performers and dancers almost unknowingly coming together to creating a new form of movement. It’s development wasn’t only communal, but intimate – something shared between women, that dealt closely with their sensual bodies, and not bound by any prescribed rules.  It’s deeply connected with the audience and what worked carried on, what didn’t stopped at the source.

Felix Cane at California Pole Dance Championship

Whereas ballet’s growth in popularity caused the noble-only dance to become more structured with specific rules and training that meant only certain people could participate, pole did not follow the usual pattern of growth. When pole did step out of the shadows it grew quickly and widespread amongst non-athletes and non-dancers. Of course athletes and dancers joined in the fun, but pole was marketed to the everyday woman looking to spice up their workouts. Pole escaped the fate of exclusivity that other forms of dance and fitness fall into that leave a lot of would be participates out of the fun.

There are key areas of pole that make that possible:

First, I think its important to acknowledge the power of our pole stars being older than the average fitness celebrity. This is a gymnastic form of dance that like most other gymnastics could easily be taken over by children, but because of the “adult” history of pole it has only been recently that the under 18 crowd could get in on the action. While I’m sure there might be some pissed off tweens upset they couldn’t get on pole at an earlier age, I think its kinda awesome pole got to develop in a way that focuses on the mature dancer. Not only are we not counting down the days until we have to give it up, but we are looking at pole dancers in their 50s, 60s, + as inspiration. While there are amazingly talented kids out there and I am excited to see what they bring to pole, it is beautiful to see mature men and women deeply feeling and sharing their stories through pole dance.

Second, and this is close to my heart, pole’s informal upbringing allowed many more types of bodies to participate. Recently I was searching “plus-size ballroom dancers” on Youtube in order to gain some inspiration for an upcoming routine and about 90% of the videos were actually plus-size pole dancers. How awesome (if unhelpful) is that? Pole’s origins within the strip club might make you assume it would be all perfect taunt bodies and spray tans, but if you ever stepped in a club or two you know their is quite a variety of bodies on display. Pole dancers aren’t bound by the traditional standards of what an athlete looks like because it does not come for a traditional source that sought to create a singular, ideal body type. Since pole was marketed to the average woman and all the shapes and sizes she comes in there is an inherent inclusive nature to pole dance not found in almost any other arena. Coupled with the sensual nature of it’s beginning, pole dance celebrates the body without shame and stigma.

We have also recently seen a rise in male pole dancers. More and more studios are opening their doors to men and they are bringing their own set of strengths and skills to the table, developing the art form even more.  I do not know the race breakdown of pole, but I would like to think with the success of groups like Black Girls Pole and the diversity of popular pole performers and competitors that all feel welcomed and celebrated within the community.

Nicole “The Pole” Williams at California Pole Dance Championship

Finally while the strip club brings it’s own distinctive style of movement to pole it’s clear connection to gymnastics, circus, aerial arts, and Eastern pole practices means that it expanded exponentially to include principles from each form. And as athletes and dancers of other disciplines take up pole they infuse it with the essence of their past skill set, bringing new tricks, moves, and techniques to it’s every expanding library of movement. Unlike many other forms of dance or fitness, pole embraces new interpretations allowing participates to chart their own course. Pole at it’s core is about self-expression because that DIY spirit has been ingrained from the beginning.

My wish for the future of pole is that it continues to hold on to it’s stripper attitude. That it embraces more people of all different walks of life. That it incorporates more styles of movement without losing the club style that started it. That one part of pole doesn’t grow so large as to overshadow or look down on the other. That it stays an intimate expression between teacher and student, poler and audience. Pole dance is growing and expanding faster than ever right now, it is taking on some of the rules and structures of other fitness and dance arenas, but it should fight fiercely, in the way only pole dancers can, to keep it’s inclusive, focus on self-expression at it’s heart.

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