A few months back, a friend of mine competed in the Pole Theatre Ireland competition. It was her first time ever performing in public, and she blew us all away. Pole dancing has been a big part of her life for the past number of years, and from dancing she has found a great source of strength and confidence. It's been wonderful to watch her develop and build her skills over the years, so I've asked her to share her story here on the Sex Siopa blog.
"Chris Rock once famously said “As a father, you have only one job to do: Keep your daughter off the pole!...If she's dancin' on a pole, you fucked up!”
Let’s leave aside the argument that men don't own their daughters for another day (ahem, smash the patriarchy, ahem). I've been a pole dancer since I first discovered classes in 2010 when I lived in Sheffield. Until then, the only knowledge I had of pole dancing was from seeing strippers body-rolling a pole in a strip club. That's a common theme in the reactions I receive when I tell people I pole dance: that it's the territory of strippers – and that's why attitudes like Chris Rock's have prevailed even in liberal, educated and often feminist company.
In reality, a pole dancing class goes something like this: I arrive at the studio, pull out a yoga mat and begin to warm up. As a group, we work on warming up as many muscle groups as possible and activating and mobilising each joint so as not to injure them while exercising. That takes about fifteen minutes, and then we work on conditioning. Conditioning is sort of like teaching your body to remember particular movements and working particular muscles so that they become strong enough to take unusual amounts of weight and lift you into specific positions. One example of this involves lying on our backs on the floor and holding onto a pole above our heads, and curling up through our spines using only our abdominal muscles so that we're inverted around the pole. Each exercise like this is repeated ten times in order to condition our bodies into feeling normal in those positions.
We then move on to either tricks or choreography, depending on the class. There's a huge amount more to pole dance than simply gyrating or body-rolling, though these are important parts of some types of routines too! The part that got me really hooked on pole was learning inverted tricks – that is, going upside down and doing shit that impresses the hell out of people. That was when I realised what an acrobatic sport it is.
In the early stages, when a pole dancer is just building up her (or his) strength, climbing the pole is one of the first things taught. For this, wearing shorts is absolutely essential, as your skin is used to grip the chrome pole. As a dancer becomes stronger and more agile, they learn to invert and do basic upside-down tricks, which go on to develop into more advanced ones as they progress. Learning new tricks usually results in bruises and burns – it's not sexy, but it's well worth it! Toward the end of each class, we return to our yoga mats and deeply stretch out the muscles we've worked, as well as working on our general flexibility.
I'm 30 years old, and I can honestly say that I'm in better physical condition than when I was 20. Pole has made me strong, developed my muscles and improved my flexibility to the point where I'm no longer dreaming of getting my splits – I already have them on one side and am working on the other, as well as hoping to have middle splits by the end of the year! As a result of training numerous times a week, I eat better than I used to because I crave nutrition and lots of healthy, filling food. Long gone is the time when my days off were spent hung over on my sofa with a pizza!
My mental health has also benefited enormously from pole, in the sense that it's an extremely strenuous workout and all that exercise can only help stimulate the right hormones in the brain to induce happiness, while also reducing anxiety (something I've always suffered badly with). In addition to this, my body confidence is through the roof. Since skin is used for grip, pole training outfits usually consist of just a good, sturdy sports bra and a pair of short shorts. Having my body on display on a regular basis has helped to dismantle all of the hang-ups that we're taught by advertising and the beauty industry.
Within the pole community, there are a number of different camps with different styles of pole dance along with different ideas about what pole should be. The most traditional style is classique pole, which nods to the origins of pole dancing in strip clubs and aims to be sexy and sensual. There are some people who want to move away from the association with strip clubs and have coined terms such as “pole fitness” and “pole sport” - the style that follows this is usually heavy on acrobatics and dazzling tricks, and less concerned with dance and flowing movement. Pole art on the other hand, aims to combine pole with other forms of dance to create an engaging performance that tells a story. All styles of pole are amazing to watch, and there are stunning performers in each camp.
I think it's important to acknowledge the validity of all styles, and not to deny that our origins are in the strip club, and while it's no longer necessary for pole dance to be sexy, it's important that performers have the option to be, should they want to. For a truly wicked, incredible classique pole performer I recommend looking up our home-grown Arlene Caffrey (my own teacher and my pole idol!) For pole sport, watch world doubles champions Lisette Krol and Terri Fierce perform together - they will blow you away with their sheer strength. The UK's Bendy Kate creates beautiful pole art performances.
My all-time high point in my pole dancing life was performing at Pole Theatre Ireland, a national competition, in April this year. I performed in the classique category. Four months of choreography and intense training went into creating and perfecting my act, and I had a costume made specially. One of the best parts was the team spirit created by the five other ladies also competing from Arlene's Dublin and Galway studios – we supported each other, trained together and cheered each other on endlessly. I was terrified walking onto the stage that night, but within seconds of the beginning of my act the crowd was screaming for me, and for those three minutes I had the time of my life as I showed off what I had created, feeling strong and sexy.
I cannot recommend pole dancing enough to anyone who has ever considered trying it. Better still, for anyone who worries that its association with the strip club is demeaning or degrading, I urge you to give it a chance. The strength, confidence and the mental and physical health that you will gain from it will surely convince you otherwise.
And my dad was proud when I told him how well my act went at Pole Theatre Ireland. Take that, Chris Rock."
You can follow Aileen on Twitter @VanillaRooibos