Pole dance: turning exploitative into empowering

It was during last year’s fresher’s fair that I was first introduced to pole fitness, before this I had a very limited understanding of what the sport involved. I imagined it was a harder version of stripping and concluded that it was something only confident, sexy individuals could do. I could not have been more wrong.

After giggling with my best friend about how ridiculous I would look flinging myself around a pole I decided to attend a taster session. Worst case scenario I can send in some funny videos to You’ve Been Framed; best case I find a new hobby. I went in expecting to feel out of place and embarrassed but in reality, there was no time for embarrassment. Do you remember break time in primary school? A time when you would excitedly run around with your friends, fearlessly throwing yourself at the climbing frame, unafraid of the pain falling could bring. Imagine that minus the juice boxes.

In a room filled with men and women alike, we start class with a 30-minute warm up, a mixture of cardio, yoga, flexibility training and strength conditioning, the latter involving: pole climbs, sit-ups, and crunches. You are probably asking yourself how can crunches be used in strength conditioning? Well, you grab onto the pole and then hoist yourself up, simultaneously holding your body weight and lifting your legs to your chest. This may sound all nice and easy written down but in actuality, it is quite hard – try lifting your body weight with these noodles. Once you can no longer feel your arms, we move onto the fun stuff: spins, sits, holds, and eventually routines. Needless to say, after my first session I was hooked (pun obviously intended).

Despite loving the sport, I was still slightly embarrassed when telling people about it; after all, the sport does have oppressive and sexist roots. Megan Murphy from The Feminist Current even goes as far as to claim that ‘“choosing” to participate in any given activity doesn’t necessarily make that activity feminist’, arguing that those who find empowerment in pole dance have simply internalised pornographic imagery and now see it as an accepted norm. Faced with this kind of negativity how could I not feel self-conscious? How could I not feel like a fake feminist?

What people like Megan Murphy do not understand is that pole dance really does not have to be sexy – sure, it can be, but it can also be beautiful and athletic. Some of the best routines I have seen have involved advanced gymnastics and contemporary dance: opposed to merely grinding against a pole. (Although if that is what you want to do, do it!) Also, she assumes that we are so oppressed we are unaware of our oppression. To her, anyone who chooses to pole dance is a victim of the patriarchy. If this were true, we would have a seating area for bystanders to come and objectify; perhaps we would even hand out free tissues upon entry. In her eyes, we dance for everyone but ourselves.

Unfortunately the is quite common as pole dance has a history of being associated with gentlemen’s clubs. Often, when you tell someone about your own experiences they query with disgust: ‘do you work as a stripper?’. People are unaware that a lot of modern pole dance takes place in fitness studios or competition halls, instead of dingy clubs. In fact, most universities now run their own pole fitness societies because they recognise the sport as a fantastic way of melding exercise and empowerment. I see it as merely a combination of dance and gymnastics.

Many people forget that ballet has a similar exploitative history: young “underdressed” girls dancing and often being used for sexual gratification. Some opera houses even had separate stages for male patrons to watch and eventually proposition the dances. Nowadays, however, ballet is seen as a highly respected art form. If ballet can undergo this kind of transformation pole dance should also be able to.

Pole dance has improved both my physical and emotional state. It has taught me that sex appeal is not vital for happiness and has enhanced my self-confidence ten-fold. I have met some incredible people, people I probably would never have spoken to if I had not taken that first class, and the best part is: I did not have to step foot into a gym all year.

Pole dance is much more than its exotic origins, do not judge what you do not know.

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