The pole thing
I would like to open a discussion about pole dancing, in light of the article in the current issue. Pole dancing may be a cliched, trite and easy imagining with which to simplisticly infuse post and radical feminist dichotomies, but as a feminist leaning towards the radical, and wary of the significance and acceptance of porn and prostitution in mass culture, I am incredibly uneasy with the the attitude that pole dancing is simply fun exercise and bears no relation to sex work.
Of course it does. If it didn’t it would be called Polercise (TM) or Polefit or something boring and offputting like the rest of the exercise programs (and let’s not forget you can also take striptease and exotic dancing classes). Such a name would go some way towards disassociating the exercise nature of the class from its stripper function (but getting rid of the ‘pole’ part would be better!). When such a name is used, such as Studio Verve’s PoleFit® class, the fact that it is advertised as something to do for a Hen’s Night reinfuses the classes with eroticism. Pole dancing is being marketed to women as a way of exploring their inner stripper. Polefit sounds boring: it is about strength and flexibility. Pole dancing is about performing, with a pole, to be seen.
Check out, for example, http://www.suzieqpolestudio.com.au/ . This site features a lady’s ass barely covered in sequins. Teacher SuzieQ is ‘Miss Pole Dance NSW, Runner Up Miss Pole Dance Australia, Miss Nude Australia 2008, Runner up Penthouse Pet of the year and one of Australia’s most respected pole dancers’. This is a pretty clear indication that pole dancing and Penthouse porn cannot be so easily separated. SuzieQ’s dancers perform in nightclubs. One class is advertised ‘Want to get your “Sexy Back”? Learn the art of Lap Dance and Striptease from our professional dancers that work in the industry.’ So the appeal of this studio is that you won’t be taught excercise, but how to professionally striptease by sex-industry workers.
Some studios do try to gloss over the sex part. One such is Pole Princess, the website of which uses terms such as ‘conditioning specialists’, ‘challenging strength training’ and ‘health of our students bodies’. If one is interested simply in conditioning, strength training and healthy bodies, then why do pole dance? If one is interested in strength training that involves performance and fun, why not do circus (which has many more cool things to become airborne with than just a pole) or gymnastics? If you are interested in dancing, there’s swing, salsa, tango, rock and roll, ceroc, the list goes on. Surely a woman chooses pole dancing precisely because of its association with an overt sexuality.
A look at some articles on pole dancing supports this. One lesbian writes in Curve that, amongst other reasons, she was attracted to pole dancing because she’s a ‘lifelong perv’ and that, ‘Being told how hot I am for a full hour is definitely cool’. Ebony magazine quotes one woman as saying, “I know that pole dancing has built up my upper body…. Manipulating your own weight is a challenge, and I think it’s something all women should master. Also, you get to bring something home for your husband. It’s a workout that has benefits for the both of you’. Another is paraphgrased as saying that ”getting women past the stigma of pole dancing is a challenge. But once they overcome it, look out. They exude sexuality and sensuality. Returning students become spirited and confident inside the studio, at home and at work.’ “Women love to feel sexy,” this same woman says. “It’s also powerful knowing that you can literally hold your weight.”
This kind of talk belies fitness instructor Catherine John’s belief that time will disassociate exercise pole dancing from strip club pole dancing. She is quoted in the Express and Echo as saying, “A pole is a tool, like a hand weight or a stability ball…We use the same tool, but what we do is nothing like strippers’ dancing. I have nothing against strippers but what they do is much easier. Their job is to entertain men and we are trying to entertain ourselves.” (Though how hoisting one’s own body weight up is ever entertaining, whether its for a chin-up or a pole trick is beyond me – no wonder one must also need to feel sensuous and sexy…).
Some classes are advertised as providing an opportunity for women to get comfortable with their sexuality. For some studios, the empowering sexuality of pole dancing is meant for the purely narcissistic gaze, while for others it is for the benefitt of one’s chosen man. Now, while I would be loathe to oppose encouraging your sexuality to sit comfortably on you, I’m with Airel Levy and her ilk in thinking that your sexuality is probably better off not tied up with public peformances of nudity for paying men. If you are pole dancing for your partner, that is after all the culturally-charged fantasy that you are offering him – his own personal stripper.
While you may perceive the sexy dancing you do for your partner to be a gift of self-expression, it is likely that he sees it as all about him. Several strippers interviewed by Andreas Philaretou individually mentiontioned that their boyfriends didn’t like them stripping. One presumes that, for these boyfriends, even though the stripping is merely a job, requiring no positive emotional investment in–indeed quite negative views of–the men being danced for, eroticism is not understood as a form of self-expression or self-appreciation and is only barely tolerated as economic empowerment because it is mostly seen as the validation of ownership of a female body, however momentarily, by a male. As boyfriends already claim these women’s bodies they do not want said bodies to be offered to other men.
I would be lying if I said I never did a nude dance for a male partner who asked me for one, and I’d be pretty prudish if I insisted that any sensual activity with any reminiscence to sex work should be strictly off bounds. But I do think one must recognise that in the current climate of a culture highly sexualised by the media, the ongoing prevalence of sexual abuse against women and children, the rip-roaring trade in hard-core porn, and the violence of globalised sex trafficing, to participate in an activity that bases women’s sense of strength, power, fun and value in her sexuality is problematic. This is historically where any sense of women’s power, fun and value has always been located–and then turned into her weakness, her sin, her immorality and subhumanity.
Perhaps the lesson to take from the proliferation of pole dancing classes is that exercise with no other element of dance or creativity is deadeningly boring and shouldn’t be done. I suggest if you are interested in developing strength in a fun setting that sees you climbing poles and swinging through the air, circus–with its emphasis on costume and clowning, but also with an unfortunate element of eroticism–is a better option. The aerials in swing dancing are a good option too and in swing you get to fling yourself around an actual man who is dancing with you rather than gazing at you gyrating around a pole. However you choose to express yourself sexually, to get fit, have fun or feel empowered, remember always to question your motives (Is my sense of self-worth based on being though sexy by someone?) and remind yourself that the personal is political (What I do has an enculturated meaning that impacts upon other women and society as a whole that I cannot necessarily control, despite whatever value my activity has for me.) Once you’ve acknowledged the structural rather than purely individual complexity of your decision, you can do what you think is best, whether that be going to that pole dancing class or becoming an anti-prostitution activist.
Here is some further reading. I’d like to offer more, but there doesn’t seem to be that much that is freely available on the internet (as opposed to having to be subscribed to online journal content or reading books).