This week, I sat down with my sister Sam to talk about her favorite hobby-pole dancing. We covered it all from how she fell in love with the sport to how you can help destigmatize sex work. After reading the article, be sure to find Sam’s pole videos on Instagram @upsidedown_sam. Let’s jump in!
How did you discover pole dancing?
I discovered pole dance through a friend from college, Christy. Christy and I met in freshman statistics and lost touch for a while, and they incidentally ended up moving into an off-campus apartment with another good friend a few years later. I was fascinated by Christy’s pole videos on Instagram, and they started teaching me a little when I went to see my friend. I started taking classes soon after at the same studio Christy started at, Dollhouse Pole Dance.
How did you know pole was something you were interested in sticking with?
I fell in love immediately, and I don’t think that’s an uncommon thing to hear about in pole. The first class I took was a 4-week long intro series. There were four moves we needed to land to test out of Intro to Pole: jasmine, no-handed sit, attitude spin, and climbing the pole. After the first session, I could do the jasmine and attitude spin, but the no-handed sit and climb were still elusive, so I took the intro a second time to nail those moves. Of course, once I tested out of the intro and into Pole Fundamentals 1 (P1 or PF1), I couldn’t possibly stop. One thing I love about pole is every move is built off these fundamentals. Almost every class I go to I succeed at something I’ve never succeeded at before, and I leave with a new project or goal trick to keep working on. Even on off days, I feel successful and accomplished. Even if one skill is hitting a little bit of a plateau, I have hundreds of skills I am constantly improving in.
What has pole dancing done for your body image?
Body image has always been a big source of confusion for me. Like pretty much everyone ever, I’ve never been satisfied with my body, but I had a lot of trouble talking about exactly why. I think of the scene in Mean Girls where Regina says she has man shoulders, Gretchen says her pores are huge, Karen says her nail beds suck, and Cady says she has bad breath in the morning. I didn’t have the same body insecurities as others, so I never knew how to address those insecurities. I did know that as a five-foot-tall femme-presenting person, I was constantly physically underestimated. I was the kid who would try to lift a table if a teacher asked for two strong boys to volunteer to move chairs. Pole has taught me that it’s not about what my body looks like, it’s about what my body is capable of doing. No matter what you look like, when you’re hanging upside down by one leg you’re the biggest badass there is. There’s also a running joke in the pole community about how the size of our pole outfits slowly shrinks as time goes by. You need a lot of bare skin to pole because that is how you’re able to grip the metal, so it’s just straight-up easier when you’re wearing less. Not only do we become confident enough to show up to class in basically a string bikini, but you can just grip better when you have all your hip and thigh skin available.
What has pole dancing taught you about physical fitness/ How has it helped you achieve your fitness goals?
I grew up with parents who are OBSESSED with exercise and physical fitness. From the time I was eleven, my parents started enforcing that I exercise every day. Honestly, that ruined my relationship with my mom for several years. I have clear memories of her waking me up in the middle of the night because she realized I didn’t work out that day, and at 11:30 pm I’d drag myself out of bed and down to the basement to run on the treadmill. I insisted that once I went off to college and they left me alone, I’d start exercising for myself. In my sophomore year of college, I started running, and I ran every day for 2 years until I realized I hated it. I spent some time trying out different things, like weight training, pilates, and biking, as well as sitting in my room doing an ungodly amount of sit-ups. The main constant was that I hated all of it. I understood that exercise made me feel better, but I didn’t enjoy a second of it. Pole was the first time I realized how FUN exercise could be. It didn’t feel like exercise, it felt like perfecting my craft. I could keep going for hours if it didn’t make me so tired. It’s also made me enjoy things like weight training and conditioning more because I know it strengthens me for the tricks I want to get. Maybe crunches are no fun, but when my inverts keep getting stronger they feel so worth it.
What has pole dancing taught you about sexuality/sensuality?
At my first pole class ever, my instructor said, “there is nothing inherently sexual about pole.” There are so many different pole styles. Some people like to do tricks up in the air and others like to dance low to and on the ground. Beyond that, you can do a “sexy” style pole routine, a lyrical or contemporary routine, a hip hop routine— the possibilities are endless. Dollhouse is a classic studio and offers a lot of “sexy pole” classes, and even for the other styles, it is not uncommon to see pole dancers in 6-9 inch heels. First of all, it is impossible not to feel sexy in 8-inch heels. There’s something about the way they lift your butt and make your legs move that can make anyone of any gender instantly look and feel sexier. At first, I definitely felt like a robot trying to look sexy, but that style of dance is a skill that can be taught and honed like any other.
What kind of person would you recommend pole dancing to?
I would recommend pole to literally anyone. Do you love working out and want to find a new way to challenge yourself? Pole. Do you hate working out and want to find a way to make exercise fun? Pole. Are you looking for a new hobby? A new community? A circle of friends? Pole. Want something to show off on Instagram? A fun conversation starter? Something built-in for two truths and a lie? Pole.
What has been the highlight of your pole dancing career so far?
It’s so hard just to think of one highlight, but one of my favorite pole memories was my first ever performance. Dollhouse puts on a showcase around Halloween every year (when there isn’t a pandemic) called Dolls Must Die. For my first performance, I didn’t feel confident enough to do a solo yet so I signed up for a “showghoul 101” workshop to create a group routine. We did Spell Block Tango, the Disney villain-themed parody of Cell Block Tango from Chicago, and I played Ursula. I loved theater and performance in high school, and it had been probably five years since I had last performed, and it was SO MUCH FUN. I was still a beginner– I was doing pretty basic tricks pretty close to the ground, and the crowd still went wild. During intermission, my performance group ran across the street outside in the cold and took pictures pole dancing on a street sign.
How has pole dancing brought you a new community?
Early on in my pole journey, when I had so far only taken intro classes, I decided to drop into an all-level tricks class. A girl I had never met before came right up to me and basically said “Hi! I don’t know you yet and I feel like I know everyone here! I’m Riley!” (And years later, I now say the same thing to others). You can be a beginner in a room full of advanced students, and all the advanced students will cheer for you when you get your first jasmine. Once, on a trip to San Francisco, I went to a pole studio I had never been to before in a brand new top I had just bought. I realized the top needed to be tied tighter, so I turned to the person next to me and asked if she could help me re-tie my top. She said, “Of course! We’re pole sisters now!” Pole is the most supportive, encouraging community I have ever been a part of. No matter where you are in your pole journey or in the world, the pole community is there for you. Before the pandemic, I was preparing for my second competition–my first big competition as part of a team. The thought that maybe next year I’ll be able to compete with 20 friends in our matching Team Dollhouse sweatshirts has kept me going this whole pandemic.
What other circus art/dance activities do you do besides pole dancing? How do they differ? What is your favorite?
There is a lot of overlap between pole and other aerial and circus arts. There are countless apparatuses, but some of the major ones are double panel silks, hammock, lyra (or hoop), trapeze, straps, and rope (or corde lisse). My aerial studio, Dragons Lair, has one of only two aerial merkabas in the world. As opposed to pole which is either installed on both the ceiling and floor or pressure mounted, other aerial apparatuses are hung from a single rig point on the ceiling. The two others I do are double panel silks and lyra. I started silks about a year and a half after pole and lyra a few months later. Mostly, I decided to start because there is overlap and I started seeing videos on Instagram from my pole friends and thought they looked like fun too. There is definitely an overlap in the skills needed for each, and also they are all unique in their own way (and painful in their own unique way). Because poles are sturdy, pole uses a lot of push/pull dynamics, which means you hold yourself in these shapes by both pulling on the pole and pushing against it with different body parts. Silks and lyra move more freely and therefore rely more on pulling motions than pushing. I was in a lyra class last week and I was able to land an advanced trick because it used more push dynamics than most lyra people who don’t pole are used to. While I love all my aerial apparatuses so much, and all my communities, my heart absolutely belongs to pole.
Have you ever experienced criticism for pole dancing being your hobby? How did you respond?
I get a variety of reactions when I tell people I pole, although it’s overwhelmingly positive. I get a lot of “that’s so impressive” or “you must be so strong,” and not much stigma at all. I will say, though, that I certainly do not talk to everyone about the fact that I pole. I am an assistant teacher, and while my coworkers know that I pole, my students and families do not. I am queer and do not date cis men, so I rarely talk about pole with cis men (and when I do, their reaction is often “that’s hot”).
How are pole dancing and sex work connected?
Pole dancing was invented by strippers. There were no pole gyms or studios until 1994 when the first pole studio was opened in LA by Fawnia (who has recently come under fire in a lot of the pole community for not requiring masks in her studio). My favorite story about “old pole” comes from one of the most famous classic pole dancers, Jenyne Butterfly, who I took a workshop with about 2 weeks before COVID hit. Jenyne’s friends dragged her to a strip club. Tricks were not very common yet, and when dancers figured out new tricks they were very protective about not letting other people learn how they’re done. At the strip club, Jenyne saw an early trickster, Pantera, dance. She was so fascinated by Pantera that she got a job waitressing at the club and bought herself a home pole and started teaching herself. Again, at the time there were no classes, no tutorials, and the dancers were extremely possessive over their tricks, so Jenyne mostly made up her own. When she told me the list of moves that she invented and discovered over the years, I was shocked at how many are now considered classic and fundamental tricks. Over the last 25 or so years, pole’s popularity has skyrocketed, in and out of the strip club. Many people I know from pole are strippers or sex workers and use their pole knowledge for their jobs, while others do it for sport or performance or fun. Really what it comes down to is this: Pole was invented by Black femme sex workers. When you pole, you are inherently appropriating their culture. It is so so important for pole dancers to learn, acknowledge, and understand this. For a while, many pole athletes would use the hashtag #notastripper to destigmatize pole and show how what they’re doing is different from sex work. This is harmful because it destigmatizes pole by distancing it from sex work, while what we really need is to destigmatize pole by destigmatizing sex work. Because I am a white person who regularly posts pole content on my social media, I am very intentional about the work I put in to support sex workers and acknowledge pole’s history.
Can you offer any insight as to how people can change their language and perceptions surrounding sex work?
If you want to support sex workers, here are some things you can do:
Educate yourself about FOSTA/SESTA and EARN IT: these are policies for updated internet regulations. FOSTA/SESTA passed a few years ago (remember when Tumblr got rid of porn and craigslist got rid of personals?) and the EARN IT act went into effect a few months ago. Both of these policies have made it increasingly difficult for sex workers to make their living, particularly in the pandemic when the safest way to do sex work is virtual. Many of these policies claim to be anti-trafficking, but in actuality do very little to stop trafficking and instead make it much harder for sex workers to advertise and find customers.
Update your language: Use terms like sex worker over terms like wh*re, h* (which also should not be used by non-Black people at all), h**ker, and pr*stitute. Sex workers who provide sex (as opposed to, for example, strippers or someone with an Only Fans) are full-service sex workers or FSSW.
Pay for your porn! Damn, this one is SO HARD when there’s so much free porn out there. Whether you get a subscription or membership to a high-quality site or subscribe to a few OnlyFans accounts, the best way to support sex workers is to, well, buy sex work!
Overall, be on the lookout for anti-SW stigma and sentiments. Acknowledge it when you see it on TV and in movies. Call people out for it. Sex work is a job and an incredibly difficult and dangerous one at that. The reason sex work is rising is that our economy is failing its people, not because “women these days all wanna show their boobs online”. Sex work is the oldest profession, and anyone can do it. It is no wonder that in the midst of a pandemic that is keeping people home and causing economic strain for everyone but the very wealthy that more and more people have started to sell their nudes online. It’s 2021. Let’s normalize sex work and stop making tasteless jokes.
If you’re interested in trying out pole, you can find a local studio almost anywhere in the United States. Do a quick google search and try your hand at sexy pole flow, tricks, or anything that strikes your fancy. While you probably can’t join a new studio during the pandemic, many studios are also offering virtual classes (if you wanna set up a home pole) or you can prep for post-pandemic life by working on flexibility.