Are we empowered by pole dance?: How today’s polers are turning feminism upside down

An Introduction to Pole

I have always proudly identified as a feminist. The daughter of a second-wave mom, I grew up scouring bookshelves full of Naomi Wolfe and Germaine Greer. By the time I hit university, questioning everyday encounters with both institutional and personal power through the lens of gender theory was second nature to me. So unsurprisingly, in 2005 I found my 18 year-old, UVic undergraduate self deep into a copy of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvanist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture[i]. This was my first introduction to pole dance as a recreational activity.

Among other cultural criticisms, Levy harshly judges pole dance as anti-feminist. She writes “spinning greasily around a pole … is more a parody of female sexual power than an expression of it. How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women?”[ii] YES, I thought, highlighting and underlining my copy of FCPs furiously. As a campus-postering Anti-Violence Project activist and women’s studies (as it was then called) student, I concluded that pole dancing in all its iterations quite clearly equaled the newest form of the Patriarchy’s muscle-flexing. 
 
 Today, I am a 31-year-old lawyer. I am also a pole dancer, competitor, fitness instructor, coach, and most recently competition judge. Over the past 14 years, my perspective on the pole industry has significantly shifted. Thousands of women globally are also rejecting the idea that pole dance is a tool of the patriarchy. They are nodding in collective agreement … pole dance is an empowering practice that continues to change our lives for the better.

Why did I change my mind? Mostly because I had no idea what pole dancing was while I was busy judging it. Both my awareness and my politics had shifted. Around the same time pole moved out of strip clubs and into fitness studios (thanks to the pioneer exotic dancers of the late 1990’s), “third wave” feminists emerged. These women argued their ability to choose was what mattered — the choice to be a housewife, or a stripper (or both) could be empowering as long as the individual woman retained control over her decisions. Curious, open-minded women started bringing all kinds of different skills and talents to pole studios — gymnastics, ballet, modern dance, theatre, acrobatics — and pole dance rapidly developed into the continually evolving, diverse practice that it is today. The rise in popularity brought a vague awareness for many that pole dance was a fitness-related hobby rather than as a sex work occupation. By the time I reached the end of law school, I had dropped enough of my judgment to try a class — and it was the opposite of all my expectations.

Despite general awareness that pole dance is a thing women do for fun and fitness, questions continue to arise from the population at large: is it really empowering? Is it learning to strip? Is it feminist? There is an undeniably strong stigma against pole dance and dancers themselves that continues to exist even in liberal-minded communities. As one example, in September 2016 the London Abused Women’s Centre withdrew from participation in a Take Back the Night march, an event aimed at ending violence against women and victim blaming, after finding out a pole fitness studio would be involved in the event. The LAWC’s program manager stated “we will not solve women’s oppression by dancing on a pole”, calling pole an anti-feminist practice that cannot be divorced from its exploitative history[iii]. I believe this position stems from the continual judgment placed on sex workers and strippers, and relatedly on female sexual expression. The reasons for the judgment and resulting stigma are extremely complex, and beyond the scope of this article. But because of it, pole dancers are required to constantly defend and justify why they do what they do. This is doubly frustrating given the fact that the people who criticize pole as anti-feminist clearly have no idea what it is that pole dancers do, and have not taken the time to interrogate it.

So how can pole dance, which traces its roots to the strip club context, an environment entirely controlled by and for men to exploit women with limited agency, have transformed into an activity now touted as an empowering feminist practice? Today, I am armed with six solid years of pole wisdom behind me to give an informed answer to the critics. In my opinion, the characteristics that make pole an empowering feminist practice in the contemporary context can be grouped into 3 broad categories: developing positive relationships with female bodies (in two ways: shedding body shame and re-framing women’s fitness), the radical and healing nature of sensual expression, and intersectional community development[iv].

But before I elaborate, I need to explain what today’s pole dancers do.

What DO polers do?

For those who don’t know, “polers” are people who take pole classes or practice pole at home for fun, fitness, performance, or competition. The reasons why and the ways in which today’s polers pole is critical to understanding why pole dance can be empowering. To attach a history of exploitation to today’s pole community without actually informing oneself about the realities of what pole dancers do is, frankly, dangerously ignorant. And focusing too heavily on what something was, rather than what something is, gets us nowhere. As a brief comparison, consider how ballet began as “commerce in dancers’ bodies”; 19th century Parisian ballet schools were a breeding ground for sexual exploitation of young, impoverished girls by wealthy male patrons[v]. Today, ballet is one of the most well respected art forms in the world.

So, what do polers do? First of all, polers are not strippers. Pole classes do not teach stripping, and pole studios are not centers for women to learn to strip. I want to make clear that in my view: a) stripping is a valid form of paid labour, b) strippers are deserving of and should command the same respect for their profession as anyone else who works for a living, and c) pole dancing outside of strip clubs is not any more or less valid than stripping — but pole dancing for fun and stripping are two entirely different things. Strip clubs have not historically been known as hubs for female empowerment; the reasons for this require a deep interrogation into the cultural misogyny woven into our societal fabric, and the scope of this article is much narrower than that. Here, I am focusing solely on modern pole dance as it has developed outside of strip clubs, which is an entirely different activity. However, it must be acknowledged that today’s polers are privileged to pole because of the pioneering work strippers have done to cultivate pole dance as a practice. And while many of today’s professional exotic dancers are working on changing strip club culture to a create a more empowering environment for women, that topic is not my focus here.

To explain today’s “pole dance practice”, let me start with the fact that dance is simply movement of a human body. When bodies move, they are capable of expressing the full gambit of human emotion including sensuality, anger, sadness, sexuality, vulnerability, despair, excitement, and joy. Pole dance is simply dance using a prop, a metal bar. There is nothing about moving around a pole that makes it inherently anti-feminist, vulgar, exploitative, or in any way less worthy than other forms of dance.

Today’s polers create any kind of expression they want, with the added athletic skills involved in lifting one’s body in the air while doing it. To facilitate this practice, pole classes typically follow the same structure as any other dance or fitness class: warm-up, conditioning exercises and cardio drills, technical skills and tricks, and a cool-down. Students are usually required to have bare feet as the curriculum is often gymnastic in nature. The more advanced classes start to branch into different specialized techniques, including lyrical (a more balletic style), contemporary, spinning pole, exotic (wearing heels), and many more. Performances can be comedic, dramatic, and political. I recently judged a competition in which a performer used the pole to explore themes of cultural appropriation, racism, and the hypocrisy of Canadian politics. The possibilities are endless.
 
 Female bodies, part 1: Shedding the Shame (and the clothes)

A huge part of what makes pole empowering and feminist is the shift away from societal judgment of female bodies, and towards acceptance and celebration of non-conforming bodies. The culture of pole classes plays a key role in shedding individual and systemic patterns of body shame, and in developing healthier relationships between women and their bodies.

Polers rely on their skin to grip or “stick” on the pole, so most pole outfits are pretty tiny. Women of all ages, shapes, sizes, races, abilities, and gender identities come together with bellies and legs exposed in pole classes; new students often worry about this exposure. Showing body parts women have learned to be self-conscious of, including cellulite on thighs, stretch-marks on stomachs, pregnancy, wrinkled skin, a non-conforming size or shape, or really a myriad of normal healthy things that exist as part of female bodies but do not conform to typical beauty standards, is uncomfortable at first. But this skin exposure challenges learned patterns of negative self-judgment and body shame, and also subverts expectations about what “exposed” female bodies should look like.

There are two important takeaways for polers once they start to get used to showing their skin. First, that female bodies of all kinds can exist in their “imperfections”, in a female-dominated space, without judgment. Through shared vulnerability, polers are communicating to one another “this is a safe space — my body is okay, your body is okay, all of our bodies are acceptable”. Second, polers learn that skin exposure enables super-human and gravity-defying tricks as the grip of their skin holds them up in the air. This rebuilds and reinforces positive relationships with bodies as women start to witness and acknowledge the amazing things their skin can do.

Female bodies, part 2: pole studios, the anti-gyms

Pole classes play a key role in re-framing the concept of women’s fitness. While I recognize that gyms can be a great place build physical confidence and strength, the typical gym can also create a very toxic atmosphere. Machines that count calories, classes for “blasting fat”, and ads for sculpting thighs/abs/arms before beach season? Perhaps valid. But there is a danger of cultivating emphasis on how bodies look rather than how they feel and perform. Women are particularly vulnerable in gym culture, as typical gyms encourage women to take up less physical space by losing weight and avoiding “bulky” muscles. In other words, women are encouraged to stay physically small. This can link to disordered eating patterns and body dysmorphia. Also, for some (me), gyms can be aggressively monotonous. There is really nothing to look forward to at the end of that treadmill.

Pole classes, by contrast, always focus on learning pole skills for the sake of learning pole skills. Instructors don’t care one iota what your body looks like or how they can help you change its appearance. They are interested in helping you achieve the newest pole trick and improving technique. I have never heard a pole instructor discuss weight loss targets or mention that a particular pole exercise is great for burning calories during class. For many women, the focus on skills is a healthy shift away from body critique and towards celebrating bodily successes.

A great thing about these skills is that the unintended side effect is functional fitness. In addition to core stabilization, increased flexibility, and joint mobility, the most noticeable change when learning new pole moves is an obvious increase in muscle development — especially in the upper body. Most women come to pole with absolutely zero upper-body strength; with consistent training, the novelty of upper body strength causes a significant shift in the typical poler’s psyche. What is ordinary for most men is a true novelty for most women. Suddenly being able to lift yourself in the air (and open jars by ourselves!) can’t help but translate to a feeling of super-humanness. Additionally, polers celebrate their muscle development and the fact that their bodies take up more physical space, not less, as they advance.

Challenging the patriarchy through sensual movement

The possible styles of pole dance are as limitless as the range of human physical expressions. However, the exotic pole style has attracted the most public attention and been the subject of the heaviest criticism. At a basic level, this stems from continual judgment on female sexual expression and sex workers, despite the fact that most women who practice exotic pole do not dance for men or for money.

Around 5 or 6 years ago, there was a huge push from polers to distance themselves from exotic dance and avoid societal judgment. Terms like “pole sport” and “pole fitness” were used to try and distinguish pole as a separate, and therefore legitimate, activity. And with the talent and creativity of women joining the pole community, pole definitely had developed into something decidedly un-sexy and entirely different from what was being performed in strip clubs. In fact, the majority of polers never don a pair of heels for the first few years (myself included) and are only interested in the fitness or dance aspects of pole. In recent years however, some polers have started to acknowledge the more sensual styles can be uniquely feminist.

Societal rules for how and when women behave in a sensual or sexual manner have historically been and continue to be oppressive. When women decide to move or expose their bodies outside the boundaries of what is typically expected, or wear clothing that might otherwise appear “unladylike”, on their own terms, this can become a radical act in and of itself. Pole dancers who practice exotic dance are rejecting these ideas about acceptable behavior by asserting their sexuality and their bodies, unapologetically and without shame. They are demanding that they be accepted as both sexual beings, and “whole” people with personal and professional lives. The practice of exotic dance demands that the two should not and cannot be divided.

Exotic polers challenge the traditional power dynamic that existed when women danced in exchange for cash according to male fantasies and beauty standards. Performing for oneself or in the company of other women, without consideration or thought of how a man might be impacted by the performance, is power subversion. When women practice exotic outside of the male gaze, they are reclaiming ownership of their sexual expression. And when they perform publically or share exotic videos on social media, they are often making a statement about how and when they can share their bodies and reminding the viewer they are in control of this decision. The viewers are not in a position to control or exercise any influence over these performers’ sexuality — which is atypical of historical relationships between exotic dancers and their audiences, and between men and women generally. All of this has the potential to cause a cultural shift by re-conceptualizing power in gendered relationships.

Students of exotic dance have also touted the style as a vehicle to restore connectedness with their sensuality. The typical techniques, including hip movements, spinal articulation, and slow sensual dancing (with no intention of performing for men), provide an opportunity for women of all ages to re-connect with their hips, a reproductive and sexual energy center. Wearing heels has the added benefit of standing tall like an Amazon in the company of other Amazonian women — all while performing superhuman feats. These classes typically also encourage women to focus on what feels good rather than what looks good; focusing on your own sensuality in class is a powerful form of self-love advocacy and encourages students to create space for other women to do the same.

While the history of sensual pole dance may have been exploitative, the new context in which women are often exploring this movement is not objectifying; rather, it is a form of advocacy for positive self-expression, exploration, and acceptance of feminine sexual power.

Intersectional communities

When you ask pole dancers to name their favourite thing about pole, the answer invariably includes the community. Since pole dance started as a fringe activity, most studios encourage a culture of acceptance, including those who occupy alternative body spaces and gender identities. Women are constantly high-fiving one another in pole studios, spotting each other, collaborating on choreography, celebrating one another’s milestone successes, and sharing information and tips across the globe through social media. The community is global, as pole dancers are instantly accepted into new “home base” studios while travelling.

Pole is truly an intersectional and highly inclusive activity. Women of all genders, cultures, ages, races, identities and abilities, can generally find it accessible. The International Pole Sport Federation has recently added a para-pole category to their World Pole Sport Competitions, including categories for impaired muscle power, limb deficiency and vision impairment. The Canadian Pole Fitness Association and Pole Sport Organization competitions both include “Masters” Categories, which are specifically targeted for 40+ and 50+ participants. Many of today’s pole leaders and stars did not begin poling until much later in life, and some are continuing their practice into their 70’s. Since women are typically expected to slow down rather than ramp up their physical training and sensual expression once they pass their sexual reproductive years, the prominence of older women within the pole community is a very subversive thing.

The global pole community can be found in almost all corners of the developed world. There are economic barriers to complete inclusivity of course, but by and large pole is accessible to almost everyone, and all participants are actively encouraged to embrace and celebrate all aspects of themselves. In my opinion, involvement in the community strongly supports authentic living.

YES, BUT …

Is pole dance an empowering feminist practice? For me, the short but complicated answer is: YES, BUT context is critical. Why, how, and when women choose to pole can make it an empowering practice or not.

A large part of my new perspective comes from growing up during the third-wave movement. As one writer explains, third-wave feminism strives for inclusivity and respect for women’s choices rather than denunciation of behaviors that seemingly endorse the patriarchy (such as choosing to be a house-wife or a stripper) [vi]. Third wave feminism is pluralistic and respects individual self-determination and choice; there are challenges to this perspective given that there is no common set of behaviours or rules that can be deemed “the path to empowerment”. Each feminist must choose her own path and decide how her choices can empower her. To ensure seemingly patriarchal choices, such as the choice to practice exotic pole, are truly empowering, we must be vigilant. This kind of feminism asks “each woman to [continually] reflect on her own desires and seriously consider how her choices might play a role in propping up or calling into question the sex/gender system”[vii].

Today’s pole scene arose from the oft-exploitative exotic dance club scene. But I would invite new audiences who encounter pole dance to go deeper and challenge their pre-conceived ideas. Ask the following questions: how is the dancer moving and what emotion is she trying to express? Is the dance sensual? Happy? Vulnerable? Is what I’m seeing vulgar or objectifying? If so, what makes it so (and is this problematic)? What feelings does the movement provoke, and what is it about the performance that makes you feel that way? Try to apply these same questions to the next non-pole dance you see (think of the range: salsa clubs, music videos, commercials, weddings — dance is everywhere) and make some critical comparisons. This is not an easy task, but it’s a worthy one.

A critical look at today’s contemporary pole practice shows women who pole now are privileged with the agency to choose how, when, and for whom they perform — whereas this was largely not the case historically. Women have re-appropriated pole dance as an activity and redefined it in a way that makes sense for them. Pole has become a practice controlled by and for women rather than men. Without doubt, pole is empowering women to make positive connections with other women, to reclaim ownership and agency over their bodies and lives, and to re-establish healthy relationships with their physicality. Polers are collectively cutting against patriarchal standards regarding the acceptable shape and behaviour of female bodies. When women build strength and connectedness with their peers in a respectful, diverse and inclusive environment, they lift one another up to achieve their goals and to walk through the world with confidence. To me, this is feminist advocacy in action.

[i] Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, 2005.

[ii] Levy, above, at pg. 4.

[iii] “Take Back the Night: London Abused Women’s Centre withdraws from annual march because of pole-fitness demonstration”. London Free Press. 12 September 2016. Accessed 7 December 2017.

[iv] I want to clarify what I mean by “empowerment” and “feminism”, because just stating “pole dance is empowering” isn’t good enough and doesn’t help answer the question why. A definition of empowerment I like is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights”. At the risk of over-simplification, feminism is a social and political philosophy for which a core goal is achieving holistic equality of the sexes. Both are about exercising and accessing power. A patriarchal society is antithetical to feminism; as men occupy a privileged position, they are able to access power and opportunities typically denied to women. Women are taught from a young age that much of our value lies in our bodies, and that what we choose to do with them will be regulated (and not by us). If we do not conform to prescribed physical standards or behaviours, we risk judgment and negative criticism. This standard is not applied to men, and an inherent inequality arises. Accordingly, when women experience increased confidence, reclaiming ownership and agency over their bodies, choices, and selves, they become more powerful. Gaining power in this way assists with decreasing inequality between genders. Accordingly, any activity that can be said to empower women by providing them with tools to exercise greater control over their lives is, in my view, a feminist one.

[v] Lynn Garafola, “The Travesty Dancer in Nineteenth-Century Ballet,” Dance Research Journal 17/2 & 18/1 (1985–86) pgs. 35–40.

[vi] R. Claire Snyder-Hall, “Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of “Choice”. Perspectives on Politics, American Political Science Association, Vol. 8, №1 (March 2010), pgs. 255–261.

[vii] Snyder-Hall, above, at pg. 259.