By Kira Jane
Admitting to it causes the first onset of swine flu-like symptoms: the beads of sweat, searchlight eyeballs, shivers to rival a damp chihuahua. But my words slither out in an Edith Piaf vibrato, courtesy of the jittery nerves.
“I’m a dancer.”
The response is predictable. The Interrogator lowers their peepers for a rapid full body scan, computing to see if I fit the description. In response, I vacuum in my belly and crane my neck skyward: a feeble attempt to disguise my Quasimodo-esque posture.
I start to lament the second piece of pie I had last. No point in trying to justify the third: what’s done is done, we’ll call that one humble pie (the chocolate truffles don’t count, they are a rite of passage, essential caramel-laced squirts of WD40 in the rusty machine of my mental health). Wishing my arches were higher, my limbs more sinewy and that I could Gumby myself into a jumping split for posterity, I briefly weigh up the pros and cons of perpetually wearing a tutu. Or sequined bell bottoms, perhaps a disco medallion and sprouty chest hair to squelch this line of questioning. There is a silence and a skinny smile of approval from the Interrogator.
Dancer status: approved.
But my knee starts to shake, because I know it doesn’t end here. The category is too vast, arabesque-ing and pirouetting from genre to genre in the Interrogator’s mind. They need this shit pigeon-holed.
“What kind of dancing do you do?” The Interrogator’s arms burrow into a fold. I am beginning to resent this Poirot-ian persona they are taking on.
Somehow I witness their mental rolodex scrolling through the accepted options: contemporary, tap, salsa, jazz with the funny hands, tango… something more like Morris dancing, maybe. Perhaps they have a little giggle to themselves as they think of hip hop and envision the baby Beluga-complexioned girl before them krumping to ‘Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz.
But I throw the game off.
“I’m a pole dancer.”
And this is where it gets interesting. The Interrogator, who could be anyone–your co-worker, your mother, a dude at a cocktail party, the man who waters your Poinsettia and your gerbil when you escape town–opens their pie-hole and forgets to close it again. One eyebrow might curl downwards like a migrating millipede. For a few painful moments, they have nothing to say. And it is probably because they are now seeing you in a different light. It’s a strobe light. You are no longer a pasty-skinned, suspiciously sweaty, pie-devouring individual with a carriage like Igor. Now, you are a booty-rippling, g-string strangled glitter shedder, who uses her cleavage in lieu of a piggy bank and who only answers to wolf-whistles and the holler of “Chardonnay!”
The Interrogator’s lip twitches, mouth poised as a famished venus fly trap might be. “I hear it is good exercise.”
Then I relax a little. And if they haven’t launched into a “where do you put all the singles!” or a “man, would I like to be a fly on the…” then I am delighted, I lower the seven inch stiletto sequestered behind my back and we can talk. Because there is an openness.
And that is all we are asking for.
A couple of women at the studio I dance at were recently pulled into an HR meeting at their corporate office after someone complained that they were discussing their dance at work. I’m quite sure had they been salsa dancers, no one would have voiced concern. Perhaps the stigma, like with many things, stems from a lack of understanding. Maybe if we shed light on what it is like to go to a pole class, we can save a few overwhelmed HR representatives a pricey bar tab or two.
The day of my first pole class was like an episode of “I Love Lucy” gone bad. I teetered on high heels (I’m vertically challenged at the best of times) and quickly developed shipyard worker calluses from my death grip on the pole. I did stiff hair-tosses and got acute motion sickness while trying to do a single on-the-spot twirl. I danced with all the elegance of a Weeble Wobble. Incidentally, at the time I didn’t have enough hair due to an experimental foray into the realm of the “mohawk,” so every time the rest of the Godiva-haired goddesses in my class flung their tresses around, I looked like I was seizing. We started to learn a routine under the gentle watch of our teacher, who, most irritatingly, danced like she was made from ribbons. In short: I sucked. But I persisted. I came back.
There was even a threat to my new marriage. Once a week, I skulked off into the night sans engagement and wedding ring (rings scratch the pole), and returned with wild, squall-survivor bed head (hair toss practice) and smelling of men’s Gillette shaving cream (issued by my studio to help my legs grip the metal).
But I still persisted and my marriage survived, thrived even. I tossed my hair (as it grew) and eventually, under the safe watch of my ribbon-woven instructor, I was allowed to start attempting to climb. There were days I left the studio laughing, days I left crying, days I high-fived perfect strangers and also many bouts of whiplash (hair tosses). There were breakthroughs, breakdowns, revelations, and bruises. Oh, the bruises. What started out as inconvenient and unsightly blemishes that I tried to cover up, soon became small and sometimes inexplicably large badges of honor: temporary tattoos for the brave. I changed my attitude and my language, no longer allowing myself to say “can’t” about a particular move or challenge and rechristening the bruises “pole kisses.” It quickly became an addiction, because for the first time in my life I was able to watch physical achievement: my baby steps added up towards a visible goal right before my eyes. This was not something I had ever experienced as someone about as athletically motivated as most garden slugs, and I gained more confidence (a relief seeing as my previous self image was an albino octopus). Things that my mohawk-sheared self could never imagine doing are now things I can do. Even the frickin hair toss.
Many pole dancers and studios work tirelessly to distance themselves from the strip club stigma. And I understand this. It is not their personal journey. Pole dancing is an art form, whether it is the art of dance or the art of fitness. There are even crusaders determined to make it an Olympic sport. As this humble pie-eater sees it, pole is beautifully versatile. It takes on many forms and I think they should all be celebrated, from the shimmering, python-muscled performances of our pole champions to the sultry, serpentine exhibition of a exotic dance club. It is, after all, the women dancing in dark clubs to whom we owe this artistic outlet. If it wasn’t for Chardonnay and Cinnamon’s fearless trial and error, we’d be in a Zumba class. Disclaimer: I am very fond of and have full respect for Zumba class goers. And as I learn how to flip in the air from an invert or launch myself headfirst into a move that Stretch Armstrong might question, all while being safely spotted by the sculpted arms of my teachers, I think of these exotic dancers. I imagine the women experimenting with these dangerous moves without the safety of a mat or a spotter and in six inch heels in front of a paying audience. Many of our most advanced moves, the “how the hell…is that…even..?” forehead-slappers that defy gravity and the logical mobility of a human being, were originally falls: accidents that a dancer (after counting their blessings and their teeth) then took the time to slow down and control. Great Scott, if you ask me, that is something to celebrate and be thankful for! I raise my champagne truffle to them.
There are pole dance studios burgeoning all over cities worldwide, classes filling up with women who have chosen this art form, chosen to spend what little free time they have to do something for themselves, to feed a passion and build muscles that would make Popeye greener than his preferred snack. Classes to nurture women and women only, as currently many do not allow a man to step foot into their sacred space.
A great many of these studios fundraise. My studio fundraises yearly for breast cancer research. I recently found out about a pole studio in the UK that gathered up some hard-earned cash for a homeless shelter, only to be turned away for fear of a “conflict of interest” due to the shelter’s work with women who have “experienced sexual exploitation in the adult entertainment industry”. This makes me sad. Downright Eeyore mopey, because there isn’t a conflict of interest. There is only free cash and a commendable goal shared by both the shelter and the studio: female empowerment.
The things is, there are a lot of us. An army of pole dancers out there. Or poler cubs, as the moniker goes. We are your co-workers, mothers, the dudes at a cocktail party, the women who water your cactus and your hamster when you escape town.
Many of us dance in secret, heroically slipping on leg warmers and dark hoodies, vanishing into the night to fight pole burn, one bruise at a time.
And we don’t all look like Chardonnay Hooter. You can’t pick us out of a crowd. We are models and hobbits, soft, muscly, skinny, beautifully full-figured, and from every Shire on earth. Some of us are in our twenties and others in our sixties. Pole dancing doesn’t discriminate, and so, we ask, that neither should you. And despite the subtle clues that give away our passion for the pole: bruises, hands like an old washer woman, biceps like snakes in a bag, and the mysterious diaper-like bunching of clothing where our sticky-aid (goo that helps barnacle you to a metal pole) super-glues us to our garments, we come in all shapes and colors and flavors: a giant, delicious box of assorted truffles. And despite the New York Times’s recent accusations, a boat load of us can do pull ups. Most of all, we are resilient (a necessity when your dance partner is an eighteen foot metal pole).
Pole dancing is about freedom, about movement. About an individual journey. About celebrating being a woman, about being alive. Our dances mimic our stories and when the fairy dust lands just right: it mirror our souls.
I am now able to hold myself upside down fifteen feet in the air by the crook of my elbow. Or the back of one knee (not many garden slugs can do this). That’s right, mis amigas. When the apocalypse hits: I’ll be hanging out safely at the top of a telephone pole. Join me.
And while, after a day as CEO of a household or a company, we are hanging upside down like shiny-eyed fruit bats, working daily to encourage the balls of our feet to make acquaintance with our foreheads, and especially if we are silently, secretly taking classes, we would just like to ask you for one small thing. Openness. Because we are proud of our accomplishments. Proud of our bruises, proud of how strong we are. And please accept our free fundraiser money: it comes straight from the heart and pole.
Our dancing is making us better people. Better co-workers, better mothers, better dudes at cocktail parties, better women who water your basil and your Rhodesian Ridgeback when you escape town. And we are not hurting anyone. But be warned that we could. We are not only women who pick ourselves up after falling down, but we climb an additional fifteen feet after that and some of us make a mean knuckle sandwich. Before you judge, come in and try out a class for fun, seeing as that is what it is all about. And for your safety, please refrain from ridiculing what we love, you really don’t want a poler bear after you.
Kira Jane is a nomad who grew up in Asia and the Middle East and has adopted her mother’s mantra of “home is where the toothbrush is” to prevent a cultural identity crisis. She is a member of the Sisters In Crime, and a Hedgebrook Vortext alumna. Aside from being a writer, Kira Jane has also been an actress, a model, a bartender, a dog trainer, a pet portrait artist, a European furniture salesperson, the landlord of a shady apartment complex, a waitress and her first job was to pick out beetles from a bucket of mealworms at a zoo in Indonesia. She did not get paid for the latter, which may partially explain the shoulder chip and her tongue-in-cheek voice.