Persepolis Pole Project

Last week, on International Women’s Day, I went to an unusual panel where pole dancers and researchers talked about being a woman in Islington. The panel launched the Persepolis Pole Project, a female-led arts and cultural pole dance project fusing modern pole dance artistry into traditional theatrical entertainment. I spoke to its founder, Ayana Setareh, to hear more about pole dancing as an art form and its potential towards empowering women.

Ayana at Emerald City Trapeze Arts 2017 Winter Showcase in Seattle, WA.She says: “I was the only pole act, the rest were all aerial. Glitter and frizzy hair credits to all the teenage girl performers and kiddies with their mums who all came and glued me up and graffitied me with glitter pre-performance. Nothing like being the object of a mother-daughter glitter throwing session!”

The Event

If you read this blog, you know the positive impact pole has had on my life, how it has helped me deal with trauma and increase my confidence. I’ve now begun interviewing women who are active in this space, so it was great to meet Ayana and learn more about the project she’s involved with.

The event was one of the few I’ve ever been to where all aspects of my life came together: research, pole dancing and writing, showing that pole dancing is more than just an art form. It can be a vehicle for change. Read more about Persepolis Pole Project below.

Women Pole Dancing For Other Women

At the IWD event on 8 March, Ayana said something quite obvious, but that hadn’t clicked in my head before. The majority of audience members at pole dance events aren’t men, but women who are having a great time. For Ayana, it all comes down to safety: “It’s so lighthearted and fun and you let loose because you feel you are in a safe space where you aren’t going to be judged as a result of being yourself.”

She adds:

“When you get all of the women together in one venue and you have a pole with music, drinks and glitter everywhere, it’s just like a teenage sleep over all over again.”

Fighting Stigma

Ayana thinks performing is liberating and empowering, especially when it happens around women. A pole dance performance among women becomes a body positive space for Ayana, where everyone supports each other regardless of gender, age, body type, beliefs and profession.

One of Persepolis Pole Project’s aims is to make an impact and safely address social issues affecting women and girls today. The team plan to do this through showcasing their pole dance work. Ayana says:

“In today’s society, there is still a huge stigma attached to being a pole dancer, and we are aiming to challenge that individually and collectively, by stepping out as artists and not cowering under the pressure to conform and give up our form of art.”

As they begin to host events and plan bespoke performances, the team will address important matters like low pay, marginalisation and funding cuts that are important to all artists. The IWD event was a perfect intro to that, with all dancers challenging the perceptions and stereotypes about pole dancing and placing the pole world into a wider societal perspective.

Pole Dance As Art

Ayana thinks pole dance is no different from any other form of “mainstream” dance. For her, pole dancers can wear the same amount of clothing as a ballerina in a leotard, or as beach goers on the beach – all considered “appropriate” in their contexts. The aim of Persepolis Pole Project is to help the pole community find more recognition and opportunities.
“I think we are all probably a bit fed up of the ‘just fitness vs sex work argument’ even within the pole community, or the creative circus/acrobat/aerialist box that I’ve sometimes felt the need to hide behind when telling others what I do. With Persepolis, the goal was to create a platform where people like me can just say to the world, ‘I’m a pole dancer,’ and leave it there without having to explain anything else, add or take away from their form of art.”
Ayana argues that pole dancers are artists, and that if the world respects art and the arts, then they should respect and support us and our work.

Lack of Performing Opportunities in the Pole Community

Persepolis was born out of Ayana’s desire to create more performance opportunities for herself and other pole dancers. She felt her only options for pole work were teaching, competing or stripping, and wasn’t particularly keen on any of them. She says:

I noticed that most of the girls who had become strippers were developing much quicker than me in their performance repertoire, artistry and visibility within the pole community. There were times where I was tempted to do it, but every time I would be on the verge of making the decision, something would hold me back and I felt strongly that it wasn’t the right decision for me emotionally, spiritually and probably not financially either.”

She adds: 

“I knew I loved pole and the arts and didn’t want to have to give them up. However, it just wasn’t feasible to continue racking up training and mental health expenses without a stable income or performance opportunities that I could make money from. “

Still, although Ayana is Persepolis’ founder, she doesn’t see herself as the one in charge. For her the Persepolis Pole Project is more of a collective, “where each individual artist can shine and build their own profile and also work collectively to create work which creates more opportunities for us as performers.”

Persepolis Pole Project

So that’s where the Persepolis Pole Project came in: it was Ayana’s outlet to create performance opportunities for herself and the other artists involved.

For Ayana, the use of the word “Persepolis” has a dual meaning. “It is the name of the famous Ancient Persian city, which oddly enough, has pole-like obelisk statues throughout the ruins today. Persepolis also encompasses the word ‘pole’, which I thought was pretty cool.”

However, the name is also personally related to Ayana. Her mother is in a Persian religion, and Persian culture really influenced her growing up. She says: “We celebrated Naw-Ruz every year (Persian New Year), and my mom would always call me ‘Ayana jun’ the suffix of which means ‘dear or dear one’ in Farsi. We had some close Persian family friends, so I always felt connected to the culture, though my DNA isn’t actually Persian.”

Persepolis Pole is currently made of about seven artists. It’s a tight-knit team for now, although they are open to more artists joining as they grow. “We are all individually members of the pole community and want to encourage greater unity and better partnership working in the community,” Ayana says.

The Artists Involved

The IWD event featured three out of the seven artists from Persepolis Pole. Read more about them below.

Ayana Setareh

Born and raised in Seattle, WA, Ayana has been involved in the performing arts since she was very young. Coming from a family with a background in law and politics, Ayana has always been interested in the arts’ influence on social behaviour, and the role of government in defining norms of cultural creativity and artistic expression. Having studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom and holding two professional degrees, Ayana considers herself an entertainer with a social purpose. Follow her on Instagram here.

Rachel Tolzman 

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Originally from the USA, Rachel is an internationally trained pole athlete, musician and opera singer. She has a MM and BM in Vocal Performance, and a BFA in Musical Theatre from prestigious institutions like the Ithaca College, the Boston Conservatoire and the University of Colorado. Rachel has over 20 years of dance experience including ballet, tap, ballroom, pole and aerial arts. She also recently won first place at the 2017 Miss Pole Dance UK competition and won a Silver Medal at the 2017 Pole Sport Organisation European Competition. Rachel also won first place at 2016 International Pole & Aerial Tournament (IPAAT). She teaches Advanced and Professional Pole classes regularly in London. Follow her on Insta here.

Aleksandra Karolina

Originally from Poland, Aleksandra Karolina is a London based pole dance instructor, performer and international competitor. She has been teaching pole dance for the past six years. At 16, Aleks was scouted to join a local dance group, where she trained jazz, funk, contemporary, street dance and ballet. She performed with the group locally, training with them for another two years and visiting the UK for street dance workshops. She moved to London to study Business Tourism studies at the University of West London. Find Aleks on Insta here.

The Future of Persepolis Pole Project

Persepolis Pole Project are working hard on their next series of events and are planning some exciting events for over the summer. Keep an eye on their social media – they will announce everything there and on their website soon!

Follow Persepolis Pole Project on:

Pictures: Persepolis Pole Project

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