I’d been following Peach Lee Ray on Instagram for a while before I got the chance to perform with her at PD Filthy Friday‘s Halloween showcase last Autumn. At the showcase – and pre-Channel 4 documentary – she put on a fantastic performance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, inviting the whole crew to dance with her at the end for a mind-blowing and elating filthy spectacle which is now a key part of FF. This is what I found so striking about Peach: she creates a community around her, and really cares about that community’s wellbeing. Since then, she’s started her own pole studio – Feelin’ Peachy in Wirral – with a unique business model the whole pole industry (and everyone) has a lot to learn from. I’ve wanted to interview Peach since she posted about how she set out to create an unconventional space with unconventional vibes, because “she is crazy” (her words) and succeeded. I speak to her about her studio, issues within the pole community and why fun should be a key part of adult life.
Blogger On Pole: Hello Peach! Tell me about Feelin’ Peachy, what you stand for and what students can expect from the studio.
Peach Lee Ray: Well, Feelin’ Peachy is the state of feeling good, happy, content – I wanted that to be a core emotion that people felt in the space and after their classes. I wanted the act of being playful and having fun to be a key aspect of every class, event, marketing strategy and vibe of the studio.
When we become adults, suddenly we are told that play isn’t allowed. We are punished for being playful, told we are immature, and instead end up replacing healthy play with unhealthy play like binge drinking, binge eating, and smoking etc. My partner is a hypnotherapist and wrote a great, concise book on this called The Play Paradigm, which you can purchase on Amazon (shameless plug for Rory M-J!), that explains it wonderfully.
Basically, I want my students to have permission to be playful and have fun in a healthy way. Secondly, confidence building and nurturing were really important part of my studio philosophy, and that informs every move I make at the studio. I wanted to foster a feeling of community where everyone is welcome, and you feel like you belong when you enter the room, whether you’ve been coming two years or two hours. Helping people to feel good in themselves, their bodies and their abilities are really important parts of this job for me.
To put it simply, if something isn’t fun or improving my student’s self-confidence, then it doesn’t pass the first stages of development! From the dÃ©cor in the studio bathroom, to the curated class schedule, I always have these in mind with every decision I make.
What moved you to open your own studio?
Funny story – I never planned to open or run a studio. I ALWAYS thought, ‘maybe someday’, and after working with several studio owners I saw how much work it was, and honestly, it didn’t look like it gave you a great deal in return. So, I parked the idea and decided I was happy working as a freelance instructor.
Anyway, I found myself without a regular teaching position very suddenly, and I knew the other studios in the area weren’t looking for instructors, couldn’t afford more instructors, or simply didn’t want me working with them for whatever reason.
I panicked! “Is this the end of my pole teaching career? Do I just go back to being a student?” With some gentle encouragement from friends and family, within a week of losing my teaching position, I was looking for locations and applying to get government backed funding.
What moved me to open my studio? Circumstance plain and simple. Boring. I know, it isn’t a bold story of seeking my higher purpose. It isn’t a tale of how I nobly decided to help mankind through building a studio space, But, it’s real. It’s sometimes just how life works – pushing you towards a route that is so right for you, even if you never thought it was. Sometimes things just align and you gotta listen to your gut, or miss out.
You deliberately avoided the word “pole fitness” in the marketing of your studio. Why?
Peach: Not only that, but I avoided using it in my government loan application! I wanted to try and prove to myself that the pole industry in the UK has come far enough that we can do without the language that seeks to distance it from the stripper routes. I wanted to try and prove to myself also that my hunch that with good enough business strategy, cash flow forecasts and preparation, even a government funding scheme would back a pole dance studio with a mention of exotic dance on the application.
I was right! I got the full loan I requested to help me build out my studio. Secondly, I wanted to avoid using it in my marketing because: 1) there was local studios already offering a very “pole fitness” approach, and 2) it just ain’t me. I eat donuts, I don’t go to the gym, I hate cardio. I am not a fitness instructor, so why would I sell fitness classes? I wanted people coming to my studio to come because they want to pole DANCE, not just because they want to lose weight, tone up, or whatever other naff stuff.
They say ‘your vibe attracts your tribe’, and I didn’t want a pole fitness tribe. I wanted to attract people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and everything else, to have fun and do something for themselves.
You banned any mention to weight loss in the marketing of your studio. Why?
Peach: I believe that marketing with weight loss or any discussion of aesthetic appearance is fundamentally immoral. That’s my opinion. If someone markets saying their clients will ‘look better’ after losing weight, then you are profiting from other people’s misery. You are part of a system that tells people they aren’t good enough, they aren’t valuable enough, and they should feel bad about themselves unless they lose weight.
I don’t blame anyone who markets this way.
1) Everyone does it, so you think you should be doing it too.
2) Many people buy into the idea that “fat = terrible” and therefore “losing weight = right for everyone.”
3) If you are a “fitness” class, most people associate fitness with thinness.
I talk about feeling healthier and fitter in my marketing, but I don’t equate that with losing weight. I didn’t want to be part of a system that makes people, particularly women and gender queer individuals, hate their bodies and think they are not worthy of respect and love. So, I banned it – publicly – so that I could never, in a moment of weakness, if I had empty classes and stacking bills, go back on that promise.
You became quite vocal about not competing in pole anymore. Why did you decide to stop?
Peach: Initially, it was mainly a time thing. I wanted to allocate all my resources, emotional, mental and financial, as well as time, to building the studio. There’s only one of my me, and I found competing really tiring. But, it also became about other things.
Paying for the privilege of selling someone else’s show tickets didn’t feel right to me, particularly since many pole competitions don’t exactly have a premium prize package. Feeling stuck in other people’s standards of what was deemed ‘proper’ pole. I never minded about winning and not winning, but having pitying ‘you always try so hard, and never get anything’ comments did admittedly start to get to me by the end.
I only placed once in a competition in my two+ years competing. I was never sure what I could have done a little bit more in order to place, as I would get different feedback each time – whether it was more tricks, or then more floor work, or then more flow – I never got the balance quite right. So, for me, the balance between stress and reward became increasingly unbalanced as I progressed in competing, and I didn’t see the worth in it anymore.
Increasingly, after events like the first EG UK, we hear a lot about the need for regulation in the pole industry when it comes to competitions, studio standards etc. What do you think needs to happen?
Peach: I’m a firm believer that if we want to progress as an industry we need to take our community project hats off, and put on our business hats. It’s awfully capitalist of me, and that’s something I never thought I would say, but I feel more competition – more studios, more competitions, more events etc – will lead to better run studios, better standards of events, and better experiences for students and public.
Yes, this may also mean people losing studios, shutting down, competitions not making money, and people suffering as a result – but it also feels like a lot of people have been resting on the fact that they’ve had a monopoly, or close to, for a decade. In short: be better, not bitter.
I believe we need better run studios that offer a premium experience. We need CLEAN studio spaces, with adequate facilities, excellent teaching standards, and good marketing. We need more research and training into safe teaching methods and how to not injure students.
I am working with a physio at the moment, and undertaking additional training that I am running by her, in shoulder stability, spinal stability, glute strength etc. I’m showing her moves so we can start to pick apart why I am so injured, and why so many other pole dancers are so injured. So, I can use this knowledge in building my classes and teaching as responsibly as possible.
We need instructors this passionate that they will do that training – not just one pole instructor course and then they are done, teaching twisted grip handspring, dangerous drops, and inverts when people aren’t ready.
We need to PAY people. We need to value people’s time, energy and skills. Studio owners who expect their instructors to clean and market the studio for free drive me MAD. This isn’t a charity! They didn’t do instructor training to become someone’s free cleaner and marketing consultant. I’ve been on the receiving end of this attitude, so I never wanted to put my own instructors through that. My instructors understand that I am paying them for that one-hour class, and everything else is up to me unless they decide to help out through the kindness of their hearts.
In short: we need to take ourselves seriously if we want everyone else to take us seriously.
When did you start pole dancing? Why and what moved you to perform and then teach?
Peach: I started pole dancing at Candy & Chrome in Chester 4.5 years ago, and then started competition training with Lisa at Apsara Dance about a year after that. Amy at Candy & Chrome had all the tricks covered, and that’s where I got my first taste of pole as a hobby. I loved it! My partner actually encouraged me to take pole dance classes for my self-confidence and to meet new people in my area, and I got hooked.
I always moved in a sexy way, my body just found that natural and comfortable. So, I wanted to try more dance, and being a driven person competing seemed like the natural next step. Lisa encouraged me to enter Pole Theatre Classique, and with zero dance or heels experience, she helped me put together a routine and I ended up qualifying for the final.
I loved performing, and at the time competitions were the only opportunities really for a newbie to perform. I kept getting new ideas that I wanted to bring to the stage, so I kept going back to competing, even when it didn’t really make me happy anymore. I started helping Amy at Candy & Chrome as a teaching assistant, as I really loved it and was in that ‘more more more’ phase of pole we all go through.
I loved teaching at Amy’s as an assistant, and that really sparked my passion as an instructor. After winning the Amateur level of Dance Filthy, I got my Beginner Xpert training as part of my prize package – which was an awesome prize, Stacey [Snedden]’s competitions often have some of the best prize packages!
I then got insured, PDC approved, and started working as a freelance instructor. Teaching was something that came naturally to me, and my Virgo attention to detail and obsessive researching really came in handy. I found I loved helping people to develop their strength and skills and seeing them flourish.
My love of pole is what got me into the teaching position, but my love of people is what kept me there!
Any final words?
Peach: My main bit of advice just extends to every day life: Always be true and authentic to you, but never stop examining yourself, your beliefs and your actions.
I try to be me in as much capacity as I can – whether that’s wearing what I want, living by my values, or fostering relationships that are important to me. But, I also try to ensure that I am doing my best by other people, critiquing my own toxic behaviours, and developing as a better person.
Contrary to many confidence rhetoric I don’t believe everyone is perfect, I believe we are real humans, with real faults, and working together we can discover what makes us great, and what we can do to become even greater.
I believe that pole needs to go through this growth. There are many egos, and we need to get the eff over ourselves and realise that we CAN and SHOULD do better.