Mid-August 2020 marked four years since I’ve begun pole dancing, but I didn’t celebrate or share this anniversary publicly. As someone who now makes money from pole, a lot has been going through my mind this year about my experience as an initially recreational pole dancer and the pole dance industry’s need to better include and credit the founders of our sport – strippers and sex workers. Shortly after my pole anniversary, this post re-thinks my experience as a pole dancer four years on from my first class and almost a year since I started teaching, and concludes with an initiatives and organisations to donate to.
Anniversary Post Disclaimer
This post is for pole dancers and people involved with the pole dance industry. It doesn’t say anything particularly new for strippers, who have been talking about the links between stripping and pole dancing since forever and that won’t learn anything new from me banging on about this from a pole dance industry perspective. Unless, of course, they’re interested in my pole anniversary, in how much of a wanker I was, in some silly picture throwbacks or if they have anything to correct / feedback on this article – that is always welcome (provided that it comes from a place of mutual respect :).
I’m very nervous about this post, but I’ve wanted to write it for a while. A lot of people in my network say they were a “pole fitness wanker” when they started – a term that means attempting to legitimise your pole hobby by placing it under the umbrella of fitness – so I think this can resonate with many others. I wasn’t exactly a “pole fitness wanker”, but I was definitely uneducated, naive, uncritical. And this needs to be addressed, even if clumsily, like this post may sometimes do.
Anniversary Thoughts On My Pre-Pole Relationship With Sex Work
Before I started pole dancing, I considered myself a feminist. I had trouble calling myself that for a while – it seemed too “extreme”, too “bra burning” for the person I was at the time. But after I left an abusive relationship, calling myself a feminist when, selfishly, my own rights had been infringed, seemed like the right thing.
Sadly, my feminism didn’t really include people that were different from me. I knew very few people from a different racial background, and I definitely didn’t know any sex workers.
I was not clued up on sex work and its surrounding circumstances. Because sex work wasn’t something that often appeared in my daily routine, I didn’t even think about it. In fact, I was one of those people who would use “whore” or “slut” as an insult as a teen because, coming from a conservative country, the insults that are often used to shut women up are related to their sexual activities.
So in short, I was your average pop feminist who didn’t ask too many questions, and who did very limited research on realities she didn’t know about.
How I Got Into Pole Dancing
Given the above, I didn’t start pole dancing because I wanted to flirt with sexiness, or sex work. I loved Dita Von Teese as a teen, but that was because I loved her stage presence. I didn’t even contemplate the link between Burlesque and sex work, not even when Dita herself released interviews when she said she was involved with pornography and stripping.
Sure, Dita looked like a rockstar, and I wanted to be a rockstar, despite my lack of musical talent. But on my four-year pole anniversary I realised that no, looking back, I didn’t start pole to feel sexy. I didn’t start pole to pretend to be a stripper. Not even to look like a pole dancing / stripping celebrity, like JLo in Hustlers, or like FKA Twigs, or Cardi B.
When I started, I didn’t do my research and I knew nothing about the origins of pole dance. I just needed something to keep my head above water. I was in what was probably the worst, deepest hole in my life, depressed, anxious, trying to escape from myself and the effects of that abusive relationship. Despite the hard situation I found myself in, I still had the privilege of earning an income that could support an expensive hobby like pole. So after seeing a friend of a friend perform at a pole showcase, and after doing my free trial class, I was hooked.
When I joined a pole studio in Sydney, Australia all I wanted was to meet people and be upside down, because I did artistic gymnastics as a child and missed the “danger”. It was so much fun that I did it, once again, uncritically – wore my Pleaser Shoes, did my “vagina monsters” and “hello boys” moves, didn’t question anything. Not even when people started asking me if I was a stripper. All I said was: “No. I train at a studio.”
How I Got More Naked
My first showcase – where I danced to “Come on over” by Christina Aguilera, my least favourite Xtina era – was a disaster. I was very embarrassed by my lack of dancing skills. I didn’t wear anything particularly skimpy, just shorts and a top I used to go out in. For the life of me, I did not understand why dancing had to be so hard, and why I even signed up for that bloody showcase in the first place.
Yet the more advanced I got, the more skin I needed to stay up the pole. And something in me shifted: I stopped hating my body. I stopped being celibate – something I imposed on myself after leaving my abusive partner. I stopped being afraid of sex and I stopped caring about whether people viewed me as an object or not.
In fact, pole dancing became an obvious tool to separate the right people from the people I didn’t wanna hang out with. From those who could understand I could be sexual and a human being from those who used to undress me with their eyes no matter what I was saying (something that happened before pole, and that used to confuse me so much because, I thought, I wasn’t saying or doing anything sexual, so why were they acting like that?).
How I Got An Education
Shortly after my one-year pole dance anniversary, I was faced with the need for more education about pole dancing when I moved back to London – and I owe mine to the East London Strippers Collective.
I went to one of their amazing parties / fundraisers and fell in love with their vibe, so I asked to perform with them without even thinking about it. They turned me down – thank fuck, because I was terrible – but they did so gently, opening my mind to pole dancing’s cultural appropriation of stripping.
They didn’t have to, but they politely turned me down and switched something on in my brain that clearly needed to be switched on. Their organisation is meant to support strippers, who created pole – not to give recreational pole dancers an additional platform.
It is now mind-blowing to me that I would engage in a sport that owes so much to strippers so uncritically, but that’s what I did, and I’m sorry for it.
Pole Dancing and #NotAStripper
Most people now know about the disgraceful #notastripper hashtag, used by pole dancers who like to define what they do as art, and distance themselves from the founders of the sport they so love. I always hope that this hashtag and this behaviour may have died off, or that at least no one would be so stupid to act like that publicly, but sadly I am always proven wrong.
A pole dance Facebook group has recently been closed down because some posts became a war among sex workers/sex worker positive polers and people who STILL use #notastripper or act like it. Pole icons and celebrities still exploit sex work aesthetics while trying to distance themselves from sex workers.
If the world wasn’t built on inequalities and if female sexuality wasn’t used to enforce some of those inequalities – e.g. by pitting “good women” of “sound morality” who don’t have or enjoy sex – we wouldn’t have #notastripper. We wouldn’t automatically link the presence of a pole next to a woman as something either titillating or morally wrong. We wouldn’t have to question whether a woman is a stripper or not, and women wouldn’t try to distance themselves from strippers because they wouldn’t think that not being a sex worker and not engaging in sex-related practices makes them better.
But the world is what it is. So we need to constantly acknowledge that pole comes from stripping. It’s important to recognise that so much of our sport comes from sex workers. And it’s important that we don’t distance ourselves from those who have given us an activity we love, and that face marginalisation precisely because the world has taught women that they are better not because they are smart, or because they work hard, but because they hide their sexuality.
A Quick Reminder of Why It’s Important That The Pole Industry Supports Sex Workers
First of all, everyone who chooses to do a job (because sex work is real work) should be respected. If you respect people‘s choices, you should focus on campaigning to make working conditions better for sex workers rather than on erasing sex work completely.
Sex work has always existed. It’s not our job to think whether it’s an extension of the patriarchy or not, whether it’s morally right or not. It exists, and if we enjoy sex work inspired entertainment or practice sports inspired by sex work, we need to stop being in denial and actually show our support.
At the moment, aside from the struggle sex workers face in doing their job during a pandemic that requires distancing for safety, legislation like FOSTA/SESTA (an exception to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act in the United States that ruled platforms were not liable for what was posted on them) and the EARN IT act (an attack on privacy and encryption) are making it harder for sex workers to exist online. The online dimension is safer and more lucrative for sex workers – particularly now when, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, online work is all many of them have.
If supporting fellow human beings isn’t enough for you, remember that what happens to sex workers – e.g. stigma, censorship, removal from websites and so on – is trickling down to the pole dance industry. Because whether we like it or not, for the Instagram algorithm we are linked to sex workers. People wonder if we are sex workers. So let’s stop fighting it, and let’s work together instead.
As An Industry, We – Pole Dancers – Have To Do Better
I spent my anniversary this year reflecting on how pole has changed my life physically and mentally, but it has made me more socially conscious as well. If you’re afraid of starting pole, but are uncomfortable with being associated with stripping, maybe you should question why you want to start pole in the first place. Clearly then, as an industry, we need to do better to question and challenge these beliefs. We are not as progressive as we like to portray ourselves.
This post doesn’t have particularly ground-breaking advice as to how to do better, but considering that the “why” behind welcoming and celebrating sex workers is still so controversial in pole dance circles, it’s worth discussing it.
First of all, we need to address pole dancing’s links with sex work because so many pole dance industry pioneers were strippers. Not only that – so many instructors still are strippers; so many students are strippers; so many of our audience is interested in stripping. So many of our moves come from strippers, and particularly from black strippers – twerking with and on the pole, as well as amazing power moves that have literally made pole what it is.
Secondly, we need to encourage discussions about sex work because they can really kick-start people’s thinking and social change. My inspiration as a blogger and as an activist owes a lot to strippers. If I hadn’t come across the ELSC, and if I hadn’t pole danced at all, I would have probably not been so aware of sex workers’ contribution to general culture, to politics, to activism, and I wouldn’t have been able to raise awareness of certain issues like online censorship. Thirdly, stripping informs our moves, styles, choice of music and so on.
My inspiration as a pole dancer and and as an instructor comes from stripper style, together with Aussie showgirl style and Russian exotic. I can’t teach that to my students without crediting pioneers. So a small step towards the “how” we can do better is that we need to actively credit strippers and sex workers in our classes when we can, whether that’s when describing a move or in responding to students that don’t want to associate themselves with stripping.
Crediting is easy: it’s about looking into the history of a move or a style, and recommending polers and strippers to follow and articles to read. Unlike four years ago, there are really no excuses to not know about the origins of pole, because education about them is all over blogs, Instagram, the media and so on. So if you’re a pole student, or a beginner poler, don’t do what I did: research the history of pole – there’s an increasing amount of resources about it – and pay your dues. Some insightful articles to read here:
- Kitty Velour’s history of pole
- Kitty Velour’s history of heel clacks
- Peach Lee Ray’s post about pole styles
- Chrome Chronicles’ interview with exotic dancing pioneers
- My interview with the ELSC
- Beyond The Pole’s “Strippers are pissed” podcast episode
- @stripperwriter’s article about the Superbowl
- Information about stripping as a job from Vixen Temple’s blog and Instagram profile
We can acknowledge that the origins of pole as we know it – what has become “mainstream pole”, with certain tricks and use of heels – originated from strippers while also understanding that polers with no experience of stripping have created new styles. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive if we give credit when it’s due and respect pioneers.
We can acknowledge that as an industry we have done a lot of harm to strippers, and that we may continue to make mistakes, while trying to do better without fighting and trying to police strippers’ anger. We can acknowledge that both stripping and pole dancing exist, and that they sometimes overlap. We should accept that some strippers are angry with us as an industry, and not take it personally and get into day-long social media fights.
At the cost of sounding like the Mean Girls “she doesn’t even go here” lady, I really hope that the pole industry and strippers can work together. I hope that we can try to acknowledge, include and respect each other. And I really hope that, despite the anger and distrust that strippers rightly have towards us, we can find a way through.
For my fourth pole dance anniversary, on Sunday October 4th at 5 PM GMT I will be teaching an online zoom pole dance choreo class, donating all the profits to the Sex Workers Mutual Aid Fund set up by FKA Twigs in collaboration with The ELSC, Lysistrata and Swarm, which can be found here: https://uk.gofundme.com/f/sexworkermutualaidfunds.
In honour of women celebrating their sexuality and of sex workers, I will be teaching a pole and twerk choreo to WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion for my pole anniversary routine.
Classes will be “pay what you can afford”, starting at £7. A recording will be available for a week afterwards, priced at £5, if you can’t make it or want to donate more. Please PayPal in advance and email your booking to email@example.com, I’ll confirm receipt and send you the Zoom details one hour before the class.
List of stripping and sex work organisations to donate to
If you are not a pole dancer but still want to donate, please consider donating to these organisations:
Some Important accounts to follow to read more about stripping and sex work:
- Sexquisite Events and Brazilian Wax Witches, for queer friendly events with current and former sex worker performers
- @harpiesinthesky, East London’s LGBTQ+ strip club
- @vixentempleblog for information and advice about the life of sex workers
- @hackinghustling, breaking down FOSTA/SESTA and EARN IT
- @soldiers_of_pole for fundraisers and information
- The Black Sex Workers Collective for fundraisers and education
- @ethicalstripper for events, fundraisers and information
- @sxnoir, educator
- The @yesastripper podcast
- @unitedstrippersoftheworld, a trade union for strippers
- @decrimnow, a campaign to decriminalise sex work
- Beyond The Red Light, a feature documentary exploring the different degrees of conflict faced by sex workers, and the activism that exists within the sex worker rights movement globally, looking for donations right now.