IPIA: Interview with the International Pole Industry Association

Through an IGTV video, PoleCon CEO Colleen Jolly announced she was creating the pole dance industry’s first trade association, the International Pole Industry Association (IPIA). With the upheaval brought by the Coronavirus pandemic, celebrities’ increased interest in pole dance and the need to better credit sex workers for creating our sport, I was dying to see how the IPIA fits into the pole industry’s increasingly complex landscape.

Disclaimer

This post is an interview with Colleen Jolly, freelance marketer, former studio owner,pole dance instructor and performer, the owner and CEO of PoleCon and, now, the Executive Director of the IPIA.

As a pole dancer, instructor, researcher and activist, I am looking forward to seeing the IPIA develop and I want to get involved to see if I can contribute to the growth of our industry. However, it’s worth pointing out that I am not writing this post from a position of endorsement, but from the position of someone who often has a lot of business and ethics related questions.

This is why I welcome the creation of the IPIA. Naturally then, just like any public body, association or even individual, it’s always necessary that we keep ourselves and who we work with accountable, and while this post reveals more about what the IPIA will do and what it stands for, it was not a paid-for advertorial and it arises from a position of interest rather than of promotion.

Why Does The Pole Industry Need A Trade Association Like The IPIA?

In her launch video, Colleen said: “This is not just about POLE. This is about BUSINESS.” When I asked her to expand on what she meant, she told me that, because our industry is so young and fun, sometimes we forget this is actually a business.

“People need to make money; it costs money to do things. There is a basic level of ethics and responsibility to do any work that sometimes gets missed in all the glitter from the business and the consumer side. Or we choose to overlook things because we just want this entire community to be perfect and it’s not.”

Colleen Jolly

For Colleen, the trouble with many of us pole dancers is that we want to start a pole related business due to our enthusiasm… and enthusiasm often ends up with someone taking advantage of us. She said: “From my experience working with people in this industry is that we are all involved simply because we love pole.” So how about when pole becomes a job?

When Colleen was first thinking of starting the IPIA, she reached out to several people in the industry that represented different demographics and found a need for education, information and process stretching across different categories. The IPIA originates from multiple needs in the pole dance industry, such as knowing how to launch a business and/or how to make it thrive. For Colleen, this is particularly relevant following the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent financial fall-out, “combined with the continued violence against black people [which] has made it very clear that the structures designed to help small business, especially women and minority owned businesses, aren’t working.” Colleen told me:

“Pole is made up predominantly of small businesses. Even our largest businesses are still categorized as small. We need basic help like how do you talk to a landlord about finding space for a pole studio to more nuanced help like how to we work together, respectfully as an industry and decide where we want to go and how we want the outside world to view us and interact with us. Pole has made a lot of public strides lately, but we haven’t controlled that narrative. That needs to change.”

Colleen Jolly
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Picture: Bentley Rebel at PoleCon, Courtesy of Colleen Jolly

How Will The IPIA Work?

The IPIA wants to provide the pole industry with a space and framework to decide what business means to pole dancers. For Colleen, while these discussions may be happening on a smaller, studio or business level, they’re not happening on a larger level. And this is a problem: “We all should focus on how to improve our businesses so we can have a sustainable industry moving forward. It’s clear that no one else is going to help us so we need to do it ourselves, together.”

Instead of trying to take the fun out of our industry – e.g. ‘cleaning it up’ of its sparkle – the IPIA is advocating that “we hold ourselves and other members of our industry to a basic standard for business.”  Colleen wants the association to function on two fronts:

  • Internally. E.g. providing education and a safe space to create guidelines and recommendations for the pole dance industry.
  • Externally, by giving the rest of the world a clear picture of who the IPIA are.

For now, Colleen is the main force behind the IPIA, although she’s had some writers (both volunteers and paid) write articles for the resource library that she has reviewed and edited. A lot of the initial resource content in it pulls from her experience in business for the past 21 years, updated for modern times when relevant.

At the moment, Colleen is building a board of volunteers from the pole industry that she hopes to finalise in November. Her goal is to have as many different groups represented as possible in terms of business type, gender, location, ethnicity, age etc. She said: “The more diverse the voices, the better and stronger our association will become.”

How Will The IPIA Help Pole-Related Workers?

The IPIA also aims to provide resources for people that have no idea where to start with owning a business, growing a business or what it means to be a pole professional in a variety of demographics. These demographics are:

  • Studio owners
  • Instructors
  • Businesses
  • Performers
  • Strippers
Studios and Instructors

The IPIA wants to provide pole dance studios and instructors with resources through the online resource directory, in order to find each other and learn from each other. Education is a big part of its aims, as it wants to organise webinars to help people find information relevant to the pole industry. Colleen said:

“I’ve seen so many people in the many FB groups post questions like, ‘How do I start my own studio’ and they get a million responses, some informed and some not. Creating one repository for information will actually help people get the right answer or get closer to the right answer, faster.”

Colleen Jolly

Additionally, the IPIA will create member-only forums to help people discuss issues in a less public forum.

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Picture: Deb Roach at Pole Con 2015, courtesy of Colleen Jolly
Polewear and Other Pole Related Businesses

The IPIA wants to apply learning points from big business outside pole to pole-related brands and businesses, making educational resources and information available. For Colleen, this is particularly important when it comes to copy-right infringement, which she said is rife in our industry when it comes to shoes and apparel. She said: “There’s a fine line between learning from each other and stealing from each other. I do think we should share things that worked and things that didn’t work so we can grow as an industry.”

Networking between different pole businesses will also be encouraged and facilitated by the IPIA.

Performers

Colleen sees performers as “people who are looking for paid gigs on stage, TV, music videos, movies, corporate parties, etc.” She said that while some people consider this as their job, others just take gigs for “exposure” because it’s “fun.” 

“I want to provide information to people on what to expect, how to value yourself and how to understand that you taking a gig for ‘exposure’ can actually hurt the industry. We should set safety standards for how we interact with the public and how we agree to work as well as develop pay standards.”

Colleen Jolly

The focus on performers comes from Colleen’s own experience of taking up gigs for ‘fun’ and ‘exposure’, and then learning from specialised performers that this is actually harmful towards everybody else’s livelihood. She recommends Irmingard Meyer’s talk at the Virtual PoleCon to start learning more about this topic.

Why The IPIA Wants To Work With Strippers

Colleen doesn’t have experience in stripping, and because of that, she has tried to learn more about how that career path works. Because stripping and pole dancing are so linked, she told me it was natural for her to include strippers in the IPIA. “Strippers are a part of our industry – past, present and future. You can’t carve the stripper out of the pole community; it would be like excising a critical organ.”

Colleen believes it’s essential to give credit to where ideas come from. She said: “It’s been discouraging that our community can get very focused on the morality or perception of morality of what strippers do with an apparatus we share. We should be learning from each other, not tearing each other down.” 

Because of this, Colleen said that when it comes to strippers’ potential involvement with the IPIA, she is concerned about meeting them from a place of mutual respect.

“Not because I don’t respect them but because I know strippers have had it hard in our community and there is likely to be some general distrust. For the IPIA launch, I reached out to a current stripper who started in the pole community and asked her to write some resource posts to get us started. I’ve also reached out to a current and very outspoken stripper to be on the board so the IPIA has that perspective and that line of communication open at all times so we know what strippers need that might be different from the other demographics.”

Colleen Jolly

When it comes to supporting strippers, the IPIA will provide advocacy for both general business and sex worker issues. Colleen said:

“Even though some pole dancers think the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is clear, the sex worker legislation that has come out, the changing of website terms, banning of ads or deleting of accounts that seem to follow the rules make it undeniable that the outside world sees us as one big, half naked group swinging on a pole. We need to stop infighting and help each other.”

Colleen Jolly

The Future of The Pole Industry and The Need To Grow

The IPIA wants to help our industry grow and will be looking to collaborate with different demographics to know more about pole dancing, e.g. how many studios there really are in the world, what people are paying instructors, workshop leaders, managers and other employment tracks. The IPIA wants to understand the relevant career paths within pole, how many people are doing pole as their second hustle or their primary job, or injury rates and recovery rates in our industry.

Colleen told me: “The more information that we have about our industry, the better we can support it.We know very little about our industry despite social media making it seemingly easier to connect than ever before.”

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Picture: R.O.K. (Revolution of Korea) at Pole Con 2018 – Courtesy of Colleen Jolly

Inevitably, the IPIA and the pole industry’s own success can only be seen with time, and I’m confident that we will all be monitoring both. After all, Colleen argued: “A trade association isn’t a magic wand but it is a structure that the world outside of pole understands. When all the teachers’ unions do or say something, when all the truckers do or say something, suddenly the world starts to listen. We can have that too.”

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