In Conversation with Josh Taylor

Josh Taylor is a rare breed: one of those pole dance instructors that will change the way you move and approach the practice, one of those dancers that command your attention immediately, and someone who will start speaking about some outlandish fashion item to end up deep into a no-chill discussion about the value of art in modern society. I spent a couple of hours in conversation with him, when he trusted me with his story, his incredible career, his dedication to pole dance as an art and practice, blessing me with his zero-fucks-given attitude and a holistic approach to pole and the world around him. This article is a result of that conversation, and I hope I did it justice.

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Picture by @portraitprojection @tomdingleyphoto

How I met Josh Taylor

Josh Taylor is a dancer that you cannot define – literally. He is unique, and he refuses to define his style: “I think definition limits us. Defining my dancing style would put me in a cage that doesn’t let me explore, so I won’t define it. My dancing style is what you see me doing, and what you see me doing will be different each time.”

He adds:  

“Everything does not need an explanation, and everything does not require a name. Some things are self-evident and they should be allowed to be self-evident, and trying to capture them means trying to distance ourselves from our experience of them. My dance is defined by how I experience it, and how it’s experienced by others, and that’s something that is outside of explanation. it’s just a thing that exists on its own and I think that’s true for all of us. You don’t ask someone, ‘Who are you as a person,’ do you?”

I met Josh at London Dance Academy in 2017, when he was covering pole fitness and pole choreography classes. I was struck by his skill and personality from the word go. Watching him move and embody every single spin was really striking, and so was his characteristic penetrating stare making every single student in the room think he’s staring directly at them and addressing only them. Back then, I had been pole dancing for just over a year, and in his classes – which required both stamina and technique – I felt like a blob lurking about with no hope. But I went on.

Josh’s 12-year traveling pole dance performer and instructor career then took him away from London once again in early 2018. I saw him towards the end of the year, at classes and workshops. I had been working hard on improving my dancing, and felt slightly less blobby when learning from him a few months on. However, aside from sharing what is the best picture of all time with Josh (exhibit A below), I have sadly not had the chance to be one of his regular students, because of the traveling nature of his job. I have been following from a distance, always ready to go back to his classes when I happen to be in the same location.

Josh Now

Even if briefly, Josh touched me both as a person and as an instructor, and my desire to interview him arises from that. When he posted he was going to move to Paris to teach with OG pole showgirl Doris Arnold, I jumped on the chance to speak to him.

I found Josh in Norway, packing from his very minimal Scandi-chic flat. He tells me he rage-quit his job at the pole dance studio where he was teaching because – his words, not mine – “my old boss was just taking the fucking piss.” At the studio, Josh was both a teaching and space director and a full-time instructor throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.  

When Josh came to Norway, he was desperate for a permanent space to work, somewhere to live, as he was feeling emotionally drained from being a travelling pole dance instructor and performer for so long. Sadly, a permanent home it was not. He says: “Here, I learnt that doing things for other people, especially voluntarily, makes it very easy for them to start seeing you, in their head, as a servant. And that then can cause their sense of respect and value of your time to diminish.”

The working relationship between Josh and his boss didn’t feel balanced to him anymore: he was investing time and energy into his work, but felt he wasn’t receiving enough in return. Quarantine highlighted this power imbalance, making the relationship with the studio owner deteriorate, and Josh’s willingness to work dissipate.  

He extracted himself out of the situation, ready for a new home at Le Studio Françoise in Paris, where hopefully his art and commitment will be more appreciated. Now in Paris, he starts at Le Studio Françoise in November, teaching and managing the studio.

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Hey squad! I have some super big and exciting news ♥️♥️ I’ve been asking myself questions this year and I’ve realized my goals have changed. I want new challenges, new experiences, and to learn more about expressing myself. These desires have led to a decision; y’all I’m moving to Paris 🇫🇷 My incredible friend @dorisarnoldpoledancer has offered me a position teaching and working permanently at @le_studio_francoise and I am so fucking psyched and proud to say I’ve got the chance to do this. In October I’m leaving Oslo and I’ll be officially starting this new adventure in November. I’ve had some really beautiful and important experiences living in Norway, and I know I’m going to miss the people here who have become a huge part of my life, but I’m moving stronger and happier and those feelings make me feel like I’m bringing my important people with me. IN MY HEART, straight up. This next change feels like another step towards a more realized version of myself and I feel so ready to get wild with the beautiful creatures of @le_studio_francoise 🦊🦁🐯So basically if anyone needs me I’ll be drowning in French wine, lingerie, and loud fucking music haha. WISH ME LUCK PLEASE! Sending you all huge kisses! ♥️♥️♥️

Un post condiviso da Josh Taylor (@joshtaylorpoledance) in data:

Josh’s journey from organised dance to pole dance

Josh’s commitment to pole dance as an art is something that struck me from the moment I met him and that, I now realise after this interview, has characterised his whole relationship with dance as a practice. It’s a hunger and love for dance as an elevation tool, as a vehicle of self-love, as both work and passion.

Josh grew up in what he calls a dangerous home, where his predominant emotional experience was an overwhelming fear – fear of friendships, of rejection, of relationships, of not being valuable through work. He became a dancer before training for pole: “Dance for me was one of the first places that I felt joy, and a joy that felt bigger than me. Not a small joy that I could contain, but a joy that felt that it went out.”

Around the age of 15, Josh had a crush on a boy who was part of a dance company crew in his area. He went to one of the community shows the boy danced in, and was blown away by the experience. In an effort to get close to the boy, he joined the company too. “I went and I was very bad, very clumsy – my body was big, very disadvantaged for learning movement because of social fear, and also I physically didn’t have the fitness to approach that process with any significant stamina, which is very frustrating.”

However, when Josh began to engage with the dance company, his motivations for staying changed. “I didn’t really go there with the mentality of, ‘I want to become a dancer.’ My mentality was very much, ‘I want to suck this guy’s dick’ – which I did by the way – but as this this relationship with dance progressed, I started feeling something that made me resonate with everything around me, and that was really the seed of what pushed me to where I am now.”

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Picture by @portraitprojection @tomdingleyphoto

When Josh turned 16, he moved out of his family home and left school to work full time in banking. Before he turned 18, he was working on a management team that was responsible for 40 people who were all in their 40s. At the time, Josh had acid blonde hair and glasses with orange frames, he lived in a chaotic shared home, and taught weekend dance classes while trying to become an adult.

He started investing even more time and money into dance, so much that he was both working full-time and training full-time. A typical week for him consisted in working every day from 7 AM till about 6 PM, to then take three or four dance classes in a row every night, Monday to Friday. Then on Saturday there would be six hours of classes. “I worked like I was on a fucking mission,” he says.

“I was not gifted, so I really had to have a lot of lot of discipline to even be able to start that process. I had no base interaction with exercise, and so my nervous system wasn’t developed, my coordination wasn’t developed, my spatial awareness was bad, my ability to comprehend and regurgitate movement was also very poor. So rather unsurprisingly, this exhausted the fuck out of me.”

He realised he wasn’t able to sustain this lifestyle on a Saturday in the spring of 2008, when trying to take ballet classes at Pineapple Studios in London.

“I was taking these two 1/2-hour intensive ballet classes that I was so bad at. The teacher would not even look at me. When I got there, in the waiting room, I was staring at the advanced class finishing, waiting for my class and I just didn’t have the stamina to do it. I just felt worthless, and there was a pole dancing class down the hall exactly the same time as the ballet class, so I was like, ‘OK: I don’t want to do ballet anymore, I’m gonna go and dance like a whore.’”

The class was taught by a guy called Adam Jay (AJ), from a company called PoleFX. Josh was struck by the playfulness of the pole dance environment, something that he had not really experienced within organised dance. “That was the first time that my joy of dance and playfulness found each other in the same space,” he says.

From debilitating injuries to a career in pole dance

Josh fell in love with pole, and started training weekly. Pole was sustaining him emotionally and contributing to his physical development. It was during that time that he decided to commit full time to the world of dance, working less and less in the business world. So he asked instructors if he could work with them as an assistant. “I noticed the instructors knew about pole dance, but not about dance training, so I could help with the warm up, and with setting up, and cleaning. So I did those things in exchange for classes.”

Within about four months from his first class, he ended up taking those classes over, as the teachers involved took a step back from pole or weren’t interested in it anymore. The pole dance industry in the UK was very young back then: “This was back in the day that elite level pole dancing was inside and outside like hang, Jade, Allegra and a basic handspring, and I accumulated those quite rapidly because I’d already had this huge investment in physical training through dance.”

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Picture by: Millie Robson. IG: @millie_robson

At the same time, Josh had become involved in a Russian method classical ballet school which, he says, physically destroyed him. His experience with this school dramatically changed his trajectory and resulted in pole dancing becoming his main career. He says:

“I had a very aggressive, very mean teacher. I stopped eating because people constantly talked about how fat I was. I was eating probably 300 to 500 calories a day, and I was doing minimum six hours of training on a daily basis. I ended up getting that lollipop head that you get when you’re a big man, with a big frame with no meat, and I was still teaching pole on the weekends for some kind financial assistance.”

Within six months of being at the ballet school, his pelvis started to break down. During a contemporary class where he was attempting a move featuring a pitch kick, the hip he was standing fell out from underneath him.

“As I released my leg to try and balance, the leg travelled down through space. There was this feeling of it falling back into the hip all the way down. I dropped to the floor and couldn’t stand up for a second, and then when I could stand up I l went out of the room, trying to rotate my hips. It didn’t hurt, it just felt really wrong.”

Josh found out he had femoral acetabular impingement, meaning that the nodular bone on the neck of both femurs was grinding against the cartilage of his hips: “I managed to really damage my legs and hips as a result of doing ballet with bad technique.” So he spent a year and a half waiting to have orthopaedic surgery with a specific surgeon, unable to continue training classical dance because even walking 100, 150 meters meant resulted in significant pain.  

By the age of 19, around 2010-2011, Josh was teaching at Ecole de Pole in London, at the time owned by Justine McLucas. Pole dance was going through a renaissance, with the first Pole Art Competition run by Nelle Swan bringing contemporary pole dance to a world stage. Pole dancing was the only dancing he managed to do at the time, as he could hold onto the pole to redistribute the energy into his upper body, away from his injured legs. A career in pole seemed more and more of a viable option for Josh, and it was around that time that he took charge of GymBox’s pole program, bringing their classes from 45 minutes to an hour to 90 minutes.

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Picture by Millie Robson – IG: @millie_robson

Dance was Josh’s number one commitment, and he worked a lot of jobs while teaching pole across London and performing in cabarets. He stresses that: “It’s important to note that during this time – from the age of 17 onwards – I was dancing on tables in gay bars to pay for dance school, and I was doing a lot borderline sex work stuff around London, to try and finance everything that I wanted to do.” Yet, all of this work came to a halt after the surgery that was supposed to fix the damage in his hips.

Josh couldn’t really walk, and the post-surgery pain was even worse than his pre-surgery symptoms. Despite this, two weeks after his surgery he went back to teach at GymBox, because he couldn’t find anyone to cover his classes. In his first class back, he really hurt himself.

“I was really in a lot of pain and I went back and saw my surgeon, and he was like, ‘You will be lucky if you’re ever able to walk normally again. Dance is completely off the table. That is never going to happen for you. You need to just put it down.’

“I was heartbroken and very afraid because this thing that had been my first true source of joy in my life, the first thing that had any potential for any evolving sense of self-love, this thing was now gone.”

Josh grieved for a year, working as a receptionist in Bikram yoga studio and investing in his healing physiotherapy and Pilates. He says the experience forced him into a state of humility, and then into a profound technical examination of not just learning new movement, but also into a technical examination of his body’s natural movement.

It was thanks to this work that he managed to move further as a pole dancer. He says: “If you don’t go back and really start addressing how you take every step in your day, if you don’t look at your posture and see where all your movement grows from, if your base posture is not addressed, your potential is never going to be fully realized. This is something in pole that is a big weakness, even now, because people don’t want to do that work.”

That year forced Josh to go through this process, allowing him to come back to pole with the necessary technical and physical strength and awareness. He missed pole, and he loved it, and he says it took him “from being someone with very little potential for someone with the necessary knowledge and experience to grow potential.”

This knowledge and experience inform Josh’s instructor intensive weekends, where he teaches semi-experienced instructors to think critically about movement, to inform aspects of pole such as warm-ups and training.

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@tanerelle kinda vibes ❤️ Full vid on IGTV.

Un post condiviso da Josh Taylor (@joshtaylorpoledance) in data:

Launched in 2015, Josh’s instructor intensive is made of five clinics where he examines what happens in pole classes. He defines his teaching method as Socratic, based in on asking and answering questions from him to the students and vice versa. It’s 16-hours long, and provides reading recommendations for further study.

He says: “My program is very small. I’m very proud of it and I know it has had a really positive impact on the people that have participated in it.” He wants to develop it further within the next five years, so that people can start seeing pole as a part of a larger human experience, rather than something that is just a hobby.

The highs and the lows of a travelling artist

Since coming back to pole, Josh’s career took him to many countries, many stages and many studios, in a commitment to his art that I haven’t encountered or heard of often. He says:

“The biggest achievement for me is the fact that I’ve worked in five continents. I have worked across Europe, across the northern United States, I’ve worked in the Middle East, I’ve worked around Asia and I’ve worked in Australia. I don’t even remember all the countries I’ve been to, all the students I’ve had, but I think that just the force of will it took to make that happen was significant.”

Pole dance is not a financially rich industry, and to be able to work and get by in a variety of countries, Josh has had to be very efficient and prepared to not earn much, particularly when he was travelling before anybody knew who he was. The residency system he used was not around when he started, and it required sacrifice. Josh says:

“I had to be intelligent about making business propositions – so I will I will come and sleep on the floor in your house, and I can teach this, this and this, and I will take the normal rate for your teachers. This means that one of your teachers can have a holiday, and you get all of this new information. And I send them a couple of videos.

“Literally everything I owned fit into a single suitcase for 10 years, and during that time I travelled everywhere that would have me, and I did everything that anyone would be willing to pay me to do go if I surrendered to my desire for it. I sacrificed a lot of my own wellbeing in the pursuit of it. I did that as long as I was able to sustain it, and once I wasn’t able to sustain it anymore, I had to start looking for somewhere permanent, which is the point in my career that I find myself out now.”

The highs were high. In 2013, Josh was a resident teacher at Body and Pole in New York. In 2014, he says he became the first pole dancer to successfully get paperwork to live as an artist in the States, making pole dancing into something recognised by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services as valid art form.

In 2016, Josh performed at Pole Show LA, now known as Rise The Night. With Angela Nelson, he assisted Brandon Grimm, director of Pole Show LA, in choreographing a memorial performance for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. They performed this together. In 2017, he spent seven months in a working residency in Adelaide Australia, and going to Sydney for many working trips.

The difficulties were many. When travelling from Asia to Europe to the US, Josh suffered from methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) skin infection. Then, a bacteriophage (a type of virus that infects and replicates within bacteria) started to breed in his existing infection releasing a cytotoxin called Panto-Valentine Leuokocidin, which leads to immune-suppression and can kill up to 75% of patients. 

He experienced the advancing infection for about six months before being diagnosed and treated. Still, he continued touring while coping with PVL and MRSA, and he says: “When you watch [my Pole Show LA performance], you are watching someone carrying a bacterial infection for months, performing with necrotising lesions on my skin the size of my fist. I still have scars on my tailbone and scars on my inner thigh still from this.”

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Pole Show LA – Credit: Alloy Images

In 2013, when working at Body and Pole, he was performing both at a venue in Fire Island, near New York, and for a big contemporary dance company. The Friday before his contemporary dance show rehearsals started, a man in the audience decided to run against the pole he was performing on at full speed at 3 AM, hitting the equipment sideways. The pole – a pressure pole between the floor and the beam – came out of the ceiling with the man on it, smashing Josh in the forehead and giving him a concussion, but luckily no permanent injuries. Still, the impact split the skin on his forehead open down to his skull.

“I couldn’t go to the hospital because I was working illegally. Also, because I was on an island, they would have to find a helicopter to come and get me. I was not going to spend $60,000 and get deported! So we found a doctor who was drunk – I never found out his name – and who volunteered to sew up my head provided I didn’t know who he was, so I couldn’t sue him afterwards. I lost a significant amount of blood. The next morning I woke up at 8 AM, took the boat back to the mainland, taught three classes in a row and went back to my apartment, eating 6000 calories’ worth of food to try and restore some power. Then Monday morning went into rehearsal for this show.”

Josh’s thoughts on the evolving pole dance industry

Josh has worked hard to be able to live through dance, and finds that acknowledgement and appreciation of art – and pole dancing as part of art – are essential towards society’s development and towards the pole industry’s respect of its own craft.

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Picture by @hylowphoto

For Josh, pole dance is “an engine for the self-exploration of identity and for emancipation from shame.” He thinks a huge part of the industry is people’s “desire and need to evolve past what they have been told they are, as women, as people with different body shapes, or people from different life origins.”

He found pole unique because it creates community, a space for us to connect with each other, particularly for women. He argues: “How many socially oriented forms of exercise exist for women? I can think of barely any apart from pole dancing. Pole as an environment where you can make new friends, new connections and challenge and manipulate your own identity while being visible to others but with hopefully little judgment is unique.”

Yet, the close, personal nature of pole means a lot of people aren’t able to separate business from personal issues, making business negotiations problematic:

“I think the business of pole has this kind of mentality of, ‘We’re doing this together and we’re a family’ – and that means that the people participating are going to unconsciously or otherwise be projecting their familial issues and their community issues and the struggles that they have within their personal relationships onto anything.”

On top of this, pole dance is not often taken seriously as art, meaning that, in turn, the industry hasn’t always taken itself seriously as a viable, important business in people’s lives. Josh says: “The world treats what we do as bullshit. It treats it as like a flippantly unnecessary, self-indulgent stupid thing, and my whole thing is that without art, our life cannot flourish.”

In our capitalist society where everything has to be sellable, Josh views art – and pole as part of art – as a shared responsibility to help society grow. As we have seen, the art sector has received little funding worldwide during the Coronavirus pandemic, and people seem to view art as unnecessary towards nations’ survival. For Josh, this unconscious bias or prejudice about the value of art is often carried into the business structure of pole, particularly because a lot of people that run studios have never really lived as artists.

“Until you really surrender to art, until you see the value of how it contributes to communal systems from a personal and from non-personal perspective, I don’t really think that you can appropriately value it – and that heavily disadvantages our ability to create appropriate financial structures to value the value the system that we’re working with.”

Josh adds:

“Without artistic language, expressive language, how the fuck are you supposed to evolve, to become the person that is going to serve the world best? I treat this as an essential mission. This is something that human beings have to have for civilization to be able to function and evolve.”

For Josh however, to make sure that pole dancing as an art is really is valuable to everyone, the industry has to invite strippers in, to reject the shame that rejecting them is causing the industry in the first place. He says:

“Stripping is absolutely as an art. We have a very colonial relationship with art, based around the standard European concept of high art – so opera houses, ballet companies, theatre companies, hoity toity aristocratic funding. These are the things that are considered elevated within our cultures and are invested on within our cultures. But actually, art is not just about opera houses. It’s about getting down in the fucking mud. And there is no greater value to stuff happening down on the street level. But they will never be attributed the same status is something like ballet, for example, because pole and stripping serve not just as an artistic currency, but a social currency.”

Because of this, Josh thinks it’s important for pole to absorb, respect and value sex workers. He sees pole’s ability to help us evolve as individuals as its highest value, so for him “that projection of shame onto a sex worker community prevents us from really accurately examining and becoming aware of the shame that we project internally onto ourselves.” He adds that the integration of sex workers is crucial towards civilisation’s healing from sexual shame: “If sex workers cannot be treated with respect, how can any of us treat our own internal sexuality with respect?”

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Picture by @portraitprojection @tomdingleyphoto

Pole Is Hard Work

Josh’s self-awareness, his journey into dance and pole dance, his life experience and his commitment to always push himself and work on himself have brought him where he is now. This knowledge informs his beliefs in art, his world view and his understanding of pole as an industry. And for him, seeing pole dancing as an art, as hard work, as something that needs to keep growing and improving is essential: “One of the biggest frustrations I have working with my students is that they are waiting for someone to tell them the secret, the secret of the next step. You know what the secrets of the next step is? A shitload of hard fucking work.”

He concludes:

“I worked really hard for this. The reason I’m able to do the things I’m able to do, and the reason I have the confidence that I have, is because of the work I did. And one of the things I find quite challenging about interacting with some of the population of the ‘modern’ pole dancing industry is that they treat pole like a toy – they don’t give it an appropriate human value, and they also expect it to come easily to them.

“I did not take no for an answer. I was always looking for the teacher that was going to teach me the lesson to go one step further, and then the funny story always ends up being that you are the only teacher that you ever really have, you just learn things other people.

“I’ve worked hard for this industry and I’ve worked hard for my place in it and I’ve worked hard for this art form and I think that is really my highest achievement because it’s something that keeps growing with me.”

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