Pole in the age of Covid: reflections on teaching and learning practice

How has Covid changed teaching and learning pole dance? In this post, I share my two cents arising from my experience of teaching pole online and offline during the pandemic, focusing on three main elements: the offline vs offline dilemma, my thoughts on spotting and on pole studios as spaces.

Disclaimer

Covid-19 has provided some scary challenges and interesting opportunities to the whole world and, inevitably, to pole dancers. While some of the things I discuss here might appear like a ‘positive’ consequence of the pandemic, make no mistake about my feelings: Covid SUCKS. Life right now feels scary, small, and sad, and too many people and businesses are struggling as a result of it.

However, I firmly believe that, just like the pandemic has made many of us realise we actually wouldn’t mind having a more flexible working day, Covid has made me think more about pole dancing as a teaching and learning practice. Here I reflect on some of these changes.

Conflicting experiences with online teaching during the first Covid wave

In March, many pole dance instructors and students had to move to online teaching and learning due to Covid-related lockdowns. This was completely new to many of us hopping on the Zoom bandwagon, while others already had Patreons, shot video tutorials or had some sort of content subscription models to teach online.

Online classes had a variety of pros. They were cheaper than offline classes, but were potentially very lucrative due to the fact that you could access students all over the world. They were accessible to people who were far away from a pole studio and, as a student, you could learn from your pole idols from the comfort of your living room. Classes were a way to still see some familiar faces, keep busy and fit while feeling part of an albeit remote community. I even heard rumours about instructors people struggled with becoming fantastic teachers online, given the need to be clearer and wordier in your explanation since you couldn’t actually touch people during the Covid pandemic. Some teachers and instructors gained strength, stamina and flow by teaching and learning online, since they were forced to make the most out of a class, having to demonstrate moves multiple times and without sharing a pole with another student.

However, online classes had a variety of cons, too. Although many instructors found out their insurance also covered online classes, the potential for injury when you are teaching through a screen can be high. Given the uncertainty of the situation, many instructors – me included – took up too many classes, and felt burnt out as a result (I even sustained two injuries, that were only treated two months later when my osteopath reopened). Plus, similarly to how some instructors performed better online than offline, others found the online medium more challenging and struggled to teach and connect with their students.

A general sense of lockdown fatigue started filling all of us by the end of April. For many, classes became less crowded as the weather got better, days got longer and students grew tired of learning from their living room, bringing Mr Pole Dance World Alex Shchukin to write that infamous “Is pole dance dead?” Instagram post. Many students were faced with lack of equipment as pole providers had to stop delivering. Many people’s training stopped, affecting their strength and, sometimes, even their love for pole.

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Is pole dance dead? I want to ask you to make this post a platform for discussion of very important topic. What is going on with pole dance community? And will we survive? At the moment I see that 1. Studios are closing one after another. The rent has to be paid, however in most countries the gyms are closed or closed-opened for six months. 2. On-line classes have lost their appeal. People are generally depressed and let’s face it – snack of KitKats is so much easier and faster than 1 hour long training. Takes us straight to number 3👇🏼 3. No motivation. Will there be the championships? Competitions? Events? When? To train… what for? To keep fit? Well, tabatha and yoga are easier, plus you can do it anywhere. 4. No workshops. With the number 1 plus strange travel rules changing every day I doubt any studio would risk to book an instructor 6 months beforehand (as it was before) and invest in promoting the workshop, getting people etc. 5. No circus, no gigs, nothing. When will it come back? Nobody knows. 6. Pole camps, I would say, will be the last ones standing. At least it is about vacation. But I can say from both perspectives – as an instructor and camp organizer – I want to bang my head against the wall with the despair. As I see it, at first we all tried to keep it together, to support each other. But after six months it is just every man for himself. And I get it. Everybody is struggling. So my questions are: what is your situation? Do you think we can do something to help the community? What are you struggling the most with? Have you found something that helps you in your pole dance business or training? Will we survive? Because I think, honestly, we won’t. #poledance

Un post condiviso da Alex Shchukin (@alex_shchukin) in data:

I think some people’s strong feelings against online teaching are related to their expectations that it would be the same as, or make up for, teaching offline in terms of human contact, learning and profit. We’re seeing that at university: online, students can use different formats – e.g. pre-recorded lectures, live online Q&As, seminars where they can speak freely without being seen and feeling as embarrassed as when they’re in class – and this might even enhance their learning. But online lectures don’t make up for £9,000 a year of tuition fees, and not having the human connection with other students and with lecturers, or the ability to gather around campus, make online universities feel hollow. It’s not that online teaching doesn’t work in terms of learning – it’s the total lack of offline connection, and the economic and social circumstances around lockdown, that suck.

Similarly, some people assume that in an online pole dancing class they’ll get the same feeling, level of interaction and care as an offline class. Because of this approach, on a teaching / studio level, some studios have reacted by offering their traditional pole teaching offer, plus a bunch of new classes that they’re not known for, resulting in confusing branding and low student numbers.

The thing is, teaching online is very different from teaching offline, and trying to mirror offline classes to the tiniest details will only leave studios, instructors and students feeling disappointed. If some students and instructors have been thriving online, it’s because they are using the medium for what it is. They are framing online teaching as a way to learn from different people, keeping fit during a pandemic, from the safety and comfort of your own home, rather than as “this shit we hate and that we can’t wait to be done with”. This is why, during the summer, when cases were lower, many online classes continued and were largely successful.

Personally, I have found benefits in both teaching online and offline. I struggle when I can only teach online, because that is related to most of life being put on hold during lockdowns, and to the social and economic uncertainties they bring, and not to the online medium itself. But online classes have also supported me during the Covid pandemic, giving me access to more students than offline classes, students that have now joined me in the studio (before it closed). So it’s not really about online vs offline, or about trying to mirror the studio experience to the tiniest detail. It’s about adapting to different scenarios and different students’ needs. Hopefully we’ll be done with lockdowns soon though. Because e-fucking-nough.

Spotting: good or bad?

My experience as a beginner pole dance student in the pre-Covid age is tied to some beautiful memories of instructors and pole mates spotting me. Spotting isn’t just an almost certain guarantee you won’t break your neck in a move you haven’t yet mastered – to me, spotting has always represented the way in which communities within the pole world can support each other. Now, due to Covid, spotting is long gone in many pole dance studios.

Initially, I thought this would have severely impacted on students’ ability to manage a move, and that it would have increased their fear. However, since September, a variety of my most advanced students have managed really horrible, scary combos on their own as a result of our “no spotting” policy. This has made me wonder whether being firm about “no spotting” has added an element of fearlessness to learning new scary, moves.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed how sometimes spotting results in people throwing themselves at the pole and relying on your hands, without really understanding or questioning where to look, how to position themselves and how to come down of moves. This is risky for instructors, who may risk injury for both themselves and the students, and isn’t really helpful towards getting a move. Since I’ve noticed that, without spotting, even my beginner students who have never been upside down listen more carefully and take extra care in trying a new move, Covid has made me re-think spotting.

As part of our pole teaching practice, spotting cannot be replaced: it still is essential for certain students who feel afraid, or for particularly advanced moves. Plus, losing that “holding me and supporting me” contact completely would maybe dehumanise pole teaching and learning. Yet, being a bit less generous with spotting might make many students more careful and more confident overall in the future. I am fully aware I now sound like my Russian boss. But I promise I haven’t been brainwashed lol.

Rethinking how we run a pole dance studio during (and after?) Covid

Finally, at least in London, Covid seems to have changed how many pole dance studios operate. It’s not unlikely to see each pole surrounded by a taped square, demarcating each student’s training area. Although at Exotica Pole Dance we always operated at a one person per pole capacity, many studios found themselves having to go down from two people to one person per pole. Class times had to be staggered to prevent excessive social contact. Change rooms had to be re-arranged. When offline teaching resumed, many studios kept their online offering.

At least with regards to the UK, Covid has revealed the extent to which housing and building quality can affect safety in our studios, and how we need better studio spaces and options to take ourselves seriously as a community. As Peach Lee Ray once told me in an interview:

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.

Buying and renting spaces in the UK – and particularly in London, where many pole studios found themselves in areas experiencing quick gentrification – is so expensive. Because of this, many studios have been housed in buildings that don’t have tall enough ceilings, or enough space for a big change room, or enough room to distance each pole enough from the other so that students don’t kick each other.

Renting and housing costs make running on a two people per pole capacity very lucrative, meaning that you were paying £25 for a one-hour workout when really, you used the pole half of the time.

Due to the increased demand and the necessity to meet costs, classes came right after the other, sometimes at the expense of cleanliness. They often started late when one lesson ran over time, with no time intervals to properly cool down, change at your own speed, hang around to have a chat.

Covid has changed that: one person per pole is becoming the rule, and clear breaks between classes are becoming necessary to allow the studio to properly clean and disinfect spaces, and students to leave the class without crowding tiny spaces.

I know you are all hating my unpopular opinions by now. But I started pole dancing in Australia, where studios are giant, fun, boudoir looking spaces with 12 poles per class. Their changerooms were massive, and they became a huge hub to socialise and kill those pre-showcase nerves. The spaces looked premium and even better than a boutique gym. So I’ve basically been spoiled right from the start. And I do think that theirs is the right approach to making pole “mainstream” as it is in Australia and as it is on track to become in the UK.

I think having classes with one person per pole should be the rule, to allow students to build on their strength and stamina and make the most out of their money.

I think even a 15-minute break in between each class allows instructors to take a breath and to ensure each class runs on time and that the space is clean, while also not messing with people’s schedule.

Finally, governments need to take fitness, arts, dance and self-expression seriously. A pole dance class where people celebrate an art that came from stripping, resulting in increased self-confidence, strength, wellbeing and improvements to their mental health is not a less viable business that a gym or a leisure centre. Governments need to create spaces where pole dance studio owners don’t have balance extortionate rents with student experience in order to provide a service that people benefit from.

After Covid

Let me just reiterate here that Covid sucks. We’ve all been negatively affected by it somehow, whether that’s emotionally, financially or both. I, for one, cannot WAIT for this shit to be over. But, just like muggles are taking stock of what they’ve learnt during their shitshow, I think that pole, as an industry, can do the same and keep some of the key learnings from this year into the future of pole. Let’s just hope the “Covid is over” scenario doesn’t come too late.

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