Thoughts on pole industry reform

Should we reform the way the pole industry deals with its main issues? In this post I discuss what we need to consider to reform pole.

Should we reform the way the pole industry deals with internal issues? Discussions surrounding the use of the term “exotic” in pole dance are once again firing up pole conversations on Instagram. In this post I share my two cents on what these discussions say about our industry, and on what it may take to change it.

Why are you talking about pole reform? What’s happening?

I have been very tentative about writing this blog post. In the past couple of months my depression has come back, and I’ve tried to shy away from complex discussions for fear of doing it wrong. This week I’ve also been grieving a family member to whom I will not be able to say goodbye properly because of the pandemic, and I feel very numb. But I do have a platform, a platform that doesn’t only reach pole dancers – and I believe it’s important to show up, even if this week I may show up imperfectly.

Many people outside of the pole dance industry may, when looking at our Instagram and Facebook posts, wonder why pole dancers are so opinionated, why there’s always some scandal we need to raise awareness of, and why we don’t just dance and shut up. Well, pole dancing isn’t your average industry: with roots in strip clubs, the influence of colonialism, the threat of social media censorship and general stigma caused by nudity and overt sexuality, doing pole sparks discussions that, say, playing tennis may not. The thing is, not everyone in pole wants to take part in those discussions.

Some portions of our industry have notoriously wanted to “cleanse” pole from its stripping roots, excluding those who brought us pole in the first place. Scandals following unsafe competitions or competitors performing in “blackface” in others resulted in social media shitshows even before we were all locked down and glued to our phones. Over the summer, talk of diversity and inclusion caused social media and offline rifts amongst studios and pole dancers. Now, leading and knowledgeable voices in our industry – @novacainedances_llc, @thenadia33, @kitty_velour and @gemmarosepole among others – have raised the issue of using the term “exotic” when talking about pole dance styles, classes, names etc. See the posts below.

Used to describe strippers, pole dancing in heels and specific styles of pole, the term “exotic” is actually rooted in colonialism and cultural appropriation. It’s both generic and inaccurate: are we saying that dancing in heels is “foreign”?

When it comes to pole styles, the use of the term “exotic” is often associated with Russian style dancing (pointed toes, moves that flow into each other, power spins and the like), and some Russian pole dancers have mentioned that the term was adopted to protect them from the stripping stigma at a time when they did not feel ready to be open about stripping in their country.

Whatever its use or history however, many of us believe “exotic” isn’t an accurate and fair term to use in pole anymore, and for many it’s been a no-no for a while. I myself do not use it to define my style – for which I’m still trying to come up with a name – or for my workshops.

This weeks’ conversations are making certain pole dancers uncomfortable, because it means they may have to change the name of their classes, styles, Instagram handles, you name it.

This post doesn’t provide a straight answer to the “exotic” conversation, or find names we should use instead. As a white woman who started dancing as a recreational pole dancer, it’s not really my place to school anyone on racism, colonialism or sex work stigma. What I can do however is discuss the interesting tensions and questions that the “exotic” discussion, just like many other discussions we’ve had in the past, raises about pole as an industry. Addressing these questions, through the conversations we’re already having and through offline action, will hopefully provide some contribution towards changing something.

Why does pole need reforming?

If someone says: “Hey, I feel excluded from and discriminated against in this space,” I tend to want to listen. On a human level, it’s a human right to not be excluded from a space because of your job, skin colour, sexual orientation and so on. On a business level, if someone feels excluded from your space, they will go elsewhere: you’ve lost a client. Inclusion just makes sense. However, some people are more attached to a name or to their ways than to the idea of welcoming their fellow humans. This is becoming quite obvious in pole, and this is why I’m arguing we need to make a start towards industry reform.

As Lauren Elise once said in a fantastic Filthy Friday seminar, the pole world likes to act like a community, but it’s not a community: it’s an industry. It’s too big, too mainstream to be a community – and it needs to make money. It’s this “community” vibe that has, for many, resulted in the lack of enforcement of guidelines, or in situations that would have not been acceptable in other industries.

Colleen Jolly from the International Pole Industry Association (IPIA), which I’ve already covered in a previous blog post, said to me in an interview that too many of us start working in pole because we love it. We love dancing, we love how good it is for us, we love the glitter and glamour. Yet, you see brands outright copying each other’s designs, people performing or teaching for free, or trying to exclude strippers from classes. In Colleen’s view:

“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 [of pole]. Or we choose to overlook things because we just want this entire community to be perfect and it’s not.

Colleen Jolly from the IPIA, interview with Blogger On Pole

Because of this community approach, it may seem quite freeing to work in the pole industry. However, particularly for those who are often excluded from spaces, it is not. That “freedom” of not having to follow a code results in bad practices continuing unchanged. As a result, pole scandals, controversies and discussions often arise via social media, where pole dancers from different backgrounds, countries, gender identities, sizes and more come together and clash.

Sadly however, even when knowledgeable voices in our industry speak up and those conversations happen, too many people, brands and businesses conveniently decide to ignore requests for change. Some claim that they’re a business or a brand, so they don’t get political. Others claim to not care about social media. Others still like to think those discussions or issues don’t apply to them. And many prefer to do pole uncritically, without questioning words, attitudes or behaviours, because, like Amber from Strip Down, Rise Up, they just wanna go to a pole class.

While we can’t live our life worrying about what’s being said on social media everyday, we can’t continue to ignore the fact that our industry needs to start a journey towards reform. Particularly when stigma towards strippers and cultural appropriation are rife in our industry, we need to find some sort of ethical framework for everyone – from newbie polers to household names – to follow.

What should we consider when we talk about pole reform?

The reason I’m banging on about reform when it comes to pole is that what we’re talking about here encompasses conversations on power, workers’ rights, customer care and ethics as much as it does creativity. These are complex conversations that we can have on Instagram, as so many amazing polers have already, but that really need some offline direction.

There are countless pole dancers around the world, but there isn’t a set of values that brings us together and that we stand for. Take the events of 2020 and post-Black Lives Matter discussions about inclusivity, representation and cultural appropriation. Some people chose to disengage and look the other way. Others claimed to have been “bullied” into speaking. We are having those conversations, but they are still thriving, because of the structures that enable exclusion and that don’t promote change.

Ultimately, this is about power and influence: whoever has the money and star power to make the rules can for now continue making money, while others are left to grapple with ethical dilemmas. For instance, a single student may disagree with an instructor’s view on racism and cultural appropriation and leave, but if someone racist loses a client and gains 10 because of their popularity, where do we go from there? If an instructor disagrees with a studio owner about their views and behaviours, would they still quit even if they have nowhere else to teach? Can competitors in need to raise their pole profile choose not to compete in certain competitions because they disagree with their ethos?

All these situations raise questions about how we actually make sure that equality, diversity, inclusion and ethics are written into our industry, so that even those who choose to look the other way have to engage, and so that people aren’t left to choose between their livelihood and their values.

For me, the answer is in pole industry bodies and in creating a shared code of ethics that is built into the pole industry, almost like instructor certifications are becoming increasingly popular. The World Pole Fitness Federation has a code of conduct, but it’s mainly fitness related, and I don’t know how popular / widely used it is. In a recent interview for instance, Torwa Joe from Vertical Joe’s mentioned that they are offering diversity training to studios. That’s a place we can start from when we build ethics into pole to begin a journey of reform.

But we also need some high-level enforcement when things go wrong, something that goes beyond forcing businesses to apologise on social media. If we decide, like we seem to have done, that “exotic” is the wrong word to use, how do we make sure that businesses comply with avoiding to use a racist word to define themselves and their work?

I think the emergence of a pole industry body like the IPIA can be crucial towards pole reform, to decide the dos and don’ts of our industry, and make sure we act like an industry and not like a malfunctioning community. Whatever we do, however, strippers need to have a seat at the table because they’ve notoriously been excluded from an art they have created.

Calling for regulation – whether it’s for social media or for pole – always makes me sound like a killjoy. But I think pushing for reform and having something that unites the pole industry when issues that divide us come up is essential to prevent the status quo from going on unchanged.

What do you think? Where do you see this situation going?

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  1. […] Created by Canadian stripped Onyx Sachie, Skripped Down is a pole dance competition born in response to what the founder calls both a “lack of representation on the judging panel” and “inappropriate judging criteria” for what competitions like PSO call “Exotic” style pole – a term she herself is trying to eliminate in favour of “Erotic” due to the former’s racist origins. […]

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