Welcoming fat dancers in the pole industry – a talk by Ela Aur

At the Pole Weekender, I had the privilege and pleasure to listen to Ela Aur’s seminar about how the pole dance industry can do better to include and cater for fat polers. This blog is a summary of Ela’s talk.

About Ela Aur

Ela Aur is a Cypriot ex academic with a neuroscience MPhil, a data coach, a pole dance performer and instructor. A force of nature on the stage, Ela is all about giving face and taking up space. Mostly a floor dweller, she uses her ass, legs, and face to hypnotise the audience. No stranger to performing, she has recently adapted to virtual performances. On top of all these things, Ela defines herself as fat.

“I don’t go by plus size,” she says. “I proudly label myself as ‘fat.'” Why? Because being fat is an integral part of her experience; it characterises the way she interacts the world around her and it influences her bookings, the way she performs tricks and the way people view her.

I met Ela for the first time during Beanie The Jet‘s PD Filthy Friday’s Halloween show in 2018, when she gave me massive Dr. Frank N. Furter vibes with her gorgeous hair and costume. I was massively inspired by another pole dancing academic taking up space both in academia and in the pole world, so you can imagine I was thrilled to find out that she, too, would be teaching at the Pole Weekender.

Ela’s seminar was important for me to attend. Titled “Too Fat To Be On Stage,” it was an enlightening talk about systemic fatphobia within the pole industry and about the practicalities of pole dancing while fat. During her talk, Ela openly discussed the difficulties faced by plus size polers and what changes can and need to be made to make the industry more inclusive.

This is, I believe, crucial knowledge that is overlooked by too many pole professionals. Sure, I firmly believe there is space for everyone in this industry and in my classes. I love watching fat polers perform, and I make a point of challenging my students every time they claim they have to lose weight to be good pole dancers. Yet, as a thin pole dancer, my awareness of the challenges faced by fat polers is limited, and I want to make sure I am not asking my students to perform a trick they physically can’t do. In the hope to share some of the tips that helped me better understand the experience of fat pole dancers in the pole industry, I’m bringing you some of the highlights from Ela’s seminar.

*This is a summary of Ela’s talk, but make sure you keep an eye out on Ela’s IG to save the date for the online version of this seminar, which is currently planned for Wednesday 22 December, 5.30 PM GMT.

‘Fat’ is not a bad word

Ela invited us to think about why there is so much stigma against the word ‘fat’ – a stigma we desperately need to break down.

“‘Fat’ is the opposite of ‘thin,'” she said, “but it’s a loaded word. It’s used as an insult.” With a very helpful word cloud, Ela showed us a variety of euphemisms used to describe bigger dancers – e.g. fluffy, plus size, voluptuous, thicc, curvy. “But in using these, we are skirting around the word ‘fat,’ because we know that language is important, and we are coded to think that ‘fat’ is a bad word.”

While Ela proudly calls herself ‘fat,’ she argues it’s important to check with other people before using the word to describe them. Some prefer to be called curvy, or plus size, and because ‘fat’ still has a negative connotation, many polers might not want to be called like that.

Picture by MrMDotK

Language and safe spaces

The importance of the language we choose goes beyond the description of fat dancers, and has a lot to do with how people who are not fat describe themselves when they don’t feel in top shape. When someone who isn’t fat says: “I feel so fat today,” the negative connotation of that term is passed onto other people. Suddenly, a neutral term to describe appearance becomes negative, synonymous with ugliness and laziness, affecting and triggering everybody else in class. After that, the environment is no longer safe.

In explaining this, Ela used a variety of anecdotes showing how negative self-talk by other people can affect fat people’s experience. One of these is when students claim they feel “too fat” to wear certain skimpy outfits – outfits that Ela, who’s fat and proud, wears right in front of them. She also talked about the experience of being told: “Fat bodies just don’t look as good on stage,” by a student who wasn’t fat… when Ela’s been fat throughout most of her dancing and performing career. This episode really affected her, making her think: “Am I broken for being fat and doing this? For being fat and teaching and performing?”

When Ela points out to people that she is fat, and she does teach and perform, they are often quick to backtrack and say they’re talking about themselves. And while Ela recognises that these comments don’t come from a place of contempt towards her, it is clear that people who are in their head about their body shape end up offending others without realising. This happens because ‘fat’ automatically means ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ in our society.

“If you equate ugliness with fatness – with how my body looks on stage – then how could it possibly be ok for it to be on stage? Why would you look ugly but I don’t?”

@ela_aur

Being told she’s “brave” is another back-handed compliment. When people tell her she is brave for doing the thing they couldn’t do, they are creating an unsafe environment for fat people, setting expectations that only if you look conventionally good you can be on stage.

“I’m always disappointed after I see pictures from competitions or shoots. You expect to see the polished look, but that’s not what I look like, and because the supposed ‘right’ look is hard-coded in my head, I think, ‘She’s right. She made me think I should never be on stage.'”  

@ela_aur

The idea that only a certain type of body looks good on stage automatically excludes the majority of dancers. Very few people in our industry look like models or celebrities, so if even thin polers describe themselves as “too fat” to be on stage, well… our environments will never be safe and accessible, for fat people or for anyone.

Picture by Simon Hutchinson

“I’m tired of being the butt of the joke,” said Ela during her talk, highlighting the difficulties of existing as a fat person in a world where your body is seen as less worthy. “I’m tired of existing in this body. And to stop being tired, the world needs to change. My brain can and should change too, but the world needs to change” for ‘fat’ to stop being a bad word, Ela said.

Teaching while fat

When in 2015 Ela was asked to become an instructor, she had to come to terms with imposter syndrome. She thought:

“Why did [my studio owner] ask me to be an instructor? I did not see any people like me, a single pole instructor who was big. Fat people were not the ones I saw headlining shows, or judging competitions. I couldn’t see the representation I really needed to think I could do that.”

@ela_aur

Her studio owner raised all the qualities that would have made Ela a fantastic teacher – she knew how to do and demonstrate the moves, she was personable, supportive and taught in a way that made people understand – but all she could see was her body, even if nothing of what the studio owner said had to do with it. So she did what any pole dancing academic would do: she did her research.

Picture by: The Image Cella

At the time, Ela couldn’t even find many examples of fat pole dancers on social media – she only found three! “People weren’t even talking about themselves in that way, they weren’t making their size an explicit part of their experience. So I felt I didn’t have permission to view them as the representation I was looking for, or to talk about myself that way either.” 

The only pole instructor who self-defined as plus size at the time was the incredible Roz The Diva, whom Ela calls “a beacon of shining light.” Roz explained the main reason why students came to her classes by simply saying: “People trust me,” and that was a big deal for Ela. Now, she says: “I can’t believe I was so close to saying no to this massive opportunity that changed my life.”

Ela hopes her experience will make students more comfortable about being themselves, in class and on stage.

“My students see me, and they have the permission to look however they want. Here I am, in my tiny clothes, tree trunk thighs, hairy because most of the time I can’t be arsed to shave. I’m that representation for people that come to me.”

@ela_aur

Considerations for teaching plus size students

For Ela, listening to students is essential. While some may say they can’t do a move because of fear or stigma against fat people, it’s important to listen to plus size students who may be facing a physical obstruction when performing a trick. For instance, Ela physically can’t do leg hangs very well now – it’s just physics, she says, she can’t bend her leg enough to make her knee grip safely. Some students may not be able to do standard climbs due to their belly or boobs, so it’s worth trying to switch them up with side climbs – and so on.

Ela recommends thinking about how you can diversify the curriculum to cater to different bodies, and suggests joining one of Roz The Diva’s workshops to learn how to teach plus size bodies. She says: “Don’t say, ‘Keep trying.’ Some things might not be achievable for fat students, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pole — you just have to change the script.”

Picture by The Image Cella

How can the pole industry better include and cater for fat polers?

During her seminar, Ela shared six steps the pole industry should follow to be more inclusive of fat polers. They are the following.

  1. Change our language:
    We should remove coded ‘bad’ words from our vocabulary and nip any negative self-talk in the bud (or positive body talk about losing weight). We should set the tone in our classes, avoiding praise towards people who lost weight and keeping the focus on being strong. Even compliments like: “You look good” when you’ve lost a bit of weight are less direct ways to say you look ‘less fat,’ and they hurt. So we should stop commenting on people’s bodies.
  2. Centering fat bodies into our feeds:
    Ela says: “When your feed diversifies, your brain diversifies.” We should follow plus size polers and aerialists to fight the stereotypes in our head and normalise seeing those bodies perform those actions.
  3. Create representation:
    Book plus size performers, instructors, judges, models. If we sell pole as a ‘for everybody thing,’ we need to make sure it looks like it’s for everybody.
  4. Change the script:
    We need to change what pole is at its core. Mainstream pole was built by people who were not plus size, so the way we define expertise is very narrow, particularly when it comes to flexibility and strength. This affects what our students can learn, and the moves that are classed as impressive. So we need to change the script, and have variations in our basic moves to cater for different abilities and bodies.
  5. Listen to fat polers and challenge injustice.
    Speaking up can be scary but if we don’t challenge issues when we see them, then we are complicit in our silence. 
  6. Design functional but sexy clothing:
    Most fat people can’t buy off the rack, and brands that do offer the option to make custom sizes for them can be expensive and/or inexperienced in making polewear for fat polers. “People don’t know to make clothes for a fat person,” Ela says, and this makes fat people’s experience of buying polewear even more alienating. This needs to change, and it all goes back to point 3 – creating more representation.

Fighting my own negative self-talk

I found Ela’s seminar really eye-opening. Growing up in a very politically incorrect country in the late 1990s/early 2000s (aka the decades that feminism forgot) has meant worrying about my appearance throughout my most formative years. Having fluctuated in my weight due to mental illness, binge-eating and the like, I have always somehow associated gaining weight with not being OK mentally. This changed massively through pole, which switched my perspective from focusing on what my body looks like to what my body can do, from being thin to being strong and having a powerful stage presence. I share this world view with my students and I try to make sure that they never feel that they don’t look ‘right’ for pole, saying that it’s important to me they are themselves when they dance.

Yet, because of where, when and how I grew up, this negativity about my body is always there, and I often realise how I am not as kind, encouraging as positive towards myself as I am to my students. In short, I’m harder on myself than I am on others, and listening to Ela was an important reminder that your own negative self-talk can help reinforce stigma and upset others. So the talk was a reminder to take a good hard look at myself and fight the pre-conceptions I grew up with.

Precisely because of my upbringing, I struggle to see myself as the norm, as conventionally thin. But thing is, even if I wasn’t always thin, I am now. My experience and privilege are different from those of some of my students and fellow polers. So I need to recognise and acknowledge that, loudly saying: “It’s ok to be yourself” to students who don’t look like me.

More resources

  • Follow Ela at @ela_aur
  • Find her instructor profile here
  • Find Ela’s signature class, Minx, here
  • Find Roz The Diva’s classes here
  • Consider Pole Teacher Training’s inclusive beginner instructor training here, and read my review of it here

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