In case you missed my pole competition spam, I’ve started competing again for the first time since becoming an instructor and since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Competing is always a transformative process for me, so naturally my latest competition gets its own blog post. Read on to find out more about my routine and my experience of competing after so long.
Competing for the first time since 2019
I became a pole dance instructor at the end of 2019, after my last competition as an amateur and, as we all found out the hard way a few months later, before a global event that was going to change our lives for the foreseeable future.
Suddenly, all the benefits of competing were lost: hearing the crowd cheer, feeding off the public’s energy, meeting your favourite dancers face-to-face, sharing a change room with them and getting to bring your own concept to the stage.
The idea of returning to that felt both riveting and anxiety-inducing, mostly because I had more to lose. During the pandemic, my profile grew more than I thought possible; I became a judge at competitions and someone people turned to to learn about pole dance and social justice issues. I was scared I’d massively fuck up my performance, and I was also nervous about the same things I was excited about – finally sharing the stage and change rooms with my peers (old introvert and impostor syndrome vibes resurfacing).
Competing at Exotic Goddess Roma
Already before Covid and lockdowns changed the way we trained and performed, I had made the conscious decision to not compete in the United Kingdom for a while unless a new competition came in to shake up the system. I had only been competing in the UK, and I really wanted to experience new scenes and ideas. So that’s why I decided to apply to compete in Rome, making my April 30 comp the first time I performed and competed in my country.
I was very excited about changing environment, and about doing that in another home country. Crucially, choosing Rome, where part of my family lives, meant I could spend some time with my parents and with my 93-year-old grandma, whom I don’t see as often because she doesn’t live in Sardinia, where my parents are based.
I chose and stuck with competing at Exotic Goddess Roma despite the fact that I don’t define my style as ‘exotic’ and that this is a word we’ve largely stopped using in the UK post 2020. There were a couple of reasons. First, I had applied and paid for the comp in early 2020, before some prominent members of the stripping and pole industry like Nova Caine and Nadia Sharif highlighted the racist nature of the term ‘exotic’ and its inaccuracy as a term to describe pole dancing in heels – something I addressed in more detail in a previous blog post, also raising the issue of accountability and change in our industry. Secondly, I had noticed that discussions about the use of the term ‘exotic’ hadn’t really gone anywhere in Italy, so I was curious to figure out why.
When I heard drag and vogue performer Aja’s song ‘Brujeria,’ I knew I had to do something with it.
The word ‘bruja,’ ‘witch’ in Spanish, is also a word used in Sardinian to describe witches and women who go beyond what society allows them to do. From what I’ve been able to find from Sardinian folklore, the etymology of bruja is related to fire, to the devil and to burning and destroying things. Mostly, it’s related to sin, between the insult and the fetish.
Itâ€™s a veiled accusation of being a slut, something that, as a woman straddling different industries and cultures, spoke to me. Sardinia has a funny relationship with women and with the occult, blending the Catholic with the Pagan: our matrons are not to be messed with; it’s to a woman, l’accabadora, that folklore gives the power to end a life. Sardinia is other to the rest of Italy, with its own language recognised as such by Italian law…
…which is all well and good, but I had no idea what to do with my performance to make the theme come alive, other than I knew I wanted to use tarot cards and a cape for it. So when shit got real and when dates were announced, I started panicking.
Training with my pole sensei
Luckily, around the time I was ready to start training, one of my favourite instructors, Josh Taylor, resurfaced after a year or so of a break from the pole world. I subscribed to his Patreon and he started talking again, offering to help me with my performance to test a mentorship format he wanted to start offering.
From the start, Josh became my pole sensei – and I use that word because of the Cobra Kai, no mercy vibes he sometimes gave off lol – helping me create a structure for my performance. We started by working on character development, because to be able to really become my idea, I needed to know who this witch was, who she moved like and what her journey was.
After that, Josh fed back on draft sections of choreography, on facial expressions, on tricks and floorwork, helping me make my movement bigger and cleaner and, importantly, teaching me how to breathe. Breathing through my performances has always been a challenge for me, because when I’m anxious or doing something that scares me I hold my breath. By doing that though I make myself smaller, and I make the fast-paced, intense routines I like dancing to unsustainable. Learning how to stop holding my breath through a blend of breath-work tutorials and cues is something truly invaluable that I hope to apply to future performances.
Towards the end of our work together, Josh helped me create a schedule for competition training that included training the routine to other songs to add layers to it and aid memory, and performing to others to get rid of performance anxiety.
My main worry when I create a competition concepts is: will the audience think I’m crazy? Will they not connect with or understand what I’m doing? Essentially, I’m mainly worried about making an absolute tit of myself.
This time, working with Josh helped me get rid of my anxiety, not just because Josh actively fed back on my ideas and movement, but also because in doing so I feel that he gave me the tools to feel more prepared and less anxious in the future. By working together, Josh made me feel like I got this.
The challenges of competing with my concept
Being rusty wasn’t the only challenge of going back to competing.
My song choice – a badass, fast, accent-filled bop – was the fastest song I’d ever danced to in front of an audience. I had ideas of what I wanted to do with it, but struggled to do it all on one pole, which is all the stage chosen by the organisers could fit in.
Since most competitions allow two poles, I am used to doing both a spinning and a static section of a routine, with floorwork in between, allowing for different layers in the use of the music. At my competition I had only one pole available, and I knew it had to be on spin because that’s where my strengths lie. So not only did I have to learn how to dance to ‘Brujeria,’ I also had to familiarise myself with its beats to use them only on spinning pole.
Costumes were another challenge. I wanted to use a gorgeous velvet hooded cape made by my former student, Bea Darwell-Taylor, who’s a costume designer. Just like any costume, I needed to get used to dance with it, and in this case to learn how to dance with such a warm and heavy cape, to avoid it getting tangled around the pole, to prevent the hood from affecting my sight and to make sure it opened at the right time.
My lingerie set and garter belt – made for me and gifted by Mariemur – were yet another challenge: I needed to make sure I reached my bra clasp, which was fairly high up on my back, fast enough to get into my final combo; and the metal sections of my belt dug into my skin during my Jallegra split, so I had to get used to the pain.
I also needed to make sure that my sparkly nipple tassels, made by Tats and Tissels, didn’t come off after I took off my bra as they sometimes did during rehearsals, because nipples and other forms of flashing mean you lose points in the comp scoring system.
…and then there was stamina.
My main challenge: going back to competing proof stamina
The pandemic didn’t just lock us up for months on end: it visibly changed the way we trained. While many polers had an active teaching and performing career, with the closure of venues and studios many of us didn’t have the opportunity to even perform at a showcase.
In my case, the pandemic was a blessing and a curse: it really did help me make my name as an instructor and develop as a dancer, because my online studio teaching, many solo online workshops and 1-1s were suddenly accessible for students all over the world. On the other hand, over-working and teaching at all hours brought me teacher burnout, injuries that weren’t taken care of for at least three months due to the closure of osteopaths, physios and massage therapist, and a lack of stamina. Why? Because suddenly, I was working towards 1-minute routines as opposed to towards 3-minute performances.
I wasn’t training for 1-minute choreographies to teach at the studio anymore: I was training for a power run-through of three and a half minutes. It may not sound like much of a difference, but it actually feels like a lot when you get down to it. I remember getting to my second combo in February, after just two minutes of dancing, and having to collapse on the floor, out of breath.
When youâ€™re at min 2.15 of your competition routine but the song is 3.30mins ðŸ¥µ *sound on* pic.twitter.com/epwHOmxhHYâ€” Dr Carolina Are / Blogger On Pole (@bloggeronpole) January 27, 2022
Slowly, pieces started to fit in together nicely, and from early March onwards I could do full run-throughs. By the first week of the month I’d caught Covid and had to take a week’s break, but luckily it didn’t stop me in my tracks as it did for others, and I was back up and running at full strength after two weeks.
Adding mannerisms and facial expressions that weren’t my ‘thinky’ or petrified face, and making sure my theme came across and that the performance felt natural and cohesive were the last few layers I worked on. Which brings me to…
Length of preparation
When I was preparing my performance, I asked people on my IG how long it took them to get ready for competing, and how much they trained for it. I got all sorts of replies, from people saying they started three months in advance to people who started the week before; from people saying they only managed one run-through a week before the comp to people who trained their routine every day.
For me, I’d say three months before competing usually hits the spot, but for this competition I started four months in advance, because of the speed of the song, because I wanted to learn new skills, and because I was so out of shape after the lockdowns. I trained for my comp two to three days a week, initially working on small sections, then with full run-throughs, and also focusing on smaller sections at the end to tidy them up. Because of this format, I somehow didn’t get tired of my routine as I usually did, and ended up loving it even more: for once, I wasn’t mechanically running through something, I was creating a vision that I was performing. Preparing was tiring, but it felt good.
Exotic Goddess Roma ran in the gorgeous Blue Moon strip club, in Rome’s picturesque and hip Rione Monti neighbourhood. The club was a porn cinema before and features pictures of some of Italy’s most famous porn stars. It had a huge change room and a beautiful stage which was a bit tiny, but that I could work with, having mainly trained for the comp from home with limited space.
The show ran about an hour late, and after I was called on stage I had to stand there a good two minutes before they found my song, which meant that I had to get in and out of the zone before I could perform. Because of this, the beginning wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked but I got my mojo back pretty quickly. That’s part and parcel of going on stage – things don’t always go super smoothly, except that for my performance, for once, they did. I’m actually quite surprised because a lot of things have gone wrong in my past performances, but in this one most things went according to plan. I managed to do the most challenging move, the final eagle, faster than ever, enough for me to add an ending I wanted!
Even if I didn’t place (I came seventh out of 19 people), I’d done myself proud and performed to the best of my abilities. Most importantly, I got to share a beautiful day with my parents, who hadn’t seen me perform since my beginner showcase in Sydney and with whom I got to share a bit of my world. They were very supportive, and I felt very grateful for a lovely, fun day with them, at a fantastic competition where I had a lot of fun, where I met some of my favourite people offline for the first time, and where I got some fab pictures and a video to spam you all with.
It was very liberating to use this performance and this song as my return to the stage after so long, blending my favourite things about pop culture – witchcraft, drag and a beat that makes me wanna kip, drop into a split and shake my ass – with my origins to Rome and to the first pole comp I perform at in my home country.
You can watch my routine below on your social network of choice – IG or YouTube. Give it a like and a share pls 🙂
‘Exotic’ pole in Italy
Another outcome that was important to me was understanding the continued use of the word ‘exotic’ in Italy. Luckily, I got to speak with a variety of Italian polers I admire about why they still use it. Their experience has been that using the words ‘sexy’ or similar stuff to define choreo classes means that people will immediately shut down and not try them, because of Italy’s societal stigma against women and sexuality brought by the Catholic Church’s influence on society (if you don’t believe this, read up on the Church’s meddling with sex ed in Italian schools). Some instructors even found that people were reluctant to book twerk classes because of twerk’s more ‘sensual’ appearance, but that they didn’t hesitate to book dancehall classes – even though dancehall incorporates a lot of elements of twerking. These polers felt like using the word ‘exotic’ was a more neutral term to help hesitant students try heels classes.Â
Let’s get things straight: I have dropped and avoided the ‘exotic’ branding and I would advise people to do the same, because if people feel something is racist and it hurts them, it’s not worth using it. I myself have been called ‘exotic’ in the UK, and I don’t love it: it’s always a bit of a sexy way to call you different, it has hints of fetishisiation and I can see why it can feed into the othering of already marginalised people.
But I am also a believer in the fact that different cultures can tackle different issues at different points in time, and that Italy’s aversion towards sex and the Church’s power over people’s bodies and minds is something that has plagued us for ages – which is why Italian pole dancers’ journey might differ from other polers’ journeys. This is visible in so many aspects of life for Italian people, not just when it comes to sex education, but also when accessing abortion, which is legal in Italy but which many doctors still refuse to perform. The pole industry itself has a lot of work to do in Italy to shed its ‘not a stripper’ vibes, so people have to do what they have to do when doing and teaching pole in order to at least bring a semblance of sexual liberation about. When pole becomes more accepted, change will hopefully come at its own pace.Â
What I do know is that my style isn’t ‘exotic’, or what people identify with a lot of flow, Russian style dancing,
I’m gonna use this post to soft launch my own style‘s definition, which I have been thinking about for a long time and which was my main aim when competing at Exotic Goddess.
My pole sensei Josh has called my dancing ‘drunk Burlesque dancer’ vibes and very rock n’ roll in our training for the comp.
I think what comes across from my style is my initial Aussie style, spinning pole first training from my beginner days; my love for dropping, head rolling and hair flicking like an 80s go-go dancer, as well as sleazy floorwork and powerful tricks and spins. So I’m going to call my style ‘powersleaze,’ which very much sounds like ‘Powerslave’ and is, therefore, very me. So there you go. It finally has a name!
Post comp blues
The week after the comp was a massive struggle bus. My body gave up: I got a big neck strain and succumbed to a knock-out flu that was worse than my experience of Covid. I had to take a break from training for a full week, and I struggled to know what to do with myself now that I wasn’t practicing my routine.
To tell you the truth, I haven’t found my mojo again yet. As a former over-achieving kid, it’s very odd to work so hard towards something and to bring home nothing, although I teared up a little after getting my video and pictures back, and I now feel like I got something out of it: not just assets to share, but a huge learning experience about getting a concept and routine ready without dying of anxiety and while actually enjoying the process.
What I also got out of it is a lot of pride, and a way to kick my impostor syndrome out of my brain: looking at the video and the pictures, and at my score, I know I belonged on that stage and that my performance was good. So now I’m really looking forward to putting something new together for new comps – definitely caught the competing bug again!