PDSM: an exclusive look into the new pole competition

PDSM – Pole Dance Stripper Movement – is a brand new pole dance competition created by stripper, activist and pole instructor Gemma Rose, whom I’ve previously interviewed for the blog. An entirely stripper-run comp, PDSM promises to shake up the pole dance competition system… so I was naturally very curious about it. I’ve interviewed Gemma asking her some pretty spicy questions so you don’t have to – read on to find out more about her comp.

What is PDSM?

A play on BDSM, PDSM promises to be “the world’s most libertine pole competition” – a comp all about showcasing the variety of Stripper Style pole dancing and providing a safe and fully inclusive space, especially for sex workers.

PDSM was created because stripper activist and performer Gemma Rose felt the pole scene in the United Kingdom wasn’t geared in favour of strippers. Strippers may have created our sport, Gemma says, but it feels though as if they are being welcomed into a ‘pole hobbyist space’ at pole competitions. PDSM hopes to “flip the rhetoric, whereby it’s the strippers that are welcoming civ ally polers into our space,” Gemma says.

So how is PDSM different from every other pole comp? Well, first of all, it welcomes and encourages (but doesn’t require) nudity: this means you won’t be losing points if a nipple tassel falls off, or if (as it has happened) you accidentally flash the audience with whatever’s in your thong.

Importantly, paid roles on the competition organising team will be for sex workers, and the whole judging panel will be strippers or ex-strippers. At the event, there will be opportunities to learn about and support sex worker charities and organisations, and discussions about sex workers’ rights will be a crucial part of the comp.

I asked Gemma what she’s most excited about when it comes to PDSM and she joked: “I’ve got to choose one thing?! Okay…it would have to be the nipples.” For realz though, she said she’s most excited about “seeing the joy of competitors feeling liberated and getting to be their most uncensored selves,” as well as the joy of “creating an inclusive environment and sharing stripper pride with everyone. Making SWers feel safe, at home and appreciated.”

Competition categories

PDSM has four categories, plus one:

  • Sensual: all about the slower, oozing, gooey, teasing, raunchy or slutty elements of Stripper Style.
  • Show: to allow competitors to bring in the entertainment value of Stripper Style and wow audiences with impactful floorwork and pole tricks. This category encompasses the variety of ‘club stage show’ styles, from high-energy, dynamic movement (typically found in North American show clubs or a ‘power heels’ style) or mind-blowing, elegant, aerial flow (Aussie style). Ballistic tricks all the way or a ratio of choreography to tricks (like ‘Old School’).
  • Striptease: this category is all about the tease, building to stunning reveals. Any strip tease style is allowed, but at least two items of clothing must be removed. Full nudity is welcome but not a requirement.
  • Stripper Style Twerk: a celebration of booty bounce, derived from Black culture, this category pays homage to the origins of strip club twerk and wishes to give it its own deserved spotlight. For this category, Gemma worked closely with her moderator and consultant Leila Davis to make sure the language and content properly respected Black culture.

The ‘plus one’ category is Upcoming SS Performer, which is by invitation only and geared towards developing Stripper Style movers in any style. Unsuccessful competitors within the 4 categories of the video round will still get the chance to compete in this category. The top 5 competitors from the lower quartile of overall marks will be invited to compete in this category in the live final.

Why does PDSM have such different categories?

The level of detail in PDSM’s category system comes from experiences rooted in the UK strip club industry and from competing in pole comps.

“Most other SS competitions categorise by level rather than style,” says Gemma Rose. But “PDSM is all about celebrating and showcasing the variety of stripper movement and giving each individual style a deserved spotlight.” This is because she feels that the UK pole industry only has one style in mind when thinking of stripper styles – usually what you may find in an American show club, with customers ‘making it rain’ on the dancers on stage. “Don’t get me wrong, these clubs exist and it’s an important part of stripper culture,” Gemma says. “However, this just isn’t the case in the UK for the most part. Other aspects of the stripper world don’t tend to get promoted, often because the show club stereotype lends itself more to the glamourised narratives we find surrounding sex work.” Instead, PDSM’s genre-based categories want to give a platform to different types of stripper movement, giving a more nuanced insight into stripper culture.

Aside from platforming different styles, Gemma hopes that PDSM’s different categories can make judging fairer. “How are judges supposed to judge and competitors supposed to compete against a whole mixture of different styles in one category under the same criteria? Comparing a ballistic SS tricks routine to a slow sensual routine is like comparing apples to oranges,” she argues, adding that this leaves it up to the judges to what style they prefer depending on how balanced the mark schemes are. For Gemma, having categories with specific mark schemes tailored to that genre seems to be the fairest solution on which to judge competitors.

PDSM’s mark scheme and category system address a set of issues that Gemma feels need to be addressed in pole comps in general, particularly in relation to competitors’ level. It’s impossible to summarise these issues, but we all know them and have all faced them, so I’ll share Gemma’s incredibly eloquent arguments in full:

Examples of the problems that competitions encounter are category entry requirements like ‘you can only enter beginner if you’ve been pole dancing for under a year’. So someone that is still clearly a beginner level dancer (and may have been so for 10 years and always will be! And there’s nothing wrong with that!) has to enter intermediate.

Or someone that has had an extensive background in dance and gymnastics and therefore has greatly helped them progress quickly may still get to enter a beginner category, even though they really should be placed in a level with competitors of a similar skill.

Same with things like instructor category: is it fair that a beginner-only instructor that’s been teaching for 6 months has to compete against an advanced-level instructor of 10 years? What about first time competitors who have to compete against super experienced competitors?

Even with competitions which classify levels by the ability to execute certain moves, it still isn’t a level playing field and leaves a lot of grey areas up to chance. There are SO many factors which make trying to run a fair level-based category competition incredibly messy and frankly, impossible.

@gemmarosepole

Because of the issue with level-based comp divisions, Gemma Rose was always going to go with genre-based categories. With PDSM’s Upcoming SS Performers Category, she hopes to have found a solution to dealing with different performance and movement levels among competitors. She says: “It’s not perfect, but it does allow competitors of a similar skill set to have a fairer chance! Lovely SS beginner shouldn’t have to compete against highly experienced SS professional.”

How will competitors be assessed?

Categories are marked differently, with differently weighed elements, depending on their style. So for instance, the Sensual category has a strong emphasis on stage presence and flow rather than on lines and tricks, while Show competitors should expect to be marked on tricks as well as on performance. Detailed – and when I say detailed I mean very detailed – score sheet insights can be found in PDSM’s FORTY-PAGE submission pack. Gemma Rose and the PDSM team didn’t come to play!

Still, even though they’re not the most important aspect of performing at PDSM, the comp’s mark scheme does include lines. I asked Gemma why, given that I often hear strippers call out pole dance’s obsession with pretty lines and pointed toes.

“Do customers really notice or give a shit if your toes are pointed? Absolutely not!” Gemma says. “I do feel there is less emphasis on this in PDSM than what we see in other pole competitions, and [lines don’t] hold as much importance as other aspects of stripper performance.” Lines and form are only worth 10 points in every PDSM category, whereas stage presence is worth 20 and performance is worth 30.

Plus, ‘lines and form’ in PDSM’s criteria aren’t just about extension, but about emphasising the shapes and presentation of a performer’s body and what looks best on the individual. These elements, Gemma argues, are still very important in stripper style. Still, she adds: “Our mark schemes will change and develop and perhaps in future ‘ankle extension’ isn’t something you’ll see, but at this point I’m not quite ready to let that go completely.”

Who are the comp’s judges?

PDSM has a star-studded judging panel of sex workers who have gone through a round of applications to be accepted as judges. They are household names in terms of sex worker activism and performance, and they are: Sarah Precious, Sexual Freedom Awards winner Sabrina Jade and Andi Active Cherry. The panel is completed by a moderator who’s none other the fab Cutie Whippingham, the Nike brand ambassador and performer who’s no stranger to this blog. Read more about the judges and moderators below.

In a direct response to other pole competitions, where judges find themselves having to score competitors really fast, the judges at PDSM will have more time than usual to score competitors: at least five minutes per competitor, which should be adequate for them to make sound and informed decisions. The moderator will be evaluating all scores and feedback to double check the judges work too.

Can pole hobbyists / instructors enter PDSM?

Now, unless you have been living under a rock, you must be wondering what it will actually feel like to enter a fully stripper-run comp when strippers have been notoriously penalised and discriminated against at pole competitions and in the pole industry. In a way, there will always be a hurt that pole dancers can’t undo – so I asked Gemma for information for pole hobbyists who fear ‘retaliation’.

“I appreciate that ally pole dancers, people just want to support and might not always know the most respectful way of doing that – I get it presents a potential block when you’re thinking about entering an SS comp run by strippers! What I would say is don’t be afraid, you are all welcome here.

Despite the shortcomings of the pole industry overall, as long as you pay the appropriate respect to strippers and appreciate the roots of pole dance, stripper style is for everyone to enjoy. Allies can compete in good faith knowing that this space is safe for all because we share the same love, all thanks to strippers.”

@gemmarosepole

In fact, Gemma argues that precisely because PDSM is stripper run they should feel more encouraged to compete and support the cause, because the comp is geared at giving strippers a space and putting strippers back at the forefront of the narrative. “PDSM aims to lessen the divide between strippers and pole dancers by providing a more ethical environment to compete in, which involves elevating the stripper narrative,” she adds.

But what if a civ wins? Or what if only sex workers win? In short, what if, as people do during comps, competitors get salty?

“It’s part and parcel of running a competition, isn’t it?” Gemma says, adding she’s not really worried about it. “I’m not worried about any outcome of the status of the winners. I think this is because I feel confident and assured in the fairness of the criteria. I also trust in the integrity of my team.”

Having put her chosen judges through a rigorous application process and having extra measures in place to ensure objectivity (e.g. having a moderator), Gemma is confident the team will uphold the values of the competition and treat all competitors fairly. She adds: “I think it’s also important to not assume the status of competitors. Someone may win a category and they present as a hobbyist when in fact they have participated in sex work. It’s important to be mindful of this, especially when outing sex workers can have really serious consequences.” Respecting identities and privacy is a key aspect of respecting sex workers, says Gemma, adding that she hopes all competitors would understand this and would limit grievances (if any!) to personal marks and feedback.

Video submission tips

If by now you love the idea of PDSM and are hoping to submit, know you’ll have to submit videos that are no older than one year, because Gemma says that is a fair representation of a performer’s current or recent skill level. Her main tips for submitting is to fully study the mark scheme and making informed decisions based off of that. E.g.:

“If you’ve done a strip tease piece in a recent performance that hits everything we are looking for then that sounds fantastic! But if you’re entering the twerk category and you’ve only got maybe a couple of demonstrations of twerk movements, then perhaps consider creating a new piece.”

@gemmarosepole

Video entries open at 10 AM on 12 May, and are first come, first served. Competitors can submit an application and share the video later, until 10 August. Finalists will be notified by 17 October.

Practical PDSM deets

PDSM’s entry fee is not cheap – £40. It’s higher than I’ve seen some recent comps ask, but Gemma argues it “reflects the work we’ve put into the competition, the quality of feedback competitors will receive and for the chance to perform in what is such a beautiful venue” (more of that in a sec).

Gemma is looking for sponsors too, so winners will also receive a cash prize. Importantly, subsidised applications and grants will be provided to low-income sex workers, which is something I haven’t seen in the pole competition business before. “Not all SWers will be able to afford to enter a competition, so the grants provide an opportunity for SWers to compete in a space that welcomes and appreciates them,” Gemma says.

“The glamourised narrative of SW insists that we are all dripping in cash, which is just not the case. We support all sex work and know that some sex workers can barely stay afloat or some do it for survival. We recognise that and want to give those a chance to compete which is a luxury that would not have been possible without help,” she adds.

As a result, PDSM offers four free spaces to low-income sex workers and £50 grants to those who make it through to the final. Sponsor money will be used to fund this. “Competing is truly a luxury and is so expensive, I wanted to make this more accessible to those that this comp was designed for,” Gemma says.

The photographer at PDSM will also be a sex worker, someone Gemma will announce soon. “I’m still looking for a SWer videographer – if you’re out there, hit me up!” she says.

When and where is PDSM taking place?

PDSM’s live final is on Saturday, 21st January 2023 at For Your Eyes Only, a famous London strip club in between Shoreditch and the City. This is so that both spectators and competitors can have the authentic experience and that strippers can feel at home. Gemma adds: “PDSM’s event won’t just end when the comp finishes, we will have the opportunity to stay into the night at the club to directly support the local dancers, pay respects to the SW industry and have a taste of the UK strip club culture!”

If you have never been to FYEO before, it’s in Central London and easy to reach; it’s very pretty; it has enough space for up to 400 spectators and a whole area for stalls; it has two 45mm poles (one spin, one static). In short, it’s ideal. “It’s a pretty penny, but it’s the right venue, so I’m willing to pay it,” Gemma says. “I would have liked to support a business that is fair with dancer house fees and commission, but that is too much to ask for given the current climate.”

Thoughts on finding a strip club for a pole competition

Finding the right venue for PDSM was no easy task for Gemma. The taboo nature of the industry meant that so many Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs) are not necessarily promoted well, or that you don’t know what the inside looks like. “In the end,” she says “all I had to go on were my limited Google searches and word of mouth.”

Although many of us might associate strip clubs with tall poles and lots of performing space, Gemma says: “UK club culture is generally not geared towards stage shows, so it was hard to find the right layout for what a comp needs.” In the UK, most clubs only have one pole – and it’s usually a 50mm+, something pole dance hobbyists would struggle with because studio poles are 45mm in diameter.

Dealing with strip club owners wasn’t fun either. “Not just as a stripper myself, but just as a business person, dealing with strip club owners was honestly like stabbing my eyes with needles if they’d even reply,” Gemma says. They’d tell her: “Come down to the club and take a look, we can talk then,” even though she was hundreds of miles away without a clue of what they were offering her.

Sadly, even though Gemma had her heart set on her previous regular workplace, Spearmint Rhino Sheffield, the club shut down when lockdown hit and no longer exists, along with regulated spaces to conduct sex work in Sheffield. It was Leila (Cutie Whippingham) who suggested FYEO, as she has performed there before.

Researching clubs was part of choosing PDSM’s venue, and when Gemma visited FYEO a few months ago the dancers seemed happy enough, and they were very excited about PDSM coming into their space. She says: “I got a few dances while I was there and asking questions. I know people staying after the competition will freak because they’ll be getting the hottest lap dances in the nicest space from the loveliest dancers!”

A last – but not least – aspect of hiring strip clubs for pole competitions is to make sure dancers aren’t worse off because of the event. Towards this, Gemma has made sure to hire FYEO outside usual operating times, to avoid taking any income away from the dancers. “I will be encouraging spectators to stay after the competition to enjoy the dancer’s services and get the authentic club experience and making this as accessible as possible,” she says, adding that she’ll be providing resources for how patrons can best respect dancers and how to behave in a strip club. She is also hoping to be able to give some of the dancers paid roles at the competition – like guest performances. Gemma is currently negotiating house fees with the management. If there’s some money left over (and the sponsors are cool with it) she’d like to use sponsor money to cover (or at least partially cover) dancer’s house fees for the night.

Behind the PDSM scenes

If you’re in any doubt that this is a well thought-through, tailored competition, rest assured: “I’ve probably amassed around 150-200 hours of research and writing so far…it’s been so much hard work and very time consuming,” Gemma says.

She started the process by creating a vision of what she wanted PDSM to be and what she wanted it to represent. “The hardest part of writing was creating the mark schemes and the criteria,” she says, adding that she spent a lot of time researching different competitions and exams across all different kinds of genres to see what would best fit what she was trying to achieve.

“I presented my draft work to my judges (and choosing them was a gruelling process in and of itself, with so much talent to have to choose between) and we spent a week collaborating on a Google Doc. I’m surprised how little we needed to change as I was ready for everything to be dissected and rearranged! We mainly worked on some language points and other areas of inclusivity. The whole team were fantastic and gave me brilliant insights.

@gemmarosepole

Gemma adds: “I wanted to create something wholly rigorous and transparent, but also to allow flexibility for future developments,” and she believes she has.

I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited about what seems to be a very much needed new comp on the block!

You can follow PDSM at @pdsmuk on IG below, and find their website here and founder Gemma Rose’s website here. Follow Gemma on IG at @gemmarosepole.

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