Here’s my first interview with the iconic pole dance photographer Ray Marsh, who tells me about her photography journey and about her pole and photography studio, The Pole Nook.
How I met Ray Marsh
Ray Marsh – aka Rachel Marshall – is one of the people you just know, or at the very least know of, if you’re part of the London pole dance scene. I feel like we’ve been following each other for ages, but the first time I properly got to speak to Rachel was during a lunchtime class with Aleksandra Karolina at Ultimate Pole.
I’ve always loved Rachel’s work, and since I first met her I’ve also always been in awe of how incredibly nice she is. No drama, just kindness. I will always remember how supportive she was after an online competition where I had a really bad experience (more info here). Her messages about my performance, even if I didn’t know her very well, really meant the world to me at the time. She didn’t have to write, but she took the time to, and that’s Rachel for you: an all-round lovely person.
Since the lockdowns eased, I’ve begun seeing Ray Marsh’s work everywhere. I used her shots for interviews with many a poler that appeared on this blog, and even though I admired her stuff before, it was clear she was really taking off. I started adding her studio shoots, and her Asylum and God’s Own Junkyard location shoots, to my “treat yourself” wishlist. And then, since Rachel came to some of my Akila Pole Studio classes, we started chatting more regularly.
Since she and her business partner, the amazing Cassie Pickersgill, co-founded The Pole Nook, I’ve been badgering them to do an interview with me. I’ve finally succeeded, and hopefully I’ll get to interview Cassie soon, too!
Last spring, I went to The Pole Nook to model for a pole brand, and seeing how Ray Marsh put me at ease at a time when I was weak and had just healed from Covid, I knew the time had come to finally book a shoot with her.
I only got down to it last week, as a celebration for my choice to reclaim pole as a space for myself, and because I simply had to try Ray Marsh’s new red background at The Pole Nook. The shoot went by like a breeze: she’s the best pole dance hypewoman, and I felt like it really makes a difference to be shot by someone who not only pole dances herself, but has an eye for detail to make sure you look your best.
Afterwards, we went for a drink at The Cock Tavern in Hackney (lol), which is lately becoming our post-pole hangout, and this is where the interview finally happened.
Ray Marsh before pole
Ray Marsh loved photography before she was even a poler – since the age of 15, in her Tumblr years. “I’ve always liked it,” she says. “From an early age, I knew photography was what I wanted to do. I’ve studied it at college, and then I did portrait photography – I was trying to find my niche, I didn’t know what it was. So I did weddings, EPs for people, anything I could get my hands on basically.”
Rachel moved to London in 2014. In 2017, when she was still trying to become a full-time photographer, she took her first pole class. She credits London pole instructor and performer Cat Lee as the person who first made her aware of pole photography.
“Cat Lee said to me, ‘Have you ever seen or tried any pole photographers?’ and I was like… pole photography? What the hell is pole photography? I was just a baby poler!” Rachel says. She then found iconic photographers The Image Cella and Millie Robson, and thought they were incredible. “So I just asked a few of my friends, hired a studio and… it started basically! I was doing it just for my friends at first, and that’s how it all got started.”
Rachel’s pole journey
Rachel’s first pole class was at Floating Fitness in South London, when she was feeling down after a break-up. She says: “I’d seen people I followed on Instagram doing pole, and thought it was the most amazing thing ever. So I found a class, thought, ‘Wow it’s expensive, but I’m gonna do it!’ and got hooked straight away.”
She started going to Ultimate Pole in Camden – which was still called Ecole de Pole at the time – and had Diane Croskin as her first regular teacher. And it was in the North London pole studio that the partnership of dreams with Cassie Pickersgill started.
“I met Cassie probably my third class at Ecole. We didn’t speak for four classes, I don’t know if she was shy – we both were, we didn’t know anyone there – and there was this one day when we were the only people who turned up at a class. And we laughed about something, then went for pizza at Franco Manca and… the rest is history!”Ray Marsh
For ages, I have thought Rachel and Cassie were a couple. I only realised they weren’t when I spoke to Rachel at Akila’s, when she said: “No, a lot of people think we are though because we’re joined at the hip!”
Rachel is very modest, both about her photography career and her pole journey. She says: “I may have gotten hooked [into pole] straight away, but wasn’t very good at pole straight away. It took me a long time to find my confidence or coordination!”
But Rachel did become a fantastic pole dancer – so good that she placed in two pole competitions this year alone. She came second at You Filthy Fucker in the intermediate category, and won second place ‘Breakout Star’ at the Ultimate Pole Championship. “I’m really proud of both,” she says, “because it was my first time choreographing a full routine for YFF, and UPC was the first time I found my style.”
Her style is a blend of gooey flow and sexy rock n’roll, and I’ve loved watching her win and look amazing on stage.
Ray Marsh’s photography style is ethereal, floaty, unique, full of light. Her main inspirations, she says, come from both her college days and Instagram.
“When I was at college, I always loved Tim Walker – he does ethereal scenes, his lighting is always very shiny, and I’ve always been inspired by him. So I adapted the way I edit.”
“What I learnt at college was that there were set ways to do lighting, and then I moved to London and started working with photographers and realised you could be more experimental with it,” she adds, also crediting Josefien Hoekstra’s goddess scenes as her inspiration.
“The two-tone pictures you see on Instagram are my signature style,” she says. They came about out of necessity: when she was working at just one studio, she had to transport her backgrounds from home to the studio, and had this extension on her car that could only fit one background. Then the style evolved:
“I had a black background for darkenings, and a white background for light things or different colours, so I used gel lighting to change the colours of the white background. So all of the two-tone things you see on my Instagram, that’s with the white background. That’s the thing I’ve adapted the most, the thing I’ve grown the most with.”Ray Marsh
However, she thinks her Asylum shoots in Peckham was the moment when she really took off, because people really liked the location: a slightly unholy, abandoned church vibe, with a powerful light game. “I lived close to Asylum, and I remember when I moved to Peckham, I always wanted to shoot there. I didn’t know doing what or how, and one time I was like: I’m gonna find out how much it is to hire,” Ray Marsh says.
She adds that: “The first time I did Asylum I made no money at all from it, I didn’t know how it would look, if people were gonna come… but it worked out really well, people really loved it and it snowballed the other location shoots.”
That’s when Ray Marsh became the household name she is. “I didn’t really realise it until recently – it’s weird being known.” She says: “Everything kinda took off after lockdown, and I don’t know if it’s because people wanted shoots, or they were finding my work and liking it… all I know was 2021 I was able to leave the job I had in advertising and do it full-time, which was the dream!”
Three tips to prep for a photoshoot with Rachel
Rachel is pretty chill when it comes to photoshoot prep, but she has three main tips:
- Come prepared: Know what you wanna do, practice the moves. They don’t have to be tricks, they can be poses. Just make sure you know what you want them to look like.
- Choose your outfits: It’s always good when you have your outfits coordinated, but it’s not super essential, it can be even just one outfit if you want to.
- Have fun! “Try and enjoy it – I’m a relaxed person, so hopefully when you meet me you’ll realise it’s not so bad! It’s supposed to be fun, it’s not a dreaded thing, a photoshoot: it’s for you, and for no one else.”
The Pole Nook
A stone’s throw from London Fields, Ray Marsh’s pole and photography studio, co-owned and co-founded with Cassie Pickersgill, is already one of the capital’s most loved pole studios. But it’s an unusual space as far as the pole world goes: it has two poles, and it doesn’t focus on group pole classes, but on privates and pole hires.
I asked Rachel how the idea came about. She told me:
“For years I’ve been saying, ‘I wanna open my own space.’ I found messages to Cassie and a dream journal – literally one page where I wrote pretty much what The Pole Nook is now, except that I really want a coffee shop and a little clothes shop at the front.
I always wanted space where I could practice pole, because I love it as much as I love photography. A place where I could do my shoots and be free to experiment and do what I want, and where other people could come, have a community and a good time. I mentioned it to Cassie and she said she would love to take part in something like that.”Ray Marsh
Rachel says she and Cassie spoke about it about a year ago. They started coming up with ideas and a name. By January they were looking for venues, by February they got the keys. Their families believed in them from the word go, with Rachel’s dad doing everything from the pole mounting to the floor, to helping with painting the walls and business advice.
“We wanted to create a homely vibe, with the right aesthetic,” she says, and I can confirm that’s what you’ll find at The Pole Nook: a sassy but calming vibe, all in a very eye-catching but soothing green. The studio’s main value is making everyone feel welcome, no matter their style or passion: “We don’t want it to feel cliquey or exclusive, everyone is welcome – either for pole or a chat.”
And I have felt super welcome for sure. Since the opening of The Pole Nook, Rachel, Cassie and I have been performing for each other when prepping for comp and showcase performances, something I’ve really enjoyed and found super helpful. It feels so lovely to have a studio that feels welcoming, and so close to home!
Still, setting up a business with such a demanding schedule has been challenging for Rachel and Cassie, especially because they are friends. “One of the hardest thing about the whole thing was setting time to do our friend things again,” said Rachel. “It’s stressful and amazing to start a business, and every time we were meeting we were talking about pole. So we’ve now set time to spend with each other, to just hang out.”
I’m not surprised it’s been full on: The Pole Nook has been growing, so much so that they’ve now taken on two new additional pole instructors, Mel Lee and Sanni. “We wanted different options for people to learn different styles when they do private classes,” Rachel says about expanding the team. “We are not going to teach you styles we don’t specialise in, so we’ve grown the team of regular instructors to offer more chances to learn different styles.”
The Pole Nook is clearly thriving, but despite their network and their established brand, Rachel was surprised with the overwhelming support her and Cassie’s brand-new studio. “We were very overwhelmed with how many people came to the Pole Nook’s opening. We were so surprised with how many people came to support! We had friends in the industry but we didn’t think it’d be this big,” she says.
What’s next for Ray Marsh and The Pole Nook
The Pole Nook is not your typical studio, so they put on a lot of cute events. Rachel says: “Not that many studios do events where people can get together. Because we’re not your average studio, with a lot of poles and a lot of classes, we love the idea of creating events where people can get together.”
After a very successful pole jam in the park, the team have a series of new events on the cards:
- Book your tickets to The Pole Nook’s Christmas Bazaar, a polewear buy-and-sell event to recycle your unused polewear and meet your pole besties
- Keep your eyes peeled for The Pole Nook’s upcoming showcase on their events page. It will be a first come, first served celebration of the studio’s first year of business
- Look out for Ray Marsh’s upcoming studio and location shoots on her IG at @ray.marsh and here.
Social media handles
- Follow Ray Marsh at @ray.marsh
- Follow Ray Marsh’s pole work at @rachelpolelol
- Follow The Pole Nook’s co-founder and co-owner Cassie Pickersgill at @cassiepickersgill
- Follow @thepolenook on IG.