In case you missed it, I have stopped teaching. This month, I’ve made the very difficult and painful decision to not be a regular, weekly pole instructor anymore. I won’t be teaching my Tuesday classes at the lovely Akila Pole Studio, meeting new students and regulars every week. In this post, I talk about why, what it means for my pole journey and for my identity, and what’s happening next.
I wrote about pole dancing taking the back seat in life before, but I didn’t go too deep into my own experience. So now it’s time to get real.
*TW: mental illness, suicide
Teaching: why I started
I have been a pole dance instructor since 2019. My life was very different back then: I was in my third and final year of my PhD, I was already working four jobs, we weren’t yet in a global pandemic, and I had just entered the longest relationship of my adult life.
At the time, I was also very frustrated with my pole journey. On the one hand, my online presence had gained some sort of notoriety when I started using my research and social media strategy expertise to explain the (at the time fairly new) shadowbanning phenomenon and to confront Instagram about it. On the other, I felt that my pole abilities were stalling.
I had a pole in my house, I could afford to take just about two classes each week, and even though I had won a competition and I competed in a few more, the judgement I received was always along the lines of: fun performance, but improve your technique and lines. I wanted to perform more, I wanted to be able to show what I could do and bring my energy to a stage, but my abilities were letting me down. I wasn’t a trained dancer, and it showed. If only, I thought, someone could coach me.
When I started training at a new studio, somehow I found that someone and felt like the universe had listened to my prayers. After taking a few classes with the owner, she offered to train me for a few months so I could start teaching. And… that was pretty much it. That’s how I started.
I had never considered teaching. At all. I had been covering a few twerk classes for my mentor, Chanelle (Miss Twerkology) in a different studio, but that was more for fun. Having now taught and noticed the same things in my students, I realise that some instructors saw me as someone who could spot others well and that was ok at explaining things, perhaps because I already taught at university. And maybe because of that, and because my passion for pole was so obvious, and because I had a bit of a social media following, I was “chosen” as an instructor by my former studio owner.
I jumped right on the opportunity, not because I had ever wanted to teach, but because teaching pole allowed me to train for free, to have training space for free, and to ‘clean myself up’ as a dancer. Crucially, turning my favourite hobby into a job meant I could do it more, and that I could drop a couple of the odd jobs I was doing. With the flexibility provided by my PhD, it all sounded ideal, even like a prestigious opportunity.
The reality of being a pole instructor
In reality, teaching wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. Only then did I realise how much of an introvert I was.
I found teaching rewarding. Seeing students dance to choreographies I’ve created, or watching students get a trick for the first time, is a feeling that will never get old. It makes me profoundly happy. But I also found teaching terribly draining. If a student couldn’t get a trick, or struggled in choreo class, their sadness would haunt me and I would blame myself. I knew how important pole can be for people’s mental health and wellbeing, and I couldn’t take not being able to make everybody happy. Which is of course totally ridiculous – your body doesn’t work like that, and we all take time to learn movement. I have mostly grown out of this sense of failure with practice, but sometimes it still affects me.
Students not mastering a move wasn’t the only thing stressing me out. Precisely because I know how important a pole class can be to turn a bad day around, I always want to give my all when teaching… and that dries my energy levels right up. I prepare for teaching like I prepare for a performance: I over-prepare before and panic the day of, getting ready to extinguish all my energy in those two hours. Those who came to the studio for pole hire after I taught can testify to the fact that I can’t really make much sense after teaching. I become a robot and can barely talk.
The worst part of it, though, was the sense of inadequacy. Before I started teaching, all I heard were stories of people paying a lot of money for instructor training without being able to find a teaching slot. And lo and behold, a teaching opportunity had just fallen into my lap. Why me? Was I even worth it?
This impostor syndrome was made even worse by a feeling – partly the product of my silly brain, partly the result of my training and of certain relationships – that I had to be perfect. I couldn’t make mistakes. I couldn’t show up to a class taught by other instructors at the studio and show fear, or do a trick badly. I could not compete and not deliver. How would that look to my students? What would that do to my reputation?
…and then came the pandemic
As my approach to training, performing and being a pole dancer was changing, then came a global pandemic. I went from someone who taught three classes a week to someone who taught ten, and who trained for ten hours more on top of that. I was incredibly grateful to see people from all over the world sign up to my group classes, ask me to teach them online privates via Zoom, join my workshops and buy my tutorials.
Teaching suddenly became profitable for me, both because I had a lot of students and because I was making a name for myself. Emotionally, it was also my lifeline: throughout the first lockdown, I was alone, because my partner was isolating with his kids. Teaching and training pole was the only thing that was keeping me sane. But it was also hurting me: with all physios and osteopaths closed, I was over-training and accumulating injuries. By June, I couldn’t turn my neck to the right. I tore my hamstring. I was burnt out, but I was afraid to turn teaching opportunities down.
Looking back, the two lockdown years seem so uncertain and suspended in time that I don’t recall having a plan about teaching. I just assumed I’d always do it. I knew I wanted to teach less and find a full-time academic job, but in the limbo of defending my thesis and applying for postdocs, as the UK and the world transitioned in and out of lockdown, I just felt like teaching was always going to be there. I didn’t think much about what was happening to my journey and my identity as a pole dancer.
Meanwhile, in my personal life…
But the truth was, something was happening.
In the spring of 2021, when we were in yet another lockdown, I left the studio where I first started teaching and moved to teaching wholly online. The freedom to make my own rules and be myself felt fun, liberating. I felt safer with online teaching at a time when I didn’t yet have a vaccine. But because I was my own business, my abilities and my reputation became even more intertwined with my pole journey.
I couldn’t dance badly.
I couldn’t post an ugly video.
I couldn’t post things that weren’t perfect, or I wouldn’t get any more students.
That feeling, that fear, became even more pronounced when I did an online competition and one of the judges – a really famous pole dancer who dances in a more contemporary style – took their time on air to spend two minutes (I recorded it, so the timing is accurate) to trash my performance. That stung terribly, because I felt singled out. While all the other judges had been nice to other competitors and kept their critiques to the score sheets, this judge preferred to only talk about what was wrong with my act to a live audience, with particularly hurtful comments about my apparently lacking musicality. The comments were untrue and unnecessary (other judges with a similar style to mine praised my musicality and reached out about this particular judge’s behaviour afterwards), and even if I know that sometimes judges can make mistakes, it took a long time to get over this episode. Musicality is my main thing, it’s what I pride myself in. For someone to trash it like that, in public… it affects you.
At the same time, my first big adult relationship was falling apart. It was out of my hands, I had done all I could. And as it continued to fall apart throughout the summer, I took a break from teaching and from London.
When the relationship ended, all my dancing was sad. I remember dancing and crying, and feeling like I couldn’t really do my sadness justice because I still felt massively inadequate due to my previous competition. The relationship between pole and my feelings became strange. But new, exciting things were on the horizon.
The last year of teaching
When Akila Pole Studio opened, I was one of the first instructors to come on board. I was still away in Sardinia when I signed the contract, and when I walked into the studio for the first time I knew it was the right choice. Akila is an amazing boss, she is super bubbly and welcoming, the space is gorgeous and the students are the cutest. I felt – and still feel – at home there: it’s a place that matches both my values and my vibes.
The past year has been huge for my growth as an instructor. With a boss who trusted me and who was open to experiment with different things, I came into my own as a teacher. I wasn’t plagued by the same impostor syndrome, I wasn’t afraid of not being good enough. My classes and guest workshops outside the studio were fully booked, the feedback was good and… if people were coming back, why did I have to overthink it?
What remained was my lack of energy, my introvert vibes and a whole lot of unaddressed issues.
And then, boom: in March I learnt I’d finally managed to get a postdoc contract. Suddenly, I wasn’t going to be a ‘freelance’ academic who supported herself through pole and social media content creation – I was going to have a full-time salary, and full-time working hours. I remember asking my manager: “Can I still teach? It’s important to me that I can still teach,” and of course, she was fine with it. I had it in my head that not teaching would mean that my days in the industry were numbered, that I wouldn’t get invited to pole things if I didn’t teach. And I enjoyed my time at the studio, so why leave?
At the same time, I was training for a competition demanding a lot of attention: the fastest beats, the most challenging tricks yet, the lot. It took me four months of doing the same thing to be able to even deliver that. I didn’t win, but I was proud of myself. I knew I did that performance justice. But the aftermath of the comp was an incredibly deflating experience.
As soon as I competed, my body gave up. I got injured with a sneaky, very specific tendonitis given by what I now know is a hypermobile thumb (lol). I started travelling every week for work, having very little time to prep classes, let alone to train for myself and find pleasure in it after the ‘comp comedown’. Then the summer came, and it was a scorcher. I was working from home in Italy, and I could barely dance because I had no grip. And I got disheartened – about my strength, about my body, about my stamina, about my ability. I even stopped blogging as much, because I felt I had little to say, and I didn’t want to face having to write what I was really thinking: that I was afraid I was losing love for pole, and that I didn’t know who I was without it.
Why I stopped teaching
When I came back from my summer in Sardinia, I felt utterly miserable – and it wasn’t because I was in rainy London again. I really struggled to get on the pole and dance for myself. I was still travelling loads – in two months alone, I went to Newcastle, Brighton, San Francisco and Rome for work. On the days I had to teach, I struggled to even get out of bed because I had no energy to deliver in the way I wanted to deliver. I had two performances to plan, and I hated every minute of it. I did one performance and dissociated from my body – I forgot what I was doing, I wasn’t present. People told me it was good and all I felt was a void.
I realised I hadn’t properly healed from the feelings I had been feeling since the summer.
I started connecting the dots, and realised that I was massively struggling to manage my life.
Through work, I could access free therapy, so I signed up again, this time not to deal with trauma, or with grief, but to understand what was happening to me and to my relationship with the thing I loved the most – pole.
When my therapist asked me what I did for work, I said that I was primarily an academic, but that I also taught pole dancing classes and was a content creator. She asked me what I did as a hobby, and I realised that beyond reading and watching things, I… had no hobby. My hobbies, the things that gave me joy – pole dancing and content creation – were now my job. And because of my real job, I had so little time to dance for myself that all I did was prep classes.
I realised that I had to drop something and focus on myself, and that something was teaching. Why? Because I had lost my presence.
I had multiple breakdowns on my video calls with my therapist. My sense of inadequacy, impostor syndrome, fear of making mistakes all came back. I recounted that time when, during competition training, my pole sensei Josh Taylor told me: “When you don’t get a move, or you fuck up the choreo, you don’t get angry – you look defeated. Why? Why don’t you express that anger?”
Now, I realise I didn’t express that anger because I felt that underperforming was reflective of my lack of abilities, and it made me underserving of what I had. I also realised that, apart from a general ‘sexy’ vibe, I couldn’t channel my feelings into pole anymore, although I had been able to express sadness through it during the pandemic. All of these worries were bubbling up, unexpressed, inside me, and I realised that I had been putting undue pressure on my pole dancer identity and on pole as a practice to help me deal with life.
You know that post by Dr Emily Rausch saying pole isn’t a substitute for mental health care?
I realised how much pressure I had put my love for pole under. Partly, I blame my ex. When I explained to him I had been suicidal at times in my life, he told me: “But you’re safe from that now, because you have this thing in your life that you love and that makes you feel good,” and by “that thing” he meant pole. Subconsciously, I started to believe that. And when everything fell into place – the job, my pole career – and I still felt miserable, I started panicking and neglecting my passion.
What about my pole dancer identity?
What do you do when the thing you love the most becomes your job? What do you do when it stops giving you joy?
My therapist and I had to explore a lot of aspects of my experience with pole for me to realise it was time to take a step back from teaching. Because I had put so much pressure on being a professional and on being perfect, I was too scared to make room for exploration and make mistakes. Because I had put so much pressure on pole ‘saving me,’ it wasn’t helping me. Because I thought I had to reach a goal – a move, fluidity, proficiency in dancing – I was not present in the moment, and I wasn’t feeling anything. So removing the pressure and the time commitment that forced me to be such a perfectionist and to neglect time spent on myself felt like the best thing for me.
It wasn’t easy.
When I had to tell Akila, I felt like I was about to trigger a break-up with some “It’s not you, it’s me” bullshit. But it was me, and throughout this, Akila has been nothing but supportive: the first thing she said was how sad she was to lose me, and the second was that I had to do what was best for myself. Not even a week after I left, I was already back at the studio for workshops because it still is my happy place.
Stopping pole isn’t an option: I love it, it’s how I express myself. So teaching had to go, even though giving up regular teaching wasn’t a decision I took lightly. Yet, after conversations with fellow burnt out instructors and with my pole sensei Josh, I realised I was stuck in what he called ‘the pole industry’s state of becoming’: that sense of perennial self-improvement that means you are never truly happy with where you’re at, because you’re imagining where you should go next.
In the past six and a half years of my life, pole dancing became embedded with my identity. To this day, I define myself as a pole dancing academic. So removing the regularly ‘professional’ aspect of pole from my life didn’t mean losing that regular contact with my students and my instructor friends – it meant potentially changing my identity.
But I am prepared for that.
We are people as much as we’re instructors. My experiences may not resonate with everyone, but when juggling too much and not leaving room for play, the instructor and the person with a passion for pole get hurt. I realised I prefer being a person who pole dances and teaches occasionally instead of someone who was forcing herself to teach at all costs.
I’ve realised that, to stay sane, I need to be happy with where I’m at. The energy you give to teaching isn’t about money, it’s about putting your passion into the world and supporting others with theirs. What’s hard is when you can’t be there for yourself and you have to be there for others. That’s where you know that something’s amiss.
I now know I need to be present in my dancing, and to make time for it in the little time I now have. I need to have the time and energy to nurture my passion by learning from others – something I began doing once I stopped teaching at Cami Arboles’s workshop, and it felt mind-blowing.
I need to remember that teaching happened, and it was great, but it was never my goal: I need pole to be just for me; to be my hobby; to be a space to learn and grow, to take instead of to give; to perform more, which is what I wanted to do in the first place. I know I won’t be able to do all the moves, or to achieve all the perfect lines. But I know I love what I do when I don’t worry about my reputation, or about the clock ticking.
I could not care less about industry politics, about who’s mean to whom, about what is wrong with X competition or Y brand.
I just wanna dance and feel good when I do it.
Instead of becoming, I need to go back to enjoying just being.
How you can learn from me
I have loved teaching each and everyone of my students. It’s an absolute privilege to be trusted by others to teach them something as beautiful as pole, and I’m excited to do it again on a more relaxed, less regular basis. Akila Pole Studio and Zoom have felt like a home and are still a home for me. This isn’t goodbye – it’s just a “see you less frequently, but for the good times.” Plus, you can still learn from me in a lot of ways!
- Akila Pole Studio is still my home studio. I love it there, and it will be my base in London every time I want to teach a workshop – so watch this space!
- My next workshop is in Newcastle on November 20th, and after that I will be open to teach workshops wherever people invite me – find a menu of what I can offer here, so if you wanna learn from me tell your studio owners to invite me 🙂
- My tutorials are all still up on Buy Me A Coffee, and I’ll hopefully be recording more, together with my easier, free ones that I post via Pole Junkie.