What makes a pole dance studio a safe space?

Pole dancing in a safe space can enhance our experience as dancers beyond the fitness, performance, self-confidence results that are usually linked with taking up pole. But what does ‘safe space’ actually mean, and how does it apply to pole dance studios? Following a set of social media conversations around safe spaces I’ve seen inside and outside our industry, and since the idea of safety is key to my research on online spaces and social media community guidelines, I wanted to nerd out and break down the concept of safe space, using my knowledge, research on safe spaces and my community’s ideas on this topic.

Disclaimer

This post isn’t a stick to beat pole dance studios and their owners with, and it isn’t meant to separate and name pole studios that don’t meet the criteria of a safe space from studios that do. I don’t want to start drama or to condemn and ‘cancel’ people for their beliefs either.

What this post does want to do however is question our socially informed ideas of safety, something I’ve had to do a lot this year. Since starting my postdoc project on online safety and de-platforming, I’ve been interrogating the rules that govern social media and have found contradictory examples of what a ‘safe space’ – for children, for women, for different cultures, for marginalised communities – is . I found it interesting to see, for instance, that nipples, bodies, sex and, by extension, sex education and LGBT+ rights – which are normal, crucial part of our lives – are automatically branded as unsafe by community guidelines and placed within the same category as terrorism and self-harm.

As an art and a sport created by strippers, pole dancing features a lot of nudity. Outside pole, nudity is viewed as ‘unsafe’. Pole dancers themselves seem to have a contrasting relationship with how much nudity, and what type, should be allowed in studios – with some even asking students to wear ‘polewear’ and not underwear. As a sport largely practiced by women, a lot of studios, and even the main studio in the Netflix documentary Strip Down, Rise Up, talk of women-only spaces to dance ‘away from the male gaze’.

All of these factors make me very interested in questioning our notions of ‘safe space’ and where they come from, without denying the importance of women-only spaces, to share community-sourced pointers for safe pole spaces.

Safe space: a definition

The concept of safe space may sound like it’s just about physical safety, but it’s about much more than that.

As a sociological, activist and care concept, safe spaces originated in the women’s movement of the late twentieth century to offer protection from violence and harassment, encouraging marginalised groups to come together and speak freely. For The Roestone Collective, a safe space is “a way of practicing social justice that recognises, emphasizes, and in some way encourages social difference.” Kristen Day adds that safe spaces tend to support neglected identities, with the aim to achieve acceptance and affirmation for their occupants.

Also used in psychotherapy to define the therapist’s office in a therapy session, which is meant to be “a non-judgemental space where you can go to work through the things that are vulnerable to you,” the idea of safe space has now become a point of contention in identity politics conversations, which seem to pit free speech against safety of being, particularly in environments like universities.

A Sociological Review article by David W. Hill clearly outlines this controversy, which I’ll apply to pole studios later in this article:

Safe spaces are set up to offer an environment in which marginalised identities and hidden experiences can be given a voice, allowing for acceptance and affirmation. Their critics charge that they are at odds with the university as a site of debate; that their use has a chilling effect on free speech; and even that safe spaces are harmful to liberal democratic society itself.

David W. Hill

On an institutional level – and so at university, in the workplace, in social environments – Hill argues that safe spaces are “often about reclaiming unsafe space, where there has been a structural imbalance or history of oppression,” giving a voice to those previously excluded, and challenging the social norms that have created this exclusion.

Andrew Simon highlights the diversity aspect of safe spaces, arguing that even unintentionally, societal power imbalances may perpetuate unequal distributions of representation, requiring the creation of safe spaces to flip the script. For him, a safe space is defined by “who is invited and welcomed into the space, how to stay safe there, and the transformative impact that safe space setting can impart on actors.” Because of this, intersectionality is key: “it is crucial to understand that there may be one or many hardships that individuals are seeking safety and comfort for,” Simon Adds.

Safety is, however, relative: different levels or types of safety may be required in spaces, depending on the age, religion, gender identity, race, size, culture, class or disability of those that are part of it. This is why regulating social media is so difficult: increasingly mainstream platforms with exponential numbers of international users of all ages and experiences have to somehow make everyone happy… and they’re not doing that very well!

So how can we apply the diversity of human needs and experience to the concept of safe space, and this concept to the pole studio?

I’d say the main conflicts when discussing safe spaces are two: fear of actual danger, and freedom of speech concerns.

With regards to danger, Ruth Lewis et al. and feminist scholars across disciplines such sociology, criminology and geography found that “cultural messages and experiences of violence, abuse and harassment are profoundly significant for women, shaping their daily negotiations through physical environments, social relationships and domestic arenas.” The violence that women and LGBTQIA+ people face at home, at work and in public spaces, often at the hands of men, highlights the significance of fear their lives, making the creation of safe spaces necessary.

In terms of speech, Neil Van Leeuwen differentiates between two of the main, crucial and conflicting notions of safe space by distinguishing ‘safe-being spaces,’ or a place where people will “be free from identity-based insult,” and ‘safe-talking spaces,’ where “they can talk freely about ideas without having to worry about being declared offensive.” He argues that while we can aim for both, these ideas often clash.

For the above reasons, the notion of safe space is often misunderstood and co-opted by conservatives and the far-right to either argue that those asking to respect one’s pronouns are snowflakes, or to suggest that the presence of bodies, sex, nudity or LGBTQIA+ and particularly trans folks makes women and children unsafe.

Community-sourced ideas of safe pole studio space

What characteristics do pole dancers identify with a safe space in relation to pole studios? I did a round of Instagram questions and NGL anonymous questions to find out. Their thoughts are summarised below.

Picture by X-Pole

Some of my followers expressed the need for straight-up physical safety. With this, they meant attending a pole studio on a safe, well-lit street, but also learning in a space led by professionally trained instructor. I was shocked to hear a student’s experience who, after leaving their old pole studio, found they’d been inverting wrong all along because their instructors got them to invert on their good side only, and without proper conditioning.

Shockingly, other pole dancers who answered my Q&A found their studio stopped being a safe space when their instructors called them up to harass them (!) or insulted them for not achieving moves.

The most mentioned factor that made a pole studio a safe space was inclusivity. Polers mentioned feeling like they can attend classes without having shaved, not being told off for if their boobs flop out, and training with staff that knows how to teach and deal with neurodivergent, plus size, differently abled students of different genders and gender identities as factors contributing to making a studio a space that is safe and inclusive. Hijabi-friendly classes and spaces tailored to the needs of different ages and religion were other aspects mentioned in connection with inclusivity.

Lack of judgement – on someone’s appearance, ability, shape, choice to shave or not shave, or on their choice to embrace their sensuality – was highly regarded as paramount to safe spaces. Consent was also high on the safe space list: polers expressed the desire to be asked for their consent to appear in the background of classmates’ videos, or even to be touched.

Values such as body positivity, the employment of diverse staff and the respect and celebration of the origins of pole in the strip club were also strongly felt among my community – which might, of course, be reflective of the people I surround myself with.

Some of my followers also expressed personal preferences, e.g.: women-only spaces, studios only allowing one student per pole, classes where kids or partners aren’t allowed to watch. Many highlighted good customer service as a green flag: they valued good front of house, ‘meet and greet’ experiences at the door, and introductions at the beginning of a class, with a focus on asking everybody’s pronouns.

Does inclusivity equal safety?

I know what some of you are thinking: do diversity and inclusivity automatically translate into a safe space? The answer is: “No, but.”

As Andrew Simon posits:

“Striving to create a welcoming environment for all – regardless of race or gender, while still acknowledging that these bring separate challenges various LGBTQ+ individuals face – contributes to the creation of safety in these spaces. There is a consistent negotiation of identity, and mistakes will be made and should be forgiven in their construction.”

Andrew Simon

In short, while diverse and inclusive spaces can also be toxic due to the lack of other values, striving towards inclusivity and diversity can help people with different needs and identities feel represented, and that their presence is welcome. Feeling represented may be linked to feeling part of a safe space, because if a problem arises that requires specific knowledge of a group’s experience, the presence of a member of that group can make people feel less alone.

Importantly, feeling represented can make people outside of the conventional power structures think: “I can do this too, because X person is doing it.” When so many people feel they can’t take activities up because they’re not beautiful / thin / strong / straight / cis / white enough, representation can do wonders to make people feel like they are safe to join a space.

Safe spaces and gender

Feminist scholars worked towards identifying what women in particular are not ‘safe from,’ and they revealed the impacts of fear and abuse on their engagements as citizens. Yet, Lewis et al. argue that the question of what women are ‘safe to’ do once this danger is removed has been relatively neglected by research. The authors argue that a “women-only space provides ‘time out’ to identify the routine nature of such fears, risks, experiences and responses,” making women “free to think and to speak out” and enabling them to ‘discover’ themselves.

As a survivor and as someone who first joined a pole studio when recovering from intimate partner violence and sexual assault, I can testify to how important and empowering it was to be able to literally bare all in what felt like a safe space. My first studio wasn’t women-only, but like most studios, its student base was mainly made of women. So in a world where women are normally watched, sexualised, made to feel unsafe, it’s very refreshing to be able to exist outside of the male gaze when dealing with those experiences.

BUT.

Soon, I realised that it wasn’t men I felt unsafe with. It was a specific culture of masculinity, it was the feeling of being watched, examined, threatened. And the values of my pole studio were what helped me recover, not the exclusion of a specific gender. In Lewis et al.’s words:

“Contemporary discourses about women, men, violence and abuse draw heavily on ideas of safety and focus implicitly on ‘safe from’. For example criminal justice discourses which aim to make places and people safe from violence also draw on notions of women’s inherent ‘risk’ and ‘vulnerability’. Set against the more liberational aims of ‘freedom’ as expressed by the women in this research, such discourses are revealed as limited and unambitious in their scope. Safety is one aspect of freedom, a necessary requirement for full personhood, but hardly an end in itself.”

Ruth Lewis, Elizabeth Sharp, Jenni Remnant and Rhiannon Redpath

In short, identifying men with danger lacks nuance and doesn’t interrogate the societal structures, norms and behaviours that result in this lack of safety, and it inherently victimises women. Plus, in our increasingly gender-fluid world, such a binary view of gender risks excluding specific communities by overly focusing on genitalia.

Rightly, the Roestone Collective argue that “safe spaces should be understood not through static and acontextual notions of ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’, but rather through the relational work of cultivating them.” This means that the idea of a safe space itself is inherently paradoxical: the lines between safe-unsafe, inclusive-exclusive spaces are relative, and not as black and white as they seem.

So going back to the two main conflicts surrounding the notion of safe space – danger and freedom of expression – it’s worth picking Van Leeuwen’s thoughts back up:

“Roughly: living contexts should be safe-being places; learning and research contexts should be safe-talking spaces. Exceptions to those generalizations will be common. And some contexts, like classrooms, may do well to alternate between the two. Finally, sometimes both notions of safe space may be inapplicable. Selective exposure to adversity may make a growing person safer in the long run. After all, even the safest space of all—the therapist’s room—is meant ultimately to prepare a person for an unsafe outside world.”

Neil Van Leeuwen

Weaponised safety?

You may be thinking: this is all very philosophical, but what do identity politics have to do with my pole classes?

If you follow my blog and pay attention to social media, you probably know it’s difficult to be a poler without engaging with politics. Discussions on pole and race, or on pole and its origins, inevitably align polers with different sides of the political spectrum depending on their position on LGBTQIA+ and sex workers’ rights, and on racial politics. So inevitably, the outside world’s politics bleed onto our pole world.

This is why I found Day’s article particularly insightful. Day argues that, historically, the concept of ‘women’s fear’ doesn’t just have a realistic gendered dimension – it has a racial dimension too. This fear is often weaponised against people of colour, and particularly Black men. Day writes:

“[F]ear of sexual assault is a major contributor to women’s fear in public space. Although white women’s race fear is not always fear of sexual assault, white women’s fear of sexual assault does target men of color. Men of color are demonized as aggressive and hypersexualized in relation to ‘vulnerable’ white women. Obviously, race fear sustains race prejudice and conflict. White people denounce people of color— especially men—for their ‘inherent criminality’ rather than admit the perceived threat people of color pose to continued white dominance.”

Kristen Day

This is interesting to me because, ultimately, this fear of sexual assault – which is valid and a horrible reality for too many women, me included – is too often weaponised by dominant groups to keep conventional power structures in place. Which is why, as shown by Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur, we are seeing ‘gender-critical feminists’ align with the extreme right on the exclusion and demonisation of trans people from women’s spaces.

Are women-only spaces necessary for women to reclaim their power and to protect survivors? Yes.

Are trans people a threat to safety? Not really.

Safe space vs welcoming space, and other grey areas

The above considerations on inclusivity, diversity, gender and safety and some of my followers’ personal preferences when it comes to the pole studio show the true variety of human belief and experience. They also show the difficulty of governing a pole space and of setting ground rules without pissing some people off, highlighting a thin line between a safe space and a welcoming space, between values a studio should strive to follow and stand by, and people’s beliefs.

I had a really interesting discussion with a friend about pole spaces feeling cliquey. You know the deal: you go there as a new student, or even sometimes as a regular, and you don’t feel part of the cool crowd, like at school. Ideally, a studio would be a safe and welcoming place where people aren’t dicks. But a studio being cliquey doesn’t necessarily make it physically or ideologically unsafe – unless the clique is a dominant group excluding someone on the basis of difference.

Similarly, having two people per pole isn’t necessarily unsafe… but it definitely is unsafe if the space is too small, everybody kicks each other and the instructor doesn’t manage to successfully teach a full house.

In online idpol controversies, I have read a lot of people shielding their hidden, internalised transphobia with whataboutery, claiming that children or muslim women shouldn’t be exposed to trans nudity, men in a class or nudity in general. While these are valid concerns, these needs can easily be catered to by creating women-only and kids-only classes, instead of spaces.

So, if anything, the conversation around safe spaces is fluid, relative and nuanced. It’s about design, the studio’s finances, and the availability of space in a given area on a given budget. Take London as an example: spaces cost thousands, and studios may not be able afford changing rooms, or to set up in an affluent area. So adjustments have to be made to make everybody comfortable, especially in situations where the space is outside of the studio owner’s control. In Simon’s words:

The creation of safe spaces is not a process that is outlined in a detailed, step-by-step
strategy. Instead, each is unique in its own right, as each caters to a different group of individual actors. The settings that are created for these actors must be designed in a way that matches not only the mentality of comfort, but in understanding what comfort looks like to the group at hand.

Andrew Simon

What makes a pole dance studio a safe space?

So following my community’s ideas and the research above, I’d say that the key characteristics that studio owners and instructors can control and work towards when attempting to create a safe space for their students are:

  • A clear set of values at the door and/or online (as I’ve seen studios do in the past);
  • Physical safety and professionalism: trained instructors who can assess students’ level, and offer regressions according to injuries, size and ability;
  • Consent in touching and filming;
  • Avoidance of controversy and conflict with students and other studios;
  • Encouraging environment: studios where instructors do not insult students who don’t achieve moves;
  • Diversity and inclusivity: i.e. hiring diverse staff, welcoming different experiences and levels, training staff to understand different students’ needs (e.g. tailoring moves and teaching to neurodivergent, plus size, differently able students) and good introductions (e.g. asking students their pronouns and introducing staff with their choice of pronouns);
  • Respect and celebration of the origins of pole: #notastripper MUST GET IN THE BIN and owners should educate their students and staff to the origins of pole if they don’t know them already;
  • Educating staff towards defusing unpleasant situations: e.g. as Ela Aur suggested in her Pole Weekender talk, shutting down weight talk to make the space still feel safe for students who identify as fat;
  • Lack of judgement towards students, staff, appearance, choices.

Inevitably, these values and pointers may shift with time as our world develops. But I hope you have found these readings and thoughts helpful 🙂

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