On April 1st Blackstage, a collective of Black excellence in pole dance, brought the United Kingdom’s pole industry together in Clapham, London: it was their second show and, having missed last year’s one due to a friend’s birthday, there was NO WAY I was gonna miss this too. I’m glad I made it: with some of the best performers the UK pole industry has to offer, centring People of Colour – to whom we owe the birth of pole as an art form – as well as their joy and expression, Blackstage was entertainment in its purest form. Attending made me reflect not just on what Black and POC dancers can do when given the means and a platform to shine, but also on what pole dance events can be when we’re unapologetic about them. Here’s what went down at the Clapham Grand during Blackstage: Rebellion.
What is Blackstage?
Blackstage is a queer, Black, sex worker led company centring Black and POC pole dancers. Founded by activist, performer, instructor and model Leila Davis, aka Cutie Whippingham – whom you may remember from a previous interview – Blackstage was born through the sharing of pole dancers on the Blackstage Instagram, partnering up with brands to gift them pole goods during hard times and then getting funding to put on incredible shows.
Last year, Leila told me:
“I created this space because I recognise that the pole industry is an unfair place for BPOC pole dancers, it erases us, it inflicts harm on us both intentionally and unintentionally, it gaslights us when we challenge the racist status quo, it generally causes harm to a lot of us. So I created a space that centres BPOC, that strives to give BPOC resources beyond those imaginable in pole competitions, it gives them access to a community that validates them and sees their worth, it basically loves on them hard and lets them know they deserve the world.”Leila Davis aka @cutiewhippingham, @blxckstage founder
Sponsored by Pole Junkie, Akila Pole Studio, The Pole Nook and many more, and organised in partnership with Nike, Blackstage ensured that the performers and events team did not offer their time and talent for free, but that the ywere paid for their time and expenses – which should be the norm but sadly isn’t. Leila said:
“Last year the starting rate for performers was £680 and we divided up the profits between everyone working on their shows – all performers and the events team had their base rate, plus those £270-something pounds that were split between everyone working on the team so everyone got that top up from sales. This year there’s inflation, my personal rate has increased, so I decided to do an increase of an extra £120 for the performers. Obviously, all expenses like travel are also paid.“Leila Davis aka @cutiewhippingham, @blxckstage founder
By centring Black and POC excellence in pole, Blackstage is actively creating opportunities for members of its collective, through a network that creates and shares performing, teaching and modelling opportunities.
Just as an example of what Blackstage alumni can do, the show this year featured four dancers who had been selected to perform for Snoop Dogg – Rachael Gisella, Kitty Velour, Foxxy Roxxyyy and Leila herself. Three more alumni, Kheanna Walker, Paige and Nisha (@nkpole), also performed for Snoop. In short, far from just highlighting excellence, Blackstage enables fantastic dancers to take up the space they deserve in an industry that too often overlooks them.
Blackstage: Rebellion was Blackstage’s second show. But what does ‘rebellion’ mean to Leila? She told me:
Rebellion means rejecting the norm and refusing to do things the way everyone else is doing them, thinking freely and following your own path. In reference to the show, it means rejecting the status quo, rejecting the way events are typically run with an exclusion and lack of empathy for the most marginalised, fucking it up and rebuilding a pole community and industry that focuses on compassion, understanding and love.
A place that recognises that the playing field isn’t level and fights against this to create a new arena.Leila Davis aka @cutiewhippingham, @blxckstage founder
And fuck it up she did. It was a night to remember.
After pre-drinks and dinner with the Akila Pole Studio and Pole Junkie teams, we reached the Clapham Grand by the time doors were set to open and we were greeted by queues going round the block.
This wasn’t just London: the entire UK pole industry had descended to Clapham. I found my students in the queue, together with performers and polers based in Manchester, Oxford, Bristol, Glasgow and all around the country, all with a shared aim: witnessing the greatness that we knew Blackstage was going to be. The show of support was quite something to witness, showcasing the trust and admiration UK polers feel for Leila and the space she has created.
The Blackstage line-up was a fantastic blend of different styles and experiences: from stripper style to contemporary, from flow to basework, from showgirl to power pole, Blackstage: Rebellion took everything we knew about pole shows and subverted it.
Featuring performers with years of stage experience and polers at the start of their performing journey, and everything in between, Blackstage showed that true talent, showmanship, entertainment isn’t about categories or levels, but about performers’ ability to bring it. This year, the line-up featured:
- @kellyrosepole: a fiery powerhouse pulling off mind-blowing tricks with the strongest core, as well as a mother of four (!)
- @xqf_xx: a slinky queen with hypnotising old school movement
- @foxxyroxyyy: a twerktastic, powerful and badass performer giving us all the stripper style vibes
- @pole.tee: a mesmerising, gooey performer showing how erotic dancing is done
- @kamariromeo: performance art in the building! A stunning show of not just pole dancing, but also acting through both music and spoken word
- @rachaelgisella: our Akila Pole Studio queen with a flow that is to die for
- @sannpoles: making stunning, floaty shapes in an ethereal spin pole performance
- @billie.velvet: Burlesque goals, teasing us with a sparkly gown striptease and and gorgeous hip movements
- @kitty_velour: Kitty performed her signature “It’s raining men” act with pink umbrellas, confetti and her signature bounce, an act that gets bigger and better every time and that brought the house down
- @jaoxjaox: a captivating performer channelling what she described as the “unsettling” performance of a siren, but what I’d describe as outstanding art
- @journaldupole: an emotive, opulent performance of endurance, flow and just pure talent, AT – who also trains FKA Twigs – moved us all to tears through sheer beauty
- @jennyjaiye: bringing us Afrobeats joy, strength moves, all the gorgeous jiggles and vibes
- @cutiewhippingham: the queen herself, closing the show with her signature cute and badass style.
The event was also a testament to Leila’s ability to plan and run events smoothly, thinking every little detail through. All it took was a glance at Blackstage’s Instagram page to know she was ON IT. Weeks before the show, the account had already highlighted the venue’s accessibility policy, also planning and offering specific seating for those with visual impairments and keeping two BIPOC BSL interpreters on stand-up for the deaf, in case they were needed.
Before the show, Leila told me that each performer got a 25-minute tech run. “We had an impressive lighting guy so that each performer could curate their lighting with him, we wanted it to be a proper production for them,” she said. “This way,” Leila added, “they could perform for themselves in case there were any issues with the actual show run so they could get a good video for each performer with their own lighting, in their own time. It was very zen and low pressure.” The videographer and the photographer got along so well despite not having met before. Tracey, who had never shot pole, is being trained as a pole videographer now and did a fantastic job on the night.
From the morning of the show, behind the scenes content on Blackstage’s IG page showed detailed timing allocation for tech runs, make-up and so on. Upon arrival, we were encouraged to take a picture on the red carpet, featuring the event’s branding as well as the sponsors’ branding. This way, the audience felt special too, and many a picture were taken to further promote the event. Swipe for my red carpet moment 🙂
Thanks to Leila’s attention to detail, on the night everything ran on time, with a line-up set to highlight the skills and uniqueness of each performer. Alternating different styles and vibes, the running order gave each poler the chance to shine without looking repetitive, or without eliciting comparisons within the audience.
The night was expertly steered towards joy, fun and, of course, rebellion by its one-of-a-kind compere: actor, activist and podcaster and studio owner Kelechi Okafor, who knew the pole industry and the space she was introducing and managed to galvanize everybody with her charisma and stage presence.
Wow, @BlackstagePole was nothing short of outstanding. @kelechnekoff was compering, founder @Cutiewhipp closed the show, and there were incredible performances by the best the UK pole industry has to offer. Will not be forgetting this in a hurry. What a night! pic.twitter.com/AseBFxOjoG— Dr Carolina Are ?? bloggeronpole (@bloggeronpole) April 1, 2023
That joy was also felt backstage and in the audience. Leila’s mum, who filmed everything from the crowd with a selfie stick, went backstage to meet the performers. Leila said:
“It was such a beautiful moment: the performers and the team were hugging her, she was so happy and proud of everyone. My mum cried because she was moved by the performances, my sister was also backstage and was moved to tears – it was all very familial, one big family. I’m more affirmed than ever that this community and organisation is meant to continue because of how much it’s benefiting these people that have been sharing so many touching posts after the show.“Leila Davis aka @cutiewhippingham, @blxckstage founder
In short, in case the above hasn’t made it clear: Blackstage was a smashing success. Leila said:
“I loved seeing how supportive people have been of this show. Selling out at 600 – that’s a lot of people for a pole event! That queue was so long, it stretched out to the streets of Clapham. It reassured me that the work was so necessary. It was great to see how many people’s lives have been touched: so many people cried or told me they were moved to tears from this show. They said it last year, but the fact that this keeps happening and that the audience is still growing was so beautiful.”Leila Davis aka @cutiewhippingham, @blxckstage founder
What Blackstage can teach the pole industry
Blackstage didn’t just achieve the essential, monumental, important task of centring Blackness and POC dancers in an industry that erases them – it was a study in elevating, rather than marginalising, pole dance itself.
As an art and a sport created by sex workers, and particularly POC sex workers, pole dance hasn’t always faced or acknowledged its past. And even when it does, often it pigeonholes itself in its little corner, its little community – often understandably so, to preserve safe spaces and to protect its members from judgement.
But Blackstage showed us we can be more.
This is important. With tickets costing just like any major London cabaret, in an outstanding venue, with the right sponsorship deals, payment for performers and a compere that treated pole like the incredible art form that it is without shying away from its origins, Blackstage showed us that pole doesn’t have to be niche. Pole dance – and pole dance by a collective of outstanding POC dancers at that – can fill a theatre. Pole dance is a show. A show that originated in the sex industry and that makes people happy.
Pole can be entertaining. Having started in Australia, where quarterly studio showcases would pack audiences of 500+ and where Miss Pole Dance Australia was an event to remember, filling up Sydney’s Enmore Theatre with a blend of world class performers and drag queen Maxi Shield’s cheeky compering, I wondered what it’d take to bring this vibe to Europe. Blackstage brought that vibe.
It showed us we don’t have to feel awkward about pole.
That we don’t always have to make the shy, embarrassed but titillating jokes about it to put audiences at ease. We can challenge the audience. Make them uncomfortable. In fact, sometimes, we have to: pole, as an art and a practice, pushes boundaries. We should treasure that.
We don’t have to hide pole’s origins for people – parents, sisters, brothers, partners, friends – to love our shows. We just have to take them there.
We don’t have to make a loss to perform or ask our performers to make a loss.
We don’t always have to bury the talent and show factor of pole into an Olympic style competition to make it acceptable or legitimise it even when the competition is about putting on a show.
Running a pole show is hard. But lately, having attended more showcases than competitions (including the excellent and heart-warming one-year anniversary of The Pole Nook), I was struck by how expertly organisers have been planning line-ups for both audience and performer enjoyment.
Of course, judges have to judge by category and it’s easier to split participants per style or per level. But watching Blackstage, and conscious of discussions around the difficulty of making pole dance events profitable for organisers, I couldn’t help but wonder: isn’t this show of variety, this alternation of styles and levels, more entertaining for the audience to watch?
Ages ago I stopped inviting friends to competitions. Not just because I get nervous, but also because I feel bad about asking them to pay 30+ pounds to travel to a remote locations to watch countless people who aren’t me – the person they are there to see – perform. But I wouldn’t hesitate to bring any non-poler friends to Blackstage, because whatever cabarets, burlesque shows, revues had, Blackstage HAD IT.
We, as an industry, should take note. Not just to make our events more enjoyable for performers, but for audiences too.
Thank you Blackstage for showing us how it’s done.