How do social media affect pole dancing as a practice?

Social media can be invaluable resources for pole dancers, connecting us with fellow polers all over the world, providing inspiration and helping us promote our work. But social media can also be draining, disheartening spaces of self-doubt, censorship and comparison. Following a series of conversations with pole dance instructors, students and followers, and after a few chats I had in Santorini about how ‘Instagram tourism’ is affecting life on the island, I’ve been reflecting on how Instagram, and social media more broadly, may affect pole dancing as a practice. This post is the outcome of those reflections – thanks to everyone who shared their opinion with me on IG!

Social media platforms’ impact on the history of pole dance

Once strippers brought pole dancing into the mainstream by initially teaching colleagues and then women outside strip clubs, the interest in learning how to pole dance grew – and so did internet and social media pole content.

I’m a researcher, so I won’t go as far as arguing for correlation or causation, but I can definitely say that social media were key to the popularisation of pole dance. From stripper videos circulating on the Web to Instagram, suddenly pole became visible to those outside our networks, bringing them into our world.

OG polers and pole stars credit YouTube as the first social media platform they used for learning and watching pole dance online. You will have heard many a self-taught instructor from the 2000s mention that, before smartphones, they’d have to look up whole pole videos on their computers when they trained. In my recent interview with Nicole The Pole, for instance, Nicole said: “Dirdy Birdy was one of the first people that I used to watch on YouTube back in the day [when I was teaching myself how to pole dance through tutorials].” 

But it’s with Instagram that pole dance took another lease of life, both as a social media phenomenon and as an art, sport and business. When Instagram launched in 2010, polers could suddenly network with each other and learn or copy others’ moves, pole combos and choreographies thanks to the smartphone in their pocket.

Most pole dancers credit Aussie pole star Michelle Shimmy for starting the pole dancing hashtag system featuring #pd (pole dance) followed by the name of a move, an incredible resource for us all to find pole inspiration on Instagram. Aussie dancers who reached out to me on IG told me that the #pd system came after a series of experiments with hashtags, which initially saw a much longer and less practical #PoleDanceMove followed by the name of the move. These dancers think the IG hashtag system we used took off somewhere between 2013 and 2016.

Shimmy is also behind #sundaybumday, one of pole dancers’ favourite hashtags born to celebrate curves, butt gains and jelly that sparked new trends in body positivity.

Pole dance’s already important relationship with social media became even more significant during the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, when our work moved almost entirely online. Our studios closed, and online classes, online tutorials sold via subscription platforms, virtual workshops, remote competitions and Zoom instructor training became the norm – now, ‘remote poling’ is still going strong, allowing us to learn from pole dancers all over the world with our home poles.

In 2020, TikTok exploded onto the social media scene, generating another major platform for pole dancers to share their passion on – this time, one strongly geared towards virality and entertainment, creating new overnight pole dance sensations and even forcing Instagram to copy its format through reels. Through TikTok, pole dancers can get paid hundreds or thousands promoting brands and new songs, creating even closer ties between pole dancing and the music and entertainment industry.

Parallel to this, social media’s censorship continues to affect our industry. As an art and a sport created by sex workers, and often mirroring the stripping aesthetic, pole dance faces heavy content moderation, starting with the shadowbanning of our hashtags – which Instagram apologised to us for through this blog – and moving to the deletion of our videos for mistaken copyright claims, nudity and sexual activity and the outright deletion of our accounts.

It’s disappointing to hear platforms like Instagram say they “support small business” – just notsmall businesses that rely on the visibility of women and LGBTQIA+ bodies. By erasing our content, platforms are erasing our culture, out history, our networks and our learning. But we keep protesting, as we did through #EveryBodyVisible in 2019 and through petitions and protests in 2020, and as I keep doing through my research and campaigns.

Social media for beginners and recreational pole dancers

It is in this equally eventful, fast-paced, exciting and exhausting historical context that we all make our way through social media as users, pole dancers, creators, workers.

Those who responded to my NGL link or to my IG post had mixed feelings about their and their pole journey’s relationship with social media.

The beginners in my network largely shared positive experiences of finding friends and communities they wouldn’t have found without platforms, of finding inspiration when stuck in a rut and motivation to keep going and get better. Some managed to escape the comparison trap, arguing that even though they followed a lot of elite polers, their posts served as entertainment rather than as something that made them feel bad about themselves.

Mirroring my own experience, others added that having a joint life/pole social media presence made pole visible to outsiders, destigmatising it. Others though found this a source of pressure to compartmentalise and make a separate profile.

Beginners, essentially, found social media pole content and networks a way to develop, create and discover their style and their identity, both as polers and as people. 

Social media for instructors and performers

It’s with instructors, performers and creators though that things get interesting. 

On a personal level, instructors and more advanced polers spoke as if there was a “comparison anxiety” switch that we flick when we improve and watch others online.

Some polers shared that they found social media crucial to share the routines and combos they created with the world, but that an over-saturation of pole dance and aerial content made them want to shut all social media down, as it cluttered their brain and inspiration. 

Others found the content creation aspect of promoting classes draining, tiring and time-consuming. Others still found it hard to avoid comparing themselves to other pole dancers’ success and artistry – not out of jealousy, but out of fear of not being good enough. This made them feel at a loss as to how to improve, while simultaneously feeling under pressure to keep creating content. 

Instructors also mentioned feeling under pressure to update their social media accounts for them to reflect their current skill level. With bodies and skills changing throughout the years, they found that students could ask them to teach moves they couldn’t do anymore if they didn’t keep their profiles up to date.

As for their relationships with students, instructors and more advanced polers shared frustration with finding that some only engage with in-class teaching if it can help them create a cute video for social media, complaining or reverting back to what they know (or to moves that weren’t taught in class) when challenged with new moves.

In short, social media seems to be influencing instructors’ and students’ self-esteem so much once they start growing as polers that they don’t want to get out of their comfort zone, stunting their learning, plaguing them with self-doubt and even affecting their working and interpersonal relationships.

The consequences of the creator economy

The creator economy seems to be affecting pole dancers in different ways.

In a recent interview with my friend Cassie Pickersgill, she mentioned how everyone on Instagram looks amazing as opposed to the more ‘real’ vibe of a few years ago. This could affect those starting from scratch and not matching a very edited, filtered feed.

It’s not just the pressure of creating content that professional and amateur pole dancers are feeling. They are also affected by the pressure to make that content look professional, even when they’re just learning. This in turn creates a heavily edited, polished feed that is just not a realistic depiction of the challenges of learning pole, and of the diversity of bodies, skills and abilities in our industry. 

What’s even more interesting to me is seeing pole dancers cite the same issues that professional content creators interviewed in creator economy research share: feeling tied to elusive views and algorithms while trying to do their job and share their passion. It’s as if pole dance and content creation as activities and jobs have merged, and like you can’t have one without the other – making the experience of pole dancing doubly exhausting.

My own experience with social media

I certainly know that I wouldn’t be who I am as a person, as a pole dancer, as an instructor and as an academic without social media. Social media have always been crucial for my career, because as someone starting a journalism degree in London in 2011 without any previous writing experience or contacts in the industry, blogs and Twitter were the only way I could hope to build a writer’s portfolio. Through Twitter and Instagram I promoted my food and travel blogging, and because of these experiences I was hired in PR. So naturally, when I found myself retraining as an academic in Australia, with all my friends and contacts on the other side of the world, it seemed only natural to also share my pole dance journey through Instagram. At the time, I didn’t know how much this was going to change my life.

Finding a body-positive, sex-positive community of polers on social media was crucial to coming out of my shell and accepting myself when I was recovering from an abusive relationship and sexual assault. Through pole dancing, I learnt to celebrate my body for its strength, not its weight, and became really passionate about pleasure, sexual expression, and the teachings and rights of our sex working foremothers.

Thanks to communities and opportunities created by accounts like PDFilthyFriday and Twerkology Nation – both run and founded by two powerful Black women who celebrated and educated others about the history of pole, and to whom I own so much as a poler and as a person – I found myself as a performer. And thanks to the networks and audiences built through this blog and my social media, I could support myself as an online instructor throughout the Covid pandemic and become a Pole Junkie ambassador, one of my absolute pole career goals.

It’s through the social media censorship I experienced as a pole dancer that I became an activist, and thanks to that same experience that I shifted my academic career towards the under-researched path of censorship of nudity. So it’s not a stretch to say that the intersection between pole dance and social media really did change my life.

Still, as I wrote in my post explaining why I stopped teaching pole regularly, the pressure to always produce content, be ‘successful’, get all the gigs and be polished while doing that coupled with previous working environments that didn’t suit me really did dampen my passion for pole for quite a while. Even if now I am not a regular instructor anymore, and I am loving training for myself, I often find myself wishing I could just be a pole dancer and perform without necessarily having to post it on social media.

Why? Because in between the constant fights with shadowbanning on IG and TikTok and the feeling of posting into a void without much return in terms of earnings and opportunities, I sometimes wish that pole dancing could return to be what it was for me when I was a beginner and I was just discovering it: a passion. Something to be constantly excited about. Something to share without depending on it.

But pole dancing is a huge part of my life. It’s not my whole identity, but it’s definitely helped me shape it. The pole dancing academic hybrid life both inspires me and pays my bills, and it’s what most people know me from. Pole is still what gives me joy, even if performing it in front of people gives me a lot of anxiety due to the expectations that my online persona might have created. And in writing this post, I realised that I still love pole – it’s the surrounding social media scenario that I have a more complex relationship with.

Pole dancing is part of my life and my story. And like everything in life, it comes in stages and phases – which is why noticing what affects our life, our passion, our work is crucial to making positive changes, whether that is through reducing teaching or changing our social media use.

A blessing and a curse

I still don’t know how I’ll change my social media use to make pole more enjoyable, but I have started taking more social media breaks when on holiday and have been thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve also been setting more boundaries, asking people to email me instead of DMing me and making myself less available.

Picture by @ray.marsh

What is certain from both what people shared with me when writing this post and from my own feelings is that social media platforms are a blessing and a curse for pole dancers. Somehow, we found ourselves performing a sport and an art with a spicy history, requiring both strenuous training and community engagement, while also having to become content creators due to the strong visual and entertainment appeal of what we do.

Yet for some, being a content creator is already one job. By being pole dancers (and either professional or budding performers and instructors) we’re doing two jobs at once, with one job – aka content creation and promotion – being tied to the success of our main work and art as pole dancers. This way, a precarious, mentally exhausting job – content creation – becomes intertwined with another precarious, physically taxing job – pole dance teaching or performing. No wonder we’re exhausted!

The proliferation of pole dancing content creators hoping to have a go at the self-made entrepreneur / content creator life inevitably influence pole dance’s look and feel on social media, meaning videos are inevitably more polished and produced – so even those who don’t pole dance to make money, but who are influenced by social media, are comparing themselves to that same instructor / performer / creator standard. Cue: self-doubt.

What changes can we make to manage social media’s influence on our pole practice?

We’re all in this for different reasons, but we know that pole feels good. This means that we need to find our own way of managing external social media pressures to nurture our passion. Blending what I heard from pole dancers online and actions I myself I am going to try to take, here are a few ideas.

  • Don’t equate views with skill: as we’ve all seen with shadowbanning and de-platforming, social media tend to disproportionately censor nudity instead of, say, violence – so chances are your low views aren’t due to your own skills, but due to a complex mechanism of platforms’ commercial interests with the political and societal pressure to censor nudity, pole dance and mostly sex work they’re under;
  • Remember social media are for profit: platforms are made to make you go back and get you addicted; they may make you go viral upon signing up, but those views aren’t easy to sustain. It’s a gamified experience that is all about their business model, not you and your pole journey;
  • Escape perfectionism: remember when you posted your work in progress pole combos or choreos? That helped you see how far you’ve come, and it made other polers realise it’s ok to do it too. Do that again! We all have a stake in normalising struggle and growth to make everybody feel better;
  • Save your energy for what social media can give you: use platforms for connection and inspiration, but protect yourself from what they take, aka your energy, and take a break when you need to;
  • Find styles you identify with: you don’t have to be like all pole dancers – you can find those you like and whose style is similar to your own to avoid the overwhelm of comparing yourself to absolutely every pole dancer that has ever shaken her ass on Earth;
  • Remember why you’re pole dancing: we love creating, pole dancing and sharing our art with the world. Pole makes us feel good whether people see it or not. When the social media overlords attempt to dim your light, remember why you started in the first place.

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