On November 3rd I competed in Skripped Down, my first professional international pole dance competition, where I also won the 2023 Philanthropist Award for my anti-censorship work. Skripped Down was an unforgettable night – read on to find out my experience with the comp and how it sits within the pole competition industry.
About Skripped Down
Created by Canadian stripped Onyx Sachie, Skripped Down is a pole dance competition born in response to what the founder calls both a “lack of representation on the judging panel” and “inappropriate judging criteria” for what competitions like PSO call “Exotic” style pole – a term she herself is trying to eliminate in favour of “Erotic” due to the former’s racist origins.
Onyx knows what she’s talking about: she is a burlesque headliner at the Spotlight Cabaret who also teaches workshops at pole studios across Canada. She has won almost every domestic industry award possible, including Miss Nude Canada – for which she was the very first Black woman winner – twice. She has danced at exclusive shows, judged competitions, and even toured and booked dancers for Snoop Dogg throughout the whole summer of 2019, as well as co-hosting the brilliant Yes A Stripper podcast – if you’re not listening to it, wyd?
In February 2020, Onyx started her own entertainment company, Iconyx Elite Entertainment, which focuses on bringing exotic entertainers and even just talented people to mainstream corporate events – the company that would organise Skripped Down.
The comp centred sensuality and performance, recognising the origins and entertainment value of pole dancing. Featuring three categories – Contemporary, Sensual and All Out – Skripped Down also incorporated Chromageddon, a freestyle smackdown for the title of overall winner among the three categories’ winners. The Chromageddon winner, the incredible @sardonyxwelch, won $1,000.
Taking place at the Opera House in Toronto’s East End, a live music venue where Nirvana played just ahead of releasing Nevermind, on a gorgeous stage that also hosted Pearl Jam and Metallica, the night of Skripped Down was a truly grand experience.
Putting it into the context of the comp scene will help you understand why, so buckle up for a bit of pole competition history.
The pole dance competition scene
If you’re not a pole dancer, you probably don’t know that competitions aren’t always the nicest experience for competitors. Given this, you may wonder why we put ourselves through it.
It’s not just the prestige and glamour that come with winning, the pictures, the videos, the rhinestones, the glitter and the shoes. Up until a few years ago, there were very few spaces where you could perform a pole piece. With the increased popularity of pole fitness and pole performances – thanks to sex workers who have brought their art to audiences outside the club – strippers and pole dancers have wanted to create routines in various styles outside of the commitment of club work, for different audiences.
However, the ever-evolving and often quite exploitative comp scene hasn’t always catered well towards this. Competitors have to pay to enter, and they must submit application videos which may be an existing performance clip or an entirely new routine (depending on comp rules and on whether they have performing experience). This may mean that it’s harder for amateurs to make it in, or that it’s easier for those with better spaces and filming equipment or contacts to send something up to standards.
Competing is expensive. Unless you’ve got brand partnerships in place (and I am privileged to have quite a few, like my costume delivered by Pole Junkie), you have to invest time and money in training spaces and costumes while getting very little in return. Travelling and accommodation for comps come out of your own pocket, but most comps don’t offer prizes or money, and feel very exploitative particularly for those in our community who earn money from performing and stripping.
On top of that, competitions have notoriously attempted to fit a fluid and sensual art like pole into almost olympic marking schemes to legitimise it as a sport and separate it from its strip club origins. Misty, an OG UK activist, pole instructor and stripper, told me that the first pole comps used to forbid competitors from wearing heels or skimpy clothes – anything less than complete butt coverage would get you either disqualified or marked down. To this day, in some comps even categories classed as “old school” or “stripper style” require very hard tricks to place, which is not true to origins because crazy tricks have been ever-evolving since the blending of different, more gymnastic-focused pole styles and are not about “old school” sexiness. Comps also heavily focus on clean lines and pointed toes – something that doesn’t earn you money in a club. We’re talking about pole dance, not ballet!
Having judged pole dance competitions, I recognise that no comp is perfect and that every decision presents a challenge. Removing levels (amateur, pro, semi-pro) from a comp may mean that people don’t necessarily focus on tricks, but it does naturally privilege people with years of performing experience and better movement quality. Broadening judging panels may result in less bias, but it can also see dancers who do not understand specific styles judge performances unfairly. And so on and so forth.
The issues with competitions don’t stop at fairness and respect for pole’s origins – they also reflected on the type of events organised. Having competed in what I called “The Pole Dance Fyre Festival” – a comp that scammed its competitors by promising a safe set up and instead put on a show with an unsafe pole, resulting in swathes of international pole dancers pulling out – I am often frustrated to see that pole businesses want to be taken seriously… without taking themselves and their commitment to their customers and athletes seriously. This is also reflected in the choices we make over the type of events we create: insurance for pole competitions can cost a lot of money, and so does hiring big venues. But choosing small, remote venues and presenters unknown to outsiders to the pole community means that pole remains a small, niche form of entertainment that doesn’t resemble its cabaret and circus siblings.
This is why, earlier this year in my review of Leila Davis’ Blackstage show, I argued that shows like hers are proof the pole industry that we could be more. We could attract more people. We could make performers feel wanted, and not just ask for their money to put on a show only their relatives will see.
What felt different about Skripped Down
Skripped Down’s choice of The Opera House as a venue – a central, grand theatre – felt like a statement that pole dance should be mainstream entertainment. Having landed in Toronto the Monday before the comp, I was struck by how many posters I saw advertising it across town. Every person I met at every studio I trained at said they were coming. Even random people who were not pole dancers that I met in bars said they were coming. In short, the venue, the hype, the promotion elevated Skripped Down from a nice community event to a mainstream night out.
The choice of presenters also made the difference: high-profile comedian Tom Hearn and the incredible drag performer Pepper brought the entertainment with songs, dance numbers and outfit changes, hyping performers up and firing up the audience.
Although Skripped Down had an entry fee, it was a lovely comp that acknowledged how hard performers work to join. Each performer received swag bags with treats. We were welcomed and guided through the stunning venue like rockstars.
The celebration of everything sensual in the comp’s description allowed all of us to really be ourselves and prioritise stage presence and performance value instead of worrying about whether we were always pointing our toes. As someone who enjoys the sexy aspect of pole and its rock origins, I felt really seen here. There were many styles reflected, but there wasn’t one right way to be sexy. Instead of coming off stage and feeling judged – as I have felt at certain comps – I felt celebrated by everyone from the pole cleaners to the organiser and my fellow competitors, who were a truly lovely bunch.
The comp’s schedule ran to timing and we were kept informed of how it was going throughout the night. This sounds like the bare minimum, but I’ve competed in comps that ran hours later because the judges went for lunch when I was prepping to go onstage. The respect towards competitors on the night was just another level, really showing how entertaining competitions can be when we feel looked after and cared for, and when our hard work is recognised.
For all of these reasons, the night of Skripped Down will remain as a memory of the nicest competition event I’ve taken part in so far.
My routine and my category
As I have already mentioned, Skripped Down was my first competition as a professional – I often competed only in semi-pro, but decided to go up a level since there wasn’t a semi-pro category.
Getting into such a big international competition was already a shock: my category was “All Out,” made of ballistic tricks, drops and badassness also known as “Hard Style” or, sometimes, as “Show”. I applied for this category in June, when I was extremely tired and nursing some injuries, so making it in already felt fantastic.
I was, sadly, equally if not more tired ahead of competing. I brought a routine to Muse’s Hysteria onstage, because I realised that to feel sexy and powerful I need to dance to songs that turn me on instead of merely to high tempo beats. Hysteria was one of those songs – although I am not a massive fan of Muse’s latest work, I remember this song made me massively horny as a teen. When it came on through one of my playlists when I was shooting my showreel, I just knew I had to use it for this comp.
Unlike my friend Cassie Pickersgill, who won her category in Sensual Pro, I didn’t make the top three in All Out. Still, I’m extremely proud of the performance I delivered. It’s been my hardest choreo to date, created during the busiest time in my academic career – in the space of a month, I’d spoken at three international conferences before the comp, and had to fit training within a demanding travel schedule. For a long time, while recovering from a knee injury and doing more conference travel than ever, I thought I’d never have the stamina to deliver it. But the atmosphere at Skripped Down brought a lot of my fire and hairography back and I’m so happy I did it.
I wish I could show you more pictures and videos from the night and from my performance, but this is mostly what I have (more on that later), so embeds and iPhone shots it is.
The Allyship Awards
Something that made me even prouder than my routine – and that added to the feeling of a more community-oriented, celebratory comp – was walking away from Skripped Down with the 2023 Philanthropist of the Year award.
“I added the Allyship Awards due to problems I was having at a studio I recently quit working for,” Skripped Down organiser Onyx said. “I felt like people should be awarded for the good that they do. There’s a difference if someone is going out of their way to do something without having people asking them to do it, and that needs to be recognized.”
Winning my category meant the world to me. This is not just because Skripped Down is a stripper-run comp and strippers are my inspiration in dancing and activism, but also because of where we were: from what I’ve been able to find out from sex worker sources (including Yes A Stripper), Canada is where the first pole studios opened, so this country has a special place in pole’s history (I’ve got a blog post about it that you can read here, with all sources linked).
Performing and feelings
I am often open about my feelings on my social media but I do feel that the pole dancing academic and activist you see on my profiles may lead people to think I’m a cold hard bitch who needs no love. Because I appear like a fighter, people assume I do not want to be looked after or cared for.
I very much do want that, and I am in fact very sensitive – something that somehow is forgotten by people I have been romantically involved with or have been friends with.
To those outside of the pole community, my pole dancing looks really impressive. It does so even to insiders, who admire my strength and my energy. Yet, I don’t yet feel like I know what I’m doing, or like I’m a ‘successful’ pole dancer, because while writing is second nature to me, dancing is something I had to coach my body through through backbreaking practice, as I don’t come from any traditional dance training. Because I love it, because it’s my passion, pole dancing is also my greatest insecurity, so competing and being judged is an extremely vulnerable moment for me. Even if I’m incredibly proud of my performance, and was blown away by this competition’s winners, it does sometimes still feel sad that I haven’t yet won a competition as a professional.
Watching your friends and peers thrive is a wonderful thing, but it does sometimes result in a lot of self-doubt. My biggest fear is that my academic and activist work may overshadow my dancing in people’s eyes. I already know that my academic work is my future and my priority, and that I can’t be and don’t want to be a full-time pole dancer and want to keep pole as something that can nurture me outside of work. But I also know that the inability to often be in the same place due to my extremely busy work and life schedule has affected my training in the months ahead of the comp, which made prepping for Skripped Down challenging and which increased my self-doubt.
Competing requires you to be an athlete. Working requires attention to detail and completing several time-sensitive and time-consuming tasks. It’s challenging to be good at both, but I do know that I want to try my best to do so because both aspects of my life nurture me in different ways that one couldn’t give me without the other.
What I do know is that, while prepping for my next competition, I want to travel less and be able to really enjoy refining my performance.
Despite all of this, being on stage was truly fantastic. I am becoming more confident in my own style and the quality of my movement is improving. I’m rushing less, and I’m not holding my breath throughout routines. As someone who isn’t a trained dancer, or doesn’t come from a dance background, learning all of this continues to be crucial to exploring my preferred art form.
My performance went as well as it could have gone, better than many of my run-throughs, because I do light up with an audience. More importantly, I was fully present – something not to be taken for granted given that, before I stopped teaching regularly, I dissociated when performing due to stress and impostor syndrome. I loved every minute of it, and I’m proud of what I did.
What about Skripped Down 2024?
As I mentioned, no comp is perfect and there were things that, Onyx said, are going to be improved next year. The main improvement for me is pictures and videos, which are the main thing any competitor wants when they walk away from a comp: a professional video to use for a showreel or future application, pictures for promo and just… memories, y’know.
Instead, the comp didn’t have a videographer, meaning we didn’t get an official video. My pictures only came today, and I can see that the hired photographer may not have shot pole events before: as having also caught a glimpse of some of the official ones of other competitors, there are very few pictures of each performance, and many of the shots I have seen are mid-move rather than the most impressive poses, and very bright or very dark. This makes me a bit sad, given that I travelled to another country (another continent!) for Skripped Down and have very little to show for it other than my own shots. So hiring a pole photographer and finding a videographer are the main thing that need to not be an afterthought for the next edition.
I also struggled with keeping up with information initially – it was mostly posted via IG stories, while a more permanent info sharing approach (e.g. via feed posts and/or emails) would be easier to stay on top of. These are all things I’ve told Onyx directly too by the way, but as you know I like giving my readers a honest opinion of events 🙂
Next year, I think competitors could also benefit from digitising the judges’ feedback, to give them more time to write more details about each performance. Plus, I would personally move on from the sharing of public rankings. It wasn’t that I didn’t do as well in the rankings as I hoped I would – 149.1 points out of 180, sixth out of eight, still better than my last comp where I was seventh in a much bigger group in a less selective comp – but rather that I think public scores add more misery to nice comp experiences for everyone but the top three. Emailing them privately gives people the chance to see them or not – as many of my friends have ended up doing in situations when they didn’t win.
Regardless of all of this, I am not really sure how Onyx managed to pull off such a great night despite the fact that she had been literally performing and travelling around every day before the comp. A true force of nature! She says:
“Oh man, I felt manic [on the day] – honestly! I was running all over the place. So many things were going wrong, so it was a miracle everything turned out the way it did! Once I was able to sit down and watch the success, that’s when I knew that this was a big hit and everything was going to be alright. My favourite moments would be all the contestants performing, my hilarious hosts of the evening and the sound and light technicians turning my event into a rock concert.“Onyx Sachi, Skripped Down organiser
So what does Onyx have in store for Skripped Down 2024? “Without giving too much away… New Judges and all the kinks that we had in 2023 worked through for 2024,” she says.
Skripped Down: TL; DR
I am so grateful to Onyx for creating Skripped Down, for looking after us so well, and for giving everyone an option to compete in a way that allowed them to be their unapologetic selves.
This year’s amateur winners were Shh I’m Talking (Contemporary), Vandal (Sensual) and Baroness Bunny (All Out). The pro winners – apart from my amazing friend Cassie Pickersgill in Sensual – were La Bruja Negra (contemporary) and Sardonyx Welch (in my category), who delivered a jaw-dropping Barbie routine and won the overall Chromageddon challenge. I sadly didn’t get to see most performers as I was almost last, but what I could see was pure entertainment, and I am glad my entry was seen as worthy of this line-up.
Travelling all the way to Canada for a celebration of all things sexy and to perform with my peers has been an electrifying, inspiring experience. Bring on PDSM – my next comp – in January, hopefully with a more relaxing schedule!