ICYMI, this month I competed in Gemma Rose‘s PDSM, aka Pole Dance Stripper Movement, an entirely stripper-run pole competition celebrating the origins of our industry. And I got fully naked for it. For the first time. So I thought the experience deserved its own blog post, showing off all the gorgeous pictures Richard Sayles took of me on stage.
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A play on BDSM, PDSM promises to be “the world’s most libertine pole competition,” showcasing the variety of Stripper Style pole dancing and providing a safe and fully inclusive space, especially for sex workers, who are generally excluded or harshly judged by the pole comp world.
PDSM’s points of difference from your average pole comp are many, from a very thorough marking sheet and increased judging time to the presence of a moderator to ensure competitors are judged fairly. Crucially, while most pole dance competitions penalise competitors who get fully naked on stage, PDSM welcomes full nude performances also thanks its strip club location, where licences allow you to get naked. If in other comps you have to worry about your nipple pasties falling off or wardrobe malfunctions causing you to flash the audience and getting you disqualified, PDSM ensures flashing is welcome.
If you’re new to the blog, you might not know I was one of the first PDSM fans, having interviewed Gemma first individually, and then specifically when she launched the comp in 2022. Although I was literally the first person to apply to the 2023 edition, I then pulled out after getting injured during previous competition training and on the back of a venue change (you may have noticed the old interview spoke of a London club as a venue, but then moved to Birmingham with a fully static, 50mm pole set up, which was different from what I had time to create back then).
After seeing stunning pictures from PDSM 2023, hearing how much of a success it was and falling in love with its gorgeous venue, Birmingham’s Medusa Lodge, I decided to stop being a crybaby and to apply for this year’s competition. I knew I was gonna have to suck it up and pull off a wholly static pole routine (I’m more of a spinning girlie) and on a thicker pole, but I told myself I’d cross that bridge when I’d come to it.
Getting in and preparing
Applications for PDSM closed in late spring, but as they received a record number of submissions and since the review process is extremely thorough, we only heard back from them in October. When I heard I got into the Show category, the most appropriate for my preferred style featuring tricks and high-energy performances, I almost had a fit. I am not used to getting into competitions, and I heard about a lot of incredible performers who didn’t make it in. The pressure was on.
I had an idea that I wanted to pursue if I made it into PDSM, but I didn’t give it much thought until I had confirmation I was a finalist. In October, just ahead of my next competition, shit got real and I had to mentally prepare to firstly pursue the idea, and secondly to fully train on a static pole for a few months.
Static pole is not my medium. Having taken up pole in Australia, where spin flows and showgirl style are the norm and where static isn’t as popular, I have always felt disconnected to static routines, feeling that they really did not fit my movement style or my song choices. I didn’t even know you could pole on static until I moved to the UK, and felt very useless in static trick classes for quite a while.
On me, static looks like: “TA-DAH! I DID A TRICK!” rather than something fluid. And even though, since qualifying to become an instructor, I had to learn how to use and teach static pole particularly in choreo classes, it would never be my preferred performance choice.
For PDSM, I had to wake up and smell the coffee. So I started focusing largely on static, doing conditioning and dynamic static classes with my friend and inspiration Kheanna Walker and taming the pole to learn how to adapt static to my movement.
Do I get naked? For real?
Knowing that PDSM had the option for performers to get fully naked, I began mentally exploring the idea. As a digital criminologist and sexual assault survivor, I’ve always been afraid of losing control of my image, or of the potential of naked pictures of me appearing online. Because of this, I don’t even send people nudes, just a tailored, private version of the same aesthetic and same level of nudity I already show on social media.
Let me be clear: if your pictures get leaked, it’s never your fault. I am just too anxious to even run the risk, and the control freak in me feels better like this.
Still, despite the fear, I started thinking I wanted to go full nude for PDSM.
First of all, as we’ve sadly been seeing, no one is safe from leaks – even if you don’t share naked pictures of yourself, some asshole may just deep fake a video of you regardless. So that element of control became sort of pointless, especially in a space like PDSM, which felt safe even ahead of starting to prep for the comp. Secondly, I realised that those who leak intimate pictures do so on the basis of ‘shaming’ their target who kept them a secret, who wished them to remain private. But I wasn’t gonna hide the fact I was getting naked, so I retained an element of control.
Partly, my interest in getting naked was an experience thing. When would I ever get the chance to perform fully naked again, in a safe space and outside a professional club setting?
But mostly, I wanted to pay homage to the founders of pole – strippers – and really go for it.
As I wrote in my post sharing the performance, the more I reflect on my experience of pole dancing, the more I realise that my love for hard tricks and fast dancing is as much a reflection of my personality as it is an inability to fully take myself seriously when dancing sexy. I can’t slow down fully, I can’t linger, because I’m afraid I’ll look silly.
This is not because I think sexy people are silly. I admire and envy people who can dance slowly and charm the audience like that.
But having grown up culturally Catholic, in a conservative country that still struggles to allow women agency, respect, full freedom and individuality beyond the role of daughter, mother, partner or relative, it just felt weird to fully embrace my body, sensuality and femininity after having spent a large chunk of my teenage years hiding my body to show people I had a personality. Later on, when re-training as an academic, I was also so scared I wouldn’t be taken seriously that I spent a lot of time separating mind and body, splitting my social media presence between academic and pole dancer, only to join the two and show the world I could do both.
Now, the world knows (sometimes begrudgingly) I can do both. The only blockage left was my own mind. Subconsciously, I still performed a pole style that was powerful, physically impressive, but uncomfortable with sexy movement. I buried sexiness between hard tricks to avoid making family members or employers uncomfortable, to make my passion for pole palatable for those that may frown upon it.
But did I want to continue feeling like that?
Choosing a song and a theme
From the get go, I told my friend Cassie that if I got in, I would perform to George Michael’s Freeek!, a disgustingly underrated classic and masterpiece.
Freeek! is the least George Michael of George Michael’s songs. Packed with early internet references – including the AOL dial-up noise – and full of fetishy, sleazy vibes, Freeek! didn’t chart well in the United States, where its music video sporting a red leather cyberpunk devil George was even censored. Filthy, twerkable beats, sleazy guitars and internet references that ended up being censored = catnip for a pole dancing academic like me.
I’ve always wanted to perform to this song, but as a mostly spinning pole performer its beat stressed me out. It was just not a flowy, drawn-out spinny pole beat. It was sharp. So what better occasion to dance to it than PDSM, where I’d be forced to dance on static?
Thing is, I couldn’t really dance to a song screaming “sensual freak” and not get naked. Right?
The inner battle, the whole ‘to strip or not to strip’ business was a momentous experience, and it caught the attention of Luke Naylor-Perrott, a film-maker I worked with before on a short film on rethinking gender. We talked about the comp during our latest catch-up, after his film had launched, and I told him about the things I had coming up. Luke said if I got in, he’d like to film the day as part of a film on the duality of my life as a pole dancing academic, which is why if you were at PDSM you may have seen that I had a small crew following me around.
One of the main questions surrounding the film was whether I would get naked or not, and whether Luke would show that on camera.
A month or so before the comp, I decided I would, indeed, get naked at PDSM.
The first people I told about it were my parents, because I don’t like them to be surprised when stuff about me comes up on social media. They were not happy, but such is life (more on that later).
So how did the day play out?
How I got naked
Trigger warning: periods.
Because I’m that unlucky, of course my period had to come early, meaning I was on day two, the worst day for me, on the day I had to compete and go full nude for the first time in my life. Aside from the nakedness, I got one step closer to the stripper experience: after chats with my stripper friends and trawling through Reddit forums (100% do not recommend), I had to cut the string off a tampon and then give birth to it after my performance. As someone who hates tampons, cups and any internal period product – I’ve been happily wearing period proof underwear for years – I now have even more respect for strippers, who have to do this one week each month.
My period, however annoying, was a blessing in disguise because I had been dealing with the worst possible back pain for weeks. I legit thought I’d injured my lower back, but turns out it was just PMS, meaning I felt strong enough to compete once my period came.
On the morning of PDSM, Luke and his fellow camperaperson, Jay, came to my Airbnb bringing me my first Greggs of my life (I know, late to the party), and then followed me around to the venue. This was both soothing – the camera was my therapist – and nerve-wracking because… will Luke show me fully naked in the film? We still haven’t decided!
Because I decided to wear a red vinyl slingshot bodysuit and red devil balaclava, both gifted by Naughty Thoughts (use my code: Bloggeronpole10 for 10% off their stuff), I had to choreograph taking off that very spicy, very strappy bodysuit carefully.
I choreographed the outfit removal so that undressing didn’t look like a day at the gynaecologist, aka a full-frontal spreadie. Nothing wrong with that, just always hoping for something I could sneak past the social media overlords!
This allowed me to really play with my outfit, taking off the top first, showing off my nipple pasties by Tats & Tissles. Then I put the bodysuit’s straps between my teeth, inspired by my friend Cassie Pickersgill, to really make the most out of the song and only take the outfit off in a shoulder roll the last few seconds, finishing in a sneaky frontal nude kneel.
Performing this routine and sharing it with the world in such a welcoming, safe space felt incredibly freeing. I couldn’t have chosen a better space to get fully naked for the first time, and I can’t thank Gemma enough for providing this opportunity. I could hear the crowd go wild, and I really enjoyed playing with them in an environment that really celebrated every performer.
I chose not to walk off stage naked for the same reason why I don’t send nudes: as much as I trusted the audience, I wanted to retain control over the angles people could photograph me from. And then, I was free.
In my last competition before PDSM I was gutted I couldn’t catch any competitor before me, as I was almost last. Luckily, this time my category, Show, was one of the earliest, meaning I was done by 4.30 PM and could finally have a drink (I’d been doing Dry January before the comp) and watch all the glorious badasses after me.
Watch my (almost) full PDSM performance here – minus the naked bits
Filmed by the amazing Zeta Spyraki, this is my PDSM performance. Had to put it on Vimeo because YouTube didn’t agree with the copyright – but you can also go like it and share it on Instagram here if you like!
Reflecting on my performance
I didn’t place at PDSM, meaning I still haven’t won a competition as a professional pole dancer. That was hard on the night and the day after. I didn’t see the winners’ performances, and the response to my routine and the compliments I got on the night made me feel like I had a chance. I’m so happy for them and I can’t wait to see their routines, but I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that as an over-achiever I struggle to not always achieve results. I owe my friends Cassie and Rachel big time for bearing with me because I wasn’t fun to be around.
Now, though, days later, I realised that the things that were important to me all happened: I delivered the best performance of my pole career so far, a performance I am now going to turn into an act because, unlike most of my performances that tired me out after running them ad nauseam, I love it so much and I want to do it again.
Most importantly, I learnt I can take myself seriously and enjoy myself while being filthy and do hard tricks at the same time. I learnt I can dance on a 50mm static pole and deliver.
At PDSM, I found out that the inability to take myself seriously as a sexy dancer was all in my head: if you don’t take yourself seriously, the audience will not take you seriously – but I believed I could do it, so I did it. This was the least nervous I’ve ever been before a performance, not just thanks to the safe space but because I knew who I was as a performer, and I brought that to the stage.
So, will I get naked again for a performance after PDSM? In the right space with the right licence, hell yes.
Preparing for this experience showed me how much prejudice and my upbringing – not so much because of my parents, but because of the society I was brought up in – subconsciously led me to separate mind and body. But we all have and need both: we are all sexual beings, and enjoying using one doesn’t cancel out the other. There is so much shame in feeling that we have to hide our body behind closed doors, while allowing it to take centre stage is so freeing, and allows for the important reflections on sexuality, expression, labour and stigma that sex workers generate by simply existing and by sharing their work, art and activism with us.
By being so afraid to linger in sexiness, to perform filthily, I was confirming that my fear of not being taken seriously, of making people uncomfortable, had some sort of basis in reality. But it was my own fear, brought by the culture I grew up in.
I don’t want to be that person anymore. My body and my sexuality deserve a voice as much as my work or mind do. I am a bisexual woman in her thirties. I enjoy sex and sexual expression, I have a sex life as much as a work life, and both are important.
I don’t want to be around people who don’t appreciate this, and I am done making myself smaller to stop making people uncomfortable because, as my academic work on censorship shows, shaming or censoring people for their sexual expression is harmful. It’s time for my own dancing, my own body and my subconscious to embody the freedom that my research fights for.
PDSM was also a momentous experience because I realised I love performing and hate competing, which strips (pun intended) the joy out of sharing my passion with a crowd for me. In the near future, I’ll be focusing on performances instead of comps, and have three coming up already.
Importantly, PDSM kicked off some important conversations with my parents, who had to realise I need pole in my life and take it extremely seriously because of how good it is for my mental health. Even though they are extremely supportive and progressive, their relationship with my pole journey is always a push pull, which my father in particular often fails to acknowledge behind its fitness value. I hope the difficult conversations we had this time pushed this forward. As a parent, you don’t have to approve of everything your child does, but if you know something makes them happy and doesn’t harm them, you can at least try to understand it.
If you wanna compete in PDSM
If any of you is thinking of applying to PDSM, this last bit is to tell you about the experience of competing at Gemma’s comp.
From the outset, even ahead of the competition, I could tell that PDSM would be the best communication I’ve experienced from the competitor side. This wasn’t the case for everyone – apparently finalists found out a day before than those who didn’t make it in, meaning that people who didn’t get through to the final had to stress for an extra day and essentially find out the results online. While all of this is distressing and it happened to me with other comps, I can also appreciate it’s the result of a small business growing.
What I can say for sure is that, as a finalist, communications from PDSM provided thoughts and info on things I hadn’t even considered. Emails were always thorough and timely, and were announced also through the comp account’s Close Friends on IG, giving us an extra nudge when necessary. Even the pictures and videos were sent extra fast, the communications around them was quick and clear, and the standard of quality was the best I’ve ever had at a comp.
PDSM was probably the first comp I’ve ever walked into with zero questions for the organisers, meaning that the organisation made a nerve-wracking experience much more chill.
The day itself was run like a show, running early and according to a set schedule that we were always updated about, giving us a feeling that all we had to do was perform, because everything was taken care of for us. This is not always the experience at pole comps and events, so I’m super grateful not just to Gemma but also to the amazing showrunners Rosie and Charles for running such a tight ship while also being supportive and fun all day.
The welcoming vibe created by PDSM and written into the comp’s values really shone throughout the day, with the nicest, most supportive and chill backstage chats I could have ever hoped for, really a testament to the fact that strippers are amazing and to the space Gemma created.
The venue itself was really lush, with a decadent red curtain background to the stage and amazing lighting to make us all shine, despite the newly added bars that lightly disrupted the audience’s view.
I’d say the most challenging thing you’ve got to prep for is the day’s length. I walked into the venue at 10.30AM and left at almost 9PM, because the comp does go on for a while! In between tech runs, guest performances and added judging time, PDSM is made to give competitors thorough feedback – a much-needed change to rushed feedback at comps! – but the flipside is that the day feels particularly long, which can be a challenge if you haven’t eaten much (bring snacks!), if you are an anxious person wanting to find out about results, or if you are in the audience. Top tip: if you are wearing a mask or balaclava, wear it LAST MINUTE before going on stage for extra breathing time, because cleaning up the stage and allowing the judges to score the previous competitor takes a while! And don’t lose it like I did either -.-
However long the day was, it also allowed to take in all the glory of different stripper style performances, including OGs from our industry. Although you can technically only watch others’ performers once you’ve gone on stage yourself, the variety of categories – Sensual, Show, Strip Tease and Stripper Style Twerk – really made for an incredible show, and those performances still live in my brain rent free. It feels incredible to have been part of that line-up!