Reflecting on the Blackstage Talks panel

After the Blackstage Talks: Breaking Moulds panel I was honoured to have chaired, I have been sitting on a lot of thoughts following the incredibly generative conversations we had with pioneers in our industry. As a result, this blog post is a personal account sharing reflections on some of the things Cutie Whippingham, Beanie The Jet and Gemma Rose said during our panel on creating safe spaces in the pole dance industry.

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What is the ‘Blackstage Talks’ panel?

In case you missed it, Blackstage Talks is the latest offering by Blackstage, the award-winning Black, queer, sex worker-led company founded by pro pole artist, instructor and activist Leila Davis. After a series of record-breaking events, Leila launched Blackstage Talks to hold offline roundtables to discuss issues facing the pole dance industry. The first (and hopefully not the last!) instalment of Blackstage Talks happened on 10 February at The Common Press in Shoreditch, featuring yours truly as a chair and the following badass speakers – no strangers to this blog given I’ve admired and interviewed all of them:

  • Beanie the Jet (@beanie_the_jet) – the ‘sexual Liberator’ and ‘pleasure enthusiast’ behind the UK Pole industry’s first fully inclusive showcase Filthy Friday, a space for marginalised folk to celebrate and be celebrated but also an event honouring the roots of pole dance as we know it today.
  • Cutie Whippingham (@cutiewhippingham) – a queer professional pole dancer, instructor, model, movement coach, brand inclusion consultant, and founder of Blackstage – a group for Black people and people of colour (BPOC) of all bodies and abilities, especially those who are Queer, Trans, Non-binary and/or Sex Workers (SW). Drawing from her own experience, Leila is known for her informative online voice and workshops such as ‘How to make money as a pole performer’, ‘How to Write a Pole Performer Contract’ and ‘How to Build an Ethical Pole Event’, shining a light on the creative industries’ prejudices and getting the pole community to do better.
  • Gemma Rose (@gemmarosepole) – the proud sex worker and pole instructor behind Pole Dance Stripper Movement (PDSM), the world’s most SW-inclusive pole competition. PDSM runs sex worker-centred events by providing spaces and opportunities which directly give back to the community on which pole was founded, uniting the intersecting pole and stripping communities. Gemma is also the podcast host of The 6am Club.

As I said during our introductions, you could tell that neither of our panellists sleep very much.

Blackstage Talks: Breaking Moulds – what happened during the panel

I was both very excited and nervous to chair my first non-academic panel with these all-star speaker line-up. In a discussion about creating safe spaces, I was mindful of not taking over – something I’m not used to because, whether that’s as a speaker or as a pole dancer, I always go into performer mode in front of a crowd. The biggest challenge however was making sure our conversation didn’t turn into a massive catch up – Beanie, Gemma and I hadn’t been in the same room with enough time to chat since ExoGen 2021, and Leila and I love a chat. Luckily, we all reined it in and caught up indirectly through answering each other’s questions!

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Thank you @filthy.em.pole for the pics 🙂

The panel generated important conversations surrounding how to create and hold a safe space in the pole dance industry, how those trying to diversify and improve their spaces should go about doing it, and general best practices for hiring and working with polers from different backgrounds. Crucial discussions were had about how to correctly celebrate the heritage of movement like stripper style or twerk, how to take feedback as a space holder, and how to hold industry leaders to account.

Overall, the devaluing of panellists’ personal experience, expertise and time by everyone from audiences to industry leaders really struck me. It’s mind-boggling that an industry that runs so much on love, skill, passion, hard work actually devalues those same things. Pole dance is so behind on hiring practices, fair pay, workers’ rights and proper HR and accountability processes that hearing from Leila, Beanie and Gemma about how they actively make things better in their businesses (while making very clear they themselves keep learning and making mistakes) was incredibly energising.

Changing with intention

If you are new to changing your business, it can seem like you can’t get it right. In the pole industry, we’ve had a lot of examples of businesses attempting (or pretending) to diversify their collaborators and hires and then being called out for getting it wrong.

Everyone on the panel was very sympathetic to the fact that growing, changing and adapting to a changing world would mean making mistakes. What everyone highlighted though was the intention with which some businesses changed and reached out to those they previously excluded.

‘Intention’ became the word of the evening, because even if you get it wrong and want to improve intentionally – and therefore not just to look good or avoid backlash – people will see it and will want to collaborate with you.

Brands making sure their ads, events, pool of collaborators reflect the diverse experiences of pole dancers were a case in point. The panel agreed it’s not enough to tick a box and add one performer of colour to an event line-up, or include a couple of plus size and/or queer models into a brand shoot / campaign, while making hiring rates so low that those miraculously ‘included’ will have to make a loss just to take part. In 2024, exposure very much does not pay the bills.

This is where intention came in for the panel: Leila argued that we, as a community, immediately see when brands and companies are being disingenuous and hiring people for their own gain, without asking performers or collaborators what they need to feel truly included. And this bad practice is inherently bad for business, because it creates the wrong kind of awareness about the brand.

Still, Beanie talked about the importance of showing up in spaces where she felt previously excluded, not just for her past self but also to show people what could and should be done differently. All panellist show the difficulty of striking a balance between enforcing their boundaries and taking up space in environments that used to exclude them, showing how the labour of deciding whether to join something is still very much being performed by those who faced exclusion and stigma. Moving forward, leading companies and personalities should reduce this labour by actually centring the needs of those they’re trying to include beyond cosmetic image changes, having honest conversations about their needs.

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Cancel culture vs taking up space

Beyond intention, the panel raised important conversations about so-called ‘cancel culture,’ in this case reactions to panellists taking up space and highlighting issues of cultural appropriation and erasure in pole dancers’, studios’ and performers’ relationship with stripping and twerking.

Gemma and Beanie discussed the importance of, once again, striking a balance between making sure credit is given where it’s due while also avoiding ‘outing’ specific people. For instance, while we all agreed lap dance classes should be taught by strippers, we should also not be going on witch hunts in strippers’ names for whoever does teach those classes, since we may never know if they actually stripped. As Leila argued, if we continue to hammer home the message that certain practices are more authentic when learnt from the source, hopefully more and more businesses will understand it, and if they don’t, students will take their money elsewhere.

Here, Beanie raised important points about calling out white instructors who teach twerk. She said – and in fact, everyone on the panel said – that they have no problem with white instructors teaching twerk if they know and celebrate its history and origins. The only thing Beanie does recommend is that people should also learn from Black instructors, because the experience they will get from them will be more authentic. It’s hard to disagree with that: as a certified, white twerk instructor, I have almost exclusively learnt from Black twerkers, and the history and culture lessons provided as part of each class were unmatched.

In short, the panel was not about gate-keeping practices or cancelling others, but about broadening the scope and knowledge to the sources of movement that are too often overlooked.


Something I really appreciated hearing on the panel was speakers’ effort towards accountability, even when it was personally challenging.

Each panellist raised the importance of asking for (and taking) feedback, no matter how hurtful this might be. I really appreciated Gemma for saying how hard it is for her to accept feedback, particularly when it’s about spaces she created out of hurt, like PDSM. Still, all panellists argued that even when they may not agree with audiences’ reactions or feedback, even when that feedback is gratuitously hurtful or aggressive, there is something that can be taken from it to understand why people felt that way.

Everyone agreed that being from a marginalised group and creating a space is not enough for that space to be safe. Safe spaces are measured according to how accountable their holders keep themselves.


The concluding question during our Q&A really struck me for its kindness and importance, asking how our communities can support the work of space holders and community activists. The question was not just a beautiful acknowledgement of the hard work that each member of the panel puts in towards improving the experiences of members of our industry, but also a moment of reflection for all of us.

I found all panellists’ responses quite powerful, and was surprised to hear Leila, the ultimate Virgo and boss baby, being honest about being really bad at taking care of herself. All panellists’ partners got a shout-out for taking care of them, and Beanie mentioned the importance of meditation and spirituality for getting her through everything life throws at her.

The conversation provided a crucial opportunity to show our communities we are human. Throughout the panel, Gemma and Beanie in particular reiterated they were not spokespeople for specific experiences, but just space holders. Our communities should therefore understand that getting into our DMs with triggering stories – be it about racism, whorephobia, violence, platform governance – demanding we react to things is intrusive and stressful for us. We are all very opinionated, and will most likely react to things ourselves when we see them. But being asked to speak about absolutely everything, sometimes through trauma dumping or the sharing of triggering stories, is not the way to approach people.

We cannot hold space and care for our audiences and communities if we don’t take care of ourselves. We all expressed the need to do that better, and to be online less, but we asked our communities to take note of our boundaries, and to tell people they send to our profiles to respect them too.

What’s next for Blackstage

The Blackstage Talks panel was particularly educational when it came to discussions about fair pay and knowing your worth as a performer or worker. Blackstage has commissioned a study into this, and we will hopefully be able to hear about it soon – not just from Leila, but also through this blog because I am 100% interested in covering it. As a sneak peek however, I found the following advice shared by Leila and by the panel in general quite helpful:

  • People set a fee according to different factors, and Blackstage found a wide speactrum of some people charing £0 for a performance, while others charged £13K. The balance has to be found in your level of experience, the amount of travel and work required, and how much is required of you in terms of time and production
  • Leila reiterated that event organisers and venues that require performers to bring poles or other aerial equipment should pay extra for it, or sort it out themselves – just like they would when hiring camera crews, scenography etc.
  • We all agreed payment in kind (e.g. in classes) is not ideal for pole dancers, given that services given in return – like teaching, content creation or social media management – often greatly exceeds the value of a free class. To this end, even when agreeing on payment in kind, it’s better to sign a contract and to evaluate how much time certain work requires, to set either a fee or the amount of free classes / outfits that should be given in return
  • However, we all agreed we like to make space for mates’ rates or for helping out small businesses close to our causes, so doing things for free when we can afford it and we can help is not off limits.

But of course the survey isn’t the only thing we can expect from Leila’s company. Blackstage’s annual show, in partnership with Nike, will be taking place at The Clapham Grand on 6 April this year, and if last year is anything it go by, it will be fucking incredible. This year the show comes with an afterparty by the legendary Pxssy Palace, and I for one can’t wait to attend!

More than a panel

Chairing Blackstage Talks’ first panel was an incredible honour. I feel particularly proud of it because I have always admired Leila’s brand from afar while knowing it was not my place to get involved with it beyond celebration. This was a chance to engage with one of my favourite pole brands beyond being an audience member, and a fun one at that!

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Massive thanks to Wolf & Badger for dressing me in this stunning Nocturne set, styled by Lover Management, and to Blackstage’s partner, Nike, for the gifted kicks!

Here are a few more resources to find out about Blackstage and the panellists:

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