Competing: why I’m taking a break

I’ve decided to take a break from competing in pole dance competitions, meaning that PDSM, which you may have read about here, will be my last comp for a while. In this blog post, I explain why I wasn’t enjoying competing, why I competed in the first place and what I like and don’t like about the comp scene. And although this is very much a personal blog post – please do not take it as an attempt to tank the comp industry! – I also wanted to feature the opinions and stories of the pole dancers and strippers who kindly responded to my Instagram round of questions sharing why they like or don’t like competing. I hope this helps other polers who are torn about whether to compete or not.

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Picture by @rsaylesphoto at PDSM

Blogging as letting go

As my work commitments increase and my three lives blossom (or explode, depending on the week), you’ve probably noticed that I’m blogging way less frequently because, as I wrote elsewhere, everything is content and I am tired. However, I’m enjoying using blogging as a process of letting go of things that once mattered to me via a longer medium, outside the performative quick content fix that is Instagram.

Back in the day, circa 2017 used to be a place where I excitedly blogged about my developing pole life three times a week. I am still in awe of past me for her energy and excitement, penning 1,000-word long blogs up to three times a week while doing a PhD and working four jobs. Reader, present me is way less motivated than that. And just maybe, I’ve reflected on a lot of things already, and now letting go, or noticing nuance and change, interests me more than documenting each aspect of my training.

This big wave of letting go started with teaching, covered in a previous, very personal blog post published when I decided to stop being a regular instructor at my home studio and online. Now, it’s time for competing to get the same treatment.

When I wrote the post about giving up teaching regularly, I received a lot of messages from instructors saying I’d inspired them to quit. As nice as it is to inspire people, please don’t blame me if people stop entering competitions 😛 I really do believe there is a future in the comp business, even competing is not for me. More on that in the next sections.

Why I started competing

I started competing in 2018, a year and a half into my pole dance journey. Like many pole dancers, I wasn’t dying to be judged but I was dying to perform. I’d started pole dancing in Sydney, where end-of-term showcases were a three-month occurrence and where even as a beginner you could get on the performing high. I’d caught the performance bug, and I wanted more – this time, as a solo dancer and not only as part of my showcase class.

I entered and got into my first competition, Floorplay London, and ended up winning too. At the comp I met loads of new dancers, started becoming known for my (still very underdeveloped) style, and realised how good performing felt.

But with winning came the entirely self-inflicted pressure to win again, all the while wishing to learn more, to get better, to get more chances to perform in informal settings. Unfortunately, at the time – 2018/2019 – there weren’t many of those opportunities, and back then even studios weren’t too bothered by organising showcases. A honourable mention goes to Beanie The Jet‘s Filthy Friday showcase: once or twice a year Beans was already bringing filth to the masses with performers of all levels, giving people the chance to grow outside the pressure of competing.

Having won a comp as an amateur, I had to start competing in semi-pro, which led me to a lot of rejections. For years, I didn’t even make it into comps! Then I became an instructor, and the boundaries of levels started blurring once more – my tricks put me in the advanced category, but my performance experience was more intermediate, and I was now teaching professionally. Reluctantly, I started going for pro categories in levelled comps (all the while continuing to work as an instructor, trying to find an academic job, working as a content creator and on a lot of anti-censorship campaigns).

I started getting into comps more frequently, which is I guess a testament to my improvement, but I have so far never placed as a professional in a pole comp. When I was teaching full-time, this made me very anxious: would I get less bookings if I never placed? Would not placing affect my reputation? Would I ever be proud of a performance I didn’t place for?

When my academic work took over and I realised I couldn’t realistically teach properly and enjoy pole dancing – there were only so many hours in the day – I began feeling less anxious about competing. Winning, or even doing well, was no longer connected to my income or reputation – just to my self-esteem. NO BIGGIE, RIGHT.

So, naturally, I started applying for more comps.

It was then that I realised that, no matter how lovely the comp, I really didn’t enjoy the experience beyond the five minutes I spent on stage. Sure, meeting new people and watching other performers was heart-warming. Having the structure of a comp’s judging criteria gave me a framework to come up with a piece and to train in a certain way. But the days were long, the experience stressful and deflating: hours, days spent crafting a routine for it to only see the light for a few minutes… as you wait for results for an entire (often very long) day of performances.

It took performing again at showcases and events for me to realise that competing just doesn’t fill my cup anymore – or better, that I don’t think it ever has. So why do people do it?

Competing pros

“I’m looking for opportunities to perform and there just aren’t many where I live at my level,” said poler Emma in answer to my questions sticker, a sentiment that mirrored my experience back in the day and that was shared by many polers.

However, the wish to compete often goes beyond just wishing to get performance experience. @james_pole_diary, who competed for the first time just recently, said competing meant having a chance “to celebrate my progress and meet awesome dancers.” The community aspect of competitions is huge: for many polers, going to a comp means seeing friends you’d only get the chance to see at national or international competitions, like having all your Instagram friends in the same place for one day only.

Because the pole industry comes together at many comps, and a lot of people share snippets from them online, competing also means making your mark with a never-seen-before act, or creating and sharing a new move or transition: “I compete when I have something to say that I don’t see out there on stage,” says @Kishanda_jesse. The heightened attention comp days receive on social media brings a raised profile for people who deliver memorable performances or who place, potentially resulting in more followers (always helpful if you sell online classes) and more workshop and event bookings.

Competing is also a challenge you set yourself. Maybe you want to add a move to your bag of tricks, or maybe you want direct feedback from dancers who don’t know you, or from dancers you admire. For @_elenistarsinhereyes_, for instance, competing is a chance “to perfect those details that take a good move or a flow from ‘good’ to ‘effortlessly perfect.'”

Lastly, the comp scene has really been developing in the past few years. The birth of competitions like PDSM, which according to its creator Gemma Rose came from a place of hurt (namely, the comp’s scene disdain towards and penalising of strippers), means that competitions improving, becoming more welcoming, diverse and hopefully fairer.

Yet, all of these reasons why people compete don’t change the fact that competing isn’t for everyone. It certainly isn’t for me, and given the controversies coming out of recent comps, it isn’t for a lot of people on the UK or international scene either.

Competing cons

“Some big names in UK pole go to comps, then sit commenting negatively on performers,” said someone in my anonymous NGL replies. So let’s start with a not-so-fun trend coming out of the UK comp scene: people slagging off winners and/or other competitors on comp day, and questioning judges’ feedback not because of actual foul play, but because they (or their students) are sore losers.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I am a sore loser. I am an overachieving kid who hates not winning. On comp day, emotions run high and it’s very tempting to just air out your disappointment. But this is why I always take a few days before posting or speaking publicly after comps: I need time to heal myself, and the winners, who worked as hard as I did if not harder, do not deserve their victory to be dampened by someone else’s sadness. In truth, a lot of people are not ready to compete and be judged. I myself am not ready, which is why I’m taking a break!

But before you compete, I really suggest doing what Amy May says in this slideshow: checking with yourself to see if you’re ready mentally, and not just physically, for your competition.

The costs (financial and beyond) of competing

The cons of competing though go beyond mere feelings, and cost is a big one. We all pay increasingly extortionate fees to enter competitions (running events costs money, and of course organisers need a lot of that to make comps work!), to which we have to add paying for studio and/or pole hires to train on the two poles often required by the comp set up. Add costumes, shoes, travel and accommodation (for your human props, too, if you work with them) to the mix and competitions become too expensive for many of us.

I am now lucky enough to have collaborated with brands on many of my costumes, and having a pole in my house means I can train for free most of the time. But time is money for many workers, freelancers, instructors, strippers, and the time spent painstakingly perfecting a comp routine is as rewarding as it is taxing. Sarah Precious (@pole_with_precious) told me that one of the reasons she doesn’t compete is “the amount of time it takes up – taking me away from paid work of teaching classes and 1:1s, while also costing me money.”

Competing is expensive even for your health, particularly in countries without free healthcare or, in the case of the UK, where the NHS has increasingly less time to look after you, meaning you have to go private (#fuckthetories). Sarah said: “I’m getting older and having surgery this month for a full hip replacement. Even in comps which don’t require a lot of tricks, the training is intense and would work my body harder than I want to at this stage of my life, now knowing about the underlying conditions I have.”

Disorganised or rigged comps

Taking all the financial, emotional and time investment we put into comps, it’s also quite frankly unacceptable how often these end up being poorly organised, if not outright dangerous – I should know, having competed in the Fyre Festival of pole aka the very first Exotic Generation UK. An anonymous answer to my NGL link said:

I recently competed and the comp was so disorganised that it’s really put me off. There were no pole cleaners, no information, no replies to emails, tickets didn’t go on sale at the time stated… then on the day one of the poles fell down during the first competitor’s routine.


I myself have competed in comps running hours late, where we were being told to warm up multiple times, where judges were missing, were feedback was never shared, and where judges were heard telling their friends, students and colleagues that they would work to make them place. Plus, as an anonymous poler told me via NGL, “people enter lower categories than their level,” creating an uneven playing field, and organisers don’t seem to bat an eyelid.

Plus, there’s an extra layer of gross when competitions seems to distance themselves from the origins of pole – something I’ve heard multiple times in Italy, where in certain comps pole dancers are laughed at and slut-shamed if they undress too much, and where there’s a known prejudice against UK dancers for being too “filthy”.

How the business of pole comps can be taken seriously when so much disdain is shown towards competitors’ time, money and craft – or indeed towards the origins of the same thing that is paying the comp’s bills – is beyond me. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we really do need an industry standard not just for social justice and teaching, but for events as well.

Judging challenges

Although in most comps I’ve been to judging has not been rigged, it remains nevertheless challenging – and I say this as a judge myself.

Firstly, video entry rounds for comps are still a very murky, confusing business. Too often, only two people who are never announced as judges and who do not end up judging you on comp day decide whether you’re in or not, and only share a couple of lines of feedback to explain why. To most beginners, it will sound like wank about ankle positioning and essentially just an encouragement to do pole a little longer. No one has ever improved like that. It’s not constructive or helpful, just disheartening.

Marking schemes for franchise comps are not always tailored to each country’s ‘pole culture’ and style, and it’s undeniably hard to judge something creative that goes beyond mere physical ability. Often, people – and particularly strippers, gender-non-conforming, disabled and/or plus size polers don’t find themselves represented in marking schemes.

“I don’t compete anymore because I don’t feel there are enough comps that represent who I am, and I don’t fit competition boxes,” says @activecherry. Although a lot of pole is not just about tricks, the remnants of the whorephobic pole fit era means that tricks are often scored very highly, and determine which category one should enter. As Julie told me:

“I have to move to the advanced category now, as I’ve won at intermediate but my level is still intermediate and I’ve no desire to train at an advanced level. Even comps that are not tricks based have points allocated for tricks on the score sheet. And the pressure to push myself to achieve things I don’t enjoy just to feel good enough to be in that category is starting to creep on.”


Similarly, @revengebedtimeprocrastination_ says she doesn’t want to compete because her progress is too slow due to injuries: “I have to take too many breaks from training so would never be able to prepare for it,” she added.

We are, quite simply, still a long way from helpful judging feedback. Judging is very hectic on the day, especially during long comps with many competitors. Ideally, everyone should be typing on a sheet they can add to and then edit once the whole category has performed, but often the score sheets are printed and judges have to rush through feedback. Too often, that feedback is subjective to song or costume choice, and doesn’t actually help the dancer do a good job.

Judges are also too often not briefed ahead of comps, which is why I’ll always be grateful for the briefing and advice Jazzy K gave me before we both judged Exotic Generation UK (the good one), and why I think that extensive judging handbooks like PDSM’s one or judge guidelines like those provided by You Filthy Fucker are essential.

The social / emotional challenges of competing

On top of all the above, there’s the reputational pressure of placing and, as @victoria_nephytis told me, the challenges of “being judged by people who know you” – what if they score you really low? Will it hurt more? What will happen to your relationship?

Lastly, most of the anonymous responses I received juxtaposed the pressure of competing with a fear to lose love for performing, something that brought people joy. Some answers below.

“Too insecure to compete, performances are less pressure.”

“I don’t compete due to self loathing and anxiety. Competing would make it worse and ruin the fun and magic of pole for me.”

“I am stepping back from competing as much as I was because 1) I prefer not to be judged anymore 2) I enjoy performing without worrying about placing / if people see me as good enough. Competing was affecting my mental health.”

“I’m worried competing would cause me to stress about something that brings me a lot of joy.”

Anonymous answers

Some of my students also told me they’re currently too insecure about their styles or their ability to be judged. Partly this breaks my heart – they’re way better performers than I was when I first started! – but the pressure of attaching judgement to something we love was felt by everyone.

What performing means to me

Now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons of competing according to a variety of polers, I wanted to briefly talk about what performing means to me before explaining why I’m taking a break from comps.

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Performing at The Pole Nook showcase, shot by @annabelleyb

I started pole dancing while I was recovering from an abusive relationship and sexual assault, and for so long pole was my only way of expressing myself sexually or of being a sexual person in a safe space. Performing both digitally and offline was a way of getting my body back but, really, it was a way of getting my mind back too.

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Picture of me by @whoretographer at the last Riot Party, where I was one of the performers

For years, the joy of discovering pole was brought to me by amateurism. I suck at being a beginner at something, because I’m impatient and an over-achiever. But pole was my safe space to learn, and to go wrong. The more I started turning my passion into a job – through teaching, performing, content creation – the more that safety evaporated. Now, as someone whose life is essentially a random blend of research, pole and content, I’m clawing my way back into that safe space to make sure that not everything I do and love is work. Which is why you don’t see me do ALL the performing gigs, teach ALL the workshops and make ALL the videos.

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My horny goddess routine pictured by @annabelleyb at The Pole Nook showcase

Ultimately, I realised that so much of my wanting to place at comps was a desire to feel seen and appreciated by my peers in something that is emotional to me, something that I struggle with (I am not a trained dancer and I’ve had to work very hard to get a semblance of skill) and something that feels like a big ‘fuck you’ to the abuse I survived. I do get a lot of that validation through my activist work and through my dancing as well, just not formally through judging. But I now understand that I can’t hand the reins of my happiness to a small panel’s decision, because that ‘fuck you,’ that joy of doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, comes from within and from performing, and not from a score.

The feeling I get when performing is too important, too delicate, too life-changing for me to tie it to an achievement. And perhaps, to me, that is the biggest win of all: realising I don’t always have to be the best at something to enjoy it. As someone whose anxiety and depression have always been tied to ambition, this feels major for me.

Why I’m taking a break from competing

So here are all the reasons why I’m taking a break from competing.

The first, biggest thing is that associating the achievement of a result with something that gives me joy has been really bad for me mentally and physically. I am a wreck during comp training, because I overtrain, don’t focus on conditioning enough, get injured, and then spend weeks beating myself up after comp day just because I haven’t placed, even if I did really well. Because of how emotional pole is for me, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to compete.

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More Riot Party goodness by @whoretographer

The second biggest reason is that, while before I had no performance experience, now – largely thanks to comps, I do see the irony in this – I have enough experience to be asked to perform at events, which is what I wanted to do in the first place. This way, I can earn instead of lose money from what I love doing, I have enough time to craft acts and redevelop them instead of having to bring something new each time, and I get the high of performing without the harshness of judging.

And this is true for the whole industry, too: pole is becoming more mainstream, bringing more events where you can perform and earn your stripes. With another sold-out, incredible show this year, Blackstage keeps showing us we are more than a niche; events like Sexquisite, Riot Party, Sex & Rage, One Night create more opportunities for sex workers and allies to perform; Molten Muse, as well as increasing number of studio showcases, have joined Filthy Friday in creating (often paid) spaces for performers outside of comps.

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More Riot Party moments

The reduced expense of performing means that I can still learn from dancers I admire, but instead of getting just five minutes of their time as judges at a comp, I can just pay them for a private – and keep my sanity by keeping pole as something joyful in the process.

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Post performance bliss at The Pole Nook showcase

A third BIG reason I’m taking a break from competing and moving onto performing is that I don’t enjoy comp days in general. While I love seeing all my pole friends in one place, my busy schedule means my social battery is very low, and I don’t enjoy 12+ hours of comp day only to perform for five minutes. In fact, the length of comp days has made it very hard for me to share my passion with all the important people in my life: because comp days are so long and expensive, I’ve always been very reluctant to ask parents, friends or lovers to come watch me. Everyone keeps saying how much they enjoy being there for me, but how repetitive the day looks after a while.

Instead, now that I perform at events I’ve finally have the chance to invite people I’m seeing or friends to a show, and the feeling of having someone you spend time with outside of pole watching you do your thing is way more special than dragging someone to an all-day comp.

Lastly, the fact that some of my favourite performers – Tiff Finney, Kitty Velour, Josh Taylor – don’t compete anymore and have in the past talked about finding it stressful is not lost on me. Sometimes, you have to carve your own path and do what feels good.

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One of my fave shots from The Pole Nook showcase

What’s next for me

I don’t know how permanent my break from competing will be – never say never!

Usually, I talk about retiring from comps and then a new one with an interesting concept comes along and I apply again. And just like with teaching, I may have moved on from weekly classes as a big aspect of my life but I still teach workshops or occasional guest spots. It may be the same for comps.

Still, for all the reasons above I’m not interested in most comp formats any longer, and would rather participate in comps as a guest performer rather than outright competing. This is what I will be doing in October for Daniel Langdon’s brand-new competition, Exotic Hell, Italy’s first openly trans-feminist comp bringing together activism and pole dancing with a scoring system that aims to prevent badmouthing and shaming other performers – something we really need in our country. I also love the idea of Eden Pole Competition, and would like to enter the showcase category at some point. And if Dance Filthy comes back, I may consider. But, you know. Pressing pause for now.

I hope this post has helped those wondering what to do next in their comp journey. The key take-away is: look after yourselves. Comps are here to stay, but your love for pole is more delicate, precious and fluctuating. Protect it.

Over and out.

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Bang bang kiss kiss x

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