I’m not known for my love of high impact exercise or any exercise for that matter but as the universe would have it I agreed to a) going to watch a competition called Pole Theatre UK and b) actually attending a pole dance class. I was prepared for neither and even less prepared for how much I would enjoy all of it.
My whole reason for being at either event lies squarely at the feet of my sister and slightly drunk post-Cirque Du Soleil ‘let’s all run away and join the circus’ talk. Its big talk I tell you and who doesn’t indulge after watching a group of extremely talented humans make extremely difficult feats look effortless. My normal circus fantasises go as far as picking up my old friend hula hoop (we used to be quite serious but we’ve agreed to start seeing other people) and dancing around until I have a stitch (which is about 10 minutes) this time however I decided to side step into the, what is for me, unchartered territory of pole fitness.
If you’ve had the opportunity to see the newest Cirque Du Soleil show called Amaluna you will know that Chinese pole features heavily with one of the main characters, Romeo (Edouard Doye), performing a gravity defying Chinese pole act. It ends with him ascending in to heavens hanging gracefully from a piece of pole that has been lowered from the rafters for the occasion. As he rises he is pulling the kind of moves that make you go ‘woah’ and clap wildly. There is also a group Chinese pole performance which again blew my fragile little mind. All of this, not that it should matter, is performed by men.
Gender is a loaded conversation when it comes to pole, the obvious connotations are its well-known history in gentleman clubs all over the world since the 1960s. The lesser known history of pole is it roots as a traditional dance from India dating back over 800 years and of course China, where it dates to the end of the 12th Century and where it still performed with all the pomp and circumstance of a Royal Variety Show. This lesser known history is also a history of a male dominated performance art used to show strength, skill and finesse. In the West, pole performance started in the 1920’s as hoochie cooch dancers would hold onto the centre pole of the big top at travelling circuses. Fast-forward 50 years and pole dance has come out of the strip club and into the studio. Pioneers of this move to empowerment such as Fawnia Mondey and K.T. Coates all share the well-documented story of stigma that followed their first attempts at setting up pole fitness classes but they also tell of a determination and grit that is still part of the makeup of this rapidly growing community.
What struck me most as I entered the studio for my first lesson was the normal everyday-ness of it all. Yes, there was a row of Pleasers neatly kept in the corner and yes there were poles everywhere but otherwise just as normal as any other studio – wooden floors, mirrors, music and women ready for exercise. The class started and ended with a warm-up and a cool down and sandwiched in the middle was us, moving through turns, inverts and shoulder rolls, each working at different levels, each cheering each other on, just like any other exercise class. The difference being that these inverts and shoulder rolls are free flying and up-side down; legs elegantly cascading over one another in displays of core strength that make you question everything you think you know about gender politics. Already I can see that this is art. This is really hard art.
The harder it got in fact, the more fun it was – this lessons new trick was the ‘Gargoyle’ a mind-bending mid-air thigh gripping masterpiece that had everyone in fits of laughter over calls of ‘don’t forget to breathe!’ whilst the instructor was holding and folding each student into position. I was content to watch on and practice my apparently elegant looking swan spins; surprisingly, I felt elegant and even though it feels like one of the easiest moves in the book I felt like I had achieved something.
Fast forward afew hours and we are on our way to Hatfield for the UK Pole Theatre competition. With a running time of four hours I was expecting to ride a gauntlet of emotion from bored to slightly more bored to am I hungry? No still bored. Now I know what you’re all thinking, give it a chance Taryn, stop being so Judge Judy, and I am happy and mildly sheepish to report that my original reticence was overcome within the first 2 minutes of the first performance of the day (shout out to Mimi for her Pole Dance Against Bullying!).
But now for a little bit of history – Pole Theatre is a unique and relatively new competition having its origins in Sydney in 2013. Since its inception, Pole Theatre has been hosted in 14 countries and has franchises in the UK and America. There are four categories ‘Pole Art; Pole Comedy; Pole Drama and Pole Classique’ and the aim is to show the depth, beauty and variety of pole dance and the pole performers. The website encourages performers ‘…to delve deep into their creative consciousness and envision a performance that will astonish and delight.’
Cut back to the UK and here we are watching the culmination of a lot work, imagination and perseverance and I am swept away. There are two separate groups (Amateur and Semi-Pro) within each category and four performers in each section. Each performance starts, helpfully, with a description of the dance to follow and the performers score points based on how well their performance interprets the description. My eyes treated to a feast of Charlestons, Flamencos, Dreams and Tangos. I laugh heartily at Scooby-Doo, Deadpool, puberty and sexy Frankenstein. I am taken in by the drama of love lost and power regained. I am terrified by the undead. I fall in love with mermaids and Bjork’s swan dress. I revel in the retelling of ‘I Want To Break Free’ by Queen and the re-imagining of the future of human evolution.
The competition comes to a close with the Classique category which, as you can imagine, is an homage to the striptease side of pole dance. The rules for this section state that ‘’Competitors must wear heels for at least part of their performance (minimum 1 minute). Competitors are required to remove at least one item of their costume in this category. Failure to wear heels or failure to remove a costume item will result in an immediate deduction of 5 points per violation’’. It was powerful and empowering and the vibe in the room was one of respect and awe. These choreographies are impossibly difficult and impossibly sexy, with no hint of the repression that has been the hot topic of many feminist forums. These are women saying ‘This is me celebrating my full power, this is me with all sides of my feminine and that includes the sexual. This dance is an expression of my acceptance of myself.’ The performances were beautiful and I felt the full power feminine radiating around the room.
As with all competitions there were winners and losers, I couldn’t tell you who won what or even what the prizes were because for me it wasn’t about the winning. For me (I hate to sound like a cliché) everyone on the stage that day was a winner for bringing their strength, beauty, honesty and of course, theatrics.
So, what have a learned from my 24 hours? Well, I’ve learned that pole is ultimately a celebration of the athletic form – male and female. The artistry and mastery involved in making it look effortless is staggering. If we could talk gender for a moment – In the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love Ryan Reynolds’ character says “The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.” Watching these women being fully empowered and supporting each other and owning the part of ourselves that we are constantly told we must repress; I’d say the battle isn’t over, all women did was armour up. There is power in the sacred sexual feminine and it’s a power that women must connect with; it’s a power that connects us to ourselves, to other women around us and it’s the power that can help us change the world.
My pole lesson was with the lovely Sarah at Studio 901 in Newport Pagnell – you can find information about the studio and how to book classes here
Pole Theatre UK have competitions throughout the year. You can find out more and buy tickets here
Picture credit to the wonderful Leen Isabel at PDA: www.poledancingadventures.com