The studio lobby was a mecca for the glitter-loving of sorts: sparkly unicorns, sequined curtains, and mermaid shorts for sale. Electronica was humming in the background, and the previous class was shuffling out. Observing the athletically-built and scantily-clad women that rushed past us, I eyed my friend with a look of suspicion. Much like my feeling of being on a different planet at the gym, the same sense of unease began to emerge. Despite being in a dance studio—a home away from home—I worried that I had thrown $20 at being a laughing stock, an embarrassment to femininity and all things dance.
But that same friend, whose fearlessness and determination to reject anxiety inspired me to get out of the house, charged into the studio with a confidence so convincing, she may as well have been polling for years.
To my relief, the instructor—Renée, a middle-aged mom who had gifted herself an introductory pole class for her fortieth birthday—didn’t expect anything too wild from us. Largely floor work with some quintessential stripper moves, the class culminated in a choreographed sequence that featured moves like “booty up” and “stripper push ups.” This class was clearly geared towards one-timers who wanted to giggle at their participation in the overtly sexual and post salacious videos on Instagram.
(Myself included—I never said I was the Mother Theresa of feminism.)
Despite the sexual connotations of our first pole class (or perhaps because of), my friend and I were hooked. We raced home and signed up for a beginner/novice class for the following morning. I hadn’t experienced a rush like this since getting my first tattoo and wanting to immediately get five more. Not only had I discovered a new hobby—a novel goal after sprinting through an all-consuming Master’s degree—I felt alive.
Our next class was not only significantly more challenging, it was noticeably less sexual. While the instructor cued us with the phrase “lead with your vagina,” the guidance was strictly anatomical, a source of momentum that could power us through the beginner curriculum. The fact that her blunt language shocked me so much revealed just how little the female body is talked about outside of an objectifying context, which thus sparked my first connection between pole dance and feminism.
I have since continued pole dance (with varying degrees of regularity) for about a year. While I have faced little confrontation about this hobby, I have grappled with both internal and societal debates about pole dance as a valid form of empowerment and reclamation of the body. I boldly assert my participation in pole to friends, family, and colleagues, but delete all of my pole posts on Instagram before a job interview. I tell myself that I am carving out time for myself and actively choosing an activity that invites self-exploration and expression, but question just how much of my choice is influenced by post-feminist understandings of agency and empowerment. Even the book titled Sexy Feminism dismisses pole dance as a cleverly disguised act of female subjugation and adherence to the male gaze.
It is impossible to defend the feminist potential of pole dance without acknowledging its origins. Stripping, while still necessitating feats of strength and agility, is performed in a sexual context for men. Regardless of the fact that women might choose to participate in the profession because it is so lucrative, it is, nonetheless, exploitative. That argument largely goes uncontested. But, just because someone is taking a fitness class that mirrors some—but not all—of the same moves that professional strippers do, that doesn’t make the practice inherently sexist. However, taking that class in the name of personal freedom and empowerment doesn’t make it inherently feminist either. Identifying something as “not sexist” doesn’t equate to feminism.
When scholars Kally Whitehead and Tim Kurz interviewed “polers,” as the community calls itself, many of the responses were tied to money: paying to pole dance, as opposed to being paid to pole dance, was empowering. Paying for self-care and self-reward can be essential to our sanity, but it also falls under the post-feminist notion that in order to be empowered, we must consume a product of service (Whitehead and Kurz 236). Pole classes are not cheap. I may feel better about investing my money into exercise and skill-building than I would a $100 dress, but I often feel like the “other” when students reference other classes they regularly take at the studio, or when I find out that in order to participate in the biannual student showcase, you must take at least two classes a week. The message here is clear: there is a prevalent class divide in pole dance, thus leaving pole classes as primarily white and wealthy.
So while I continue to shell out $20-$40 a week, I don’t associate my choice in my spending with feminist praxis.
Whitehead and Kurz concede that “by relocating the activity in a female-only environment that is devoid of the male gaze, one could argue that recreational pole dancing studios are creating a space in which women can challenge traditional representations of female sexuality as passive and subservient to men” (230). My studio is unique in that it is co-ed. There are some obvious concerns that could come into fruition due to this policy, but in my experience, the men who participate in pole dance do not come to gawk: they are just as invested in the practice as their female counterparts, and play powerful roles in challenging gender norms. One male practitioner, who I knew was in a heterosexual relationship, came to class donning a sparkly pink bra and completed the beginner test with fierce determination. So while this particular environment was not female-only, it was still a feminine space, a place for women to congregate and exercise away from the suggestive gazes from men. One of the most common critiques I have found among those arguing against pole dance is that other forms of exercise are truly devoid of the male gaze. In her article “Whether You Like it or Not, Pole Dancing Perpetuates Sexism,” Meghan Murphy asks, “why bother pretending to ‘reclaim’ sexist practices when there are so many other fun and empowering activities that have nothing to do with male-centered sexualized performances?”
It’s all fine and good to fearlessly enter male-dominant spaces, but the lack of explicit sexuality does not guarantee lack of objectification or harassment. Try doing a half hour workout at the gym, for instance, and spend an hour and a half trying to fend off men with the audacity to whip out their best pickup lines at the pull up bar.
That’s not to say that women should never exist in predominantly male spaces, or should never enter places where they could potentially be harassed. If that were the case, none of us would ever leave the house. However, pole studios are something of a safe haven (or at the very least, a safe space) where women can work out without constantly glancing over their shoulders to see if their next “suitor” is heading over. They are also spaces in which women are taken seriously and trusted to achieve the strength and power that these dance moves require. In the pole studio, we are not docile creatures that need condescending modifications or assists every which way. We are forces of nature who can, quite literally, climb our way to the top.
So yes, existing in a space is not inherently feminist. Claiming a space, making it our own when we have so often been told to make spaces for others, is.
One of the most prominent forms of feminism in pole dance is something that I can’t yet enact, but admire among others: the fight against ageism. Unsurprisingly, after we’ve surpassed child-bearing age, we are told to discard our sexuality, to shrink, to become invisible to the rest of the world. This can easily extend to the hobbies we find ourselves in if we let it. What I find most empowering from pole class are the people who fight against that stigma, who say “I deserve to take up space here, and I am not afraid of my sexuality.” That same teacher who walked my friend and I through our first pole class also teaches “smoulder”—the explicitly sexy, promiscuous part of pole. Among the regulars in the class I went to was a middle aged woman who put my attempts with each move to shame. And as Renée noted, none of us would likely be in the same room if it weren’t for pole.
Just as pole dance actively invites sensual expression among women who society tell are “past their expiration date,” it also widens interpretations of fitness, strength, and grace. Glamour’s video, “Learning to Pole Dance in 30 Days,” features a plus-sized black woman walking a pole novice through basic spins and climbs every day for a month. Rather than harping on the instructor’s size, the video focuses on the instructor’s expertise and encouragement as she watches her student gain strength and confidence over the course of her studies. The comments under this video are largely positive, and mostly contain expressions of desire that they could be like the instructor, or that the instructor could be their friend. One of the most explicitly feminist aspects of pole dance is the encouragement to take up space despite society’s warnings against it.
A final critique of pole dance is an unfounded correlation to gender: Louise Owen’s “Work that Body: Precarity and Femininity in the New Economy” purports that “the spins themselves required a great deal of strength, but the practice, in the manner of ballet, ‘draws on a tradition of women’s strength being controlled or concealed rather than displayed’” (89). In addition to the blatant inaccuracy of that claim (we might make a spin look graceful, but muscling through a climb requires no disguise), Owen’s argument that the tradition of masking strength with grace is solely feminism relies on a tunnel-vision approach to athletics: take yoga, for instance, a practice that guides us through finding the ease and grace in difficult postures. Figure skating, another co-ed sport, is tremendously graceful and aesthetically pleasing, yet also requires athletic finesse and powerful strength. Grace does not discount strength, nor are the two qualities paradoxical.
There are certainly troubling associations with pole dance, and I do not claim to be immune to the sexist implications. However, immediately dismissing pole as antithetical to feminism is shallow, misinformed, and outdated. Nothing is without complications, but pole invites a kind of feminism that is evolving, encouraging, and expanding.