Critics say that to engage in sensual movement is to be subjugated. I disagree.
Jennifer was about to turn 60 years old when she came to my pole dance studio. Two weeks before, she wrote me an email.
“I’ve been hesitating to try a pole dance class, worried about what other people would think of me,” she wrote. “But I’ve been worried about what people think of me for too long and now, I’d like to sign up.”
In the studio, she takes three small steps and lifts off the floor. Her silver hair sweeps wide, suspended in the air.
When her toes touch back down on the floor, she laughs. It cracks like lightning against the concrete of the industrial studio space.
I jump up and down in my unicorn hot shorts, reaching my arm out to her for a high-five. Our palms slap, and she pulls me in for a hug.
“We did it!?” she exclaims.
“We did.” I smile back.
This is my work, a business I dreamed of building for 5 years after becoming an attorney at startups in San Francisco’s tech scene.
As a competitive professional pole dancer, instructor, and owner of two studios, I meet hundreds of people each month who set out to learn pole dance.
There are many reasons people give pole a try. Some come for a great workout or because a friend dragged them along. For some, it’s pure curiosity.
Others try because they’ve heard that pole dance is empowering. And they’re right.
For me and thousands of other people who love this weird and wacky sport where we throw ourselves around a 45 millimeter-piece of stainless steel, pole dance has magic in it.
Many people believe that recreational pole dance is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with sex positivity.
Critics say it’s objectifying, too married to the pole’s history of stripping to be considered art or sport. At least in the pole world, I thought we had evolved beyond these criticisms, even coming to honor the strippers who endured hardship and paved the way for our sport.
Then J.Lo pole danced in her 2020 Super Bowl halftime show. The debate about whether pole dance empowers suddenly came back into the limelight.
Some critics say that to engage in sensual movement is to be subjugated and disempowered by it. I disagree.
Pole dance has helped me and many of my students redefine — on our own terms — what sexuality means to us. We get to decide what feels good to us, what makes us feel alive.
It’s a movement style that helps many people amplify our own internal strength. Pole dance and flexibility student Michael Pope says, “For me, the physical activity has been a channel of self-discovery and growth.”
Sport, fitness, movement, dance: All of these things have historically helped people find strength in themselves that they didn’t know they had.
Often, that strength spills out to other areas of life. I’ve seen students find the courage to try a risky pole move, only to translate that courage into asking for a raise or starting their own business.
Once students find that strength within themselves, it doesn’t leave.
One big difference between pole dance and other sports is fairly obvious: Dancers usually aren’t wearing much.
Pole requires that students look at themselves in the mirror while they practice. As they build strength in their tricks and fluidity in their dance, they often go from criticizing their bodies to “Wow, look at what my body can do!”
The “wow” happens to polers of all shapes and sizes. The emphasis of the “wow” is on the ability to master technical movements and look awesome while doing it, regardless of body type.
Pole dancing instructor Janet Cee says, “One thing that makes pole different is the ease with which you can notice and feel a sense of accomplishment. Whether it’s an outside leg hang or an iron X, the movements all look like things the human body shouldn’t be able to do! Many other sports don’t have that wow factor.”
Pole dance student Julie says, “For me, pole has been deeply healing for the PTSD I have in relation to sexual trauma I experienced in my early adult years. It’s not that I came to pole with no power, but that I was seeking permission from myself, not someone else, to reclaim my power. What pole and pole dance studios do then is provide the space for you to find your own power inside yourself.”
Julie is not alone.
I’ve heard many stories from people who have experienced sexual violence in their lives speak about how the sensual physicality of pole has helped them reclaim a part of themselves that had previously felt stolen.
In this sense, recreational pole dance can be a vessel that helps people find their own strength and self-love, a thing perhaps buried but very much alive deep inside all of us.
While many see pole dance as something to try once at a bachelorette party, many commit years of their lives to training weekly, even daily, to the sport.
Some stay with pole because they’re training for a pole dance competition. Some stay to nail new tricks. Many stay because, like it does for me, the pole studio feels like home.
I grew up in a church where members saw each other every week, and the pole community fills my heart the way church used to. These are my people, those who delight in dangling their bodies upside down in the air.
One of the most important aspects of pole dance, beyond the joy of the movement, is that it’s a community of people who share a love for a sport that’s still far from culturally accepted.
Many recreational competitive pole dancers avoid mentioning it. They don’t post videos or pictures of themselves pole dancing or talk about pole dance very openly.
Instead, they say they’re going to gymnastics or dance class when people ask.
The community of polers is tight-knit because they’re trusting each other to hold space, often quietly or in privacy, in a world that lives out loud. To pole with others is to trust them with something intimate.
To work with a pole dance instructor is to trust them to literally lift you in the air and protect you from falling on your head.
The lifting, the spotting, and the trusting, consensual touch is a big part of what makes pole communities so tight-knit.
Still, pole dance and the pole dance community teach me new things every day.
If you’re feeling nervous about trying pole dance, here are some tips and tricks that have worked for others:
- Recruit a friend. Many students take their first class with a friend, a co-worker… some even bring a parent!
- Try taking a private lesson. Most studios offer private pole dance classes bookable online or via email.
- Remember, most new students are nervous. You’re not alone if you’re feeling shy. It helps to remember that folks are usually so focused on trying to learn that they’re usually not watching you. In most classes, we’re all in it together!
- Try a virtual class. There are plenty of online floor-focused classes that you can try from the comfort and privacy of your own home. Many review basics of low flow, which is pole-inspired movement. Check out my studio’s livestream to try one!
Nearly everyone is a little nervous their first time. Don’t let that stop you from experiencing what this unique sport has to offer.
Amy Bond is a writer, small business owner, and pole dancer based in San Francisco, CA. She is currently writing a memoir called “Becoming California”. When she is not pole dancing or writing, she spends her spare time advocating for asylum seekers as a pro bono attorney.