The Sport, Sensuality and Art of Pole Dance: An interview
For many, the term “pole dancing” conjures up an image of a raucous bachelor party at a seedy club on the outskirts of town, dark and swimming in cigar smoke; music is booming over the loudspeakers as a burly bouncer keeps watch over the main attraction — a scantily clad, well-endowed woman in platform heels and pasties, spinning and contorting her body around a pole.
This is certainly one form of pole dance, valid and challenging in its own right. In recent years, however, this genre of dance has exploded in popularity and expanded far beyond the confines of gentlemen’s clubs. Many cities are now home to boutique pole dancing gyms that offer group and private classes. And pole dancers participate in international competitions; there’s even been a movement to bring pole dancing to the Olympics. All of this points to the physically demanding nature of the activity — it’s a fitness routine and a sport. But, it’s also a form of art.
We should note that there are three generally accepted types of pole dance. Sensual or exotic pole dance is basically what it sounds like. It’s sexier, and heels are usually involved, but it doesn’t necessarily entail stripping. Pole sport “focuses on physical strength, technique difficulty and drills.” It’s a stricter delineation, with regulations set by the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF). And then there is pole art.
Pole art, according to the Exotic Dance Academy, is “all about telling you a story. When you see a performance, you are able to feel what the dancer wants to transmit with the music and their moves on (and around) the pole.”
Natasha Wang, a globetrotting pole champion, puts it this way: “I believe that movement without intention is just fitness or exercise… as long as the movement has a purpose, it becomes a form of communication.” While every pole artist approaches the performance differently, Wang’s approach “to putting an act together is similar to writing a story.” She tells us: “I typically start by freewriting or journaling about how the music is speaking to me, what themes and ideas come to mind, and how I want to express that through movement.”
Marion Crampe, an award-winning pole dancer from France, has long been drawn to the aesthetic of the sport. She’s fascinated by “the way the body can compose itself around this vertical tube, the infinite diversity of shapes and emotions emerging from this interaction.” Crampe has been perfecting her techniques for nearly fifteen years. “It is a language,” she tells ARTpublika Magazine, “a form of storytelling which is considered an art.” And, “like ballet, pole dance has a repertoire with its own vocabulary.” Wang agrees with this notion: “The pole moves are the words, sequences up and down the pole become the sentences. All those dynamic moves, flips, and drops are the exclamation marks.”
There are hundreds of moves — or words, as Wang puts it — that make up the language of pole dance. Many are described in the Pole Dance Dictionary. These include jaw-dropping contortions of the body, such as “Dangerous Bird,” “Phoenix,” and “Cocoon.”
While this particular iteration of pole dancing has only emerged in the last few decades, it’s rooted in dance and performance traditions from centuries ago. In the 12th century, for instance, “Chinese acrobats displayed a range of skills requiring great strength on a pole up to nine metres in height, laced with rubber.” Likewise, in India, some practiced Mallakhamb, which literally translates to “wrestler of the pole.” They wore minimal clothing and “[played] competitively on a smooth wooden pole — thick at the bottom, narrow at the top — becoming pole-flip specialists.” Middle Eastern belly dancers, Burlesque clubs, and “Hoochi Coochi” performers from the Great Depression era lent a more erotic influence to modern day pole dance, but the very first “recorded exotic pole dance routine occurred in 1968 as Belle Jangles performed at the Mugwump Strip Joint in Oregon.”
Pole dance has evolved in a number of ways since the late 60s, especially with the advent of formal competitions. The IPSF holds the World Pole and Aerial Championships every year, with participants competing in categories like Male/Female Doubles, Junior Girls, and Senior Men (18-39 years old). Yes — plenty of men now pole dance, too. The U.S. is home to a national Pole Dance Championship, in which “soloists are judged in five areas: performance; flexibility and extension; difficulty of tricks; smooth and unique transitions; and technique.” Regardless of skill level, many practitioners also attend the annual International Pole Convention, or PoleCon, which offers workshops, access to vendors, and performances.
Outside of the niche world of pole competitions and conventions, pole art crops up in mainstream venues, too. In 2015, Alexander Wang made headlines when he “hired professional pole dancers to entertain the revelers at his New York Fashion Week after-party.” Cirque du Soleil now occasionally features pole dancers. Pole dancing has even made appearances on The Martha Stewart Show, ABC’s The View (with Natasha Wang), and The Ellen Show (with Marion Crampe).
While it’s certainly become more mainstream, there’s still a stigma that follows pole dancers wherever they go. Tami Joy Schlichter, cofounder of the U.S. Aerial Organization, writes: “Because pole is not considered part of the aerial world, we have a harder time overcoming pole’s taboo past and as a result have to deal with a stigma that other aerialists do not.” That taboo — ascribed initially to those who practice the sport naked as a profession — seems to cast a persistent shadow over pole dance performed for other purposes, too.
Beyond the stigma, pole artists also have to contend with those who claim it’s not a legitimate art form — including and up to governing bodies. In 2012, for instance, a New York court held that “exotic dancing does not qualify as ‘dramatic or musical arts performances’” in response to a club’s application for associated tax breaks. Not all of the judges agreed with the majority opinion, however. One of the three dissenting judges wrote: “I would be appalled… if the state were to exact from Hustler a tax that The New Yorker did not have to pay on the ground that what appears in Hustler is insufficiently ‘cultural or artistic.’”
And, make no mistake, pole dance is more than sufficiently cultural and artistic. Just consider the performances of Japan-based Lu Nagata for proof. The Japan Times describes one show put on jointly by Nagata and fellow dancers Mai Sato and Narumi Naito: “Divided into three 3-4-minute sequences, Sato performed a ballet standard reminiscent of Swan Lake, followed by Naito performing in Bjork-style costumes to an indie rock song… The performance wrapped up with a surreal spinning number by Nagata.” It’s all probably a bit closer to traditional dance than gyrating strip teases at gentlemen’s clubs. Indeed, Nagata tells the Times: “My pole dancing expression is an artistic expression, the focus is on art, the same as in other dance such as jazz, ballet and so on.”
In Natasha Wang’s view, “the most effective way to change a person's perception of pole dance is for them to see it with their own eyes.” She elaborates: “I would encourage anyone who doesn't believe that pole dancing is an art form to look up videos of Marion Crampe, Oona Kivela, Marlo Fisken, Slava Ruza and myself.” When people get a glimpse of what pole artists actually do, she says, they discover that it’s “not so dissimilar to what you'd see at the circus or the theater. There's the same performance quality, attention to form and technique, and refinement in choreography. We just happen to dance aerially, instead of on the floor. “
Of course, as suggested by one of the performers at the Alexander Wang show: “One of the biggest misconceptions about pole dancing is that it’s a single style of dance… In fact, the pole is just an apparatus — you can adapt any style of dancing to fit the pole.” Marion Crampe agrees with this notion. “It relates to any forms of dance because it is a body creating shapes and forms,” she tells us. “It involves movement of the body with or without music within a given space. The purpose is to express an idea or emotion, release energy, or simply take delight in the movement [and] expression itself.”
Donna Carnow reiterates this idea. Carnow is a Brooklyn-based teacher and performer with a BFA in Dance, and was recently ranked as one of the best female pole dancers in the U.S. “Like contemporary dance or ballet, pole… can be used as a vehicle to explore human expression through movement. Like other forms of dance, there are codified techniques that make up a pole dance skill set,” she tells us. “In ballet, there are tendus and rond de jambes. In modern dance, there are leg swings and under curves. In pole dance, there crunches and chair spins.”
Carnow goes on to say that each of these elements are “manipulated, organized, customized, and transformed by all pole dance artists through our unique artistic voices and inclinations.” And, “whether the pole dancer is a competitive athlete, a stripper or a recreational enthusiast,” she concludes, “they are an artist.” When we think of it this way, it’s easy to see that the pole is merely a canvas, and the body a paintbrush wielded gracefully by the artist.