Many people are quick to judge pole dancing as playing up to the raunch culture, aligning it only with the sleazy nightclubs and exotic dancers from whence it came. However, the reason it has prevailed as a fitness activity is much more than the enjoyment of exercise in strappy stilettos...
It's about empowerment.
Researchers have investigated the feminism and empowerment of other aspects of the adult industry including stripping and sex work, but there is still limited research about pole dancing as a recreational activity, especially in fitness. Over the last decade, pole dancing has been transformed from an act performed exclusively in strip clubs to a popular and accepted form of group exercise. It is nearly impossible to find information about pole dancing in health & fitness journals, I suppose it is the stigma and its illegitimacy as a "sport", so Psychology journals are the next best thing. Finally, there is a small amount research that is starting to challenge the image of pole dancing classes as sexualized and objectifying.
A small, rural English beauty salon that doubles as a wellbeing centre, won an award for empowering women through its pole dancing classes and many women who take part in these classes all around the world would probably agree. Now pole dancing is part of a wider discussion about gendered physicality, body image and embodiment, leisure, empowerment and pleasure. It does seem strange that pole dancing is an activity that came to prominence in strip clubs but has had a full reinvention as a fitness activity for women, championed by women!
Yes, pole dancing does trade on, its exotic, erotic and sexual connotations, with classes offered that encourage you to “Get fit, have fun & feel sexy” or even exotic dance workshops that offer you “new moves for the bedroom plus an all-over body workout”. Whether it is the mainstreaming of sexual behaviour or just blurring the border between sexuality and fitness in order to sell more places, is up to the student and observer, but it sure is working. Many of the woman who participate in pole dancing classes have a history of disliking physical exercise or not being able to stick with an exercise program, so regardless of whether the raunch factor has something to do with it, it’s obvious that the new-found commitment to fitness is a positive change.
One of the most obvious positive changes for women is often in their body image. There is an emphasis on building strength in order to be able to complete tricks and combinations, and the muscle control needed to hold positions and come out of executed moves properly is huge. Women find it empowering to know they are strong enough to lift and hold their own body weight, and move seamlessly through gravity-defying holds and inverts. The most obvious change that some people can recognise is the positive response to muscle gain. Women can fall into the trap of aspiring to the lean and slender look, and still many women are apprehensive of muscle gain, not wanting to "bulk up". Pole dancing is one of the few sports where women celebrate muscle gain and strength increase, and compare themselves to women with muscular physiques instead of the model-thin types. Some studios have started championing the tagline "Strong is the new Skinny", and there are many schools and competitions moving away from the exotic dance styles and into the fitness and strength arenas, with crop tops, shorts and bare feet replacing the sequined bras, hotpants and 6 inch platform heels. The elite level performers are not women with slender bodies, breast implants and hip gyration but ripped abs, bulging biceps and advanced strength moves, like the Human Flag.
Chelle Hafner, one of Australia's top pole performers and the current Asia Pacific Pole Dance Champion, is a qualified boilermaker, has worked in the heavy mining and construction field and is an ex-gymnast. Definitely not the stereotypical pole dancer that most people see, and she is one of the strongest. Zoraya Judd is a picture of fitness, with a figure the rival most body competitors, and loves pole dancing for the strength, fitness & flexibility component. She is without a doubt one of the strongest performers in the industry, and only started classes after the birth of her second child. Looking more like an Amazon than a men's magazine model, Zoraya is inspiration to pole dancing students & instructors everywhere.
Whilst there is still quite a way to go before pole dancing is accepted in all markets as being more than just “learning how to be a stripper”, the fact that this research has even taken place is a sure sign that the validity of pole dancing as a sport and performance art is gaining strength.
Healthy Party Girl is a Vegan, pole dancing & aerial arts enthusiast, blogger/writer/reviewer and has a number of other hats as well.
She is studying a Certificate III & IV in Fitness and has a Bachelor of Health Science (Nutrition/Psychology) on hold while she completes further studies in Marketing & Advertising. She loves piglets and calves as much as kittens and puppies. You can find her on Twitter or at her website.
`Empowerment' and the Pole: A Discursive Investigation of the Reinvention of Pole Dancing as a Recreational Activity. Kally Whitehead. 2009. Feminism & Psychology. May vol. 19 no. 2 224-244
Pole dancing, empowerment and embodiment. Holland, Dr Samantha. 2010. Palgrave Macmillan, United Kingdom.
Spinning the pole: A discursive analysis of the websites of recreational pole dancing studios. Donaghue N, Kurz T, Whitehead K, 2011. Feminism & Psychology November vol. 21 no. 4 443-457
The poles are in: Exploring women’s sexual identities and the rising popularity of pole-dancing fitness. Hamilton, Meghan. 2011. University of Guelph, Canada.
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