Taboo to Trendy: Pole Dancing Gone Mainstream
Can the practice be separated from its deep ties to sex work. And should it be?
by Jean Rose Zamora
Sweaty grip-aid covered fingerprints distort the reflections in the pair of 8-foot chrome poles on stage, signaling to the volunteers that it is time to wipe them down.
“Woooo!!” Jamie Wong cheers as she watches the other volunteers shimmy up the poles, with rubbing alcohol-soaked rags secured to their clothes. Once they sturdy themselves at the top of the pole, they slide down, wiping them clean in the process. The pole cleaners garner other loud yelps from the audience as they happily shake their butts toward the crowd to appease their calls. This day is important for everyone, but it will be long, and will require keeping spirits high throughout the competition. In order to do this, Jamie is already on her third cup of coffee for the day, courtesy of the cafe in the lobby, which has been cranking out endless cups of coffee and surprisingly sticky cinnamon rolls to fuel the participants.
She wakes up at 4:30 am to be at the Pole Sport Organization (PSO) pole dancing competition by 6. Nestled between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University, the Hyatt Regency of Cambridge is the perfect place for families to stay when touring colleges or visiting their children for the notorious ‘parents weekend’, but not today. Today it’s hosting the pole competition that Jamie will be judging. Driving to Cambridge from her home in Malden takes 20 minutes, but she needs extra time to wake up. She wears a black sweater, ties up the top half of her long brown hair in a ponytail, and fills her reusable water cup, her name stenciled on the side in white cursive letters. It’s time for pole testing.
The beige carpeted ballroom is still generally empty, except for the most eager competitors who have already made their way to the stage. A few stragglers hover by the booth in the back that’s selling Pleaser Shoes: tall, pleather heels with platforms beneath the toes and long pointed heels at the back. A pair of six-inch, chili-red, thigh-high, heeled boots sits on display, and for a mere $100 they can be purchased, possibly to make their way into any of the day’s upcoming performances.
On the stage, the bottom of two poles are secured to the wooden floor while the tops are attached to a scaffolding-like contraption that frames it. Behind the poles, a black backdrop with small lights gives the effect of a dark, starry night. On both sides of the stage are spotlights that add to the theatrics of the event to come. During pole testing, competitors take the stage in groups of three. One competitor practices on the static pole to the right, another on the spin pole to the left, and the third practices their floor work. While they do this, Jamie takes the time to set up her place at the judges station.
Jamie is a pole dancing instructor. Having been a competitor herself countless times, she decided to switch things up and volunteer as a judge for this competition. She takes her seat at the far right of the long table and places her two beverages- water and coffee- on her right side. There are a lot of judges, so that the work can be rotated among them, with three scoring at any given time. The scoring system is straightforward, designed specifically for PSO competitions.
The competition for the day is organized in two sections, day and night. In the day section there are 10 categories which include artistic, championship, entertainment, dramatic, and even exotic. The “after dark” section has four categories: all floor all day, down to flow, Russian exotic, and shadowbanned, where the acts get more PG-13. The championship category is all about technique. Are the toes pointed? Have they performed the tricks in a way that seems effortless to the eye? The dramatic category, however, is about telling a story and moving the audience. Similarly, the entertainment category is supposed to make the audience laugh. The exotic category, and all of the after dark categories are similar to the classic stripper style, lusty and filled with sex appeal.
Each category is ranked by simply choosing a grade, except for the two open-ended questions at the end: “What are two things the competitor did well?,” and “What are two things the competitor can improve on?”
The program sits open on a small, silver, PC laptop at the table in front of Jamie. She keeps these questions in mind as she watches the performances and takes into account all of the different categories within the competition, which will affect the scores. The main area of point deduction is for safety violations. There are also general rules, such as the prohibition of the use of unapproved props, level rules which specify that a competitor must use both poles, as well as the costume rules that eliminate any intentional (and some unintentional) stripping.
Pole dancing costumes run the gamut from colorful unitards or bright bedazzled sports bras, to flowy translucent skirts with large slits. Although, every contestant needs to wear shorts to allow themselves to grip the poles. Some, though, take the costumes even further.
One girl wears a pale wrinkly bald cap, dark red sunglasses, a long white fake goatee beard, an orange and black button down shirt, and a pair of white shorts. On her back is a large purple felt turtle shell, and in her hand is a brown plastic walking stick that’s about her height. On her feet are orange and green flip flops, and she walks with a purposeful old man hunch. She is dressed as Master Roshi from the Dragon Ball anime series, and is clearly competing in the entertainment category. When performing, she ditches the turtle shell and walking stick and shuffles across the stage from pole to pole like a 1920’s flapper, doing different low to the ground pole tricks.
“Eeeeoooowwww” “EEEEOWWWW,” people scream in between cackles and wolf whistles.
This drawn out version of a Cardi B ad lib was fitting considering the rapper is known for incorporating pole dancing into her performances, in part because she used to be a stripper.
The competition goes as quickly as could be expected from an event with over 100 competitors doing two- to three-minute performances each. Add to that routine breaks to wipe down the poles, as well as general intermissions. In the end, it clocks in at 15 and a half hours, from 7:00am to 10:30pm. Still, the day doesn’t feel like it is dragging on.
The crowd is a small group of about 150 people. Some are there to support the competitors, but most are there to compete. Fat women, old women, Asian women, Black women, and even a few men take the stage throughout the day, and there is a palpable buzz of energy in the room with each performance. Different studios huddle together talking about technique, and the families cheer loudly for their loved ones. The competition feels like a dance recital, which is how Jamie describes it, barring the fact that the performers are oversized and are swinging (sometimes sensually) from poles.
The family-friendly feel has a lot to do with the growing mainstream acceptance of pole dancing. Musicians such as FKA twigs, who pole dances in her music videos, and Jennifer Lopez, who brought pole dancing to the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show after starring in the movie Hustlers, have popularized it. The International Pole Sports Federation is even trying to get pole dancing admitted to the Olympics, which could happen as early as 2024.
Every four years, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) adds, and removes, several sports categories. Three-on-three basketball, skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing, and karate all debuted at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. The fact that the new additions were sports that young people tend to play was no accident. According to “The Olympic Agenda 2020,” the goal was to attract a younger, more female and urban demographic; one that was heavily represented at the PSO competition.
In 2017, pole dancing was granted “observer” status by the Global Association of International Sports Federations, a first step to being recognized as a sport by the IOC. The next step is for pole dancing practitioners to figure out how to standardize scoring, and establish a set of rules that would be applicable in an international context. Once this takes place, the Global Association of International Sports Federations may petition the IOC to include pole dancing at the Olympic games.
Creating a unified scoring system for pole dancing is no small feat. Current pole dancing competitions, at both a national and international level, have different ways they score and rank dancers. Some competitions put more emphasis on technique, others on style and stage presence. It doesn’t just vary by competition either, but also by the category of pole dancing they are competing in.
Given the diversity of the types of pole competitions, practitioners are split on whether or not they think pole dancing entering the Olympics is a good idea. To many, like Jamie, including pole dancing in the Olympics would validate pursuing the sport as well as its difficulty. However, others like Preeti Munlagiri, a pole dancing instructor at Pole Play Fitness in North Carolina, see pole dancing as an art, and feel like they don’t need validation from the Olympics.
“You don’t judge art on an Olympic stage,” she said.
Clearly, even if pole dancing does make it to the Olympics, there will still be many alternate avenues for people to explore pole dancing on their own terms, somewhere between the Olympics and the strip club. However, the increasing acceptance of pole dancing makes it difficult for practitioners trying to negotiate their own social standings in a sport so stigmatized because of its ties to sex work.
In 2016, in an effort to gain acceptance for the idea of pole dancing as a sport, some pole dancers started to use the hashtag, #notastripper. Likely tired of the hypersexualization that comes with saying they pole danced, they attempted to shut down these judgmental remarks. By distancing themselves from pole dancing’s sexual history, they hoped to show the world that good girls can pole dance too. However, the fitness pole dancing taught in studios is heavily inspired by stripper culture, and attempting to claim the sport by denouncing its origins caused controversy. A competing faction of pole dancers and strippers objected to this attempted gentrification, creating the counter hashtag, #Yesastripper. In doing this, they focused on distigmatizing sex work as a whole, rather than condemning the women who created pole dancing as we know it.
Yet, according to Jamie, who was introduced to pole through stripping, there is less overlap between the two than most people think.
“You can be the best pole dancer in the world but you won’t make any money if you don’t know how to market yourself in a club,” she told me. Stripping is a job to make money, while pole dancing is something else entirely.
“Do you want a dance?”
The words drip seductively from the blonde girl’s lips as she leans over me toward my boyfriend, Elijah. The smell of her perfume is sweet on my nose as she rests her hand gently on his shoulder.
“No thanks,” he replies quickly, feeling awkward about being at a strip club for the first time (the fact that he was there with his girlfriend couldn’t have helped). I had begged him to come because I was nervous too. I’m not sure what I was nervous about exactly, I am not typically a prudish person. As an art student I have seen many of my classmates nude self portraits, and often engage with them in lengthy critiques about the photographs, but something about this felt different- seedy.
The blonde’s head turns, her hair-sprayed curls falling from her shoulders. She smiles wide and leans in again, this time towards me.
“Do you want a dance?”
The atmosphere of the Flashdancers Downtown club in Tribeca is both exactly what I expected and also completely not. We are stopped at the door by an old, heavyset white man with glasses, whose gray hair is slicked back. He checks our ID’s and informs Elijah that all men must check their coats. Coat check is $3. Though not expensive, I relish in the rare moment of female privilege before realizing that I promised to pay since I had dragged him along. After Elijah relinquishes his jacket, we are also told that there is a $10 cover fee which I wasn’t expecting, especially on a Wednesday night. The website said they didn’t have cover fees this early (it was about 7:30pm), but in an effort to not draw more attention to myself– the only young girl that was not working at this near empty club– I hand over two crumpled up tens and take my spot at the bar, a few seats down from another older white man who is talking to one of the dancers. On the TV above the bar, Virginia Tech is beating Clemson 24-19. We order a gin and tonic and vodka cranberry for $36.
The bar, with color-changing LEDS and loud pop music, reminds me of a college dorm, as if it was decorated by a kid trying to seem grown. The club, however, is far from dingy. It is clear that this venue prides itself on style, with a fake fireplace in the seating area and a business casual dress code for its customers, yet it still feels somewhat illicit. Behind our seats at the bar are three poles, which means we have to turn completely around to see the dancers.
I feel like I am stealing glances at something I’m not supposed to see, especially considering it’s only Elijah and I, and three other customers at the bar. A man’s voice periodically comes over a distorted loudspeaker and announces each girl when they’re about to dance, though I can never decipher the names. Then, a girl makes her way towards the pole fully clothed, swaying back and forth against it with a blank stare in her eyes. She undresses quickly without making eye contact, leaving her clothes in a pile by her feet. It is not seductive; it feels like we are peeping toms. Like the dreaded people who slow traffic to rubberneck at a car accident in the next lane, it feels wrong, but my eyes can’t help but be drawn to the performance. Despite my attempts to make it seem like I’m not really looking, I’m sure no one is convinced I find the fake fireplace behind me that fascinating. Still, in a weird way I feel like I need to respect the dancer’s privacy. After removing everything except her underwear, she continues her slow rocking movement until her time is up, at which point she redresses and walks off.
It’s uncomfortable, and I feel immature, disrespectful even, for the childlike icky-ness I feel about the transactional nature of this experience. I do not work up the courage to give money to the girls before leaving quickly, barely making the one hour mark.
“Leaving so soon?” one dancer asks as I push out the door.
I get off the 1 train at the 28th street station, sweating and tired from wearing multiple layers and carrying my luggage. It is the Thursday night before spring break and I’m heading to a pole dancing class, located on the corner of 7th ave and 30th street, before leaving the city for my parents’ house in Connecticut. As I walk toward the location shown on Google Maps, I see a small sign next to a dollar pizza shop showing pole dancers and the studio name, Foxy Fitness, but do not see a storefront. A group of middle-aged, tourist-looking people in front of me also notice the sign, and one of the men in the group jokes loudly, “Oh maybe I should get a ‘workout’ in here!” The word ‘workout’ is caked in sarcasm. I slow down, not wanting to walk in while they sit outside the door joking about it. As I stand there awkwardly I realize they aren’t leaving. Instead, they are getting dollar pizza, and with the clock ticking toward my class time I have to bite the bullet and go in. I do not wait to hear what they might have said.
To get to the Foxy Fitness studio, you go down a narrow hallway and up two flights of stairs. I’m out of breath before the class even starts. Pictures of pole dancers in an array of poses adorn the bright pink walls. I inform the woman behind the desk that I’m there for the 6:30 Pole (Tricks & Climbs) class. She hands me an iPad to fill out a waiver, and tells me to change in the bathroom. I didn’t need to change; I came prepared with shorts under my pants, having read on the website I’d need them for my legs to be able to grip the pole. I had spent the last hour shaving my legs with my boyfriend’s old dull razor that left me bloodied, but hairless.
The class before mine ran over by about 7 minutes, but it’s okay considering that my friend Eunice, whom I’d invited to take the class with me, is late too. Though an atheist, I say a silent prayer that she will make it on time so I don’t have to go through the whole class alone. She arrives just as the room opens up, fills out her waiver, and joins me.
We enter the room and are greeted by our instructor for the day, Emily. Peaceful music plays on the speakers, giving the class a more yoga retreat than nightclub feel. Emily stands next to the speakers and faces the mirrored wall, wearing a sports bra and tight shorts. I had clearly missed the memo on the uniform. Everyone in the class, which is about six people including myself and Eunice, is wearing that same outfit combination. I feel out of place in my sweater and pajama-like shorts. I am the biggest person in the room by a lot, which makes me uncomfortable, especially because everyone else has defined abs that stare back at me through the mirror. However, after Emily leads us through our warm-up of deep lunges, squats, long planks, and too many ab exercises, the heat overtakes my self-consciousness and I tuck my sweater up into my bra, exposing my stomach for the remainder of the class.
The five poles are separated enough in the small room for each of us to have our own bubble to practice. Emily starts the class by asking each of us our goals and level, and tailors the class to our individual needs. Since Eunice and I are both beginners- the only beginners- we’re taught together. Eunice’s goal is to feel sexy, and I second that, so Emily teaches us two basic moves. The first is a simple walk around the pole, and the second a sensual body roll, leading with our chests as the rest of our body follows like a wave.
I usually pride myself on having rhythm – after all, are you really Cuban if you can’t move your hips? However, I quickly lose all of that ‘rhythm’ when I hold the pole. As I try to remember to keep tension in my arm, I take awkward steps, forgetting to put one foot after another. Instead, my feet stutter as I move my front foot forward, my back foot meets it rather than stepping past. Emily comes over, taking my leg and moving my foot for me to demonstrate how it should be done. The moment is laughable, but Emily approaches it kindly, like it wasn’t the worst dancing they’d seen all day.
As Eunice and I struggle to walk around the pole, the other students in the class are hanging from the pole upside down, working on complicated spin moves, and using just the backs of their knees to keep their bodies in the air. I try not to look at them, actively focusing on trying to look sexy as I walk in a circle. According to my ego, this was just as hard, but in a different way.
I have better luck with the body rolls, but only when Emily isn’t looking, of course. I’m confused when they describe the movements to me, but as I watch them I can replicate them fairly well.
“You’re a visual learner,” they tell me, “and you do it well when you think I’m not looking. Usually there is a part of the spine that people aren’t super comfortable moving but you got it, have you ever done belly dancing?”
I had never done belly dancing, unless you count trying to learn via YouTube.
“Well, I twerk a lot?”
To this Eunice pipes up, “YEAH SHE DOES!”
“Oh, that explains it, say no more,” Emily concludes.
In that moment, I feel the empowerment of the pole dancing class – a sharp 180 from the outside world of embarrassment I felt when I walked in.
While the history of stigma associated with pole dancing has clearly been a long lasting phenomenon, the roots of the practice are hazy. According to the book Femininity, Feminism and Recreational Pole Dancing by Kerry Griffiths, there is no clear origin for it. Some think it may be linked to the 15th century practice of maypole dancing, the maypole being a pagan representation of fertility and a phallic symbol. It has also been linked to Chinese pole traditions, which are more similar to acrobatics. Some even draw connections between contemporary pole dancing and the ancient Indian practice of Pole Mallakhamb, which involves performing tricks on a thick wooden pole. However, both the traditional Chinese Pole and Pole Mallakhamb were sports reserved for men. Not only that, but in modern pole dancing, men make up a minority of the participants because of the enduring stigma that men who pole dance aren’t masculine.
A more logical explanation for the origins of pole dancing is that it stems from a sexual form of belly dancing. There are discrepancies as to whether this particular type of belly dancing originated at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 or the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. However, it definitely attracted huge crowds at the latter. At the fair in Chicago a popular entertainment director named Sol Bloom directed a show called “The Algerian Dancers of Morocco”. The show featured a Syrian dancer dubbed “Little Egypt” who would belly dance provocatively for the audience. The dance was quickly given the name “Hoochie Coochie” dancing, and the practice grew in popularity.
In the 1920’s, when traveling fairs became a more widespread way for people to make money during the Great Depression, these dancers would set up in a tent and offer dances to men using the wooden tent poles as props. Eventually, these tent poles became known as “dancing poles,” and the routines grew more extravagant. In the 1950’s, pole dancing made its way from tents to bars. At this time, pole dancing violated many state decency laws, so they would get raided and shut down.
In New York, The Cabaret Law, enacted in 1926, specified that there could be no eating or drinking in an establishment with “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other forms of amusement.” However, from its conception the law was discriminatorily enforced. Formed at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, when jazz clubs were all the rage, it banned wind, percussion, and brass instruments typically used in jazz (string instruments were exempt). At the time, the New York City Board of Alderman’s Committee on Local Laws said, “these ‘wild’ people should not be tumbling out of these resorts at six or seven o’clock in the morning to the scandal and annoyance of decent residents on their way to daily employment.” This racially coded language showcases how the true target of this law were minority communities.
In the late 1990’s, Fawnia Mondey and Sheila Kelley, who had both worked as strippers in the past, realized how much of a workout pole dancing was and decided to push it into the world of fitness, respectively. Mondey made the first instructional video on how to pole dance, and before long opened up the Pole Fitness Studio in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kelley started producing her own pole fitness tapes around the same time and opened up her studio, S Factor, in New York.
The fact that these women are white likely helped them be able to rebrand pole dancing as a fitness practice rather than the dominating narrative that it’s something poor people and degenerates do. White women who pole danced were now increasingly being seen as trendy fitness enthusiasts. A shift that has been much slower for women of color in the pole dancing industry.
According to pole instructor Preeti Munlagiri, even the fitness pole industry itself seems more catered to white women than women of color. In her first competition in 2019, she was the only Indian woman competing; in the PSO competition, there were three. “People weren’t ready to accommodate me, even things like knee pads only coming in one shade,” she told me. Often they’d even pronounce her name wrong.
Preeti also performs in the “exotic” category. Recently a friend asked her jokingly, “is that the category for all the brown people?” She avoided giving an answer.
She told me that there is a lot of cultural appropriation in the category, with many white women dressing in traditional cultural styles of people of color. To her, even the term is negative, racist, and objectifying, and the category would be more fittingly named if it was called stripper style instead.
As for whether or not race still plays a large role in how the general public perceives pole dancers, Melissa Butler, a 28-year-old Black woman and pole dancing instructor at Foxy Fitness Studio, doesn’t think so. “Maybe my role as a Black woman, the stereotype that I’m sassy or angry or whatever else that comes with being a Black woman, lets them feel less comfortable to say things like that [racist things] to me.”
For Melissa, pole dancing felt like a natural path. She had always been very active and artistic growing up, so when she woke up after her first class completely sore, she was hooked. Motivated by the challenge, she stuck with it, and worked her way up through practice and competitions. In this particular competition, she was ready to wow the judges; PSO was about to experience a routine like no other.
Melissa, going by her stage name Melly B, starts her routine wearing a flowy black cape with a gold pattern. Her long hair is dark at the roots but lightens to blonde, and is crimped. She is surrounded by women- 4 of them- in bright pink leotards. They are her background dancers. The music starts, and the women dramatically fling open four black fans, making a loud snapping sound in the process. Melissa rips off her cape, throwing it behind her, and starts to dance, hitting each beat with a new pose. Beneath her cape she is wearing a black and silver leotard with cut-outs on the sides of her waist, emphasizing her figure. Her and her backup dancers shake their butts toward the crowd in a way that’s both sexual and playful, as they cheer. She drops to the floor, swinging her hair dramatically as Beyonce’s voice comes over the music, “Coachella!”
The routine is based off of Beyonce’s iconic 2018 Coachella performance, which itself was an homage to HBCU’s, black culture, and black feminism. Beyonce was the first African American woman to headline the show, and she had the performances recorded and made into Homecoming, a now critically acclaimed documentary. The moment was so awe-inspiring that fans everywhere nicknamed that year’s show “Beychella” after her. The unapologetic fierceness of Melissa’s performance mirrors Beyonce’s.
At about a minute into her routine Melissa’s backup dancers move to the side of the stage as she climbs up the spin pole first. She spins around the pole using just her elbow for support and the crowd screams out, aware of the difficulty of the move. Next she runs across the stage to the static pole, doing both a handstand and a flip onto it. The music, which was inspired by the tradition of HBCU marching bands, has lots of percussion and even whistles, keeping the energy of the performance upbeat. Beyonce’s voice echoes, “BOW DOWN BITCHES,” as Melissa gets a running start toward the static pole, using the momentum to propel herself around it multiple times before landing on the ground and twerking. She mounts the pole again, this time holding herself completely upside down and twerking mid air.
The crowd’s chirps, whistles, and even the occasional blood-curdling shriek of joy can not be contained as Melissa rejoins her backup dancers for more floorwork, slapping her butt friskily and waving a golden prop gun in the air.
The music gets more dramatic, the words cut out and it’s just the drums as Melissa gets on the pole for the last part of her performance. She thrusts her way up, swinging her legs instead of using her feet to climb. When she reaches the top she grabs the pole with her legs, flips over and spins around before lowering herself chest-first to the ground. When she lands, her posse surrounds her once more, securing her cape back on her and dramatically opening their fans as the song ends.
“I got on stage and decided to stand in my power and not try to shrink myself in an effort not to be ‘too much’,” Melissa said.
After her performance, while the crowd is still cheering, two women enter the stage. Both wear black tank tops and bathing suit bottoms, one wears a baseball cap and glasses, her blonde hair flowing through the hole in the back of the hat. They quickly shimmy up the pole, and take two white rags into their hands. They wipe in a downwards motion, removing the sweat, smudges, and grip-aid from the poles.