Pole Dancing: From Sexualization to Sexual Empowerment

     When I first started pole dancing four years ago I didn’t tell my family about it. I guess I feared being judged for wanting to do something which is often thought of as being an erotic act confined to the rooms of a gentlemen’s club. This sense of fear was heightened by my own preconceptions surrounding pole dance, and by my belief that the older generation would struggle to look past stereotypes which younger people might more readily question. My own loss of dignity and loss of others’ esteem for me is what I feared would be at threat from revealing that I did pole dancing.

     Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d like to clarify how I’m defining sexualization, sexuality and being sexually empowered. These are my own definitions, and by no means complete or without error, but for the purpose of this article, this is what I am defining the following as:

     Sexualization: to make something sexual in character or quality. Sexualization is linked to sexual objectification. 

     Sexuality: the way people experience and express themselves sexually.

     Sexually empowered: person intimately connected to their sexual self, can express themselves sexually, works to release any sense of shame about their sexuality, rejects and challenges sexual stereotypes.

     The origins of modern western pole dance are steeped in the sexualization and objectification of individuals. Traveling shows from the 1890s displayed dancers in short skirts in an era where women dressed modestly in corsets. During the 1920s, dancers introduced pole by sensually gyrating on the wooden tent poles to attract crowds. Eventually, pole dancing moved from tents to bars and combined with striptease and burlesque routines. In these instances, pole dancers were objects meant to gratify someone else's sexuality, i.e. the male onlooker, rather than subjects expressing their own sexuality.

     It could be argued that within the last decade, society is more accepting of pole dance. This is somewhat true – people do seem to be more interested rather than outraged when I tell them it’s what I do for fun. Now, pole dancing incorporates athleticism and competition alongside the more stereotypical sensual elements. Particularly revealing is the terminology used to advertise pole dance classes. Often the word ‘fitness’ is used instead of dance; pole dance becomes pole fitness in an attempt to avoid the more incriminating and erotic side of the activity. This athleticism blurs over the controversial past and present of pole dancing, which though understandable, is not necessarily healthy. Another issue with the refusal to acknowledge its status within dance is the fact that other types of sensual dance are socially acceptable. For instance, Latin ballroom dances, such as the Rumba, display sexual tension between dance partners, emphasized further in the choice of outfits: men with bare chests and women in short, clingy dresses. Why is it that the sensual nature of Rumba is fine, but that of pole dance is avoided, and even hidden by its reclassification as pole fitness? Perhaps this is because of the nature of the dance itself. Pole dance focuses on an individual, and in cases where the individual is female, non-binary, homosexual, queer, or basically anyone who is not a cis hetero male, this provocative display of sexuality can be seen as threatening. Threatening to social norms and threatening to the onlooker’s ability to objectify the individual. If the individual reclaims their sexuality, this shifts the power from the onlooker to the dancer and alters the dancer’s status as an object to a subject. Rather than changing the words used to describe pole dance, we should be working to change people’s perception of pole dance, and of public displays of sexuality. Pole dance could offer the opportunity to challenge societal norms of sexuality and be used as a tool for the sexual empowerment of everyone.

     As much as society might disapprove, I personally love pole dancing. I love the ineffable feeling when you finally nail that move you’ve been trying to do for weeks. I love looking in the studio mirror when you’re doing a routine, serving face and fierceness, and thinking DAMN I feel hot. I love leaving and feeling like I can do anything; like I am capable, I am confident, and I am sexy. I also love the inclusivity of the pole dancing community. I’ve met a variety of people of different genders and sexualities, and feel it positively promotes difference and encourages self-expression.

     In the future, I am going to make a more conscious effort to be proud of what I do. Not pole fitness; pole dance, because it is a dance, a beautifully sensual one at that too, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If we can learn to reclaim our sexualization from others by harnessing and taking pride in our own sexuality pole dance can only continue to act as a tool for sexual empowerment for future generations of pole dancers.

by: Alicia Pountney

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