Content Warning: This article mentions sexual assault and harassment.
For a lot of people who haven’t done it before, pole dance sounds terrifying. Even to those who have been doing it for a while, some tricks look more intimidating than a medieval torture device. When I first started, I couldn’t figure out how to spin around a static pole, but now I can climb to the top of a three-metre pole, turn myself upside down, and plummet headfirst towards the floor without a second thought. Not only is pole dancing a great creative outlet, an amazing way to make new friends and reach your fitness goals, but it can also teach you how to trust your body (and yourself) like you never have before.
At the tender age of nineteen in October of 2019, I attended my first pole dancing class, and I haven’t looked back since. After two years of COVID-19 lockdowns keeping me out of the studio and personal struggles that have held me back both in life and in pole, I can confidently say that the sport has not only changed my body, but also my mindset. I’ve learned the value of perseverance and how to be compassionate towards myself and my body in hard times. Pole has also reignited my love of dance and creativity. If you’ve ever considered trying it out, I strongly encourage you to give it a go. Even if it turns out that it’s not a passion of yours, there is so much to learn from pole dance and its growing community.
The Mental Challenge
Pole fitness is not for the faint of heart, but it is one of the most rewarding sports I’ve ever tried. Bruises, calluses, and ripped skin are the most obvious sources of pain, but many of the greatest challenges of the sport are the mental ones. Learning to ignore the pain of sticking to a pole with your bare skin is easy compared to confronting the mental blocks holding you back. That is another challenge entirely.
One of the first things you learn in a pole class is the fireman spin, and in my first class, I just couldn’t do it.
Next to the pole, stand on your tiptoes. Reach up as high as you can and grab the pole with your dominant hand. Engage your shoulder. Step forward with your inside leg, outside leg, then place your inside leg around the pole… and swing the outside leg out. Pull your legs up to meet each other as you spin around and down the pole.
Easy, right? I went home, confused as to why I couldn’t do the easiest trick; it’s the first thing they teach you because of how simple it is. I had listened to the instructor when she said it was a good idea to film yourself attempting tricks to track your progress, so as soon as I got home from that class, I watched that video to try and figure out where I went wrong. Physically, I was following all of my instructor’s directions perfectly, but there were no instructions on how to ignore nineteen years worth of failed attempts and unwarranted criticisms whispering sour nothings into your ear.
As I watched the video of myself laughing off my failure, I immediately saw my problem. I didn’t trust myself. There was a split second of hesitation before I was supposed to let my top hand take my weight and lift my feet off the floor. My inability to do a spin that most kids do on a playground fireman pole had nothing to do with my body’s capabilities. I just didn’t think I could do it, so I couldn’t.
But I’d had enough of getting in my own way.
In my next class, instead of hesitating, I decided to trust that my hands could support my body weight and my legs would spring into the position I had practised. I launched into a fireman spin.
Grab the pole. Engage your shoulder. Step, step, step… swing…
Some of the most wonderful moments of this sport are the ones where you switch your brain off and just do the thing because it’s in those moments of just letting your body take over that you make the biggest leaps of progress. You learn you have good instincts, and that you’re brave, and that 90 per cent of the time, confidence is just having the guts to try. Soon enough, you’re upside-down and trying new tricks without a crash mat beneath you because you know you can catch yourself if you fall. Sometimes, falling and catching yourself at the last second is the trick, and it always makes a crowd go wild.
Reclaiming Your Body
Pole dancing is not just a sport or a hobby; it can be a rebellion, a reclamation of ownership of your body, or an emotional outlet with effects akin to a really good therapy session. Obviously, it can be fun and sexy and a great way to make new friends, but in a world where the ownership of our bodies is called into question daily, pole dance can be a powerful answer.
Most people who pole dance are women, and if there’s a universal experience of womanhood, it’s probably feeling like you have no real ownership over your own life or body. Our purpose is often limited to making babies, looking pretty, and cleaning up after other people; all things that create cycles of disadvantage that do not benefit us in any way. That said, I don’t know a single person that pole dances for the benefit of someone else. No one else really wants us to do it—family members, employers, jealous partners, old men in general. Taking part in a sport where our sexuality and femininity is embraced, and our bodies are celebrated is an empowering act of defiance against the concepts of feminine shame and patriarchal power.
Pole dance is not about what your body looks like, it’s about what your body can do.
From the outside, it may look like the sky-high heels or sexy little outfits are where people find empowerment, but there is so much more to it. Most weeks, you’re not walking around in 7-inch heels with your hair and makeup done and matching bra and undies, you’re barefoot and sweating in a sports bra with nine other people cheering you on when you do a trick for the first time. Funnily enough, neither of these images are socially acceptable—they both give women way too much power, whether it’s through feeling confident in your body or finding a supportive community. In building confidence and community, a woman becomes harder to control, market products to, and shame into silence.
The society we live in finds so many ways to strip women of our power, and one of these ways is to use our own bodies against us. Most women and femmes I know, including myself, have experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment. These experiences themselves can leave us feeling disconnected from our bodies, afraid of what may make us desirable, and distrustful of our own impulses, instincts, and actions. Not only are we made to question our own sanity and accountability, but if we make the crimes against us public, we are blamed and shamed as though we brought it upon ourselves.
For me, pole dance has been a way to rebuild my relationship with my body, starting with simply listening to it. To successfully perform a trick, you need to be fully in the moment—aware of every muscle you need to engage, every point of contact with the pole, every change in your centre of gravity, everything down to the way that you sweat. This level of understanding can show you how capable you are of listening to your body and trusting what it tells you. Pole has also allowed me to take back ownership of the things that make me desirable. My body is not for other people, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to cover it up out of fear that they’ll like what they see. I’m going to dance in exotic styles and wear next to nothing because it’s fun and I love it, and other people can look all they want, but they sure as hell can’t touch. Unless I say so.
Creativity and Community
This article was actually supposed to be about creativity, but whenever I get the chance to tell people how much pole dancing has changed my life, I just can’t help myself. I don’t think I could have reached my current level of creativity and joy in creative freedom if it weren’t for the things that I’ve learned through pole dance. Creativity often comes from a place of necessity, of needing solutions to unique problems, but it also comes from trusting your own instincts and having the confidence to give your ideas a go. I wouldn’t have had the ability to do either of those things at this point in my life if it weren’t for a sport like pole dance.
Creativity is the lifeblood of pole dance, especially at the chain of studios I attend. Physipole Studios was founded by dancer Kristy Sellars in 2009 and now has 17 locations across Australia. Sellars won Australia’s Got Talent in 2021 and was a runner-up on America’s Got Talent in 2022 with her immersive multimedia pole routines. Sellars has made her very obvious love of creativity a cornerstone of the studios. There are levels that you can’t pass unless you choreograph your own two-minute routine, as well as multiple competitions throughout the year, and bi-annual showcases for students to not only demonstrate the strength and skills they’re developing but also to create routines as a class.
If you’ve ever been considered “too enthusiastic” about costumes or themes, a pole studio might be the place for you. I’ve come to class dressed as a sexy jellyfish for Halloween, once witnessed my instructor paint herself blue for a competition routine and I’ve taken part in a class routine where my classmates and I were dressed as crabs, and I can tell you that you won’t be looked at sideways for committing to the bit. When I started pole dancing, I didn’t expect to meet so many people willing to go along with outlandish ideas for routines and see so many other people who also live to perform and straddle the line between sexy and outright weird. In terms of creative freedom, there really are no rules or limits when it comes to pole dancing.
Pole has also opened creative doors for me in other avenues such as film, and as part of my Bachelor’s degree, I made two short documentaries about pole dance and stripping. These projects gave me the opportunity and the confidence to share stories about topics close to my heart, allowed me to develop my skills as a filmmaker and pushed me to broaden my creative horizons by mixing my own soundtracks and designing my own film posters. The possibilities are endless when it comes to pole dancing.
Pole dance is an outlet, a lesson, a place of creative freedom, and most of all, it’s just so much fun. The sport can be anything you want it to be, whether that’s simply a way to get fit and learn a new skill, find a new passion or join a community of like-minded individuals to share experiences with. So much of my life revolves around more practical creativity and academia, so it’s incredibly important for me to have a regular way to get out of my head and into my body and express myself freely.