Remember when you started pole dance? It was such a thrill to accomplish your first spins the firefighter, the back hook, and eventually you learned the beautiful back sun wheel and felt like you were magically floating around the pole! And then there came the day that you got your first invert!! It was pretty much the best day ever! You felt like a champion! Unstoppable! You could do this and you could do anything!!
You got a video (or picture) and posted it to all the social medias to share your new skills. You were so proud of yourself.
Somewhere along the line, something happened.
As an intermediate poler, you are starting to be able to put some combos together. You’ve been working super hard and finally achieve one of your goal combos. You feel so proud of yourself. You video your accomplishments ready to share.
Then you go to post your video and someone else’s video pops up in your feed. You watch it and admire their strength, their flexibility, their beautifully straight legs and pointed toes. You dream about the day you can effortlessly flow through your tricks like them. Then you read their caption “Trying this combo for the first time. Sloppy, but I’ll work on it after a good warm-up to clean it up and get a good split.”
Your heart sinks. You look back at your video. You worked so hard to get that combo and you still have a little microbend in your legs, there’s a moment where your foot flexes, your split isn’t even flat and you definitely have some solid concentration-face going on. So you decide not to post. If what she did was messy, yours is surely not insta-worthy.
Now as an advanced poler, you are doing incredible tricks and combos. Maybe even some power moves or grip changes, tricks with extreme strength or flexibility. You video something at each practice because you feel like you have to post something. Why? Great question. Is it to document your progress? Is it because you’re marketing yourself as a teacher or performer? Are you proud of yourself? Do you just feel that you need to in order to share and stay connected with the online community? Is it ego? Its hard to say.
You know it’s time to go home. You know your family is waiting for you, but you NEED something to post and your movements aren’t clean enough, your angles aren’t quite right. If you leave now, you’ll have nothing to post. One more time. One more time. Last time. This is the last time.
You finally get something to post. You write the caption “Just a tired combo at the end of a long night of teaching and training. Pardon the sloppiness. I’ll train it again when I’m fresh.” And post a minute-long combo of you flowing seemingly effortlessly through a complicated series of tricks ending in a little flip off the pole with a solid landing, everything perfectly angled to the camera.
An intermediate poler who follows and idolizes you watches your video, reads your caption, and decides not to post her video. She decides she’s got a long way to go before she can be proud of her pole accomplishments.
It’s funny the way the pole world works. We like to market pole dance as “confidence-building,” “empowering,” and I’m also going to throw “body-positive” into the equation because I think it is in many ways attached to confidence. I certainly market Volair this way. We even have our signature Strength with Grace Confidence Framework that we follow for business practices, classes and will apply to our whole community when we get there. And I do think at the beginner level, we are generally really good at this across the board.
But by the time people get to the advanced level, there are so many instances where we often just don’t feel like we measure up. Of course, it is not realistic to think that once you're a pole dancer you gain confidence and you will be immune to setbacks and moments when your confidence waivers. Building and maintaining your confidence is consistent work and almost guaranteed there are going to be events in your life that completely shake your confidence.
But I'm talking about the sometimes longer periods of time when we feel unworthy and constantly apologize for ourselves in a negative way. I’m not finger-pointing or judging anyone and I’m certainly not speaking for everyone. I’m sharing my own mindset and experience, which I think may resonate with some others too. It may not. That’s cool.
I wonder a lot of things when I think about this topic. I haven’t landed on the answer yet – I’m still working through that process, but I’d love to hear your feedback.
Of course, the first thing I consider is the overall community – from our home studios to the greater insta-world. What are the messages that we are constantly hearing? Are they about empowerment? About our bodies? About perfection? About creation? I’m not going to talk too much about this, because of course the messages we get will constantly depend on the people we choose to follow or surround ourselves with. Have you ever seen a posted (or posted yourself) a picture or video where they apologize for their body? They apologize that there is a roll or note that they have really let themselves go over the holidays? Or comment otherwise on weight gain, weight loss, or their bodies?
I’ve also been a little heartbroken to see a couple of posts where people have been really vulnerable, talked about overcoming psychological challenges and seen in the comments “holy abs!” “Wow!! Your abs look amazing!” And hey, their abs probably did look amazing, but it really highlights to me that our industry is actually very body focused. We may accept all body types and celebrate them for their skills, but there is clearly still a gold-standard, and I’m not sure what exactly that says about body-positivity. I try not to over-analyse, but it really is my nature and I do honestly believe that words matter. The messages that we consume shape our beliefs unless we consciously change them.
It also worries me a little because, as a researcher who has done some work with an eating disorder clinic, I always question when people say that they are now 100% satisfied with their bodies and fully accept them for their function not their look when they are walking around consistently with very low (potentially unhealthy) body fat % and very pronounced musculature. In case you were wondering, a healthy body fat % for the average woman (this will vary to some extent based on genetics) depending on the source is somewhere between 18-30%. Yes, it is healthy for fat to be a quarter of your overall body. Fat has a lot of really important roles in your body, including supporting and cushioning your organs, absorbing nutrients, and producing hormones. For most body types, it is not actually ideally healthy to walk around with a six pack all the time. Some body types naturally have them and that's cool. But seeing your abs is not an actual signal of health or strength.
Are you still happy with your body if you can't see your six pack because you are still just as strong and can still do the same tricks? Have you become obsessive about your training and nutrition and does it strongly affect you if you have to divert from your plan? Again, I'm not shaming if this is you, but I do want to raise awareness that eating disorders and body dysmorphia exists in athletes and is often hidden or goes unrecognized because the disordered behaviours and underweight bodies are essentially idealized. We celebrate people's willpower, which is good to a limit. But when training and food becomes obsessive and interferes with normal daily life, that is not good. One of my pole idols, Amy Hazel has very courageously written about her battles with eating disorders and body image and her incredible work that she has done to regain her health. Check out her instagram if you are interested in her story.
Pole dance has changed a lot over the years. There’s been much more focus on competition, fitness and sport. This is not a bad thing – I competed for a few years and during that time met and conquered some of my greatest challenges. But I do sometimes wonder if we can get into a competition mindset where we focus excessively on technique and perfection and downplay the power of exploration and creation. I totally understand that this is my own garbage – I’m working on it, but I will admit to it – but when I post bits of freestyle, I sometimes try to select just a cool part where I have the least amount of “mistakes.” With a freestyle, the goal is exploration. It’s nice if you have tight knees and pointed toes the whole time, but you also don’t always know exactly where your body is going, so holding the expectation of creativity and perfection simultaneously is actually rather ridiculous. I know there’s people who practice a lot and people who naturally are really good at this and that is amazing! But we really don’t all need to be perfect all the time and we don’t need to apologize if we are not. Of course, we may at other times be working on tricks or combos for pole sport where there are really specific requirements and then of course the goal is technique. But if we overly focus on technique, we can lose the creative nature that can be super valuable to our development and progression toward our potential.
I wonder if by the time we hit advanced pole, we get our identities associated so much with our role as a pole dancer that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the perfect poler. When you spend a lot of your free time at a studio a lot of your life is based on it – friendships, recreation, stress-relief, emotion processing, etc. Someone asked me once whether I identified more as a kinesiologist or as a pole dancer. The question completely threw me off guard and I had to admit I didn’t identify with either. Maybe it was just at a time in my life when I felt lost and didn’t really identify with anything. But even now when I think about it, I love pole dance, I own a studio, but I don’t identify with pole dance per se so much as I strongly identify with the values that I believe I can embody through pole dance. For me, at times in my life when I’ve identified too strongly with a role or activity rather than the underlying values, I’ve been overpowered by my ego. Finding a healthy relationship with my ego has been an ongoing process that would need its own website and series of blogs, so I won’t get into that discussion here.
When you start to have people who look up to you and call you a beast, magical, incredible, how do you live up to all that in real life? Your identity is now tied into an unattainable image of mysticness. How can you ever really feel like you are enough? Of course you’ll constantly apologize for not being quite enough in all your posts. I won’t speak for everyone, but for myself the answer of how to be an advanced poler is not magical and it is not fancy.
How do you make that look effortless? I’ve been poling for 13 years and I practice. I've spent a lot of time building solid foundations, which allows me to move in a way that looks more effortless (and then I always feel like I have to apologize because I’m not as strong or advanced as many people who have been poling for a much shorter time).
How are you so strong? I’ve been poling for 13 years, I invested in a personal trainer for a few years to keep my body even and injury free, and continue to do strength and conditioning outside of pole. I do not gain strength easily.
How can you do those tricks? I invested in lessons and private lessons with coaches and pole stars who could help me reach my goals.
How are you so flexible? I had a good start because I was a dancer as a kid, so learned the splits and some back bends, but when I decided I wanted to be more flexible for pole dance, I committed to and completed a few 60 day split challenges (stretching splits 5x a week for 2 months) and a few 30 day back bend challenges (stretching back bends 3x a week for 1 month).
How do you not get tired? I took up running and train my endurance with freestyles that last multiple songs and practice long combos.
How do you move so sexy? About 6 years into my pole practice I finally got over my damn self, committed to spending a LOT of time out of my comfort zone exploring sensual movement and I practiced and practiced until I could move smoothly and continue to practice.
For me, anyway, there is no magic. There is a LOT of investment of time, energy, and money. There is a lot of hard work. A lot of set backs. A lot of deciding to get back up and try again. A lot of shame for not being as good as "I should be." And a lot of inner strength to not give up despite all these things.
When we’ve put so much hard work into a piece of our lives (which for most of us has shared time with school, work, families, vacations, etc), why do we feel the need to apologize for our imperfections? In an industry that boasts empowerment, why do we always feel not quite good enough or like we need to continually prove our worth?
The last thing that I am considering is related to a quote by Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond all measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We think ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”
There is a fear of stepping into our power. Owning our gifts and talents. Yes, most of us have worked hard for them, but there’s still something inside of us that resists. Maybe we’ve always been a bit of an outsider and have worked so hard to fit in that stepping up makes us feel like we are stepping away from that comfortable place where we finally found belonging. Maybe we’ve been conditioned all of our lives to not show-off, that being centre of attention is narcissistic. Most of us have learned to have a scarcity mindset – that there is only one spotlight and who are we to step into it.
But the truth is that every decent stage has multiple spotlights. I can step into mine and there are still many available for anyone else to step into theirs. And we don’t even all have to have the same platform. We can all deliver our own message in our own spotlight without feeling like we have to apologize for being there. In fact, imagine the impact we could have if a bunch of advanced polers started sharing positive, unapologetic messages about themselves. Perhaps it would inspire new artists or athletes to keep a more positive mindset as they progressed through the levels. And by positive, I don’t mean fake always happy. I mean vulnerable and real. Accepting and compassionate towards ourselves when things aren’t going well. Unapologetically celebratory when things are going well. Perhaps they would feel more determined and less deterred by their “imperfections.” We can own our own spotlight and help or inspire others to step into theirs.
Perhaps we could bring empowerment back to pole dance.
I don't write any of these things to shame any one. I write these things to raise awareness because I truly believe that our industry is undergoing huge and important growth and I sincerely hope that we can continue to be an empowering movement art (or sport) that will continue to help people.
I believe that with the quick pace of our industry's growth, if we do not stop and take a breath to assess where we are and where we are headed, we may head down a very different path than we intended. The industry does not necessarily need to do this together. Each studio, instructor, or poler can take a moment to see if they way they show up still aligns with their values and intentions. As I mentioned previously, at Volair, we have a framework that we follow to ensure our business practices align with our core values, and much of this rather long reflection has been me sharing my thoughts as I assess where I am right now and set my intentions for how I need to change to make sure I am modeling the things I value and want to share with my clients.
Every style or philosophy of pole dance, art, fitness, sport, is extremely valid and has the potential to bring growth and empowerment to its participants. In the end it should be a fun activity that challenges us, but ultimately makes us feel good about ourselves. If its not, why not? Do you need a new training group, a fresh perspective, a different hobby? Or your goals could be different than mine and feel good fun may not be your goal. That is totally cool too. Are your outcomes matching your intentions?
I challenge you to be kind and compassionate with yourself, own your journey with all its challenges and victories. You do not need to apologize for either your struggles or your greatness. Stand in your spotlight and let others or even help others step into theirs. Let's be good role models for true empowerment.