“It’s not simply that so many of us are uncomfortable about sexuality. It’s the relationship that individuals and the culture have with that discomfort. The discomfort does not get discussed honestly, nor do most people feel in any way obligated to resolve these feelings. Instead, the discomfort is considered normal and fixed, and the objects of discomfort – sexual words, music, art, and expression-are the things considered expendable.” Marty Klein, PhD.
The debate about pole dancing in the Olympics is a fiery one, and I’m not done talking about it! For those of you who read my responses on www.expressthesensual.com and The Pole Story’s Facebook page, this might be a tad redundant, so I apologize. Onward.
I wrote my thesis for my MA in psychology on how erotic dance can help women to reconnect with their sexuality, and I focused on pole dancing, specifically. The argument I make is that pole dancing provides a therapeutic context in which women can heal from any wounding (individual or collective) surrounding their sexuality. This wounding can be something as simple as needing to learn how to let go of exercising our masculine side and allowing the feminine to come forward. For example, many women have gotten used to behaving in a very masculine way, i.e. directional, goal-oriented, and assertive in order to accomplish certain things in life. There is nothing inherently wrong with this and many women have achieved quite a bit by doing so. However, a possible pitfall to over-exercising the masculine is that a woman loses touch with or forgets how to live in the more receptive, more feminine side. Many women I know in high powered, stressful jobs find that their pole dance classes help them not just to relax, but to feel “like a woman again”. Other women who study different forms of sensual dance, such as belly dancing, have echoed this sentiment. In an article in the March 22, 2009 issue of Washington Post Magazine a woman named Rachael Galoob was interviewed about her local belly dance studio. Galoob is a former attorney with two law degrees who decided to leave her law career in order to perform and teach. Her students tend to be well-educated professionals in high-powered jobs. Many of them come to belly dance classes in order to reconnect with their feminine side. They claim this sensual movement reduces their stress levels by forcing them to focus on their body and their movement and that it helps them to feel more beautiful.
According to my research and studies, what makes pole dancing so healing isn’t the pole tricks as much as it is the experience of moving sensually and slowly and the feeling that creates in your body. So a concern I have about turning pole dancing into an Olympic sport is that it takes away the healing potential of this movement. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be room for other types of pole dancing to exist. Indeed, none of the groups pushing for pole dancing to join the Olympics are saying that this should be the only form of pole available to the public. But I think what is being argued here, among other things, is how do we mainstream pole dancing? What is going to be the primary way in which the rest of the general public engages with this art form? And perhaps part of the reason why some dancers are against having pole dancing in the Olympics is because it would inevitably make that particular form of pole dancing or pole fitness, the most common or the most publicly viewed. And many dancers feel that a fitness based gymnastics form of pole dance is not representative, perhaps, of the art and the soul, and the history of pole dancing.
If we think about why we enjoy watching gymnastics or dance, we find that there is actually a great deal of overlap. We admire the strength, the precision, the grace and the flexibility expressed in the bodies we are watching. However, dance differs from gymnastics in a few very important ways. Dance is designed to evoke a narrative - specific emotions, conflicts and insights – and a dancer who succeeds in achieving these things has turned her body into something communicative. Because of this, she frequently creates an emotional reaction in her audience. This emotional narrative does not exist in gymnastics, nor are gymnastics designed to evoke an emotional response in its onlookers. Moreover, pole dancing is not about recreating a purity of form in the way that other forms of dance, such as ballet, are. While there are certain moves and tricks that can be “standardized” one of the beautiful things about pole dancing is that it is, more often than not, “an execution of clear and concise movements and gestures that are expressive of inner states unique to the particular performer, to the passing mood, even to the fleeting instant” (Juhan, 255-56). Part of what makes pole dancing so thrilling to watch is the inventiveness and spontaneity of the dancers, and how intensely personal their movements are. So the difference in style between someone who approaches pole dancing as a gymnastics-based movement versus someone who approaches it as a dance-based movement is actually quite substantial. No wonder it is such a charged subject!
I think, as women, know in our bodies and in our hearts and souls what this movement does for us. We know subjectively (subjective knowing being a more feminine way of knowing something – based on intuition and a felt body sense) that this movement has touched us, shaped us, woken us up, ignited fires and yes, changed our psyches. In my humble opinion, the way in which some of the community is seeking to “legitimize” pole dancing feels threatening not just because it approaches the movement in a way that feels unfamiliar (to me, personally), but because it is basically saying to those of us that already know what we feel in our bodies, “Well, that’s not good enough.” Not only are the more feminine, empowering parts of this dance at risk of being lost, but also we are, on some level, being told the very experience each of us has in our bodies is not a “legitimate” enough source of information. And I think that is deeply hurtful to the feminine – whose primary power and source of knowledge is the sensate, the body. It is a larger symptom of our culture’s dismissal and critique of the body as a source of knowledge. Trying to turn pole dancing into an Olympic sport if you are in it for the art form, for the sensual aspects, for the engagement with that deeply feminine part of yourself, is in some ways, taking a very feminine experience and forcing it into the more masculine, objective world of measurements, restrictions, linear direction and goals. When we de this, we lose the flavor, the power, and the feminine essence of the movement. This concerns me not because I think that pole dancing will become vertical gymnastics only, but because vertical gymnastics will become “the standard” of pole dancing. Instead of allowing a woman’s natural sensuality and sexiness to unfold on stage, we will ask her to present a sanitized version of what was once a deeply sexual movement. Instead of asking our country to look at it’s own deeply imbedded cultural biases and fears around female sexuality, we will give them something that makes them feel comfortable and allows those prejudices to go unexamined. Women who continue to infuse their dancing with sexual movement and sensuality will continue to be looked down upon as “whores”. Nothing will have changed.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: As pole dancers, we have a very real opportunity to shift the way the public views female sexuality. It’s not going to be easy, and there is no guarantee of success, but in my opinion, it’s deeply important for women everywhere.
To that end, this push for the Olympics has done something positive by thrusting pole dancing into the public spotlight. Erotic dance is an excellent mirror for our culture’s sex phobia, and this Olympic debate is forcing people’s prejudices, fears and beliefs into plain view. This is good because, ideally, it allows these beliefs to be examined, instead of festering in the unspoken unconscious somewhere. So, in some ways, this change has already begun. But much remains ahead of us. It is my personal hope that, no matter where it ends up, pole dancing is able to retain its erotic, sensual, striptease roots.
For more on this topic, please go to www.expressthesensual.com