The Power of the Pole
by Melissa Samuels
I recall the time at the tender age of 7, my mother thought she would do what every mother in town was doing – enrol me in ballet class. There I was in a hand-me-down leotard and tutu with unruly curls that got squashed into a makeshift bun and being told to point my toes outward while placing my heels together in a 180 degree straight line. Back in those days, it was totally acceptable to receive corporal punishment from elders, be it teachers or family members. What was not acceptable: hanging upside down from the wooden bars like a monkey showing the class how I could point my toes toward the ceiling. After being greeted with the biggest smack of my life, I was banished from ballet class never to return because I was an “embarrassment to the ballet discipline” – as the teacher so scornfully published to my parents. *PSSSHHH* I felt like an outcast being voted off the island having my torched flame turn to ash right in front of my eyes. It was from that day I knew I was different to the norm. My mom never forced me to do anything again but rather supported me in whatever I chose to do – which were mostly sports, the ‘boy’ kind. In my early 20’s I became extremely interested in Latin culture and more importantly Latin dance which included Salsa. Regular salsa & bachata lessons were my thing for 3 years. I later saw a performance from the famous Jenyne Butterfly and from that day I was so amped to try acrobatic/sensual movements on a pole. It has only been recently that I have been fortunate to experience this world which to me is more than fitness or dance, it’s a destiny. I release this post in the hopes it will educate and change the mindset that pole dancing is sleazy and only belongs in a gentlemen’s club.
History of Pole Dancing
It’s remarkable to know that this discipline has been around since the 12th century in the form of Chinese Pole whereby circus professionals would use a pole in their performances. Some of their coined signature moves like the flag (hanging straight out at a 90 degree angle using nothing but your arms as stability) are still used in modern pole dancing. Even the pole burns dancers experience now date back to this era where their shoulder burns served as a sign of respect from others in the same art form.
Indian Pole goes back 800 years and was initially introduced as a way for wrestlers of that time to commence training. Using these techniques helped develop speed, concentration, co-ordination and reflexes. It was a stamina, strength and endurance booster in many competitive ‘fighting’ disciplines like Judo, Athletics and even Horse-riding. For gymnasts, using pole movements helped to improve their flexes, grace & swiftness in rhythm. It then developed into a fully fledged competition called Pole Mallakhamb. Today there are national Mallakhamb championships in India whereby 14 states compete but surprisingly no women participate; only males take part & dominate in this competition.
Exotic Dance tracked back to ancient Sumerian times where the Goddess of Love, Inanna, was said to have given a striptease – dancing and removing one item of clothing and jewellery at each of the seven gates that she passed on her way to find her love Damouz. It then broke into mainstream Western world with Burlesque clubs, Middle Eastern art forms of belly-dancing & Latin dances like the Tango & Rumba.
Pole Dance lessons itself was brought to attention in 1994 by a lady named Fawnia Dietrich who initiated the first ever class in Canada teaching pole techniques which by today has all the historic skills of the Indians, Asians & the Western World rolled into one beautifully modified art form.
When I attended my first class, I felt extremely nervous and surprisingly quite shy. Doing this ‘thing’ solo meant I had no support cheering me on and providing much needed confidence. I was quite stunned at the fact that our instructor did not have the usual body shape and my confusion grew until she proceeded to demo the first phase routine. My jaw nearly dropped to the floor. The ample strength & suppleness this woman before me had. Never in my life had I seen movements like that…on a VERTICAL POLE no less. She moved with ease, and grace with hints of playfulness which eventually turned into sex appeal. I could not take my eyes off her. From that moment I was hooked. She had also managed to help me see that strength comes in various shapes and forms. You don’t have to be a size 30 to be sexy or to move like a deity on a pole.
During the ‘warm up’ which actually feels more like a full on gym session, you realise how unfit you really are but that slowly fades as you feel your core muscles tightening up and you are able to hold your entire body weight up with just the use of your arms or going upside down and only your thighs hold you in place. “Look Ma, no haaands!”
From the very first lesson, you begin to build bonds with the rest of the girls in class. Relating to the fact you are all in the same boat. They inspire & encourage you to push on and ‘nail‘ that move. It seems that everyone is different and some spins are easier for some and difficult for others. In every pole dancer’s journey, there is always that one move that you just can’t seem to grasp. It’s like your mind and body are moving in two totally different directions. For me, it was the simplest of moves – the reverse spin. It made no sense to my body to be moving backward around a pole and still maintain to look sexy while doing so. The dreaded “point your toes, arch your back” gets drilled into you and this time it is totally different to ballet class. Feeling sexy, being sexy and wowing your audience and fellow dancers with your successes on and off the pole can’t but help put a grin on your face. You’re in a state of euphoria with bruises and burns to prove it.
Breaking the Stereotype
With the whole upper body being tested, pole dancing can help improve your performance in the gym or on the sports field. I have noted an increase in my strength when picking up weights, being able to do more pull-ups and basically be more cardio vascular fit in my sports. There are pole fitness classes popping up everywhere which will help kick start weight loss, or improving overall fitness. Many celebrities have helped pole fitness/dancing gain popularity in the social scenes by using it as a fitness alternative or for movie role preparation. Emma Watson took some lessons for her role in The Bling Ring. The much adored Jennifer Aniston, proclaimed to love working the pole for her upcoming movie We’re The Millers. The physical challenge Marisa Tomei experienced with pole dancing helped her get into shape for her Oscar nominated role in The Wrestler. Eva Longoria, Kristen Stewart, Jessica Biel & Olivia Wilde all excelled in their pole dancing classes which helped them get ripped very quickly. Also there is a growing number of pole fitness programmes available for men only with studios popping up in the UK, US & Australia.
When looking at the professional pole dancers who compete internationally, it can be quite clearly seen how this form of dance can help sculpt, tone, shape and re-engineer the female anatomy. The result is lean. There is something exhilarating about beauty in strength. It’s a perfect illustration of how hard someone has worked to look like they do and more importantly, excel at what they do. Having a look at one of the greatest pole dancers that ever graced the chrome is Jenyne Butterfly : an aerial performance artist and the US’ first ever Pole Dance Federation Champion. She is talented on many apparatus including silks, hoops & hammocks and has revolutionised pole dance by creating an array of new positions and transitions. Her body defies gravity and she moves so elegantly with such finesse it’s almost as if her spirit physically lifts with yours when you watch some of her performances. She is just one fine example of how beautiful and elegant pole dance can be.
Pole dance has the ability to empower women by boosting their self-confidence. It’s not just some person grinding their behind against a pole for money. Yes this is a reality, and there is nothing wrong with someone doing just that but Pole dancing is breaking barriers by being dance, by being fitness, by being classified as ART. I cannot wait for the day when it will finally be recognised as a sport and form part of the official list of Summer & Winter Olympics. Why shouldn’t it be? A sport requires skill, endurance, speed, balance, power, coordination – all of which is embodied in pole dance. It should actually be renamed to Pole Sport. If curling (also known as ‘sweeping ice with a broom’) can make into the Winter Olympic Games, surely Pole Sport can too!? I can really feel you all nodding your heads in agreement on that.
How to get started
There are a handful of institutes that offer pole dancing classes in Cape Town and will take even the most uncoordinated of people and give you a chance to explore the wonderful world of the pole. Classes range anything between R80 – R100 per hour lesson and are discounted for packaged deals. Below are a few places that I have come across and have had the pleasure in being exposed to:
Girls World – Dance 4 Fitness
Where: 36 Franklin Road, Claremont
Contact: 021-764 3640
Pole Dance Cape Town
Where: 199 Loop Street, CBD
Contact: 021-424 1243
Lighten Up Pole Fitness Studio
Where: 83c Main Road, Fish Hoek
Contact: 083 388 4655
I sincerely hope that I have made a dent in the perceptions of pole dancing and taken the ‘sleaze’ out of the tease. If any ladies are interested in joining, make that call! You will not have an ounce of regret and neither will your significant other. Trust me on this one *wink* & guys, go support your women and see them for the true goddesses they are. Note how hard they’ve worked on their bodies or made the changes to their image & fitness. Also next time you’re at Mavericks or Teasers please pay full attention to how much work it takes to look that sexy on the pole – so please stock up on those R100 notes.