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THE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS-ING OF THE POLE WORLD AND ITS EFFECTS ON STRIPPER NATIVES

(Cover photo John Gast, American Progress 1872. An illustration of pole dance, the frontier, and “discovery”.)

I find it imperative to start off by stating that by no means do I aim to compare the history of the pole world to the genocide that enabled the establishment of this country; I have simply noticed a similarity in the narrative of the discovery and subsequent Manifest Destiny of pole, and I find it essential to acknowledge troublesome histories through comparison. With that said, I must also acknowledge myself as the messenger of an idea which I cannot entirely claim as my own. I have multiple terminal degrees, straight white teeth, no addictions, no baby daddies. The home I have created for myself is relatively stable and I have no immediate Earth shattering crisis to deal with that threaten my physiological needs. I am a well written, well spoken, pedigreed artist, theorist, and educator, so the messages that I have here will be conventionally more palatable coming from me than from my stripper sisters who fail to articulate these ideas in a way that is appreciated by a world that lends less credibility to the voices and experiences of women with “questionable” moral integrity and unsophisticated language. The words I share today are those of strippers, of hundreds of Facebook threads, of my friends. They are also the tellings of my own observations as a woman who has seen How The Other Half Lives because I am the Other Half, but with a plot twist. I have clawed my way into a position of cultural privilege, and thus possess the unique experience of being present in the room during the conversations of problematic systemic narratives that are directly about people like me, but no one knows because I am disguised as one of you.

It all started when I read Lux ATL’s Scorecards in the Trap House piece published last March. She wrote about studio trained pole dancers entering spaces of strippers and applying the values and interests of studio pole dancing onto strippers. The respective intent is different for each type of dancer, and there is a problem when one kind of dancer enters into the space of another and applies her relationship with pole to a woman who’s intent is totally different. I’d like to expand on that and discuss how studio pole’s role as the Christopher Columbus and “discovery” of pole really effects sex workers. The revisionist histories that accompany the tale of pole today are dangerous, especially to the women that currently earn their income as strippers, mainly because it takes from them their history.

As you can see in here, the sports bra and pony tail indicate that this pole dancer is interested in serious fitness business.

As you can see in here, the sports bra and pony tail indicate that this pole dancer is interested in serious fitness business.

The recent #notastripper hashtag popping up all over Instagram and the resulting backlash its caused with strippers is a perfect example of both the co-opting and the exorcising of a culture and class that was native to the accompanying imagery connected with the hashtag; often times pole tricks, money stacks, and the like. Stripping has stigma, this is a fact. Strippers are disrespected and often a liability in any social or professional space. They are dehumanized on a regular basis and not permitted voice or credibility—the two main components that suggest that one even exists. When you divorce pole from stripping so vehemently and so certain that you have nothing to do with it, you are denying both the stripper and yourself of the agency and gumption essential to your acceptance in the first place. Based on the blemished reputations of sex workers, it makes sense that a women would not want to be associated with being a stripper. However, it is the disrespect that should be dealt with, rather than the expected further social punishment of sex workers. It was eloquently and simply put by Samantha Dawn Martin in a Facebook in a thread that “by reacting with #notastripper, you are instead just saying ‘disrespect the other woman, not me’. You should have a problem with the stigma against sex workers [because] that effects all women who choose to do anything with their bodies outside of what society deems important”. The studio pole dancers determined insistence that they are not a stripper is only hurting others and yourself, and frankly, its disappointing. Further, the video’s and photos posted in Lululemon, so proudly proclaiming that you are #notastripper all function as verifiable evidence that you’re, in fact, not. Your deadlift is beautiful. So is your one handed shoulder mount to ayesha, as is your fancy apparel. Lets be honest, though: none of that shit would ever pay your rent if you were working at a club. Every pole dancers practices are already valuable. You don’t have to devalue strippers in order to prove your own worth; it hurts all of us. There’s plenty of value to go around at this table.

Speaking of tables, years and years ago, when strippers invited wandering fitness enthusiasts to theirs, it was a sincere and authentic gesture. Strippers gave you everything they had to offer when they started opening studios, namely safety; a luxury they are often not afforded at their places of work. They opened the doors to the first pole studios in America because in every culture, there is a fascination with the underground. Without the notion of the seedy, pole studios would not have ever been successful. It is the mystery and exclusivity of stripping that makes it lucrative and the same goes for studios. The result, years later is a embrace of the generation of pole by dancers who, due to the aversion to punishment that strippers endure daily at work and for years to come after they quit, are unaware of their histories, or worse yet claim to not “need” to continue talking about pole’s roots, as if their practice and interest is worlds above the basic human gesture of desire and sex. This kind of bleaching of pole fails to honor your trail blazers, your fighters, women who were overlooked for positions in the work place, and most of all— a dedicated and ongoing war towards the sexual oppression of women everywhere. When I hear a fellow pole dancer say with judgement that they don’t “need” to be sexy, or that they don’t have to have an excuse to be “risque”, what I hear is “I want to disassociate myself with you because your truth is inconvenient”. Dance however you want, however, I would implore you to remember who invited you to hang out here in the first place.

I fully support communities from different backgrounds exploring other places and people that are not themselves (cultural appropriation, some would say). I am not of the school of thought that demands that races, classes, and genders ought to be kept separate. During the Civil Rights Era, we called this practice segregation. The intention was to keep “those people” over there. Nowadays we separate in an attempt to stay safe. This is problematic because progress is not comfortable, nor is it convenient or politically correct. It is not a straight line from A to B. It is a meandering, long, painful mess of a knot that eventually leads us to a more desirable place. I think that the respectful mixing and mingling of people—sharing— is the only way we will ever progress and connect as humans. I love that a wealthy hobbiest, former gymnasts, and retired dancers have come together in the name of pole. I, for one, do not mind one bit that my stripper sisters careers have finally gotten some air time in a conversation about agency that was previously left only for culturally privileged women to ponder. If it had not been for pole studios bringing pole closer towards the mainstream, this would not be happening.

“The revisionist histories that accompany the tale of pole today are dangerous, especially to the women that currently earn their income as strippers, mainly because it takes from them their history.”

It ought to be noted, however, that the effects of entering into a space, claiming it, and then casting aside its natives is dangerous and is a threat to progress. Granted, this type of “progress” only serves to benefit women (strippers) that would never even be permitted to speak about it in the first place. The adherence to the real history of pole would never benefit a woman who has never had to be a stripper because while strippers would “gain” standing in the perception of their humanness, the woman who has never had to strip might perceive that her place is reduced because she now has to share it with inconvenient women such as strippers. If we acknowledged that pole came from strippers, then we would be acknowledging strippers. And if we acknowledge strippers, we acknowledge the industry. If we acknowledged the industry we acknowledge the complicated nature of sex and morality and if we recognize that, ladies, we must then recognize that we are adhering to constructs that come from an attempt to oppress and control women. So, instead, the studio pole dancer ignores the people that were here first, creates a settlement, and then acknowledges strippers begrudgingly by giving them little slices of their own history and calling is egality (“You CAN dance sexy!” a pole colleague of mine once said at a social event, “Over there!” as she literally shooed her hand in a go-away motion) because if everyone is a winner, no one is a winner, right? If everyone gets a trophy there is no best, right? Wrong. Why? Because human decency isn’t a contest where there are winners and losers and hierarchies. That is step fucking one.

If you think about it, it allllllllllmost makes sense. Women who have fought for decades for a little bit of representation and voice they have and they don’t want it threatened. Stating an awareness of a history that might not be convenient to your own specific agenda, or to terrain that isn’t specific to your journey, might threaten your momentum. So non stripper pole dancers stay silent, or worse yet, take whats not theirs and make up a story about “Chinese and Indian pole” because the truth might have a hell storm to follow by a patriarchy aimed solely at controlling them.

The non stripper pole dancer’s silence and/or denial about the people they took from earns them a space as an accomplice to the continued oppression of sex workers and women everywhere. For those who want to dance sexy but don’t, every time you tone down your competition piece as not to challenge the rules against “overtly sexual” choreography, you are casting aside history of women who have fought for your right to agency. This is the effect of your actions. Showcase and competition creators, every time you create a rule about gluteal folds, the partial appearance of breasts (spoiler alert: women have them) for fear that your venue might not allow you to host your event, you are an accomplice to the sterilization of pole and of female oppression. For dancers who’s preferred method of pole is something other then sexy, every time you verbosely assert your value by announcing that you are not a stripper (rather than a simple no), you are suggesting that strippers are below you. The effects of these three actions only threaten the real history of pole. When your history is threatened, your identity is threatened. Identity is voice. Voice is credibility. Credibility is key to existing. If one is not credible, if someone cannot be a reliable witness to their own experience, then what else is there? Irreverence to that which came before you places you in a position to repeat it. America has a long history of outright denying or revising problematic aspects of its past (America’s “discovery”, slavery, women’s rights, queer bigotry, racial profiling, shall I go on?) and pole, though it seems small in comparison, fits into a larger piece of the political puzzle that effects actions of violence and inequality to women.

No one said this shit was easy. But passing the buck of responsibility is, quite frankly, cowardly. When you stepped into that pole studio, you stepped into a responsibility, not just a new workout. The fitness world and studio pole dancers did not “discover” pole dance.

Here’s the real history: Fitness enthusiasts, failed gymnasts, and folks bored with Zumba set sail to find new movement based inspiration. They got lost, stumbled upon friendly strippers who invited them to hang out. Strippers shared, because when you know what its like to have nothing, you give everything. The lost fitness folk partook in the new and exciting space and wanted more, but still needed to maintain their noble standing compared to the the savage strippers. A narrative was created that pole was never theirs to begin with, and thus absolved the fail gymnasts of the cultural responsibility of their journey. More and more came to see the new land, and slowly the stripper natives had less and less space. The new settlers gave strippers tiny little settlements to live on in the form of under promoted afterthoughts called “sexy showcases” that function as a watered down version of a real culture deserving of respect, kind of like how Urban Outfitters “created” the “Navajo Panties” . Fast forward to 2016 with #notastripper; an implied delineation between inherent values of people. Meanwhile, the settlers build an empire while the natives are still just trying to get by.
 

Nia Burks

Nia Burks

I am a professor of Digital Art and Media Theory at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va, where my research includes (but is not limited to) gender politics and identity, body positivity, and mediated images of women. I am a sex work activist, a pole dance instructor with specific focus given to theatrical performance as well as plus size performers, and a video/sound artist. I am interested in the "art" side of pole, though I do love the trick/athletic side as well. My interest in academia and art theory has led me to consider pole in the same manner as I do any other fine art medium. I hope to be able to perform and write about pole in a manner that is both informed and humble.
Nia Burks

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