What would it take to feel truly confident and beautiful in my own skin as a pole dancer?
I have been pole dancing for seven years and I’m confronted by this question almost every day. A part of me knows that there is a certain aesthetic to being a pole dancer, and I’ve often worried that I do not look anything like it.
I only have to refer to the world-renown founders of my pole studio, the ones who’ve done this for a living before introducing this art form into the mainstream.
As you’d expect, they resemble sirens: well-defined abs, catwalk legs, mermaid hair, and Barbie-doll curves. Each time they strike a pose on the pole, I imagine a deadly gunshot firing off and them blowing the smoke at the tip of the barrel afterward.
In contrast, I’m vertically-challenged, flat-chested, and have the pear-shaped body of a Coppertone girl. My inner critic is quick to imagine all my imperfections — flabby arms, unflattering belly, fleshy thighs — lighted up in high-definition and predicts that the camera lens will crack.
It doesn’t help that because I love to get on stage and take selfies of my performances, people around me love to tear me down:
“You look the way you look.”
“Why bother doing it? You’ll never be a professional pole dancer.”
“If you take this picture and post it on social media, people are going to think you’re really weird.”
Ouch. Are they disparaging not just my looks, but my entire identity as a pole dancer? How dare they? Don’t they get how much I love pole dancing? Or that I work hard at this? Don’t they understand just how magical this art form is?
Screw the naysayers — I may not have a glossy photograph of myself looking like Daryl Hannah in Dancing at The Blue Iguana — but I have got something better. And that’s a safe, magical, place where I can keep pole dancing and a whole community of supporters who share the same passion.
Every time I get on stage and perform, I stop seeing my body as a separate extension of myself that I have to get to a certain size and shape to fully own. Instead, when I dance, I become a part of it.
Lightbulbs start to go off, and I start appreciating what makes a truly great pole dancer, someone who embodies transcendent beauty.
Showmanship, not staged beauty, wins the day
Don’t just take my word for it. Go watch the real pros who make a living dancing. Walk into Jumbo’s Clown Room on Hollywood Boulevard in West Hollywood. It’s the iconic strip club famous for energetic, rock and roll pole spinners from all walks of life. All night, you’ll be entertained by jaw-dropping numbers and you’ll want to throw dollar bills on stage. Courtney Love danced here in the 90’s.
You’ll be so impressed by exotic dancers with gorgeous faces and six-pack abs. They can execute death-defying tricks on the pole; they can drop from the ceiling and stop themselves right before they hit the floor. Some can do incredible acrobatic bridges, splits, and fancy headstands on only one arm or one shoulder. They can slow-mo. all the difficult moves and flag for minutes on the pole. You’ll wonder how they ever got this Cirque du Soleil level of strength and flexibility.
But the ones who’ll take your breath away aren’t the strongest, most dare-devil performers on stage. Nor are they the endowed with angelic figures like Daryl Hannah in Dancing at the Blue Iguana, or the most implanted with C-cup boobs and J-Lo asses.
The pole dancers who steal the show are those who engage with audiences the most, the ones who shine from the inside-out with true body confidence.
They receive the loudest applause, the most dollar bills on stage, and the most adamant calls for ‘encore’. Because they have the best showmanship. They know how to smile, how to entertain, and how to modify their actions to what the audience prefers.
As Porsche, winner of Miss Pole Dance Australia 2013 and instructor at Bobbi’s Pole Studio in Sydney said, ‘when you know the audience is out there with you, it does spur you on to do bigger and better things’. Porsche was teaching me all about artistry at Bobbi’s Pole Studio in Malaysia when she put me into Britney Spear’s air-hostess costume for our rendition of Toxic.
Even when we did something as simple as walking ‘down the aisle’, I learned first-hand that showmanship cannot be faked. It must come from your inner recognition of your sexuality and giving your all on stage because you’re proud of who you are when you’re dancing. I had to be comfortable in my own skin to strut sexily in eight-inch heels and wink provocatively at the audience.
No wonder an Australian study in 2015 found that women who pole danced had higher positive body image. “[Pole dancers] ascribed this sense of ‘sisterhood’ they felt with other participants, and due to being in a community that was non-judgemental and accepting.’
Pole Dancing Requires Whole Body Intelligence
Anyone can pole dance; it’s just not easy. You can’t come at it with an exclusive set of strengths, skillsets, or training, and expect that it will give you an edge. Muscular body builders who bench press weights have muscles they have worked on in isolation but not coordinated core strength. Mountain climbers fearless at vertical heights aren’t comfortable gripping such limited touchpoints between the pole apparatus and the body. Even circus gymnasts struggle to combine strength with momentum and direction needed to work a spinning pole.
Former exotic dancer Bobbi, founder of the international Bobbi’s Pole Studio empire and 2012 United Pole Artists’ pole dancer of the year, says pole dancing requires all-over strength and flexibility. “It works you from the neck down, muscles you didn’t think you had you’ll find.”
My personal instructor at Bobbi’s Pole Studio Malaysia, Saintly (stage name for Claudia Maurer), underscores the importance of connecting my brain to my body to engage all my muscles, joints, and ligaments to my advantage. She always encourages me to practice habit-forming exercises so that I can work with my own strengths and weaknesses towards forming an affinity with the pole and getting the results I want.
I’ll never forget the day I told Saintly I couldn’t perform a routine because I couldn’t get myself from a floor-start into a layout high enough off the ground without repeatedly crashing to the floor. I thought my legs were too short and weak to get there. She patiently chunked down each move and gave me techniques to overcome my own structural challenges. I found my ideal starting position, got my right leg to brace against the floor and support my left leg kicking off, and adjusted my handgrip for maximum leverage. As a result, I nailed this move.
Even the pros can’t afford to lose sight of the big picture. The pole dancers who seem to have every dancer’s dream by the throat: competition wins, awards, coveted gigs, teaching opportunities around the world. They serve as authentic role models for how a woman can use her whole body intelligently to transform herself into a siren.
I like to take a page from Felix Cane, international pole champion and founder of Felix Cane Academy. She invented the infamous Spatchcock move in 2008 and performed in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity show in Las Vegas. She acknowledges on her own Instagram post @therealfelixcane that her spatchcock move (center split on a pole) looks different because “Firstly take a look at my knees. They curve backward. This is a genetic gift you cannot gain it so please do not try to overstretch the ligaments behind your knees your legs need them to function.”
One of my favorite idols is Daria Che, the world-famous exotic pole dancer from Russia. Named World Best Pole Dancer 2016, she struggled with back issues and had to break away from the rigidity she inherited from her prior training as a rhythmic gymnast to use her flexibility for handstands and floorwork in exotic pole. The result is flawless, sensual, Bolshoi-style legwork that keeps you enthralled when she dances on stage drawing circles on the floor with her high-heeled boots.
These role models keep me going. Still. Every time I dance, I realize that metamorphosis is one of the hardest achievements in pole. Sometimes I plateau out and can’t seem to master a new move to advance to the next level.
The difference is, these days I’m seldom put off by comparing myself to others. Because I know now that everyone is at different stages in their pole journey.
What keeps me going is that each time I overcome a specific challenge and finish a new routine, I feel proud of what I can accomplish with my body and love my newfound confidence.
When I read about women embarking on personal quests for body positivity, it’s often about getting validation for their curves, finding branded clothes in their size, or being represented by people who look like them in the media. I get where some of them are coming from, but pole dancing has shifted my perception of the issue from mere acceptance towards real, lasting, solutions.
To me, body confidence is about recognizing your own sexuality, flaunting what you’ve got, being honest about your vulnerabilities so you can overcome them, showmanship, discipline, and using whole body intelligence to get the results you want.
But it doesn’t stop there. Body positivity is empowering someone else to do something remarkable with their bodies. And once you have what it takes within you to give them body confidence, it becomes deeply gratifying, the real beauty in your heart, your legacy.
Body image is not what you think it is. When you look at bodies from the wide-angle reflector of how others can do great things, that’s when you feel truly body positive.
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