Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Feminist Walks into a Pole...

...and says, "Ouch".

One of my best friends is getting married soon and as part of her Hen's celebrations a few of us trooped into an introductory pole dancing class.

Certainly this post could be a dissection of how our festivities involved honouring the male gaze and how the men's (so-much-more flatteringly named Stag's night) involved some rather misogynistic undertones (multiple strippers descending on the Buck with the aim of "humiliating" him) but I'd rather focus on what was done amazingly right.

I braced myself before entering the class. For one thing, I'm fat so I'm already being told in many small ways daily that there's no possible way anyone would want to see me in any context approximating sex. For another, I'm a feminist. I didn't know if I could safely withstand 90 minutes of flinging myself at a hard phallic object with the goal of titillating some generalized male stereotype.

Amazingly, it wasn't like that.

The first thing that blew me away was that the instructor unobtrusively left out the gender of the assumed audience. She always spoke of "the person you are dancing for". As in "make sure you stand right in front of the person you are dancing for so your bum is in their face when you bend over". No gendered pronouns, no awkward linguistic acrobatics to get around it. Also, the hypothetical audience was only referenced in the lap dancing portion of the class - i.e. where it was strictly relevant. Dropping the gaze (male or otherwise) from her patter took the element of sexual objectification out of the moves we were doing.

The other was that there was no body shaming at all. She never talked about toned bodies (even though there was a heavy focus on fitness, more on that later). She tried to stay with moves that most bodies that have a normal range of motion can do. When she ventured into harder territory (for example for moves that required far stronger core muscles than this fat cat possesses) she took pains to ensure that these were moves typically tackled in later weeks of classes and to not be bothered if we were unable to execute them perfectly. She even offered alternative moves to the ones she was demonstrating so we could all finish the routine she was teaching us when it came time. We all had fun and revelled in the movements our bodies could make, which is important (but sadly lacking) in any fitness class. Most of all, she was liberal with her compliments (never singling out any one person) and she sounded sincere the whole time.

Where she did foray into talking about "looking sexy", she made it all about the way you held your body. She demonstrated the quintessential look-at-me look (shoulders back, boobs out, knees cocked so that the bum is primed) and said, "standing this way radiates confidence, and that's hot". Sure it fell a little bit into 90's era GIRL POWER! but since there was no mention of how the actual body in question needed to look the idea was anyone could be that hot. It was inclusive. Something I certainly did not expect it to be.

The pole-dancing-as-a-workout fad has been around for several years and since this class was designed to be a sampler for all the classes offered at the centre, there was some talk of fitness. The instructor never once ventured into "reduce and tone" territory, however and spoke mainly the muscle groups that are key to pole dancing. Again, greatly body positive.

I do have some problems with the pole-dancing-as-a-workout, mainly that it feeds into the larger porn culture that is ultimately hurtful (bikini waxes, sapphic tendencies [Ed: what I meant was girl-on-girl action with the focus on a male audience and not that lesbians/bisexuals enjoying their sexuality are automatically part of porn culture. Phrase redacted due to ambiguity.], etc.). The idea that keeping "healthy" is a moral obligation in tandem with the increased pressure on women of all ages to be sexaaay has given women an excuse to be "hot and slutty" via pole dancing without having to worry about actually being slut-shamed. Framing pole dancing as something even YOU can do is tangled in all kinds of gendered messes including the issues surrounding professional pole dancers, the restrictions of performative gender/sexuality and the norming of sexual objectification (see here for more). Oh and of course there's the kiddie stripper poles. Acknowledging these issues does not a discussion make, but these issues have been hashed over by people more eloquent than I and I intended this piece to be a way to demonstrate how even mired in of all these issues - Pole Dancing Class, UR DOIN IT RITE. So I'll leave it at that.


  1. I find most forms of dance quite unreasonable about body image; don't even get me started on classical ballet. But yah, even if it far from alleviates porn culture, I also think the least instructors can do is be kinder and more inclusive all around.

    Also, ever since the National Day Parade included a segment of "scantily clad women" pole-dancing (see here), the local media has been going on quite a bit about the rate of male participants in pole dancing class too, as if to suggest that it's really quite accidental that they only had women pole dancing on stage.

  2. I thought most of this piece was brilliant, but one point in your piece disturbed me. Using the shorthand of "sapphic tendencies" in a parenthesis about porn culture to describe the girls-kissing-girls-as-a-show-for-boys phenomenon is something that is likely to reinforce several existing prejudices & stereotypes about queer women who don't hide it. (I'm not saying that those are the girls who make out for the benefit of guys, but women who identify as queer are also hurt by these.)

    The implications of the term you used ends up trivialising female same-sex attraction, thus reinforcing a) the common assumption that women who are attracted to other women are "just going through a phase" (which is already frequently used by homophobes to dismiss/suppress queerness), and b) the idea that any public displays of affection between women is being done solely for the titillation of men.

    From reading the rest of your article, you seem unlikely to subscribe to these stereotypes/prejudices, and so in the interest of not unintentionally reinforcing them, it would be great if you could replace that phrase with something less open to misinterpretation.

  3. Thanks for pointing that out Terrierist! I have a tendency to assume people can read my mind which is can result in an epic fail on many levels.

    Post now corrected to remove the ambiguity.


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