Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pole and silks: sister arts

When I first started aerial silks and pole, I didn't know anyone else who did both. I was running around trying to explain to my silks instructors how similar what we were doing in class was to my pole work. I even convinced them to let me teach a pole class. I designed a curriculum and taught them some moves. Then I took some time off for my scheduled surgery, and while I was healing they found a Chinese pole teacher and instated that class instead of mine. I was sad because that was supposed to be my first formal teaching situation.

Still, I went ahead and started my teaching career, offering private lessons to the aerialists who knew me from silks. At the time it was still unusual to find instruction in the acrobatic side of pole, rather than the sensual side. Of course, now all the polers are doing silks and all the circus people are doing pole. This is totally not because of me at all; I was teaching in relative isolation. It was just an obvious connection that more and more people started making as each sport became independently popularized.

Today, pole is so accepted as a circus-style art that we call ourselves "pole aerialists," and I still often from of circus acrobatics who want to learn pole and polers who want to learn silks. So I thought I'd write a bit about the connection, highlight the similarities and differences.

Both silks and pole are vertical apparatuses. The difference is that the silks move, and the pole doesn't. (Spin pole notwithstanding.)

When you approach the pole with your hands, it stays firm. When you approach the silks with your hands, they yield. That means you have to grip more tightly. That's why silks usually work your hand and forearm muscles more than pole does.

When you approach the silks with your body, it conforms around you. When you approach the pole with your body, it remains place. You have to adjust your body to the pole, whereas the silks adjust themselves to you. That means that many silks move will feel much "off" on the pole, even if they're otherwise identical. An opposite side climb, for example, is executed the exact same way on silks and pole, but it feels very different. Your leg has to go around the pole, not the pole around your leg, so you will feel more horizontal or skewed to the side than the straight up-and-down of the same move on silks.

To attach yourself to the silks, you wrap knots around yourself. To attach yourself to the pole, you use the friction of your bare skin. This requires a greater mental capacity for silks. You have to memorize the ins and out of each "knot," and calculate in your head what wraps will land you in which position. There is a lot less to memorize and calculate on pole; success or failure in a move come down to physical ability (and practice of course). I find that silks attract many more "nerds," engineers, and chess players, than pole.

Silks are usually performed with the body covered in spandex, so as to prevent fabric burn. Pole is usually performed with as much skin as possible, pole burn be damned. This isn't because polers have higher pain tolerances (I have received MUCH worse burns from silks than from pole); rather, it's a frank necessity to our art. Our skin is what's holding us up.

I used to tell my pole students that one of the differences between pole and silks is the bottoms of the feet, because at the time nearly everyone performed in stilettos. Now that many members of the pole dance industry are trying to shed the "stripper" stigma, it is just as common to train on or perform pole barefoot as in shoes, so this may or may not apply, depending on where you're learning.

Silks require greater strength starting out than pole. There is very little you can do on the silks if you can't climb and invert. Pole has a whole repertoire of spins and other moves that can be executed right-side up from the floor. Of course, if you want to reach an intermediate level, you have to build up some serious strength. But the strength you need to get to the next level of pole is the strength you need on the first day of silks. (That said, I don't discourage anyone from trying silks because they think they're not strong enough. You can always have a teacher spot you until you can invert on your own.)

Silks want height. Pole less so. Silks is so full of drops (or just slipping down) that you need a high ceiling to do it. Pole is more ambivalent about ceiling height. On one hand, there is more you can do (and more you can do in sequence) with a tall pole. On the other hand, the integrity of the rig can be compromised if the pole is too high. It will wobble when you do explosive moves, and might start to come loose, causing damage to the hardware or the floor/ceiling.

There are more self-taught polers than silks artists. Because the pole lends itself to a shorter ceiling, many people have poles in their homes. Because the pole moves are less complex (I'm not saying easier, just less to keep track of mentally), people feel more confident teaching themselves. As a result, there are more independent polers working in isolation than silks performers, who build a community through classes and workshops.

Silks allows stronger grip products than pole. Silks performers usually apply rosin before training or performing. But rosin is too strong for most polers. Too much grip and we can't spin (on a stationary pole), and get excessive pole burn.

That's what comes to mind for me. Am I missing anything?

Photo (of me!) by Igor Bass

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