Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Empowerment": On pole without acrobatics

Since reaching out to the pole world, I've noticed that a lot of studios I've talked to are what I call the "booty-popping" kind. Nothing ghetto, just that they're more focused on sensuality and "you go girl" than on hardcore athletics.

I think that's fine, and I think there's room for both types of dancing. I'm biased, because I've been acrobatics-focused basically since before that was a thing. I was running around trying to get hired saying "I'm not teaching you to shimmy, I'm teaching you to invert." I ended up working for myself, because nobody "got it." Now it's a huge thing, and yes, I feel vindicated. But there are still places like out here where it's more about femininity. It's about "empowerment."

I believe that pole dancing can empower women. I believe that bringing your sexuality into the light in a safe place can change lives. Especially for people who have lived in the shadow of shame about sex or even about being born a woman, sensual pole can be transformative.

But I want you to think about the term "empowerment," and what "power" means. Rotating your hips can empower your mind; it can empower your heart and soul. But it does not empower your body. It can get you in touch with your body, which is great for your mind and your soul. But it does not give you POWER.

One of the major aspects of power is brute physical force. Not just awareness of your body, but control over it. Power is a synonym for STRENGTH.

And yet so many studios that aim to "empower" women downplay their potential for physical strength. Sure, you might learn to invert, but to do moves that involve real power? "Too dangerous." "People will get hurt." "Our students aren't strong enough."

Really? Have they tried? Have you empowered them to try? Have you inspired them to work up to your favorite trick, or have you warned them, "This one's just for the pros?"

How hard is the conditioning you do in class? Would it challenge a man as well as a woman? How many of your advanced students are still doing push-ups on their knees?

There is the spiritual "power" that enables a battered woman to walk away from her abusive spouse. But there is also the physical "power" that enables her to wrest free from his grip, kick him in the nuts, and run out the door when he tries to beat her.

There are plenty of reasons studios stick to stilettos. The business model works. They're concerned about lawsuits. They don't want their insurance to go up. The teachers might not know advanced pole work. I completely believe that there is a place for this kind of dance, this kind of teaching, this kind of studio. But I also believe that you can't proclaim "empowerment" out of one side of your mouth while mumbling "you're not strong enough" out of the other.

If you like to pop your booty, by all means, pop it, girl! But never stop challenging yourself. Not everyone needs to be handspringing-- one woman's shoulder inversion is another woman's iron X-- but we all need to be empowering ourselves, and each other. Mind, spirit, AND body.

Photo from The Sun.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The push-pull dichotomy of suspensions in pole dancing

I've been trying to "clean up" my rep list lately-- learn new moves that I should know because they're less advanced than what I usually do, but that for one reason or another I skipped over in my training. As you can imagine, as a more advanced dancer and as an instructor, this leads me to a lot of *thinking about* the moves as I learn them.

The biggest thing I've been thinking about is what I call the "push-pull dichotomy" of suspensions. By suspensions, I mean any moves where your body weight is "suspended" away from the pole, like a straight edge or a knee lock.

What I've concluded is: You must push with the bottom, and pull with the top.

The bottom and the top what? Anything! Elbow, foot, hand, knee-pit, whatever is there and has the capacity to pull (top) or push (bottom).

Let's look at some examples:

Elbow straight edge. Bottom hand is pushing the pole, top elbow is pulling it.
 Photo from

Knee hold. Top inside of knee is pulling the pole, bottom outside of knee is pushing against it.

Photo from

Starfish: Bottom foot is pushing, top foot is pulling.

Photo from

Front armpit hold? Nope. Trick question. Not a suspension. Body weight is held to the pole.

Photo from

This is not just philosophizing about the yin and yang of pole; this is practical information you can use. If you're having trouble with a suspension, just ask yourself: are you pushing sufficiently with your bottom appendage? Are you pulling sufficiently with your top appendage? Chances are, one of these will be remiss. Now that you know, you can fix it.

For example, when students first try to elbow grip, whether it's a straight edge or a caterpillar, they often fail because there is not enough pull. They cautiously try to keep their bodies close to the pole, so their body weight is not far enough away from the pole to cause pull on the elbow, and they slip right down. If you were attempting a straight edge, and you knew about the push-pull dichotomy, you would be able to correct yourself.

You must balance the yin with the yang. Grasshopper.

Can anyone think of an exception to my rule? Are there any "suspensions" that don't involve a pull on top and a push on bottom?

Photo of Pippi by ValkyrieNYC.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Building strength for pole: from global to specific

If you are a pole dancer or other aerialist, chances are you want to get stronger. Not to invent statistics, but I'm pretty sure less than 0.001% of aerialists don't want to be stronger. This applies especially to polers, who often enter and, at first, advance in the field with much less strength than those who focus on traditional circus apparatuses.

There are a lot of ways to gain strength, but it helps to have a gain plan. (That was a Freudian slip for "game plan," but I like it and I'm keeping it.) You can advance to a point by just doing random exercises-- it's better than nothing-- but you can plateau quickly and stop seeing results if you don't know what you're doing. So I'm going to get you going by explaining four ways you can go about gaining strength, from the general to the specific.

1. Heavy lifting multi-joint exercises

Exercises can be thought of in terms of what joints are bending. Dumbbell curls, which work your biceps, involve bending your elbows. Leg curls involve bending your knees. If you want to be efficient, doesn't it make sense to work more joints at once?

If you want to get strong-- not build bulky, heavy muscles, but just lift more weight-- you should be dedicating a good amount of your strength training time to lifting heavy. After all, you're pretty heavy, and you want to be able to lift yourself.

The traditional powerlifts are the bench press, the deadlift, and the squat. There are other variations and personal favorites, but those are the most standard. You can start doing any of them at light weights, but unless you already have perfect form, you should probably get a personal trainer to help you for a session or two. You can get away with a lot of mistakes at 20 pounds that could cause serious injury at 200 pounds. Whether you get a trainer or not, make sure you have a spotter, especially for the bench press. (If you can't get a spotter, you can use a Smith Machine, but it takes away the stabilizing effects of the lift, which you definitely want for pole dancing.)

Advantages: Good for efficient and balanced strength gain.

Disadvantages: Heavy weights can lead to injury if you err on form or try to lift too much; need a spotter.

2. Do muscle group-specific exercises.

Let's say you feel you have good strength overall, but you feel like a specific muscle group is lagging. Your abs have no problem with inverting, but your arms get tired from climbing and holding your weight up, so you want to work on your biceps. You might decide to take a more traditional "gym rat" approach: do extra "arms," "upper body," or just "biceps" workouts. 3 sets of barbell curls, 3 sets of machine curls, 3 sets of pull-ups-- or whatever your favorite workout of the month is.

Advantages: Variety; you can focus on your problem spots.

Disadvantages: You have to be careful not to create imbalances: if you work on your abs, you have to work on your lower back, too; You want to make sure you're gaining strength and not bulk.

3. Specifically targeted exercises

This zooms in on your needs even further than targeting muscle groups. In this level of granularity, you are finding or designing exercises that imitate the stunts you are working on. For example, let's say you want to work on shoulder strength, for all those inverted moves that involve putting weight in your bottom arm. That can be anything from the caterpillar to the twisted grip handspring. If you were on the "muscle group-specific exercises" level, you'd be doing shoulder presses. For "specifically targeted exercises," I like to have my students to handstand walk-ups. That is, kneel facing away from the wall or pole, place your feet on the wall or pole, and start walking your feet up and your hands in until you're in a handstand position, hold, then walk yourself back down. Not only are your shoulders getting a workout, but you are upside-down, you are balancing, and most significantly, you are briefly holding your weight in one arm at a time, which is what you will be doing in your stunt.

Advantages: You can tweak all kinds of exercises to make them more appropriate to your specific goals.

Disadvantages: You'll need a lot of creativity. You'll be creating your own exercises a lot of the time, and not every move will be easy to plan for.

4. Just do the move.

If you are pretty close to succeeding at a strength trick, there's a lot to be said for just doing the trick over and over and trying to get it. Each move is not just a matter of brute force, but of practice. Otherwise every powerlifter could execute every pole move perfectly on the first try. Experimenting with a power move, when you are already strong, can be more effective than hitting the gym. I got my flagpole straight and solid not by doing extra pecs and delts at the gym, but at repeating it in front of a mirror over and over and being picky about my form.

Advantages: You're training your strength and your stunts at the same time-- two birds! one stone!

Disadvantages: You have to be close to succeeding at the move in the first place, or else you'll just frustrate, and possibly injure, yourself.

Which level of granularity you choose-- from the global to the local-- will depend on your needs, your timeline, and your personal preferences. You can pick one of the above tracks and stick to it, or change it up and keep your muscles guessing. Either way, I suggest coming up with a "gain plan." Gain strength, gain repertoire, and gain the knowledge of how to make your body do what you want.

Photo from forums.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reasons to learn tricks on BOTH sides

When we're eager young students starting out in pole or circus class, our instructors correctly make sure that we practice each move on both sides of our bodies. The hypocrisy is that most instructors themselves don't do this!

At some point in our training, we get sloppy about learning moves ambidextrously. It's so much more fun to execute a trick on our "good" side! We look better and it feels better. Or, if you've included a trick in a much-rehearsed routine, you might get used to doing it on that side, and neglect the other.

So I'm here to remind you to do your homework. Here are four main reasons why you need to make yourself learn every move on each side.

1. Imbalance leads to injury.

When one side of your body is stronger, more flexible, or excessively more dominant than the other, you start a chain reaction of muscular compensation that will lead to injury.

2. If you are injured on one side, you want to be able to continue poling on the other.

I don't mean a major injury that should be keeping you off the pole altogether, but something that makes it painful to use a certain part of your body. If you get a massive bruise on one knee from learning a new trick, you want to be able to shift everything you're performing that puts pressure on the knee to the other side. Otherwise you'll have to drop those tricks altogether until you're healed.

3. You might need the other side for a transition.

If you can only shoulder invert on your right side, and you can only land a forearm grip on your right side, and you want to execute a shoulder mount flip that goes from one shoulder to the opposite side landing position, you're gonna have a problem.

4. Improve your teaching skills by "teaching" yourself the move.

Once you get a move on one side, it becomes second nature. This is good for you as a performer, but bad as a teacher. It's hard to explain to your students what is automatic for you. But when learning a move on the opposite side, you can treat yourself like your own student. Try to break it down and explain it to yourself, and remember what you "learned" for the next person struggling with that move.

Reasons NOT to learn tricks on both sides

There are exceptions! If you have serious injury issues on one side of your body, such as a dislocating shoulder (right here!), there are some things you should probably not do. However, you should spend extra time hitting the gym to try and make up for the different in strength as safely as possible. If I want to balance my shoulder strength, I should do it by shoulder pressing some manageable dumbbells, not by throwing myself into a handspring.

Where to start?

So you've been slacking, and you wanna make up for it. Here are some ways to get your body back in balance.

  • Identify imbalances. Figure out which side of your body is stronger than the other-- for EACH muscle group, not just in general. It's just as important to find out if one side of your core is dominating as it is to find out which arm can do the most curls. Do you lose balance faster standing on your left leg than your right? Keep in mind that each person not only has a dominant hand (righty or lefty), but a dominant leg and even eye! You might be right hand dominant, but left leg dominant. So don't assume your "good side" is the same for your whole body.

  • Hit the gym, and concentrate on exercises where the hands/legs work independently of each other. For instance, when you lift a barbell, one arm can be doing most of the work. But when you lift dumbbells, there's no "helping"-- each arm has to do its own work. Many cable exercises can be done one hand/foot at a time, as can many machines.

  • Set aside practice time to learn your rep on your weak side. I know it's not as fun as learning new tricks, but it will pay off. I don't even think you have to learn both sides simultaneously. Once I figure out my good side, I stick with that 'til I've mastered it, and then I start slowly working the other side in when I've gone on to the next thing. It's OK if there's a lag, as long as you eventually get polished on your "bad side."

  • Find or choreograph combinations for yourself that will force you to to use your "bad side." If you don't incorporate your weak side into your acts, it'll remain relegated to "homework" and never become as polished as your strong side.

  • For exotic dancers, you have to make sure you're getting enough "training time" in along with "performance time." Strippers who do pole work tend to spend more time in front of an audience and less in the studio. That means they are under constant pressure to make everything look as smooth and impressive as possible, and tend not to bother much with their weak sides. Why do the move sloppily on your left side if you can do it beautifully on your right? Strippers, you gotta do your homework just like the rest of us. Make sure you are actively setting aside chunks of time to train in the studio or at home, when no one is watching and judging, to improve your opposite side skills.

Advanced polers and instructors, I know we are all bad at this. Let's promise each other to make an effort to learn our weak sides wherever possible.

Photo from

Monday, October 10, 2011

Working on your body: Hobby or Habit?

Like most polers, I expend a lot of mental and physical energy. Not only do I diet and exercise, but I spend a lot of time thinking about dieting and exercising. I've come to the conclusion that, as far as working on your body is concerned, there are two-- not so much strategies, but systems-- that work, and that work very differently.

I call them "hobby" and "habit."

The long and short of it is, most people I see succeeding at their goals (health or otherwise) either become remarkably enthusiastic about them, or find a simple system that works for them and follow it blindly.

I'm positing that both are equally valid approaches, depending on your personality and situation. To clarify, I'm going to give some examples.


I know people who decide they need to lose weight, long-term, and spend huge amounts of their free time on it. They start grocery shopping more, not less. They analyze labels. They research organic food. They read (or write!) books, magazines, and blogs about weight loss. They get excited about all the new recipes that will make them healthy. They "evangelize" to overweight friends. Weight loss becomes their primary hobby; possibly, in the case of nutritionists, their career.

On the other hand, there are people like me. People who don't want a new hobby might simplify their dieting process. They will find a few meals that work for them, and eat the same couple of things every day. This method is extremely efficient, but most effective if some leeway is allowed. (Leeway is more assumed in the "hobby" system; in the "habit" system, you have to plan for it.)

Which way is best for you depends a lot on you and the life you lead. Are you a foodie? Do you love to cook? To entertain? To eat out? Do you enjoy wandering around Whole Foods Market and comparing fruits for antioxidant properties? Are you excited to discover new "tools and tricks" that will help you along your way? Then you will have a good chance at success by being an "obsesser."

Do you already have too much on your mind to dedicate yourself full-time to your weight-loss goal? Would you rather expend your energy on a completely different interest, such as learning French or running marathons? Are you fine with eating at home and bringing your lunch most of the time? Can you adjust quickly to a healthy diet without excessive cravings? Then you'll be a better "automater."

When I need to lose weight, I make the same dinner every night. That might sound boring to some people, but I don't mind-- I go through long phases anyways, where I get the craving for a certain take-out (massaman curry or pineapple pizza or what have you) and order it, well, more often than not. If I can train myself to crave something healthy, that's perfect.


I used to (and probably will again someday) love reading Muscle & Fitness Hers. I would go to the gym with a different workout almost every day (or my favorite "flavor of the month" workout that I'd repeat once a week for several months). One day, I ran into some of my musician friends in the gym. I hadn't even known they went there! I asked them if they were hitting the sauna, and they said, "No, we just like to get in and out as fast as possible." I was confused.

When it comes to exercise, I am more of an obsesser. I know the names of the moves and machines. I log my workouts. I ran 4 marathons. I know how much I can bench.

Many of my friends are automaters. They hit the gym and get on the treadmill and/or circuit and go home. They don't love the gym, they just want to be healthy.

Are you excited about new workout options? Do you stand in the mirror and analyze the size of each muscle in your body? Do you set exciting goals for yourself, such as competing in Iron Man or entering a figure competition? You're a hobbyist.

Do you have a fixed schedule to work around? Is going to the gym torture? Are you happy with maintaining a decent weight instead of sculpting your body? You belong on the habit track.

Neither is right or wrong. It would be awkward for me to "habit" my exercise options, because as a freelancer I have a different schedule every day. It's hard to say "Go to the gym before work" when sometimes work is at 9am and sometimes at 9pm and sometimes I don't leave the house. And I just don't love cooking enough to "hobby" my diet.

This dichotomy can apply to other aspects of your health as well. Do you stretch every morning, just like you put on your make-up? Or do you hardly ever stretch and then one day decide you're going to get the splits if it kills you, and stretch for an hour a day, and read up on PNF and AI and ballistics, and buy workout DVDs just for stretching, and join a yoga class? Do you learn the new pole or trapeze moves taught in class and revisit them in next week's class, or do you spend hours a day watching YouTube videos, own your own apparatus, and drive yourself crazy trying to figure tricks out? (If you're reading this blog, chances are you're the latter!)

I'm pointing these things out not just so we can be more aware of how we relate to our own bodies, but also because we can make a conscious choice. Maybe you've been beating yourself over the head for years trying to become a fitness enthusiast, when all along you're better suited to be a habitist than a hobbyist. Here are a few advantages and disadvantages for both techniques.


  • Good for obsessive or enthusiastic people
  • You'll become very knowledgeable about the subject
  • You'll build up a community around yourself as you seek out like-minded hobbyists

  • Failure sets in as enthusiasm naturally wanes
  • Takes a lot of time and mental energy
  • Decision fatigue can set in, leading to temptation and overwhelm


  • Efficient
  • Fewer temptations, as you don't consider so many options
  • Good for people who like routine

  • Boring
  • Doesn't leave much leeway
  • It's just as easy to develop bad habits as good ones, so watch out!

So how do you approach your aerial life: hobby or habit?

Photo from Megan Fox Diet

Friday, October 7, 2011

Stop skinny-bashing

 I feel like lately I've seen an increase in hateful posts directed towards very thin women. Skinny women seem to be the most PC group to openly deride, along with the rich.

I write this as a moderately thin person. I'm not particularly skinny, I've never had an eating disorder, I am within my medical "ideal body weight." It's part luck and part practice. My genetics are decent (my immediate family includes both thin and obese members), but I've also made a strong effort to develop good diet and exercise habits throughout my life.

It's not myself I'm standing up for here. I've never felt particular venom directed at me for my size, as I'm not extreme in any direction.

I'm standing up for the very thin, from the lingerie models to the anorexic.

I'm having a hard time grasping how in a society where it's risqué to refer to a clinically obese person as "fat," it's OK to look at an especially thin woman and openly recoil in horror. To overtly voice one's utter disgust in no uncertain terms.

I don't understand how the same people who stand up for the dignity of the overweight can so openly spit upon that of the underweight.

I do understand that this is backlash from discrimination and derision against the overweight. I understand that our culture, both through putting the ultra-thin on a pedestal and trying to sell the overweight a diet plan, has caused damage to the collective psyche of women across the board: skinny, fat, and (especially) in between.

That does not make it OK to rail against people with physical or psychological problems that cause them to be underweight.

It does not make it OK to spew hate at women who have chosen to work hard at sculpting their bodies according to societal ideals.

I don't even think it makes it OK to make fun of people who are just born with a fast metabolism. We will, of course. Having a perfect body naturally is like being born rich. We all kind of hate you, even if we know we shouldn't.

Before you openly talk shit about skinny women, I'd like to remind you of a few things.

  • People can be naturally underweight just like they can be naturally overweight. You can't talk about your thyroid problem out of one side of your mouth and make assumptions about a thin person being bulimic out the other.
  • Anorexia and bulimia are serious psychological disorders. They are diseases in the same way that alcoholism is a disease. If you wouldn't insult the depressed, the schizophrenic, the bipolar, or the alcoholic, don't insult the anorexic or bulimic.
  • "It's harder for a thin person to gain weight than for a heavy person to lose it." I'm putting that in quotes because I don't have a source or statistics for it, but it's something I've always heard. If anyone has a good article about this, please share it in the comments.

I understand that we want to give women who aren't size 2's their power back. We want to take back our pride in our bodies and the respect for "real women." If you want to fight someone, fight corporations who use rail-thin models. Fight people who discriminate against the overweight. Fight people who yell insults to heavy women on the street. But don't turn into that guy yourself. Yelling "Eat a sandwich" is just as bad as yelling "Moo."

Photo from here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The value of improvisation

I've been reflecting on my teaching style as I consider job searching out here in my new home. Since I've only worked independently before, I was always able to teach my way, and now that I'm considering other options, I have to reflect on how much of my way is negotiable. Stumbling across this interview with Amber Richard, where she strongly touts improvisation as a means of discovering your personal style, brought the issue home for me, and I knew I had to write about improvisation in dance.

My teaching has always focused on improvisation. There are a lot of reasons for this.

I believe that the best and safest way for a student to learn tricks and transitions is "organically." That is, I can explain to you where to put your hands and how to distribute your weight all day, but if you get swept up in the music and discover a move yourself, it's going to be 1000% more solid than if you learned it by explanation or imitation.

I've been pole dancing since way back when it was more closely tied to the exotic dance industry, so improvisation is a way to pay homage to the strippers and gogo dancers, who improvise every time they go onstage. Because there's no way of knowing what song is going to play, who else is going to be onstage and in your way, where the customers are sitting, whether the pole will be covered in lotion, or dozens of other variables. So I had my students improvise much in the same way I wouldn't let them use the bottoms of their feet-- for "authenticity."

And most importantly, I always, always knew that every dancer has a unique style, a personal interpretation of the art form, and you'll never discover yours by my telling you how to move when. When you improvise, your subconscious takes over and your body finds its own way to dance-- a way that is entirely you.

I've taught more private students than anything else. I concentrate most of the lesson on learning tricks. Whatever the student has been working on, or whatever they're ready to progress on to, switching when one of their body parts becomes too sore from fatigue or pole burn and its time to move to another. And then, for the end of class, assuming the student isn't already too fatigued, I dim the lights, put on a great song, and let them improvise.

I often will advise on handy sequences, but I've never worked (or trained) anywhere that required me to teach (or learn) a "routine" in a regular lesson. Obviously, preparing for a performance or competition or learning a "solo" (in aerial terms) is another matter. But I'm just talking about a normal, day-to-day pole class. The concept of a rote routine to me seems foreign to the art of pole. Like it's something that's been imported from gyms, and other forms of dance, where dancers are expected to perform in ensemble. Pole is a rare form of dance in which you rarely see synchronization. In fact, you rarely see more than one performer at once, and if so, it's usually two. It is extremely individual. It can always draw from jazz and ballet, but will never be like them. A stage full of pole dancers moving in unison is certainly feasible and occasionally executed, but it is more of a gimmick than a trend.

I imagine some stricter teachers might gasp at the idea of letting inexperienced dancers improvise. "They'll hurt themselves without my guidance!" But I think the opposite is true. I'd rather my students execute their repertoire at their own pace than try to keep up with a routine they probably don't fully grasp. I'd rather them have a chance to (and learn how to!!!) "B.S." for a little while (ie, dance conservatively to stall for time) if they need to catch their breath or wait for their sweat to dry before jumping into something they might not be experienced enough to get out of if something goes wrong. Of course we all, for both health and legal reasons, tout "listen to your body" all day long. But I find people are more likely to listen to their bodies when they can listen at their own tempo.

I have my own favorite pole dancing songs, but a private student bringing their own song is even better. Not only are they inspired by the music and familiar with its structure, but they will quickly learn the lesson of "overdoing it." It's easy to get excited, run out of breath, and sweat too much to execute a shoulder mount when your favorite song is playing. But the ability to both pace yourself and recover from over-extension is what separates the men from the boys in pole, and I want my students to be on that page from the beginning.

If I'm working at a place where I'm required to choreograph routines, I do it. It's good for me, both in terms of choreography (since I don't compete, I don't have to design too many solos) and for learning how to simplify for beginners (since I sometimes get carried away and choreograph what my brain wants to do and not what a novice is capable of). But my favorite thing to do is to say, "OK, here's a song you know, here are 5 moves you know. The rest is up to you."

Put on your pole outfit and your favorite song. The rest is up to you.

Photo of Amber Richard from Midwest Pole Dancing Competition.