Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pole, where is thy audience?

I sang a Brahms Requiem this past weekend, and the best part (the fast, firey part) shouts at its center, "Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?" "Death, where is thy sting?"

Maybe it's just these words floating around in my head that make me ask: "Pole, where is thy audience?"

Pole is a tiny, tiny, tiny community. I've been a part of many discourse groups over my lifetime, and some of them are pretty compact. Circus is pretty intimate, and pole is, in the grand scheme of things, microscopic.

And yet our industry, on the surface, appears to be thriving. Pole studios are springing up worldwide, organizations are forming and formalizing, publications are found on newsstands, and enough people are now aware of pole fitness as an activity separate from exotic dance that most of us can say what we do and raise interest, not eyebrows. We have been here long enough, and have experienced enough growth both as an industry and as an art form, that we have proven ourselves to be Not A Fad.

Underneath the surface? Things continue to improve, but there are still some fundamental difficulties that we have yet to overcome. World-class polers that leave us starstruck are almost entirely unknown beyond our ranks. (My non-aerial Facebook friends will occasionally post a YouTube video of Jenyne Butterfly or Felix Cane, but without any recognition for the person behind the "wow pole dancing is hard" act.) Respected competitions are often held in dingy hotel conference halls, rather than in theaters and arenas. And most instructors are lucky if they break even on their pole investments. Even the best of the best earn most of their income traveling around teaching workshops, even if their teaching is not up to par with their breathtaking performances.

Clearly this lack of profitability just goes to show how truly we love our art. But does it have to be this way?

I am a classical singer. I sing in operas and concerts and churches. Most of my non-poling friends are also opera singers. We like to go to the opera sometimes. We might participate in or watch the occasional masterclass. We buy CD's and videos, especially featuring roles we hope to learn and idols we hope to emulate.

But we are not the audience.

The audience is opera buffs, theater lovers, patrons of the arts, cultured members of society, music fans. We opera singers and other professional musicians, we might be in the audience. But we are not its backbone.

Opera is widely known as the most expensive art form to produce. You have a full-fledged live theater production, a full-sized professional orchestra, a full-sized adult (and maybe also children's) chorus, possibly a troupe of professional dancers, and very, very, very specialized soloists, and all their understudies, because the tiniest cold or allergy attack can knock a singer out of the production. All these elements come together to rehearse for (hopefully) months, to produce a spectacle that will only be performed a handful of times.

Can you imagine if the only audience was only other opera singers? Where would the money come from? We are starving artists! Who would fill the thousand-seat opera houses? We are busy, we have rehearsals for our own productions!

Think of the worldwide popularity of soccer (or football, if you want to pretend you don't know what "soccer" means). Arenas are filled. Fans are screaming. People are killing each other over team rivalries, for christ's sake! I mean, I'm not saying that's good, but what I am saying is: what if the only people who watched soccer were other soccer players? Gone are the fans. Gone are the arenas. Gone is the swelling of national pride.

Gone is the money. Gone is the organization. Gone is the funding for athletics-centered research.  Gone are the careers of everyone in the industry, and the perfection that comes with being able to focus on what you love full-time, instead of as a hobby.

Who goes to pole conferences, competitions, and performances? Other polers. Maybe friends and spouses of the performers, but mostly, it's us. The teachers, and more enthusiastic students (and self-teachers), of pole fitness.

Why is that?

Well, one reason is that we are a good client base. Pole is a relatively expensive hobby, and people who go into it tend to have enough expendable income to attend workshops and buy products. We are an extremely supportive and enthusiastic audience, and a practitioner of an art can always appreciate minutiae of a performance that escapes the layperson. Polers like watching polers, and polers like polers to be in the audience.

But if we remain this insular, we have little room to grow. We are like an isolationist nation which has nowhere to turn when drought or famine strikes.

A more deeply-rooted cause of our seclusion is our increasingly distant but ever-undeniable relationship to the adult entertainment industry. That relationship might be something like second cousin twice removed, but we come from the same blood. This isn't a problem for us: most polers respect and admire strippers, and the strippers I know respect and admire fitness polers. But we, the pole community, tend to use our lack of public performance as a way to draw the line between poling and exotic dancing. (After all, not all exotic dancing involves nudity, so you can't just use the "I have clothes on" argument.) Oh, we're not "exotic dancing," we're just taking classes. Oh, she's not a stripper, she does pole competitions. In fact, some amateur polers defend their hobby with the explanation, "I don't perform in public or anything."

The biggest hurdle is behind us. We've gotten the public to understand that pole fitness is not stripping. It took years, but the message finally got (mostly) through. If we can do that, we can make them understand that pole performance doesn't have to mean exotic dancing, either. It's another genre, in another venue. A singer singing in a classical style in a heavy costume in an opera house is an opera singer. A singer singing in a dark nightclub in front of a rhythm section with upright bass, using a modern, belty and improvisational singing style in a slinky gown, is a jazz singer. They're both singing in public, but you're not going to confuse the two.

Finally, maybe the reason we have no audience is because we haven't invited them. While we appreciate stumbling across pole stories in the media, we aren't out there creating our own headlines. Without outreach like televised pole competitions, running shows in theaters to advertise, and our stars being interviewed on The Daily Show, we have no public presence. Pole is strikingly visual, hauntingly beautiful. It seems odd that those visuals would be so unknown to the world.

Have you heard of the concept of an "echo chamber" in media? It's sort of like what the news networks do. They report on a story, and then report that everyone's reporting on it, and then they have to keep reporting on it because how can they ignore such a big story that everyone's talking about? This concept applies even more aptly to smaller discourse communities like our own. We bounce names, stories, products, incidents, moves off each other via forums, blogs, Facebook, and our newfound publications. These things then seem famous, because we're all talking about them. But it's just us talking to each other. Our voices don't permeate beyond the walls of our echo chamber.

In contrast, I learned more traditional aerial acrobatics alongside my pole education. Circus comes from the opposite perspective. People have been crowding circus tents for generations. When the circus came to our grandparents' towns, it was like Christmas. Today, Cirque du Soleil generates over 800 million dollars every year. How much must they make in merchandise alone? They are just one of many cirque nouveau companies producing shows to rave reviews. And they took what could have been considered a dying, outdated art form--circus--and brought joy to millions. Joy and jobs.

We have so much to offer. Our art is ripe for public picking. We have jaw-dropping, death-defying, scandalously sexy, achingly beautiful, human art. A light that we hide under a bushel. I guess I'm ending this post the same way I began it, with a Bible verse. (Ironically, I am not Christian.) I always liked the way this verse was paraphrased in Godspell: "But if that light's under a bushel, it's lost somethin' kinda crucial!"

So let your light so shine before men.

What do you think? Do you prefer the intimacy of our community, or would you prefer a wider audience for what we do?

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