Sunday, June 23, 2013

Authenticity in pole (and circus)

When I first started poling over 9 years ago, the art form was pretty attached to its exotic roots. Sheila Kelley wrote about learning to dance in a club and taught moves called "pelvic grind" and "hump." The first hardcore poling video, Pantera's Poletricks 101, had shots of the instructor unabashedly topless. Poles were 50mm and brass where affordable, because that was the standard in gentlemen's clubs. Dancing in shoes was the norm. Pole fitness classes prided themselves on having "real strippers" as instructors. Which made sense, after all--almost any industry wants its instructors to have real world experience in the field, especially full-time professional success. (See also The precarious ties between pole dance and stripping.)

But almost none of the women in those classes were trying to become exotic dancers, so why did we bind ourselves to their rules? Why did we need to use the same poles as they did, when our handymen could have installed any size and finish pole we wanted (back when it was normal for studios to have "homemade" poles, before mass-produced poles for the home became so popular). Why did people like me who trip over their own feet dance in 5 inch heels?

It was never about prepping for the "real world" of exotic dance. Rather, there was a sense of authenticity to the origins of the art form. A tango singer learns to sing in Spanish, even if it's not their first language, to be authentic. They would want ideally to study in Argentina or at least with an Argentinian teacher, in order to absorb the nuances of that authentic style. Likewise, a poler learned the vocabulary of the exotic dancer, and learned from the dancers themselves.

Today we still have a sense of authenticity, but the focus has shifted. Instead of using the clubs as our default concept, we use competitions. We learn on 45mm poles, both spinning and static, because those are the current norms for competitions. We dance barefoot most of the time. Our artistic role models have shifted from the house girl in the club to champions whose names and faces and signature moves we know. We want our instructors to be title holders, and beat down the doors to take workshops from them.

And likewise, most people taking these classes aren't prepping for world-class competition--most don't end up entering even regional competitions. Most pole students today don't aspire to careers as competitive polers any more than students yesterday aspired to careers as lap dancers. (Many want to try out a local comp or showcase, but in this analogy that's more the equivalent of doing an amateur night at the local tittie venue.) But we still have this sense of authenticity. We do things a certain way to conform to an unspoken set of external standards.

I don't decry this loyalty to a relatively arbitrary ideal. I think it's good to have some sort of baseline. It helps centralize the art, so we can have things like a shared vocabulary, safety standards, and the mobility to move from one studio, competition, or even country to another and still know generally what to expect. But I want to remind us on an individual level not to over-conform. If you're not prepping for competitions and you know a 50mm works better on your body, by all means buy that and train on it! If you dance better in heels, wear the damn heels!

I find it ironic that years ago we wanted strippers as instructors, and nowadays people look down on strippers as instructors--whether or not they have teaching skills. At the same time, we covet competition winners as instructors--whether or not they have teaching skills. Years ago we imitated moves like let splays and cat pounces--whether or not they suited our tastes and our bodies. Today we imitate moves like Allegras and iron X's--whether or not they suit our tastes and our bodies.

I'm less involved in other aerial arts these days so I can't say as much about their development in recent years, but I can say that when I was a student at Firefly/NYCAA, one of the first instructors was an old Russian man who had lived his life as a flyer in a traveling circus in Eastern Europe. Now that aerial acrobatics has been popularized to the point that hip young instructors are in no short supply and cirque nouveau is the norm, you see more people wanting to train with ex-Cirque du Soleil members and NECCA graduates than old school touring acts. As with pole, this has something to do with supply--there are more skilled polers (doing harder things) from outside the adult industry now, and there are more skilled aerialists (doing harder things) that didn't grow up on a circus train. But there is also a shifted sense of what is considered "the real deal."

If you wanted to be an exotic dancer 10 years ago, you had to get used to 50mm poles and dancing in shoes. If you want to be a competitor today, you have to master both spin and static, aerial and floor. If you don't? You don't have to force yourself. And you don't have to follow the masses to the latest "flavor of the month" move. It's nice to be authentic to the sanctioned standards, but it's most important to be true to yourself.

Image from

Monday, June 17, 2013

Studio Review: Boston Pole Fitness, Allston MA

There are only a few studios in the Boston area I can get to without a car, but I've been chipping away at them.

I had wanted to go to Boston Pole Fitness for awhile, but it's not really in Boston. It's in Allston, which is in Boston like Queens is in NY. Technically yes. Technically. But nowhere near my commuter rail terminus. Fortunately they have a pretty generous schedule, so booking a weekend afternoon class wasn't a problem.

What I really would have liked would have been to take an open pole. I'd heard they had the highest ceilings in town, and I hadn't been on a good tall pole since teaching at CircEsteem last summer. But they didn't have open pole--they list something called "polegression' which sounds like the right idea, but the class wasn't running over the weekend. Otherwise what looked like the most advanced class was "Pole Combos," which was listed for intermediate and advanced with the prerequisite of being able to invert. The instructor was Shelly Ann, who was not someone I knew, and I like meeting new people, so I'm in!

Boston Pole Fitness is on an industrial-looking side street in Allston, and if you didn't know the address you'd miss it. There's just a piece of paper taped to a door with their name and logo on it.

There wasn't a dedicated door person, but a helpful student who didn't work there but knew where they kept the waivers took my form and pointed me towards the changing room.

The changing room is on the second floor and true story: there's a bedroom up there. Like, a room with a bed and an end table. There was no bedding and it was clear that no one was living there, but maybe someone intends to live there, or they'll keep visiting instructors there, or...? That one was a first for me, though. (Unless you count Torrent in Philly where the studio is basically run out of the first floor of this building where the owners all live.)

The pole room was darkened, even while the class before mine was taking place. The lights were largely off, which I'm not sure is for atmosphere or to beat the heat. It was a warm enough day that you'd have to worry about sweat more than cold poles. The instructor came out to reception afterwards to see who would be in class and recognized me from Facebook.

The room was layed out strangely, and you couldn't really tell where the front was and where the back was, so I chose a pole near the bathroom because I always have to refill my water bottle. The ceilings were around 15 feet--I feel like I had been told 20 at some point, but 15 is plenty. :) I believe all the poles were 45mm. I'm hesitant about thin poles on such a tall ceiling, but they were permanently attached and seemed reasonably sturdy. I'm not sure if the poles were homemade (probably?), but they didn't have a spin function.

Students trickled in slowly and stretched on yoga mats. I think some people brought them from home, although they had a big stack of them against the wall, along with spray bottles of rubbing alcohol and rags for cleaning the pole and a grab bag of grip aids. (Oh yeah, fun story--the reception desk not only sells merch and Dry Hands, but Cramer's! I wonder how much they were selling them for. Cramer's is too grippy for most pole work but I like to have it for "emergencies," like "if my knee slips I will fall to my death" types of situations.)

My pole wasn't super grippy to begin with, but after a wipe down with rubbing alcohol it was happy. I started out with Corn Huskers on, which was good enough, but added Dry Hands when I got sweaty.

We started out with a warm-up that was conditioning-heavy, including plenty of ab work and even some booty cheek isolations, which is not really something I do (I'm not against sexy pole but we all draw the line somewhere), but I played along.

We warmed up the pole with spins, specifically reverse grab (which is also not really something I do, but I'm happy to report that all the students I saw were using both hands--no shoulder danger here!) and corkscrew (which is one of my favorites). Shelly Ann had us do different leg variations on corkscrew, and I got carried away and maybe left half my armpit skin on a pole in Allston, but I looked pretty doing it!

Then Shelly Ann started giving us a pole sequence, and it was lloooonnnnngg! I never got all the way through it because about 10 moves in was an aerial shoulder inversion and by the time I got to that point I was too sweaty to shoulder invert (it was a humid day). There were some moves that I know but never really use, like flatline Scorpio and Allegra, so it's good that I was forced to practice those as part of the sequence.

We weren't run through the sequence in sync like a routine, but rather just given the list of moves and left to work at our own pace. The first few moves were mostly towards the ground and beginners were told to stick to those. Shelly Ann didn't demonstrate a ton, but that was because she was about to have a photo shoot and was trying in vain to keep her hair and make-up intact. She did demo things when asked, and there was one combo we tried later (Jamilla/Apprentice to Extended Butterfly to Box Splits) that she had me demo.

By far my favorite thing about the class was the other students. I had more than one person come up to me and ask me for help with a move. That the students are eager to learn from each other says a lot about the culture of a studio. When you have a competitive environment, students don't want to ask each other for help because it feels hierarchical--like you're admitting that person is better than you. When you have a cooperative environment, students are happy not only to help each other, but to ask for help without feeling threatened. So when I see this kind of openness I take it as a sign of a healthy environment.

At the end of class we were giving a song to freestyle too. A few people were too tired, but I think most people attempted to dance or at least practice a few tricks. I did my best to dance and trick out but I was a sweaty mess by then.

Before we left, Shelly Ann announced the studio challenge of the week, which is this really cute thing they do where they have a move of the week and everyone's supposed to take a picture of themselves doing it and post it to Facebook or Instagram. The move of the week was the Marley (an innocent-looking enough move on which I once hurt myself pretty good several years ago). I knew the move so I threw one off and a nice student in a cute dress offered to take a picture of me, resulting in the above. Pippi's Tips: If you don't have a nice back arch, smile and wear pigtails and hope nobody notices!!

Oh, the instructor also encouraged students to attend or compete in the SuperShag competition/showcase (see Event Review: SuperShag's Pole Fitness Invitational Championships and Showcase). Another good sign of a healthy community, as this competition is run by another local studio who could be considered direct business competition with this one (see Studio Review: SuperShag, Charlestown MA).

As people started trickling out, some didn't. A few people stayed behind to chat or practice. Some students were even staying for the next class, and they and the instructor encouraged me to do the same. I guess if there are enough open spots, students are welcome to stick around for another class. I said no no no, I was tired and sweaty and needed to get back to Salem, but it was nice of them to invite me. :) I did take time to linger and practice some stuff I'd been working on once my sweat dried. The pole was so nice and grippy (between the heat/humidity, grip aids, and me climbing all over it for 75 minutes) I just had to take advantage!

One drawback about the studio: no mirrors. Not that you should rely on them (you don't get mirrors in performance or competition) but I like to check my position on things like flagpoles and iron Xs to make sure I'm straight.

Anyways, I'm a self-teacher by nature and will continue to spend most of my training time at home, but I would like to go back to Boston Pole Fitness some time, especially for an open workout or something.

Boston Pole Fitness
Equipment: 13 15' 45mm static poles, chrome I think? Brand unknown.
Amenities: Pole room, dressing room, bedroom (?), lounge, reception with merch
Drop-in price: $25

Image of Pippi doing a Marley taken by a nice student, image of BPF reception by Pippi

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The stages of learning

When I was a teen I would try to cook by following recipes and measuring my ingredients with teaspoons and my mom would look over my shoulder and scold me. "You don't have to measure everything! It's not an exact science!" This would just annoy me, and I don't want to overanalyse and say it's why I ended up going through most of my life not cooking, but that's what happened.

I've been reading a book about agile software development because I'm totally not a nerd at all, and the author makes lots of references to ShuHaRi, the stages of learning (from a martial arts perspective, but applicable to software development and aerial acrobatics and everything else).
Shu: Beginner, "obey." Rigid conformity to rules.
Ha: Intermediate, "digress." Coming into your own.
Ri: Master, "transcend." You don't need the rules. You are making the rules.

This reminded me of my own journeys in silks (as a student) and pole (as a teacher). Most of my silks career has been spent in Shu. I like someone to tell me the exact sequence of moves to perform. The steps to a move, the moves in a combo, the combos in a routine. My training partner once tried to make me improvise, and even after so many years of having trained in silks, I was like, "Um, no. Just no."

On the other hand, I've spent most of my pole career in some form of advanced stage--not because I'm that great, but because I've been doing it since before there were so many masters like we have today, and what "advanced" means has truly evolved. (Anyone who's been in the industry for more than a couple years knows exactly what I mean.) I was so used to improvising and inventing my own moves that performing a step-by-step routine choreographed by someone else seemed, well, naive.

And yet I quickly became a teacher, and being a teacher, especially in such a young, growing art form, means teaching beginners. And while I always tried to instill the fundamentals of improvisation and making a move your own, beginners like routines. They like step-by-step instructions. They like do's and don'ts, sequenced information, and, when you come down to it, a way to evaluate whether or not they're "doing it right."

It's easy for the advanced artists who often become teachers to scoff at the beginner's lust for rigidity. But we have to respect the fact that someone who doesn't know the difference between cinnamon and cumin doesn't know how to "eyeball it." Not in cooking and not in dancing. It takes time for the feel to develop of what is the right and wrong pose and pace. And it takes much, much longer to understand when "right" and "wrong" and nothing of the sort.

Hence you have advanced polers who feel condescended to by teachers who try to get them to conform to routines, and beginners who get awkward fits of the giggles when asked to improvise. And both teachers and students who are convinced that one or the other way is "right." When, in reality, it's not the method that's right or wrong, it's the time.

Am I saying that beginners should always follow step-by-step instructions and advanced artists should always pave their own ways? Well, no. Maybe if I had been guided towards creativity when I was a beginner silks student, improvising wouldn't have felt so awkward when I was more advanced. I might not ask less experienced students to improvise a routine, but I do try to guide them in finding and embracing their own touches. And on the other hand, advanced dancers can benefit from experimenting with someone else's choreography. Learning another dancer's vocabulary can break you out of the rut of always falling into the same transitions and sequences.

Whatever your personal preference, it's about respecting what others need at this moment in their journey. Teachers who are driven by individuality should understand that beginners need more granular benchmarks to measure their progress. Teachers who prefer to have all their ducks in a row should understand that advanced artists often have a good idea of what works for their bodies and what is uncomfortable or awkward. And while a student should respect a teacher's progression, a good teacher must respect where the student is today.

Photo from Hope no one takes offense--I know most of us aren't strippers, but I thought you'd get a laugh out of it!