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.

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