Monday, 13 February 2012

On being a feminist and a pole dancer

I am a feminist. And a pole dancer. To many people, this statement may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but it's not. It may be a little tricky to explain, and a little different from the standard views of what feminism is all about, but nonetheless, it is possible to be a feminist pole dancer. It's a topic I've dwelt on for a long time now, and I think I'm finally ready to share my views. Deep breath. 

I first began to think about the happy coexistence of my feminism and pole dancing about a year ago, when a local newspaper did a story on my studio. The article focused on a competition I was about to compete in, and on how pole dance was becoming more popular as a form of fitness. The article was accompanied by photos of me doing my thing on the pole. A few weeks later, there was an article in another newspaper about a Lynx publicity stunt involving bikini-clad girls in hot tubs in the city (or something like that). Under the article, there was the following reader comment:

"ah yes...objecting to women's being objectifed because we're 'just jealous'.
Just the other week there was an article in the Wenworth Courier about a woman named Michelle Shimmy who teaches pole dancing and has recently won a competition in this art. There were numerous pictures of her in a skimpy costume performing some fairly graphic moves on a pole.
The article also stated that she was a full time lawyer when not teaching or performing pole dancing.
I just don't know what to think about this. I am so confused, and for some reason I could not just let it go, it;s been bugging me....of course, because I am a lawyer too, friends said I had problems with it because I can't also turn men on and am not a pretty girl doing crazy sexy pole dancing, "Just jealous", If she had been doing those same moves in a gynmastics competition in a leotard I think I would have been utterly awestruck but somehow, seeing her in a sequin bikini and the whole 'I'm a lawyer too!' thing seemed impossibly cheap and nasty, despite the skill involved. Whether you like it or not pole dancing's origins are in the sexual titilation field. Anyway I admit to having been very conflicted over this piece of news.
woman | "

Reading this comment surprised me for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the writer uses me as an example to back up her arguments about what "objectification of women" means, in her view. Even though she's never taken one of my classes, never been to one of my shows, or even met me (as far as I'm aware). 

The next thing that struck me about her comment was her obvious confusion and inability to process what she sees as two conflicting and mutually exclusive types of people: the lawyer and the pole dancer. In other words, lawyer = good, moral person, pole dancer = bad, immoral person. How can the two possibly coexist in one single being? Reading her comment, you can almost hear her brain straining as she tries to imagine such an oxymoron. 

The writer of the comment obviously found the sequined bikini offensive. Which made me wonder which part was more offensive, the sequins, or the bikini? She says that if I had have been wearing a gymnastics leotard, it would have been ok, and she would have been "awestruck." As rhythmic gymnasts' leotards are often sparkly and sequined, I assume that she must be ok with that. So is it the bikini? I wonder, how does she feel about female competitors in beach volleyball, or triathlons, or even female tennis players on hot days? Maybe it's the combination of the sparkles and the bikini that was too much for her.  I hope she doesn't live near Bondi Beach. Or Oxford Street. And for God's sake, keep her away from the streets of Rio de Janeiro at Carneval time! 

The next thing I found interesting was this: 
seeing her in a sequin bikini and the whole 'I'm a lawyer too!' thing seemed impossibly cheap and nasty, despite the skill involved.

Ouch... I still wince when I read that. At first, I wanted to interpret that to mean that in her view, the fact that I'm a lawyer had cheapened the otherwise beautiful display of dance and art for her. But I know that it was the other way around. In her eyes, pole dancers are cheap and nasty, but lawyers aren't (even though I'm sure many people out there would disagree with that!).

Ahem. Lawyers vs pole dancers. Let me put it this way: over the years I have met many pole dancers, male and female (but mostly female), who have inspired me with their dedication, support for each other, strength, passion, grace, beauty and plain old commitment to hard work, in spite of the pain and the injuries. I can't say the same for most of the lawyers I have met (no offence to the good ones I know!).  

Finally, her comment that:
Whether you like it or not pole dancing's origins are in the sexual titilation field. Anyway I admit to having been very conflicted over this piece of news.

As a matter of fact, I do like it that the origins of pole dancing are in the "sexual titilation field" (sic). I have no problem with the sensuality or even sexuality common to many pole dance performances, for the same reason I don't see a problem with belly dance, tango, samba, salsa, zouk, contemporary dance, burlesque etc. They are all expressions of human emotion and feeling, and as a lover of dance and performance, I love it all. I think if anyone were to suggest that tango was disgusting because of its origins, or because of its blatant sensuality, they would be laughed at. I have always wondered, would pole dance be less offensive to its decriers if the same moves were performed by a man and a woman together, as in adagio? Or a man on his own? If so, is the real reason why it makes some people so uncomfortable is that it's a woman expressing sensuality on her own? 

It would probably surprise the writer of the comment to learn that the overwhelming majority of attendees at pole dance competitions and performances are women. The men who are there are usually the partners of the women coming to watch. Of course, some men go on their own or with their mates, either out of interest, or to enjoy watching a woman dance on a pole in a skimpy outfit. But, writer of the comment, before you cry "A-ha! I knew it! See, men enjoy watching pole dancing, therefore it must objectify women and be bad!", let me point out that no one tries to use that argument about trapeze artists, gymnasts, contortionists, or contemporary dancers. A recent Sydney Dance Company production had its performers dancing in skin-coloured costumes that made them look naked. You didn't see the audience shuffling in from a dimly lit side entrance, embarrassed to look at each other. In that context, it seems it's perfectly fine to admit that you enjoy watching a toned and sculpted body dance onstage for your pleasure. Because it's art. So that makes it ok to look, and to admit that you like what you see. 

The fact that heterosexual men may enjoy watching a pole dance performance I give for its sex factor doesn't bother me. Same as it hasn't bothered me when I've performed for a lesbian crowd. I don't think there is anything wrong with human sexuality or sensuality, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying watching expressions of human sexuality and sensuality on stage. No one is forcing me or my fellow pole dancers to do what we do - we enjoy it and we enjoy the fact that other people enjoy it. In any event, after pretty well every single performance I have ever done, the comments I've received afterwards from male members of the audience are mostly about how much strength we pole dancers must have to be able to do what we do (mostly ;-) ).

But sensual pole dance is only one style of pole dance. There are many others - circus, acro, tricks based, contemporary, lyrical, theatrical... you are limited only by your imagination (which is quite limiting for some people, it seems).  

As for her claim that pole dancing objectifies women and therefore women should not pole dance, this is not the first time that I've been confronted with this argument. I've given it a fair amount of thought, to try to identify more clearly why it is that this argument bothers me so much.

And I've finally figured it out: if you can't watch a display of athleticism, strength, flexibility and sensuality without perceiving the dancer as an object, then you're the one with the problem, not us. We don't need to stop what we're doing because it makes you face your own views of what "good girls" should and shouldn't do, or because it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you don't like it, don't watch it. That's fine. But if you haven't watched it or tried it, then maybe you shouldn't be judging it, or us.

For me, feminism is about empowering women to be free in our choices of what we want to do with our lives, and how we want to express ourselves. It's not about telling other women what they can and can't do. There may well be situations where for some women, pole dance is inextricably linked with stripping, which for them is oppressive. However, there are plenty of women who pole dance and even strip out of their own free will, and enjoy it. We should be focusing our efforts fighting the agents that create situations of oppression for women, rather than an activity that many people healthily enjoy for many different reasons.  

A final comment: it is very rare for female strength to be celebrated. Most girls and women just want to be thin, and think that that is the only way to be attractive. Pole dance requires a phenomenal amount of strength, flexibility, stamina and endurance. Let's recognise pole dancers for their skill and ability, and stop putting them down. It's pretty clear to me that the people who claim to have moral objections to pole dance need to examine more closely their own hang-ups and views about what women should and shouldn't do.

Rant over. Ahhhh..... That feels better :-)

Shimmy xx


  1. Wait wait wait. If her main problem is the sequined bikini, and if a leotard would be fine, maybe she's just allergic to good taste? :\

  2. Right! What's not to love about a sequined bikini! ;-)

  3. I think it's great that women have commandeered something that used to be simply for men's erotic pleasure and turned it into an art form and athletic competition.

    When I first saw competition videos, I was reminded of Cirque du Soleil. Now that I have seen enough to appreciate the skill involved in different tricks, I think also of gymnastics or diving, where the performance is judged on execution and level of difficulty.

    Some of the dancing is erotic; so is much of the most respected art. If I were looking for erotic thrills, though, I would be downloading something other than pole dancing videos!

  4. Thank you for putting this so succinctly Shimmy. It was such a joy to read. I really hope the writer of that comment discovers your blog post online!

  5. To compare a person on their occupation in the first place is beyond ridiculous. How can you honestly judge a person based on their line of work. What does it matter being a lawyer and a pole dancer too? I'm an electrician and I pole dance, the two are nothing of the same and I enjoy both. This writer is surprised to find that women that pole dance have brains also? That makes me quite annoyed.

  6. Brilliantly articulated piece, congratulations!!!!!
    Will be copying and sharing and posting to all and sundry!!

    Well done...................

  7. "And I've finally figured it out: if you can't watch a display of athleticism, strength, flexibility and sensuality without perceiving the dancer as an object, then you're the one with the problem, not us." - Beautifully articulated. And I couldn't agree more.

    As for the lawyer with the comment: My first thought was that lawyers are supposed to be critical thinkers with excellent logic with analytical skills, and I think she undermined herself significantly by allowing everyone else to see that she engaged none of those skills when writing that comment about you. To be honest, she could have been talking about anything whether provocative or not, and I would have had the same impression. I simply could not hire and trust someone who can't think and articulate more clearly than she did.

    On that same note, I see more and more women of all kinds of professions engaging in poling, acrobatics, aerials, and hoop dance, among other things, and I have noticed that we are all mostly very determined, intelligent, committed, and sincere individuals who set the bar high for ourselves in multiple areas of our lives. I think that speaks volumes, regardless of whether or not someone is taking their clothes off.

  8. I am so happy to have found your response to this line of thinking! I have been faced with this before and can never word it as well as you have!! Great job!

  9. Love this! In our annual roast some of my residents (what we call doctors in training in the US) put up a pole photo of me in front of the whole department! They (and I) thought it was great but I could see several of my older colleagues shaking their heads in disapproval. Interesting enough, it was the older female colleagues who seemed to have a problem. Not all of them though--several came up to me afterward and asked where they could take classes! :)

  10. The one topic you haven't really addressed is that stripping is often a form and symptom of oppression/objectification and pole dancing most definitely copies it. In a sense, you, a privileged female lawyer are performing an art based on a way of living for mostly underprivileged women.

    Many underprivileged woman are coerced into stripping and no, they are not treated well. If you are performing art based on this reality as a privileged woman, is this not demeaning?

  11. I don't think the argument "feminism is about having the freedom to choose to be objectified" helps to advance feminism.

  12. @Unknown and @Brendog So a woman is either A) feminist who finds anything previously associated with female oppression (read: kitchens, wombs, poles) troubling and relegated somewhere where interest in using these things magically vanish forever or B) a pole-dancing, sequins-wearing trashy girl who MUST be joking if she insists she actually read that many books to become a lawyer? Girls as lawyers, WHAT?! Phew, ok well if she has one of those brain things then, she must be ironically pole-dancing to poke jokes at women who are forced into sexual objectification because chicks with smarts couldn't possibly simply enjoy challenging their body with a fun exercise.

    How about just C) a woman with varied interests.

    Life is not black and white, you can't put everything into tidy boxes or kitchens or strip clubs. A woman belongs wherever the hell she wants to go. Great post, Michelle.

  13. I can see the point being made above about how underprivileged women may not have a choice and therefore it could be seen as "demeaning" to them to enjoy the act they so hate...

    but that is just ridiculous. There are women who are forced to be stereotypical house wives...but does that mean a woman should never ever chose to do that if she desires and enjoys it? There are women who are forced to go out and work by their husbands and would rather not..does that mean no woman should ever WANT to go out and work? There are women forced in to prostitution..and women who do it because THEY ENJOY IT.

    We fight the bad and support the good. We don't just throw something out entirely because SOMETIMES it can be used for bad.

    Plus if you had any intelligence you might actually realise that pole originated in the circus. Entertainers would dance around the tent poles. It was only in the second half of the century it became so heavily sexualised.
    And if you look elsewhere in the world there are identical/similar "sports" that have developed entirely separately of sexuality; Chinese Pole and Indian Mallakhamb for example.

    It's how you use it and what you do. I'm not going to give up something I love and enjoy which isn't hurting someone because POVERTY has driven someone to do it for a job and they don't enjoy it. Lets get to the root of the issues shall we? This case, POVERTY.

  14. it's such a relief reading this..thank you! :-) enough allready with this stupidity..

  15. Well done Michelle. Brilliant piece.

  16. I've just installed iStripper, and now I enjoy having the best virtual strippers on my taskbar.