Monday, 23 April 2012

A Survivor's Guide to Pole Competitions

Everything you need to know to survive a pole competition... (and maybe even enjoy it)

Why am I doing this to myself??
You're sitting backstage in your sequinned bikini, waiting for your name to be called. You've broken out in a cold sweat all over your body - except for your palms, which are hot and sweaty. You apply another coat of Dry Hands. Now your hands are slimy. You wish they were as dry as your mouth, which is causing you problems swallowing.

You take a deep breath, realising that you are close to hyperventilating. You want to throw up. You start to question your sanity. You wonder whether your decision to enter a pole competition is actually a symptom of latent sado-masochism. Perhaps you should seek professional treatment. You wonder why in God's name you are putting yourself through this.

Then your name is called. You step onstage in to the bright lights, and hear the crowd roar. You hope that your muscle memory will carry you through the next 3-5 minutes, because you're pretty sure your brain won't be much use. You can hear the crowd cheering your name. You're doing it!

Then it's all over in a flash. You step off stage gasping for breath, staggering in your stripper heels, reaching for water as you collapse on the floor... You did it! And more than that - you want to go again!

Welcome to the roller coaster of emotions that is competitive pole dancing. It's pretty addictive.

Taking the plunge... Entering your first competition 
I remember in vivid detail the first time I entered a pole comp. I thought long and hard about it before entering. Was I ready? Would people laugh? Would my costume fall off? After a fair bit of agonising, I decided to do it.

It was Miss Pier Hotel, Amateur Division. I had a pink and leopard print bikini, some false eyelashes and my shoes (this was back in the old days when no one dreamed of performing pole barefoot). I packed my bag with everything I needed, shanghai-ed my friend Laura in to coming along to support me, and drove to the Pier Hotel.

As soon as we parked the car I began to experience heart palpitations, which only worsened when I walked in the door of the hotel. All I could see was a blur of fluorescent road-worker vests.

For those of you unfamiliar with the illustrious Miss Pier Hotel comp, let me explain. The venue is not the sort of place a self-respecting lady would usually go for a drink. Its customers are usually salt of the earth, bearded, tattooed, hard-drinking, hard-living characters. I was absolutely terrified.  I turned around so fast I nearly knocked my friend Laura over. But Laura stood firm - both literally and figuratively - she would not let me back out of the comp. She wanted to see me do my stuff.

So, I agreed, in spite of my rising anxiety at the thought of performing in front of this particular crowd. Here's a photo to give you an idea of how classy this venue is - check out the guys in the background. I should probably point out that this photo was not taken at my first comp - as you can see, by the time this pic was taken, I'd grown more comfortable in this environment ;-).

Anyway, I was absolutely terrified. But it was great. I had a blast. It all went just fine - the crowd loved it and I ended up winning my division. And I became addicted to competing from that moment on.

Competition Tips
1. Make a list 
In the weeks building up to the competition, make a list of all the things you think you might need on the day. Some essentials are:
- grip aids (put your name on them to avoid confusion backstage)
- costume (both pieces - top and bottom - seriously, double check that you have both pieces!)
- DOUBLE SIDED TAPE! Essential. The last thing you want to be worried about is whether you're giving the audience more than they paid for.
- music (check whether you need it on CD or iPod. If CD, bring two copies, with your name on them - just in case)
- stripper shoes if you're wearing them, and if not, a pair of thongs (or flip-flops for the Americans) to keep your feet clean before you go onstage if you're dancing barefoot
- baby wipes (to clean your feet, and wipe yourself down if you get a bit sweaty)
- make up for touch ups
- bottle of water and snacks
- a wheelie bag to put all your stuff in, maybe with a lock on it, if you're performing somewhere without a secure backstage area.  That way you can throw everything in your bag at the end of the night, lock it, and put it somewhere safe so you can go dance and celebrate the end of the competition.

2. Backstage étiquette

Try to avoid at all costs:
- Diva behaviour. That means no tantrums, no sulking, no hysterics - even if you have a disastrous performance and your costume falls off.
- Fighting with other contestants. Not cool.
- Attempts at "psyching out" other contestants by talking about how amazing your routine is. By the same token, don't lie and say you haven't rehearsed at all, and then bust out a phenomenal performance.
- Do not walk off-stage after your show and announce "THE POLE IS SO SLIPPERY!! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!"
- Ignoring other contestants when they try to talk to you.

Good behaviour:
- Being friendly, warm and respectful to other contestants.
- Sharing. If someone is in a panic and has forgotten their Dry Hands, offer to share yours.
- Wishing contestants good luck, and asking them how they went when they come off stage.

You're all in it together, so you may as well try to have as much fun as you can together on the night.

Announcements and Prize Giving
And now for the moment everyone has been waiting for... You're holding your breath, hoping your name will be called.

If it is called, be gracious in victory. You might want to avoid:
- fist pumping;
- hooting and hollering;
- show boating;
- over the top displays of excitement.

Even though you are justifiably over the moon at having won, be sensitive to the fact the other contestants onstage are probably feeling very disappointed. All your hard work has paid off, but all the others (who have probably worked just as hard) have just had their dreams crushed.

If you lose, take it with dignity. Don't be a sore loser. And wait til you get home before you start ranting about how you were robbed - even if you, your friends, your mum and your dad are all certain that you were ;-)

Some tips from the Pro's
I asked around a bit for some tips and helpful suggestions from some seasoned competitors. Here's what they had to say.

Amber Ray:
"Get some extra classes in before the comp in dance and gymnastics, don't just stick to pole. And practise your game face in front of a mirror, that alone can make or break a performance."

Hanka Venselaar
"Training is important...but it's even more important to listen to your body and take enough rest.... I found out the hard way..." (Hanka fell ill after training too hard for a competition).

Natasha Wang
"Finalize your routine choreography AT LEAST 3 weeks before the competition date so you can spend the last weeks running your routine over and over and over, with the last week in costume. These last few weeks are when you start baking in those important nuances, like facial expressions, emotion, storytelling, and when you perfect details such as making sure tricks are angled correctly to the audience, floor passes start and end on the correct parts of the stage, etc."

Marlo Fisken
"Make sure to choreograph time to just "be" in your routine. Moments of nothing are often the most beautiful, and many routines are too jam packed to let the natural flow come out.
Being on stage will often make you rush, so practice...."

Lolo Hilsum

"My advice is to do your choreography alone. Because the dance is one identity, some feelings, one personality. And it is very important to make a story. When I build my choreo, I have a lot of images in my mind and each movement has a meaning.  I was alone when I started pole dancing and I really do it for myself. So I didn't wish anything except to live my passion."

And my tips... (even though I admit that unfortunately I'm not always enough in control of my nerves to follow my own advice!)
I try to treat each competition like a performance, and to forget that there will be winners and losers at the end of the night. I figure that really, you're only competing with yourself, and I take each competition as an opportunity to train my bottom off. I'm always amazed at how much stronger and more flexible I feel after a competition, and that's why I do them.

When conceptualising and choreographing a routine, stay true to yourself and your own style. If you try to create a routine based on what you think the judges want, there's no guarantee that you'll win, and then you'll just have a performance that you didn't really believe in. Challenge yourself with a difficult routine, but if a move's not working, ditch it. Try to rest the day before the comp.

On the night, stretch really well before your performance. The adrenaline will make you feel stronger and more flexible, but you can still injure yourself if you don't warm up properly. When you're onstage, keep your facial expressions alive - don't go on robotic autopilot - and finish off every move before attempting the next one. In my experience, you have to put 150% effort in onstage for it to look like you're giving it 60%, so you really have to put your all in to it.

And finally... Enjoy it! You've worked so hard, you should take a second before you go on to congratulate yourself for all the effort you've put in. It's your moment - let yourself have some fun onstage!

And to finish...
Lastly, I wanted to share something that pole artist Timber Brown wrote. I think it accurately describes a competitor's final seconds before stepping onstage.

"The lights are warm. My hands tremble. I pray that they will do the same thing that they have done in the countless rehearsals that have depicted this moment so many times before. There are no guarantees. Will harmony find it's way into my life right now? That perfect place that is the crux of mind, body, and every external factor in between. I use my final two seconds to prepare for my five minutes of fame..." 

Gulp. Take a deep breath. It's your time to shine. 

Shimmy xx

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The War is Over! Make peace with your body.

I love my body. It's awesome. It does some amazing things. It's strong, bendy, and transports me wherever I need to go. Amazingly, it even heals itself, given enough time. There are a couple of things I would like it to do better, but I know that if I'm patient with it, feed it the right stuff, take care of it and treat it right, my body will improve on the things I want it to. I have a strong respect for my body, and a huge amount of gratitude that it lets me do so many of the crazy things I want it to.

These days, although there are definitely some things I would like to improve, I feel like my body is an old friend. I know everything about it, its strengths and weaknesses, and I love it the way it is. I feel like we've come so far together that anything else would be nothing more than disloyalty. I'm working on improving the things I want to change, but I don't beat myself up when I don't get the results that I wanted.

I know that it might seem easy for me to say these things. After all, I'm a professional pole dancer, and I train pretty much every single day. But I think that everyone accepts that for most women, there's pretty much no link between how your body looks and how you feel about it. It's always the women who seem to have it all who are the most insecure, right? It's easy to be harsher on yourself than you would ever be to anyone else. In fact, if you overheard a stranger saying out loud to another woman the things that you say to yourself about your own body, you'd be horrified. You'd probably even leap to the poor woman's defence. But I'm guessing you have no problem berating yourself for all your body's shortcomings, real or imaginary.

There's nothing wrong with setting goals and working towards them. I'm not talking about giving up on self-improvement altogether. Maybe you do need to lose weight, gain weight, exercise more, exercise less, or change your eating habits. I'm talking about curbing the self-hatred and disgust that we women seem to heap upon ourselves so readily. I'm talking about learning to respect and love your body for what it can do for you, and to begin taking care of it in the way it deserves.

As a pole instructor, I come into contact with women from all walks of life. When I first began teaching pole, one thing that surprised me was that the women who I thought were in great shape were the ones who were most likely to be unjustifiably mean to themselves. These are the women who refuse point-blank to wear shorts, because, they joke, they wouldn't want to inflict such a sight on the other women in the class. Then they begin to list all the things that are wrong with their bodies. Even though they're making jokes about it, I can always sense the pain and shame they feel. It makes me so sad.

But one of the most beautiful (even miraculous) things about pole is the liberating effect it has on women. I don't know what it is - the all-female environment, the support and encouragement of fellow classmates, the gradual strengthening of previously unknown muscles, the joyous discovery that you are capable of flipping yourself upside down and hanging from one leg in ways you haven't done since you were a kid in the playground - or maybe it's a combination of all of the above?

Whatever it is, it works. I've seen women come to their first pole class in ankle length leggings; women who swear blind that they would never dare to wear shorts. Then, as term progresses, gradually the leggings get shorter. Eventually, they will come up to the front desk and ask shyly about the price of our booty shorts. When they put them on and head back into class, I always play it cool, but on the inside I'm cheering, and I feel so proud I think I might burst.

Our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. They are marvellous instruments. It's ok to want to work on your body, to be the best that you can be, but it shouldn't involve the degree of self-loathing and disgust that so many women inflict upon themselves.

Take a look at your body right now. You're probably sitting down. Look at your legs. They're just hanging out, waiting for you to tell them where to go next, so they can do exactly as you ask, no problem. Look at your arms. They might be a bit wobbly when you wave to someone as they leave, but they can also carry you up the pole and support your entire body weight (it's true - whether or not you've had the joy of learning that yet). Look at your tummy. It might be squishier than you want it to be. Maybe that's because you've popped out a couple of little ones, in which case it's the amazing cubby house that kept your babies safe while at their most vulnerable. And now look over your whole body - while you're sitting there, thinking terrible things about it, it's just ticking away, doing all the work it needs to do to keep you alive, without you even asking it to. It's an extraordinary machine.

Pole dance taught me to love my body. It wasn't always so. As a teenager in high school, like many other girls my age, I developed what I guess was a borderline eating disorder. It was never full blown anorexia, but I became obsessed with controlling and restricting the food that I ate. I remember so well all the horrible feelings that went along with it. The secrecy, the anger, the self-loathing, the inability to escape my obsession. It stayed with me well into my twenties, on and off. I thought I would never truly be rid of it. I knew so many other girls who were exactly the same as me, whether they admitted it or not, so I came to think it was normal.

Pole dance set me free. It gave me new confidence and an appreciation of my body's capabilities. I stopped dieting. I learnt to stop being suspicious of my body, and began to listen to it, and trust it. Nowadays, I eat when I'm hungry, and I eat real food, not processed "fat-free" or "sugar-free" stuff that's made from who knows what. I'm no longer ashamed of my body. I'm proud of it and all the things it can do. I don't pole dance to stay in shape. I don't even think about that anymore. I just love pole and the feeling of strength and freedom that it brings me.

I'm not saying that to be happy with yourself you need to dance around a pole in your underwear (although it sure worked for me!). I guess I'm just saying that I hope that more women can find a way to un-learn the bad habits we pick up in our teenage years. You and your body are a great team. Especially if you can work together to achieve your goals, rather than on opposite sides of the battle field.

We came into this world with no sense that there was anything shameful or wrong with our bodies. Somewhere along the way we lost that. But that doesn't mean we can't try to get it back.

So. I propose the following. Write a love letter to your own body. Tell it how you feel. Tell it all the things it needs to hear, and if there are a few relationship issues you need to work through, be as subtle and gentle about it as you would with your lover. Here, I'll show you mine to get you started...

Dear Shimmy's Body,

Have I told you lately that I love you? That I really, really appreciate all that you do for me? Like how you just keep on with the breathing and the heart-beating even when I'm not telling you to. And how the more we work at it, the stronger and more flexible you get, even though I know that sometimes it hurts you to do so. I promise I won't push you beyond your capabilities (but let's see if we can go just a little bit further, hey?).

I know I've had some views in the past about the small boobs issue, but heck, who cares. I just want you to know that it's not really a big deal. And when I joke about having man arms, I hope you don't take it personally. I guess I'm just a bit self-conscious about them sometimes.

I'm sorry about all the nonsense you had to put up with over the years. I feel like now we're at a really good place, and I promise to keep working hard to respect you and treat you right.

Keep up the good work!


Shimmy xxx 

And here is one from my sister Maddie:

Dear Maddie's body,

I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me. I love that you love the splits and are helping me again rather then fighting about it every time. I promise I will be more gentle in future. I love you very much and hope that together we can get much much stronger. I promise to take you to the doctor again so we can sort out my sore head and fix the migraines. I just want you to know that even if we never get any stronger or any more flexible I will always love you and am proud of everything we have done together. 

I will try to stop filling you with alcohol (after this Sunday) and eat better food so you don't feel tired.


Have fun writing yours!

Shimmy xxx