Friday, 26 July 2013

The Proliferation, Professionalisation and Sanitisation of Pole Competitions: Part 1 The Cleaning Up of Pole Competitions

The Cleaning Up of Pole Dance Competitions – Professionalism or Sterilisation??

I’ve been competing in pole competitions for about six years now. I have been a competitor in all kinds of pole competitions, from dodgy pub competitions, to national championships, and all the way to the international stage. Some competitions are well-oiled machines that run without a hitch, and others are so terribly organised that in the end, I've regretted entering them. Some competition organisers treat their competitors with respect and consideration, and some... well, some don’t. 

The Proliferation of Competitions

During the 6 years that I’ve been competing, a lot has happened in the pole industry. The competition circuit has exploded, with dozens of new competitions appearing every year. As the pole industry grows larger, competition amongst competitions also increases. New competitions make big promises, and try to differentiate themselves from the others on the scene. Dissatisfaction with the way some competitions are run is often the reason why new comps appear, as the organisers try to do a better job than their predecessors. 

These days, competitions are becoming more professional and streamlined. Gone are the days when it was a common occurrence that the pole would fall down, a competitor would arrive drunk, that the judging panel would be the comp organiser's boyfriend/hairdresser/spraytanner, or that an audience member would try to climb on stage and gyrate against the competitor. These days, many competitions are so professional and efficiently run that they are almost corporate-like.

I've noticed two changes in the competition scene over the past couple of years. The first is that the judging criteria are becoming more refined, and demanding. Competitors are expected to be all-rounders, and to satisfy all elements of the criteria in their routines. Generally speaking, competitors must demonstrate strength, flexibility, dynamism, athleticism, grace, dance skill, acrobatic skill, and of course, pole skill. This topic will be the subject of a future blog post.

The second change I've noticed (and the topic of today’s blog post) is that in an effort to make pole dance competitions seem more serious, and more legitimate, the rules and regulations governing participation in the various competitions have multiplied to the point where a competitor really needs to sit down with a glass of wine and dinner to be able to make it through reading everything they need to know about the competition. (**Unless of course it's one of those competitions that bans wine-drinking and food-eating during the perusal of the rules and regulations.) 

The sanitisation of pole competitions

I’ve noticed a common theme as I’ve been travelling around Europe visiting studios and teaching workshops. At the end of my Signature Tricks & Combos workshop, I usually finish by teaching a small piece of choreography, using one of the combos taught in the workshop, and in my style of dance. On this tour, the choreography I taught was slow, sensual and sexy.

Often, after having finished the choreography and the workshops, students chat to me about pole dance in their country, and how it differs from what they've just learnt with me.  On numerous occasions, I heard the same complaints and frustrations voiced. Students complained about the strictness (even puritanism) of their national championships, particularly with respect to costuming, and the outright banning of any sensual or sexual style of performance. 

The rules I most often hear pole dancers complain about are:

  • Being disqualified for an accidental costume malfunction;
  • Being required to cover the “gluteal crease” (?);
  • Being required to cover cleavage; 
  • Being strictly forbidden from touching their own bodies in any way that hints at sensuality;
  • Banning of shoes; and
  • Banning of music containing swear words.

To me, the above rules seem to go beyond what is necessary for a respectable competition. I would just like to point out that the following video of a small child dancing is exactly the kind of performance that would not be permitted in many national/international pole dance championships. Note the boots, the costume, the hair flicks, the booty popping...  Banned by many pole competitions. Yet there is nothing offensive about this child's awesomeness. If she is a child, and we are adults, why are we forbidden to dance this way in so many competitions, if we should decide we want to?

Is sexy pole dance a legitimate and artistic style of dance?

Those of you that know me, and my style of dance, will probably assume they know what my stance on this issue is. However, I want to make it clear that I see both sides of the debate. 

I understand that there are some very active individuals in the pole community who are trying to promote pole dance as a fitness activity or as an art form – one that has no links whatsoever to the sex industry or to strip clubs. They seek public and mainstream acceptance of the legitimacy of pole dance, which they believe will come from severing all ties with its origins. I understand that a lot of pole dancers want to see their favourite activity recognised for what it is: a complex and challenging form of physical exertion, which more often than not has absolutely zero to do with strip clubs and stripping.

On the other hand… We are all adults, and we have all chosen to participate in pole dance for different reasons. Many pole dancers took their first class because they were attracted to the “sexy” side. I know I did. As a fully grown (if not 100% mature at all times) consenting adult, I resent being told how to dress and how to perform. Especially when the unspoken message is that there is something wrong or dirty with the way I like to dance.

Sexy means different things to different people, but whether it be slow and sensual, fast and aggressive, badass and full of swagger, or however you choose to interpret "sexy" - it's almost always banned by the big, important competitions

In my opinion, the crux of the issue is this: the problem with the “sanitisation” of pole competitions is that it creates a tiered level of what world-class or elite pole dancing should look like, and excludes performers who prefer the “sexy” style of pole dance (for want of a better term). 

I’m not saying that this is done intentionally by competition organisers. I believe that pole competition organisers are genuinely doing their best to have pole taken more "seriously". However, by implication at least, the rules of many international and national competitions seem to suggest that if you are not the kind of pole performer that shuns sensual dancing, high heels, bikinis and black eyeliner, then you are not an artistic/serious/legitimate performer, and therefore you can’t compete for the chance to call yourself a world class, champion pole dancer. 

I love to watch pretty much all styles of pole dance. I have been an Alethea Austin fan since the first time I saw her freestyle YouTube videos years ago, but at the same time I love watching Natalia Tatarintseva’s rhythmic gymnast flexibility and grace. I think Alessandra Marchetti is a stunning performer and athlete, and her wining performance at the World Pole Sports this year thrilled me. Anne-Marie Davies is a dynamite and electrifying performer, and Lolo Hilsum is mesmorising to watch on the ground and in the air. Michelle Stanek is fierce and commanding on stage, and Natasha Wang is pure elegance and poetry on the pole. As for Felix Cane – well, I love Felix Cane bare foot, in high heels, heck – I even love her in ugg boots!

Similarly, when performing, sometimes I dance in heels, and sometimes I dance barefoot. Last year, I competed in Miss Pole Dance Australia with a booty-shaking, shoe-banging, body-rolling, drop-splitting routine, telling the story of a prima ballerina turned wild. MPDA is one of the few national competitions that permit booty-shaking, shoe-banging, body-rolling and drop-splitting. In fact, at MPDA, it is compulsory to wear heels, which is unusual these days.

Ironically, coming second in MPDA earned me an invitation to compete at the 2013 World Pole Sports, a competition that bans booty-shaking, shoe-banging, body-rolling and drop-splitting (unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take part in the World Pole Sports this year, as it conflicted with my tour schedule, but I loved watching the live stream online). 

Recently, I also competed in the Australian Pole Fitness Championships earlier this year (which bans shoes, sensuality, swear words, skimpy costumes, etc).  I abided by the competition rules, and danced barefoot and demure. I was happy and honoured to place third. 

I’ve competed at the Australian Pole Championships, where you can choose to dance barefoot or in heels, and in that competition, I chose to dance barefoot. 

When I free dance, alone, in my own studio, it's usually in heels, in the semi-darkness, to a slow and sensual song - just me, my music and my dance. That's when I really feel like I'm dancing for myself - true to my own style, without having to please anyone. And sometimes late at night, I'll lock the studio, make sure no one's around, crank up some crazy music and run wild in the studio dancing barefoot like a crazy monkey on too much sugar (but I do not record these sessions!). 

So you see, I’m not a die-hard stripper heel addict, and I genuinely love pretty much all styles of pole dance. However, I freely admit that the main reason I started pole dance is because I loved the freedom and the sensuality of it, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more. To me, the sexy style of pole dance is as much an art form as any other, and a legitimate form of expression. 

But sometimes I wonder if those of us who remain faithful to the origins of pole dance, and want see them celebrated onstage, are a dying breed…


I think that the fact that pole dancers now have dozens of competitions to choose from is a good thing. Pole dance means many things to many people. As the industry grows, no doubt particular dance styles will develop and move in different directions. In the same way that hip-hop as a genre encompasses the sub-categories of breaking, popping, locking, turfing, jerkin’ and krumping (at least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me – I have no idea about hip hop!), pole dance may well be on its way to becoming the banner term for a variety of sub-categories. 

Pole dancers who wish to dance barefoot against other barefoot competitors can do so. Pole dancers who wish to go full glitz and compete in heels and sequins can. Pole dancers who consider it a sport can compete against other like-minded individuals. In my eyes, all these styles are valid and legitimate. 

The only issue that concerns me is that with the way most competitions are headed, pole dancers who wish to be taken seriously in the industry, and have their achievements recognised at an international competition level, may end up feeling pressured to dance a particular way. One of the most beautiful characteristics of the pole community is that it is so diverse, and so accepting. I’ve shared poles with mums, uni students, strippers, men (gay and straight), transgender pole dancers, dancers with disabilities, big dancers, tiny dancers – in short – all walks of humanity. I would hate to see our industry lose its acceptance and appreciation of the artistry and beauty of sensual, sexy pole dance. 

To put it plainly, I want to see more sexy pole dance at an elite level. I want to see more elite level competitions support the sexy side of pole dance. I want the particular brand of artistic expression that is sexy/sensual pole dance to be recognised as such, at an elite level. 

So what can we do about it, when the overwhelming trend seems to be the removal of any and all elements of sensuality or sexuality from international/national pole dance competitions?

Take your sexy dancing to the stage!

At the Pole Dance Academy, we are doing our bit to support and provide opportunities for sexy pole dancers to compete. This year we launched Dance Filthy, which is an Amateur and Professional competition that celebrates the sexy side of pole dance. 

On 15 September 2013, we will hold the first ever Pole Theatre, a competition requiring competitors to enter one of four categories: Pole Art, Pole Drama, Pole Comedy, and Pole Classique. In contrast to many other competitions, Pole Theatre seeks to impose a bare minimum of rules and restrictions on competitors. Competitors are encouraged to express themselves and their creativity onstage, with a focus on performance. 

However, we do insist on two slightly unusual rules in one of the categories. In the category of Pole Classique, competitors are required to wear heels for part of their performance, and they also are required to remove at least one item of clothing (and they are permitted to strip all the way down to a g-string and pasties, if they wish). In Pole Classique, we want to showcase sexy pole dance as an art form, and we want to create a platform for dancers who prefer this style of dance to perform and compete, at an elite level. 

United Pole Artists just finished another successful Bringing Sexy Back, for the second year. This is a two-week celebration of sexy pole dance, UPA encourages pole dancers to post and tag their sexy pole videos. This event is sponsored and massively promoted by Bad Kitty. As a Bad Kitty Brand Ambassador, I absolutely love that Bad Kitty embraces both the fitness AND the sexy side of pole. In addition to all the fun and sexy pole related gear on their website, they are the makers of PoleFit, a brand of pole wear that is sporty, fun, with a touch of sexy. After all, as Jack Gaffney himself says (one of the Head Cats at Bad Kitty), "We are Bad Kitty, not good kitty, after all =^.^=".

I love the time of year that is Bringing Sexy Back - it's amazing to see all the sexy pole dancers emerging from the shadows to proudly post their sexy style pole videos! But at the same time, I don’t want to see sexy pole dance relegated to studio freestyles and nightclub performances. It deserves a place on the big stage. 

As a member of the pole community, I do my bit to support good competitions and their competitors – no matter what the style. I support clear judging criteria and professionally-run competitions, but I feel like some competitions are imposing unnecessary restrictions on competitors’ creativity, and are letting down some would-be competitors by failing to create space for their style of dance. 

Why do we care so much about stripping the sexuality away from pole (if you’ll pardon the pun)? Is acceptance of pole dance by the general public really so important? 

I don’t know. I kind of think that it’s time that we stopped trying to seek acceptance by the mainstream, and started making more room for pole dancers to dance how they want to dance. 

Dance your way! Shimmy xxx

PS "X-Pole My Way" is part of X-Pole Australia's campaign - and one of the many reasons I'm so proud to be an X-Pole Ambassador. I love the words on the poster below - "Create your own pole style. X-Pole. Your pole, your way." Words to live by :-)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Set Your Freestyle Free...

Today I want to write about freestyling, or free dancing, as some call it. I love to freestyle, and I try to do it as often as I can. It's something that comes really naturally to me now, and it gives me such a wonderful feeling of freedom. There's nothing quite like being alone in the studio with your music, your pole and your body, expressing yourself, dancing out your emotions, and creating your art.

It sounds easy - right? Freestyling - seems like something you just do automatically. Just press play and off you go. Wheeeee! Right? Um, no. I will happily admit that there was a time when I really struggled to just let go, and dance. I felt embarrassed, and silly, even when no one was in the room.

I got to thinking about the art of freestyling a few weeks ago, because I was about to teach a workshop on Freestyle Techniques. This is because at the Pole Dance Academy, we recently ran an Intensive Summer School Program. It was a crazy 7 days worth of intensive workshops and classes catering to a range of really specific pole-related skills (handstands, sexy basics, lyrical pole dance, contemporary pole dance, how to flick your hair properly, how to dance in heels, basic acrobatics, striptease, boot camp, dirty sexy floor work, acro-lap dance - just to name a few!). The idea was that we wanted to create time to really hone the skills that you need to be a well-rounded pole dancer - and focus on all the stuff you don't always get time to work on in class. It was an awesome week of fun in the studio, and on the beach, with plenty of free time. I know I'm spruiking a little bit now, but it was so much fun and we're running it again next year too so keep an eye out for more info ;-)

Beach Acro at Pole Dance Academy's Summer School

So I was planning out my workshop, figuring out ways I could help my students improve their freestyles with some skills and techniques to make them feel more comfortable and at ease with their dancing. Halfway through, it struck me that it seemed a little bit of a paradox to talk about preparing for a freestyle. Isn't "freestyle preparation" an oxymoron? Can you really prepare for something that is supposed to be spontaneous and improvised?

The answer is yes, you can. And you should. Preparing to freestyle will make you feel more comfortable in your own skin (and stilettos). And that will improve the quality of the freestyle you do.

So here are some of my tips from my workshop. I hope they help you to feel at ease with yourself, and eventually, to set your freestyle free.

Take yourself seriously

This is the first and most important point. By taking yourself seriously I do not mean that you have to stare intensely into the camera, furrow your brow and pound the floor passionately with your fist (although if that's your thing, by all means go ahead and do it - it's your freestyle!).

What I mean is that you need to take yourself seriously enough that you are able to give yourself permission to dance. A lot of pole students seem to think that they are only entitled to freestyle once they've reached a certain level. This is just plain crazy talk - you don't need approval or permission from anyone to dance.

Just yesterday, we were lucky enough to have the fabulous choreographer and pole dancer Kelly Yvonne teach a workshop at the Pole Dance Academy. During the class, one of the girls was asked to perform her choreography for the rest of the students. Reluctantly, the student agreed. Before Kelly could play the music, the student began to apologise in advance for the mistakes she felt she was bound to make. Outraged, Kelly stopped her, crying "No! Never apologise for your movement! Never apologise for your dancing!"

Sneakily, I got out my notebook and wrote that down for my blog. It fit so perfectly with what I wanted to say. So if I can take Kelly's words and mix them with my own, it would go like this: you don't need permission from anyone but yourself to dance however you like, and you certainly don't need to apologise for the dance your body creates when you finally allow it to do what it wants to do.

You might even surprise yourself once you finally let go - the student in Kelly's workshop went on to give an incredibly beautiful mini-performance, and she had the class mesmerised. You've probably fallen in love with pole dance because you love the way it helps you to express yourself and the emotions you feel. So go ahead and express them. Don't laugh at yourself. Don't tell yourself that you're lame. Don't sigh in exasperation at any mistakes that you make. Just keep dancing.

There are so many excuses to not freestyle... I'm too uncoordinated. I'm not flexible. I have no dance background. I look silly. I'm too old. I'm too out of shape. I'm not good enough.

Just try to remember that pretty much every single pole dancer started out inflexible, uncoordinated, out of shape and silly-looking. I know I certainly did. So refuse to accept your own excuses and GET ON THAT POLE.

Take yourself seriously. 
Charlie Sky knows that pole dance is serious business.

Let yourself be carried by the music

Choose a song that you respond to on an emotional level, on that day and at that time. I have a freestyle playlist in my iPhone, and on the day I pick the one that resonates most with me at that particular time.

Dance to the music. Try to find ways to build your movement as the music builds, and bring it down when there's a quiet or softer part of your song. Don't just run through every single trick you ever learnt, try to create a flow between tricks and floor work.

Lose yourself in the music

Get off the pole!

That's right. You heard me. Step away from the pole.

During a freestyle, you need some downtime away from the pole, or you'll exhaust yourself. Another great reason to learn to love floorwork is that it will make your freestyles more interesting for others to watch. I often find that the freestyles I enjoy the most are the ones that have a lot of creative floorwork. Everyone knows I love a big old power move, but I also love to watch a dancer who can move confidently away from the pole (possibly because I'm still not 100% comfortable away from the pole myself).

So if your brain explodes at the mere thought of dancing away from the pole, let's make it sound less threatening: just try to learn how to do some things with your arms and legs away from the pole. Experiment with striking and holding poses. Change levels - go from standing to kneeling, get all the way down on the floor, and then work out how to get back up again.

And remember - floorwork is not just walking around the pole in circles over and over again. Although of course, if that's all you can think of to do in the moment, do that. It's better than stopping in despair and staring mournfully at yourself in the mirror or banging your head against the pole repeatedly.

There's plenty to do off the pole - don't be scared!

Film yourself. And watch yourself. And don't squirm uncomfortably inside while you watch yourself.

Filming yourself and then playing it back is without question THE BEST WAY TO IMPROVE. Even if you hate watching yourself, do it. Try to be a fair critic of your performance. By that I mean be as objective as you can, and recognise the good things you did, as well as the bad.

I know that when watching yourself, you will always spot the flexed foot, the bent leg or the awkward landing, but try not to focus too much just on the mistakes. Look for what you like, and try to replicate it in your next freestyle. And try to avoid making same the mistakes you've just made.

Watching your own freestyle can be a rollercoaster of emotions.

Don't stop. Whatever you do, just don't stop.

You're 2 minutes and 45 seconds into your song, and you stuff something up. Everything was going so well, and then you stumbled. It feels like the whole freestyle is now lost and completely irretrievable. So you stop dancing and throw yourself down on the studio floor and say "This is so stupid! I suck! I'm going back to yoga."

Noooooo! Don't stop! Don't go back to yoga! Keep going!

You have to keep going, for 3 reasons:

1. Your freestyle will never be perfect, so stop thinking it has to be perfect. You're allowed to make a couple of little mistakes (or even big ones). The purpose of the freestyle is not to create a perfect piece, but rather to practice dancing without choreography. So don't let yourself be put off. Keep going. Dance through it.

2. Another excellent reason for not stopping is stamina and endurance building. It's really hard to pole dance non-stop for 3 or 4 minutes, and you will never be able to do unless you actually do it. So keep dancing, and get stronger.

3. The third, and perhaps more persuasive reason is this: I can't even begin to count the number of times I have disobeyed the above golden rule, and stopped halfway through a freestyle. Then, when I've gone to watch to video afterwards, I've found that the massive and inexcusable error was actually nothing more than a nano-second of a wobble. Sometimes, I've actually groaned out loud watching the video because what felt like a mistake was actually what looks like a really cool and interesting transition, and I'd abandoned the freestyle for no reason. Some of the best tricks were the result of a fall into an awkward position that turned out to be an awesome move... So you never know! Keep dancing and hope for the best.

Have a couple of tricks up your sleeve

Don't think that you need to go into your freestyle with zero clue as to what you're going to do next. It's not cheating to know that you want to showcase one or two particular moves in your freestyle.

I usually have an idea of a few combos or tricks that I want to use, and then what happens in between is the freestyle.

Don't rush

Take your time. Be sure that you finish off each move, each gesture and extension before you move on to the next trick. Time may feel like it's dragging, but force yourself to hold poses for slightly longer than you want to. It gives the audience (or your video camera) a chance to admire what you're doing.

Haters gonna hate

You might just keep your freestyles all to yourself, or maybe you'll share them with friends, your partner, your mum, or maybe you'll throw them out there to cyberspace and see what happens. If you do choose to make them public, you have to be prepared for the wild, weird, sometimes wonderful, sometimes hateful world of youtube and Facebook comments. People can be really supportive and generous, but they can also be really cruel (and sometimes random, like the guy who inexplicably wrote the comment below on one of my videos). Don't let the negative comments get you down. If they do, check out my blog post on the topic.

Whatever, weirdo.

And remember - practice makes perfect

Make time to freestyle as often as you can. I would say at least every week. The more you do it, the less awkward it feels, and the more accustomed you will come to moving without knowing where you're going.

I wanted to get some input from other pole dancers, to see what they thought. So I reached out to Natasha Wang, because she is an amazing and poetic performer, and also because she's sitting right behind me as I write this in my living room, so it was convenient :-).

Natasha says:

"The more often you free dance, the more easily you will be able to let yourself move to the music and improve the flow you create. You need to do it all the time - it's a skill like anything else, and you'll lose it if you don't practice it."

For some inspiration, below are two videos. The first is a recent freestyle, one that I'm quite happy with. I have other videos that are more tricks-based, but I chose this one specifically because there is a lot of posing away from the pole and floor work, as well as pole tricks.

Below it is an old freestyle, from when I first opened the Pole Dance Academy and really began to freestyle regularly. It's funny watching an old video of myself, I think there's a big difference (I hope you do too!), and I think the difference comes from practising freestyling. I mean, obviously over the course of three years I have improved in terms of strength, flexibility and tricks, but the flow and confidence of the freestyle only comes with practice. Watch the second one closely - something goes quite wrong for me at one point, but like a good little freestyler I kept going! See if you can spot what it was ;-)

Recent freestyle:

Old freestyle:

Look closely at 2 minutes 10 seconds. I actually hit my head on the ceiling beam, but in keeping with the golden rule of freestyle, I didn't stop. Did you notice that I'd whacked my head??


You have a right to dance! So go on. Let yourself dance. Give yourself permission to move to music with purpose and passion. It's ok to make mistakes and to feel silly and awkward. It gets better, and eventually, it will feel less like pulling teeth and more like freedom :-).

So now you know what you gotta do. You gotta fight. For your right. To freeeeestyle!

Shimmy xxx

PS One final but random tip. I like to freestyle with clean hair. It swishes better that way. So I always wash it the morning of a potential freestyle day. This is my last random tip for you.