Sunday, 9 February 2014

Choreographing for Criteria: Painting by Numbers, or a Formula for Success? Part 2: The Cleaning Up of Pole Competitions

The Cleaning Up of Pole Dance Competitions 

Part 2: Choreographing for Criteria: Painting by Numbers, or a Formula for Success?

I have been a competitor in many, many 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 treat competitors with such disregard that it becomes clear very quickly what the main motivation for running the competition is. I’ve been competing in pole comps for about six years now, and over the years, I've noticed that a lot has changed in that time.

This blog is the second part of a two-part series of blogs discussing how pole competitions have changed over the years. In Part 1 of this blog, "The Proliferation, Professionalisation and Sanitisation of Pole Competitions," I wrote about what I see as a trend towards the sanitisation of pole competitions, to eliminate the sexy side of pole and make pole more acceptable as a sport or an art form, and make it appear more legitimate to the mainstream.

In this blog, I want to discuss the development and use of judging criteria in competitions, and what this means for pole competitors and the pole dance industry.

Pole dance competition criteria: read the manual 

This much is obvious: a competitor who wishes to win a competition must understand the judging criteria, and prepare their routine based on those criteria. That kind of goes without saying. If you want to be in the running for a trophy or a sash, you need to at least tick all the boxes, and then hopefully have that extra special something to put you in the lead. 

I used to hate the idea of sitting down and reading a PDF of someone else's (often confusing) vision of what a winning routine should look like, and then prepare my entry based on that. For me, I used to think that it took all the fun, spontaneity and individuality out of a routine. 

Since having had the honour and responsibility of judging a couple of competitions myself, I've come to understand that it really is extremely difficult to judge pole dance competitions. Pole dancers are so creative, so passionate and so talented that the performances they come up with are as varied as the individuals themselves. How do you compare apples and oranges? How do you compare a naughty ballerina with an ass-shaking grandma, and how do you compare either of those with a dancer performing amongst white roses falling like snow, or a comical Day of the Dead Catarina risen from the dead to pole dance for her audience

Striking the right balance

Judges need criteria, otherwise judges feel uncertain of themselves and their decision-making process, and competitors feel let down by the competition. Without clear and publicly available criteria, competitors have no guidelines and no understanding of the methodology used to judge. 

But in the pursuit of objectivity in judging, some questions arise. How do we know if the competition organisers have struck the right balance in writing their criteria, so that in following the criteria, the judges will be sure to select the right winner? How do you weight the different elements? Is technical execution more important than level of difficulty? How do we know that those writing the criteria fully understand level of difficulty issues? How do you compare level of difficulty in executing a Rainbow Marchenko versus a series of fonjis? Do you have to have been a high-level competitor to be qualified to write criteria? These are just some of the questions that come to mind. 

I have no doubt that writing criteria is a difficult and largely thankless task. Not only is it often thankless, but those responsible for setting criteria and the judges themselves are often attacked in the aftermath of a competition. In my view, this is not fair. I have no problem with competitors making legitimate comments and criticisms about the way a competition is run, in fact, I think it’s healthy and constructive, and something we should encourage. But there are better ways to go about providing feedback for improvement than to attack the judges and competition-organisers.

Tick-the-box performance

The main question I want to address about criteria is this: at what point do we decide that a competition's criteria have become overly prescriptive? At what point do we say, well heck, we've got so many boxes to tick, we might as well just give them all exactly the same routine to perform, and just judge them on how well they do it?

Overly-prescriptive criteria has the effect of forcing all performers to become jacks-of-all-trades onstage, and often it is their own personal style of dance that is compromised as a result. There are some pole performers who are famous for their stunning flexibility and graceful movement. Watching those performers execute fonjis or shoulder mount flags doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with their usual dance style. Similarly, performers usually known for their dynamism and strength (but not necessarily their flexibility) are required to perform moves to demonstrate extreme flexibility. 

As a spectator at a competition, I love to watch Anastasia and Marion fly around the pole and slip in and out of insane contortion-esque poses, and if I want to see stunning dynamism and strength, I’ll watch Hanka or Oona work their magic. I’m not saying that these women should be shoe-boxed in to one category of dance, but I am saying that competition criteria makes performers include moves and tricks in their choreography that don’t always seem to fit their personal style as a performer. 

Of course, the counter-argument is that a champion should be good at everything, and that’s a fair point. But as a spectator at a competition, I find that tick-the-box performances are more likely to produce awkward, jarring transitions, and less likely to produce those moments of performance magic where the performer is in total synergy with their music, their dance, and their audience. Those rare moments of magic are what I find inspirational in watching pole competitions. But that’s just my opinion – I know not everyone will agree with me.

Personally, as a competitor, choreographing for criteria is something that I just can't bring myself to do. As a performer at a competition, for me, criteria can feel restrictive.  Choreographing for criteria takes all the joy and the excitement out of creating a performance for a competition. I don't want to be given a list of compulsory moves, and then have to try to differentiate myself from my competitors by the manner in which I join the dots between them. At the same time though, I'm very aware that I may never actually win a competition with this approach... 

Don't get me wrong - in preparing for a competition, I read the criteria. I try to incorporate them where possible. However, for me, when it comes to choosing between something I should put in for the sake of the criteria, and something I want to put in because I think it's cool, original or fun - you know which way I will go. 

In it to win it, or in it for the love of pole??

I should point out that I take this approach because my aims in entering a competition aren’t limited taking out first place. I'm not just in it to win it. Some people are. For some people, the idea of entering a competition without the intention of winning is just silly. And I accept that. 

But I know how hard it is to win a pole competition, and how disappointing it is to not place when you really felt you deserved to. After a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of post-competition disappointment, I've reached the conclusion that for me, it can't be all about winning. And so these days when I enter a competition, it's for more than one reason. I enter because I love to perform, I love to be on stage, I love to showcase moves and combinations I've been creating, and I love the opportunity to bring my own particular style to an audience. 

When deciding for yourself how to create your routines, you just need to decide what your main hope/motivation for entering is. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win, working out what kind of a champion you think the competition wants, and setting out to construct your performance based on that goal. Just be prepared that if you don't win, you may feel like you created a routine based on someone else's ideas, and then all you'll have is a video of you performing someone else’s dance. Equally, there is nothing wrong with creating a performance based on how you want to dance – just be aware that you are unlikely to win! 

And of course, to be clear, I'm not saying you should ever try to disobey the rules of a competition in creating your performance. It's just disrespectful. There are so many competitions now that you can choose which ones to enter based on your own performance preferences. If you don't agree with the criteria or the rules, don't enter. Simple as that.

NB: the only exception to the above principle that I can think of is when a competition has tried to ban strippers/adult entertainers from the competition. Go ahead and enter, and cause a stir if you get disqualified. Competition organisers don’t have the right to judge you for how you earn a living. 

Dance your way

The industry has evolved an extraordinary amount over the past four years, and it’s still growing. We are lucky that these days there are so many competitions to choose from. If you want to focus on the athleticism and sport side of pole, you have World Pole Sports. If you love the artistry of pole, there’s Pole Art. If you love a combination of the two, take a look at IPC. If you love sexy pole, come join us in Sydney for the wild and unrestrained sexiness of Dance Filthy. And if you just love it all, check out Pole Theatre, which brings together Pole Drama, Pole Comedy, Pole Art and Pole Classique. 

These days, there’s a competition to cater for every taste. And as we continue to grow as an industry, my hope is that the new competitions will force the more established ones to become fairer. We all know of rumours of competition-rigging and favouritism surrounding certain competitions. In my view, it’s up to the competitors and the ticket-buying audience members to become more discerning about the types of competitions they will support. There should be no place for rigging, bullying, influencing and interfering with the results of the judges. But that’s the subject of another blog…


Tick the boxes, or dance your way? Whichever way you go, there can only be one winner on the night. And after you have poured your heart out onstage, make sure that you managed to get something out of the process of preparing for the competition that makes you feel like you won something anyway. Compete for a reason – it’s up to you to decide what the reason is. But make sure you have one. Otherwise you’ll be left with nothing but the post-competition blues.
So: to answer the question posed by this blog - is choreographing for criteria painting by numbers, or a formula for success? My answer is... You decide. You're the performer, the competitor, the artist. You decide what the competition means to you. Decide what motivates you, and dance your way.

Shimmy xxx

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  1. Are the judging criteria for Dance Filthy available online? Your article piqued my curiosity.

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  3. Great post! I am just starting out on the pole and am nowhere near competition level, but as a previous competitive figure skater, I can completely relate to this post. After the scoring system got reworked for us, there became a set criteria to adhere to, with specific elements or positions earning one higher levers or quality marks. Nowadays, a program is a carefully crafted composition that can feel very restrictive. I think some element of this is necessary for the reasons you mentioned, but as a performer, it can be difficult to express yourself fully and feel free within these tight restrictions.

  4. I just got into a pointless but absolutely infuriating argument with some lovely individual on youtube about the evolution of pole dancing as it is today- apparently strippers didn't contribute a thing! Nope, nada. It's all evolved from Chinese Pole dontchaknow.
    As someone who worked in the industry for almost 12 years I wanted to punch the person through my computer screen.
    I am astounded at the mental knots people will tie themselves into to avoid acknowledging that modern, Western pole dancing came out of the clubs first and foremost and then evolved as elements of gymnastics, Chinese Pole and acrobatics were introduced. But it was us strippers who helped to propel it into the mainstream.

    We don't dance on Chinese style poles, we dance on brass fixed and spinning poles of 45mm and there's a reason for that.
    Added to which, when I started dancing the World Wide Web was not like it is now- I can promise you that the seedy joints I danced in in my early days didn't know jack shit about Chinese poles, nor did google exist to even look them up.
    The pole was put there to showcase the stripper and, if she had the moves, to give her something to entertain herself and the customers with.
    Hell, they only started introducing spinning poles in my last year or so in the business.

    I hate the way we are ashamed of the roots of modern pole dancing and are trying so hard to erase the rich history that has led to where we are today.
    So thank you for addressing the topic because I don't think it's being seriously discussed much at all- not without devolving into awful levels of misogyny and "slut shaming", that is.
    LOL, yes, I am passionate about this.

    Em xox
    PS I love the Dance Filthy videos, fantastic stuff <3

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