Making it Mainstream

By 2012, Fawnia Mondey, the pole dance pioneer who introduced the sport to the public, was on to her next venture: Pole Expo, the largest pole fitness event to take place in the world. It gathered aerial athletes from nearly every continent to Las Vegas for a weekend of workshops, seminars, contests and more. It was the first major chance for pole dancers who kept up with each other via the Web to meet.

Social media continued to grow alongside the pole community, and by now dancers were regularly sharing videos via Facebook and Instagram. The shift in social media platforms led to more tricks being discovered and named, and exposure to different dance styles—from artistic to dramatic to doubles and more.

“It definitely helps connect us if we’re not able to travel the world or tour or even visit other studios,” Tiffany Jane, a pole dancer with more than 68 thousand Instagram followers, says. “You can always reach out to anyone easily if you have questions or want to learn how to do a move or a trick. I think we all kind of inspire each other to just keep dancing.” (Listen to more of Jane’s thoughts on pole dancing and social media, plus her experiences with the sport and more in our interview below.)


California-based pole dancer Tiffany Jane. Photos by Alloy Images, videos by Jane, both obtained and used with permission from Jane.

Shannon Gee, who co-owns Ecdysiast, one of Portland, Oregon’s first studios, says social media expanded teaching curriculums and training knowledge.

“There’s so much more access to information through technology and social media, and that’s helped, for sure,” she says.

These social media platforms also led to greater public exposure, putting the sport in the eyes of nearly every person who had a smartphone and search bar.

But with every positive comes a negative, and a sport birthed by strippers was bound to have a rocky introduction into the mainstream. Some outsiders did not understand how pole dance could exist as a serious fitness or art form, and a pole dancer getting fired from his or her day job once an employer found out about his or her hobby was not unheard of.

The negative connotations led some pole dancers to feel the need to defend the practice, sometimes by slighting the very group of people who invented it, and inadvertently slowing the sport’s potential as an inclusive feminist movement.

#NOTASTRIPPER

In 2012, Elle Stanger, a Portland, Oregon-based stripper, writer, and sex-work activist, was nursing her baby and scrolling through Instagram when she saw the #NotAStripper hashtag for the first time.

“I started seeing pole stuff that would be like ‘learned a new trick today … hashtag #NotAStripper,’ and I’m like, OK, why is that important? Why do you feel the need to differenciate?” Stanger says.

“Then you go deeper into the #NotAStripper rabbit hole and you see memes and verbiage [used by pole dance hobbyists] where it’s very, very hateful. And it just blows me away because it’s like, I make my living being paid to do what you are paying someone to teach you, so, respect your elders please.”

Stanger lets out a quiet laugh at the end of her statement, but she’s not wrong. Some news sources claim that contemporary pole dance derives from ancient practices like Chinese pole, which involves males and acrobatic moves on rubber-laced apparatuses, or Mallakhamb, a competitive mens’ only practice with fast-paced tricks performed on a large wooden pole.

But the truth is this: the contemporary pole dance industry—from the first studios to the first events and competitions—was built by strippers, and ignoring its roots is exclusive and unfair, Annemarie Davies says.

“By feeling the need to publicly defend yourself in such a strong way, what you’re doing is putting down other people, and you’re putting down a group of people who helped establish the industry that you’re participating in,” Davies says.

Stanger turned to a group of strippers on Facebook, encouraging them to retaliate by posting videos with the hashtag #YesAStripper in response. As of July 2017, #YesAStripper has 17,146 tags on Instagram to #NotAStripper’s 5,218. It may sound like a triumphant social-media win, but Stanger believes there is more work to be done in order for all recreational pole dancers to fully respect and embrace her profession as it relates to their hobby (hear more of Stanger’s thoughts on this in the video below).


Portland-based writer, stripper and activist Elle Stanger.

Stanger has not been the only pro-stripper crusader in the pole dancing industry. Some pole studios, like Ecdysiast, readily pass down the true history of pole to students (“we celebrate it and talk about it regularly,” Gee says), and others, like Kiska, a studio also based in Portland, exists to help strippers better hone their craft while encouraging other students to embrace “sex positive side of pole.”

And then there are the annual events dedicated to exotic pole style. In 2012, UPA created Bringing Sexy Back, a social media movement encouraging dancers to “celebrate their sexy all at once” by posting pictures and videos online of their raciest pole moves and attire (the event culminates each year with a live-streamed showcase). A few years later, renowned Australian pole dancers and sisters Michelle Shimmy and Maddie Sparkle created the competition Dance Filfthy, where the participant with the sexiest moves gets crowned. A second Dance Filthy event has since been created in the U.S.

In some national pole dance competitions, apparel must provide full coverage and excessively erotic gestures are not allowed, even in the exotic dance category.

POLE FOR EVERYBODY?

As the pole dance community determines how to completely embrace and express the sport’s origins, it also fights to spread awareness on all the different types of polers that exist. It’s easy for the average person to link pole dancing with fit adult women, since those are the people who popularized the practice. But pole dancers today are as motley as their movement styles.

In 2011, Steven Retchless sauntered onto the America’s Got Talent stage wearing Mary Jane stilettoes, shimmery silver shorts covering the necessities but not much else, and iridescent makeup under his eyes and across his limbs. Judges absorbed his otherworldly appearance with wide eyes; audience members buried their heads in their hands with embarrassed smiles, as if they’d just stumbled upon a sex scene in a movie while in the company of their in-laws.

“You don’t think of males and pole dancing,” said judge Howie Mandel.

“And that’s why I’m here,” Retchless retorted.

Less than a minute into his routine, judge Piers Morgan pursed his lips and slammed down the “no” buzzer. Sharon Osbourne, the second judge, met the end with a standing ovation. Mandel fumbled with his words for a moment before voting Retchless into the next round. He made it to the semi-finals before being sent home.

The three reactions were typical of those who find out about male pole dancers: some get them, some don’t, and others need to see them in action in order to appreciate their intense athleticism.


Pole dancer Steven Retchless performs on America’s Got Talent.

Josiah “Badazz” Grant, who earned the title of 2015 National Aerial Pole Art Champion in the men’s division, has been advocating for male pole dancers since he first started dancing in 2004. He’s discussed the sport on The Doctors, The Jerry Springer Show, MTV, TruTV and more.

“Most individuals are kind of close-minded about the situation because they’re just used to women dancing on a pole in a [strip club],” Grant says. “But now because of television I think more individuals are becoming aware that there are actually male pole dancers, and I feel like it’s becoming more so accepted.”

Today, most pole dance competitions include males. There’s even a few, like Mr. Pole Dance, that are exclusively for men, and male pole dancers can and do embrace every style of pole dance that women do.


Performance by Mr. Pole Dance 2013 International Winner Alex Shchukin

News outlets have started shedding light on other pole dancers, besides males, that may not fit society’s tainted ideas.

In 2015, Barcroft TV profiled Eda Marbury, a recreational pole dancer who turned to the sport as a way to shed weight. Before pole dancing, she weighed more than 300 pounds.

She began to reclaim her confidence with each swing on the pole, and after proudly losing 65 pounds, she decided to share her pole dancing videos to inspire others.

“Some of the negativity that I have received is that I am unhealthy and that I should lose weight before I start posting videos,” she told the network. “Somebody told me I should commit suicide.”

But the mean-spirited comments have not stopped Marbury from pursuing her hobby (she’s since become an instructor). Partly because it’s become her emotional and physical outlet (as it tends to be for most pole dancers), and also because she wants to disprove society’s idea that bodies have to fit a certain mold in order to be considered graceful.

“I wanted to put my story out there for other people to see and to try to gain inspiration from and to realize that they’re not alone and there is a community for them.”


Eda Marbury shares her pole dance journey with Barcroft TV.

Other publications, like Elle Magazine, have shown that pole dancers don’t just vary in size and gender, but age, too. Just this year, they featured Greta Pontarelli, a 66-year-old pole dancer, in a Facebook video that garnered over 21 million views and 50 thousand positive impressions. Words like “inspiration” and “goals” flooded the comments section.

But when people see children under the age of 18 participating in the sport, reactions tend to be on the other spectrum. Davies says she sees it all the time on UPA’s Instagram page.

“If kids are on a pole, [commenters] get really upset about that and they say things like ‘oh great parenting, teaching your child how to be a stripper,’” she says.

But there are many youth competitors in the pole dance industry from all over the world, like 14-year-old Olga Trifonova who’s based in Russia, and Nayeli Garcia Vazquez, a 9-year-old girl who lives in Mexico. Tuscon, Arizona-based Paige Olson bills herself as a professional athlete, having won four competitions so far. She’s 12.

The shortage of acceptance for underage pole dancers is the ultimate indicator of how many still view the sport in general: a one-dimensional, overtly sexual practice.

Up next: Perception vs. Reality