Poledancing slatterns and media tarts
Pole dancing developed out of the stripping industry, but it is a hugely enjoyable, complex ( and very tiring) dance form in its own right. A pro stripper does not need to bruise her body and train hard practising dangerous and dazzling gymnastic tricks on the pole to earn money; simple wriggles and the odd spin are enough to keep the men happy. Yet many poledancers are very accomplished and athletic. They develop and practise these skills I think, not for the men who watch, but because they want to impress themselves and other women. And because it is wild, throwing yourself round a pole. It is like when you were a kid on a climbing frame.
Now many women who do not work in the sex industry want to learn the moves too. Why? Have we been brainwashed and turned into Barbie? Not really, I say, it's just that it is completely excellent fun. Especially compared to the humourless, soul-less gym. We warm up, we practise ballet, yoga, strength-training moves. Then we get to access our inner showgirl. We swing on poles and kick our legs and toss our hair and feel gorgeous and go slightly bonkers whilst the Rolling Stones pound in the background. Afterwards we go and have a drink together in the pub and hear each other's news. This feels like more than a fitness class, it feels like a proper - or improper - girly night out. Many of the women signed up for six week courses a year ago. They have been coming ever since.
None of the women I teach are strippers or professional dancers. They are just ordinary women mostly with office jobs. No men are allowed in. The atmosphere in my once-a-week dance class is extraordinary - women clapping, cheering, sweating as they kick and leap and spin and master the skills needed for this demanding dance form. I have tried to convey just how much fun it is in my piece, and to make a few other points as well about who we are dancing for - ourselves - and why. Here's what I wrote:
'Honey, stick your bottom out more. That’s right – gorgeous!’
I am teaching a dance class, on a cold January night in North London. Eight women are smiling at me, breathless, sweating lightly. Their ages range from 24 to 45. Their body sizes from a petite 8 to a curvaceous size 20. Most of them have travelled across London to be here and a cross section of this class reveals a student, fashion buyer, advertising manager and a barrister. We have spent the last hour working on a routine we have devised. We have trained our bodies with press ups so we can take our weight on one arm and spin round, shrieking exultantly like little girls in a playground, letting our hair fly behind us. One of the group does a handstand and then locks her legs about the smooth metal pole giggling with triumph as she pulls herself upright, ' I haven't played like this since I was a little girl' she shouts. 'Look at me!'.
We all cheer her wildly.
During the working week I work in a busy publishing office with men and women. On Tuesday nights I teach women to pole dance for fun. My students call it 'Rachel's Feminist Disco Pole Dance Course'. We wear T shorts, shorts and high heels. At the end of a six week course, the students perform the routine they have practised, for each other. No men are allowed to watch and few will ever see the skills that these women have spent weeks perfecting, though several of the class are now intending to buy their own poles for their homes. '' I am amazed how much I love this '' says Tina, one of the students. '' It's permission to be sexy. I feel like a total goddess. A goddess amongst goddesses!’’
''Bollocks to the gym!'', somone else shouts, collapsing with laughter.
We all cheer again.
So are we Female Chauvinist Pigs? Will we feel cheap in the morning?
Are we deluded little tarts posturing a commercialised sexuality that is completely fake? Or are we jiggling and writhing secure in the power of our fortunate femaleness? Our breasts are silicon-free, our sweat is real. So too is the money we earn ourselves to pay for these dance sessions. Who says we are letting feminism, and ourselves down?
Women have always danced. For themselves and each other, for the men they love, for an audience. Rolling hips, pounding feet, beckoning hands, enticing glances...we have done this for thousands of years. In ancient times it was a holy thing, a fertility ritual. Women's sexual power is seen as irresistable, damnable, dangerous and shameful and now, we are told, merely a tradable commodity. But to conflate female 'wildness' merely with the trade-off of bodies for money in an unequal and faithless exchange is not fair. Who tells us that we are shameful, or shameless? Who cheapens our dancing? Ourselves? Men? Other women?
That sex can be sold; that the ecstatic passion of dancing or lovemaking can be faked for money is not in doubt. The assumption that all who do so are pathetically degraded hopeless creatures is patronising in every sense of the word.
Not all the women who come to the dance studio learn to poledance for fitness and fun. Some do it so they can earn money professionally. With no-touching rules strictly enforced, and £20 handed over for every teasing three minute dance, the ones being exploited in the 'gentlemen's clubs' are the men, say the young women who flock to work there. ''I love dancing and I like the money and the independence'', Sara, a professional pole dancer tells me. '' I could never work in a bar or a call centre. I'm no mug.''
Sex, like everything else now, is commoditised. There are fashions in sexuality and body appearance, just as there are fashions in hairstyles and clothing. Are the silicone breasts of today's bikinied celebrity so different to the plucked hairline of the Florentine courtesan or the powdered bewigged lady of the Georgian court? Young women read glossy magazines telling of the passionate, decadent lives of rich celebrities and they want that life. A young woman with a beautiful body can become a global megastar. Baring it, shimmying it she is feted and adored. The more money we have, the more sexual freedom we have, the more we can all gorge our every desire and flaunt our changed fortunes. Sometimes it is dizzying. Sometimes, sadly, it is still not safe.
The power of female sexuality may be unsettling, the onlooker can tut, mock or fulminate against it, and yes, women run some risks,when they dress, work, party as they please. That some will prey upon, or seek to punish 'sexually free' women is as true as the fact that some will rejoice in a female wildness made all the sweeter by the shattering of the taboo and the loss of shame. Unleashed female sexuality can be explosive, shocking. But as the women wrapping their legs around the poles and shouting with triumph in my Tuesday class point out, lots of us are having too much fun to want to stop now. We're dancing while we can, because we can, for the sheer hell of it.
(c) Rachel North in The Sunday Times News Review
UPDATE: The edited version - with gratutous 'bomb victim' mention put in, and feminism/dance history taken out. Oh well. As to the added header 'Confessions of a middle class pole dancer' and uncredited pic of an actress in a basque, cheers. For the record, I am not to be confused with any character in the film Showgirls