Saturday, January 21, 2006

Poledancing slatterns and media tarts

Below is the unedited piece for the Sunday Times News Review. There is a new book out called 'Female Chauvinist Pigs' by Ariel Levy about the ''pornification'' of our ''raunch culture'' and whether it is really liberating for women to behave like men, or like the packaged glossy fantasies of men. I was asked to write a counter-balancing piece to the main review and interview, as a woman who enjoys going to fitness pole dance classes.

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


Blogger Cheryl said...


We are three to five years behind London down here, but boy do you make me look forward to 2011!

I just hope to God I'm not too old, then.

January 21, 2006 9:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was interesting...especially this bit:

" 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?"

I am also a dancer and have often tried to reconcile it with the view that many see women dancing as a subtle way of inflaming men. My best friend is adamant that pole dancing comes under the umbrella of the 'sex industry' simply because many men enjoy watching it.

I find dancing a brilliant way of raising energy which can make me feel empowered as a woman - maybe it is that which men react to, the attractiveness of a confident woman.

On the point of it being a kind of 'fertility ritual' - as I've often tried to explain to my friend who thinks dancing reduces women to mere objects, there are ways in which I've observed women behaving in much more subtle seductive ways which can have the same effect. But these women would probably argue they weren't doing it deliberately, so it's not the same!
If I wear a low cut top and a little skirt am I doing it for myself or for the benefit of any men I might come across that day? Perhaps confidence is inevitably tied up with the approval of others, and particularly the opposite sex - I can never really conclude my thoughts about this. I certainly think that a sexually confident women is often regarded as a threat by both sexes, and that bothers me.

January 21, 2006 2:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make me feel like a bit of an old reactionary now, but I didn't enjoy explaining what pole dancing was to my 8 year old son the other week, when they were showing adverts on TV at 6.30pm for a 'Smash Hits' style pole dancing video... Am I turning into "Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells" ;)

Great writing though Rachel, as ever.

January 22, 2006 4:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hiya rachel,

i hope alls well with u....hey look if pole dancing is your thing..more power to just kick back with a frosty pint and "page 3" :)


January 22, 2006 8:48 pm  
Blogger Personal said...

Mmmm, I'm not sure where to begin...because I disagree.
Rachael, when you talk about what you do I do believe that you girls have a great time. When you describe these lessons with no men around, just a bunch of women having fun, expelling energy, I do get an image and understanding of girls just having fun. But I'm wondering about the differences here, between pole dancing with a bunch of women as opposed to pole dancing in a strip club. I guess I think perhaps they are different. For me to pole dance with a bunch of friends, lets say, as opposed to pole dancing for a bunch of men - this is very different. Why? Well the way you describe your classes there is fun and innocuous, with men it is commodatized and objectified...bought.

If I may, to this comment: "...and £20 handed over for every teasing three minute dance, the ones being exploited in the 'gentlemen's clubs' are the men": I appreciate that it is the young women who work there that are saying this, but I'd hardly agree. Both are exploited...they both take advantage of one another. Fortunately for men it is only plastic, but for women the exchange is for her sexuality, her body is being bought. The price she pays is her identity of being a complete human, one that is more than her body parts. The exchange here is undoubtably immeasurable. Why do women like this? Why do they feel empowered? I would say because it is what women are taught to do...taught their role of how to be sexual, taught that we are here for mans viewing pleasures. Sure, this has been the case for centuries, but it doesn't mean we have to live up to it. The reality that sex is commoditised today I don't believe is one we as a society should be taking lightly. If we fall too deeply (and I fear we have) into this mindset of sex that is bought and sold - what does that mean for society? We are playing with the value of PEOPLE - human beings, not objects...there is much danger in this. Think about what it does to the fabric of society, of how we relate and connect to one another, of how we view one another, of the loss of respect for one another.

Sorry to rave on but, if I may again: "The more money we have, the more sexual freedom we have..." No No No!! Sexual freedom is something from within. Sexuality is developed and created within ourselves (dare I say it should be developed and created within ourselves because as I mentioned we don't seem to develop our own, we follow the mainstreem like sheep). To be truely sexually free is freedom within oneself, I don't understand how one puts monetary boundaries on something like this!

And lastly: "Sometimes, sadly, it is still not safe." Why do you think it is not safe? Sure because some men disrespect a women and are sexually violent towards her...let me make this clear - I agree. But on a macro level - when we buy and sell sex, buy and sell people, objectify ourselves and others, we allow for permissive giving beliefs, disrespect (how do you respect an object?), and an enourmous unequal power enchange between men and women.

I'm all for sexuality, I just think that today's sexuality is very unhealthy and very dangerous.

Whew! That was longer than I planned. Hope it encourages healthy debates!

January 23, 2006 11:23 am  
Blogger Kate said...

I need to find pole dancing classes near me, it sounds perfect!

Thanks again.

January 25, 2006 7:37 pm  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Just want to say 'thank you' for this. I am a total pole dance addict and get completely fed up with explaining what I do and why. You write eloquently and it is a pleasure to read.


October 02, 2006 6:11 pm  
Blogger stephaniem said...

I am a N. London female & think pole dancing in Rachel's class is what I need to shake me out of my middle aged rut - any chance of some info. being sent?? thanks, stephanie

January 03, 2007 9:08 pm  
Blogger stephaniem said...

pls can someone - preferably the teacher Rachel herself - email me how to join these classes. none of my friends would come - will I feel left out alone (I'm coming because I'm getting shyer every week) thanks!

January 03, 2007 9:09 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Hi Stephanie, iof you email me I will send details ( see email on profile)

at present there is no means of contacting you via your blog comment or profile

January 04, 2007 1:17 am  
Blogger Tina said...

Check out this website they have instructional pole dance dvd's

January 14, 2007 2:34 am  

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