Pole Dancing Auto-ethnography
Practice, Pedagogy, Performance
Amy Patricia Cadwallader
Department of Dance, University of Michigan, Michigan, USA
Department of Dance, University of Michigan, Michigan, USA
Acknowledgements: I cannot fully express the gratitude I have toward my husband, Chris Cadwallader, for his emotional support and generosity of time and spirit. Thank you also to my friends and family for believing in me and encouraging me to pursue my dream of dancing every day. This research project would not have been possible without the generous support I received from University of Michigan funders, academic resources, and collaborations. Thank you to the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) for the grant that gave me the means to buy the first two poles I used in this project in January 2015. Thank you to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) for funding my trip to the International Pole Convention in New Orleans in June 2015. Thank you to Rackham Graduate School for Conference Travel Grant in March 2015, when I traveled to and performed in my first pole performance event in Hamilton, ON, and again in January 2016 when I traveled to an improvisation symposium in New York City. Thank you also to the Department of Dance for partially funding my summer research travel in 2015, covering a portion of my first trip to NYC to attend a weeklong pole and aerial intensive. And again thank you to the Department of Dance for providing production funding in the winter of 2016, helping cover the costs of videography, photography, and graphic design. In addition to financial backing, I have received a great deal of creative support from University of Michigan undergraduate students, my cohort, Department of Dance faculty, and my thesis committee. Thank you to those dancers who were involved at any point in the process, but especially to Efrén Cruz Cortés, Marisa Diamond, Michael Erickson, Erica Gavan, Mackenzie Larrance, Paula Modafferi. Thank you Anthony Alterio, Charles Gushue, and Michael Parmelee for being amazing classmates, especially during our first year of graduate school. Thank you to all of the Department of Dance faculty, but especially to Missy Beck, Clare Croft, Jessica Fogel, and Christian MatijasMecca for encouraging me to learn more than I thought I could and for bettering me as a student/learner/researcher/dancer/choreographer. Thank you to my thesis committee: Missy Beck, Clare Croft, and Petra Kuppers. Their varied strengths and areas of research have been a wonderful support in the process of creating this thesis project.
Cadwallader, Amy, P. 2017. “Pole Dancing Auto-ethnography – Practice, Pedagogy, Performance.” Accelerando: Belgrade Journal of Music and Dance 2:3.
In this research paper, the author addresses the following four questions: 1) What are the implications of bringing pole dancing into concert dance, not as a caricature or theatrical version of what is performed in strip clubs, but as its own, free-standing art form? 2) In what ways will years of ballet and modern dance training influence the type of dancing that emerges from dancers when poles and other apparatuses are introduced? 3) How can the author create an original pole dancing style and pedagogical methods for teaching it? 4) Who participates in pole fitness classes and how does the demographic change based on location? What about when pole fitness classes are offered in an academic setting? The author shares first-hand experiences of investigating pole dancing in fitness classes, attending performances, engaging in a rehearsal process with highly trained dancers, and teaching pole dancing to movers with a wide range of abilities. The author addresses how research plans changed as she encountered limitations of budget and time constraints. The author also elaborates on the creative process that she engaged in with her thesis cast, collaborators, and supporting designers in the making of Super-beneath, a theatrical dance work that uses five, free-standing poles. She outline the vignettes, overall structure, and narrative of the work. The author then discusses where this research fits into the larger field of pole dancing, and the even larger field of dance. In the final sections of this paper, the author describes her pedagogical practices relating to pole classes, what “practice as research” means to her, and how she would like to continue on this research trajectory in the future.
Keywords: pole dancing, pole art, pole fitness, pedagogy, theatrical pole-dance.
As a teenager, I was fascinated with pole dancing, equating it to striptease, big cities, sexuality, and the taboo of night life. The idea of learning how to pole dance and later perform it seemed completely unattainable and foreign. In early adulthood, I had the opportunity to enter the world of pole dancing through the pole fitness classes. While traveling to San Francisco in 2012, I found a pole fitness studio and signed up for a class. I was impressed with the strength and grace that the instructor exhibited, as well as how much hard work it was for me to imitate her smooth actions that tied one powerful move to the next.
My desire to learn how to pole dance only increased after this small taste in San Francisco. The closest pole studio to my hometown in Indiana was 50 miles away, and they only offered classes in the evenings; I was unable to plan a time when I could drive there and take a class. That is, until the fall of 2013. A friend of mine had a bachelorette party at that studio, 50 miles away, in Indianapolis. The pole dancing that I learned at the bachelorette party was completely different than what I learned in San Francisco. It still required strength and was challenging, but there was more of an emphasis on being sexy. I enjoyed myself, but I wanted to spend more time on the difficult, strength-based movements like those I experienced in the first class.
Not long after the bachelorette party, in January of 2014, a new yoga and aerial studio opened in my hometown, West Lafayette. I began taking classes weekly (eventually three or more times per week). The owner of this studio carefully considered the modest, conservative culture of small towns in Indiana when she decided to make these classes fitness-based without a focus on sexiness. We used the poles to engage in full-body strength training and to learn select acrobatic skills on the pole. (We did not learn how to perform sexy routines, how to please an audience, or other nightclub themes that I have encountered in pole studios since then.) I thrived in this environment and quickly began to collaborate with my friends from the Purdue University dance program. We combined our dance compositional skills with the movements we were learning in pole classes to create our own new style. In the summer of 2014, Amberly Simpson, Kayla Steckel, and I produced a dance concert that featured three pole works. I performed in one called Little Sister, in which I was an innocent child being taught by Amberly, my protector.
Riding the high of producing a successful show and being part of a dynamic performance, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to begin the Dance Master of Fine Arts program only two months after our show. Pole dancing continued to fill my thoughts as I searched for a pole studio in my new home. I found a studio and tried a class, but chose to go the route of self-teaching on a home pole instead. Dancing on my pole at home was a reprieve from the challenges of being a new member of a thriving dance program. I was able to pursue an interest that was unique to me, that I could practice in solitude to appease my introverted personality. It did not take long for me to realize that pole dancing could be an exciting, rewarding research topic for me to pursue for the duration of graduate school.
As I began this project, I designed the following research questions, with the expectation that they would evolve throughout the creative process (including rehearsals, choreography and performance, literature review, and pedagogical practices):
Plan for Pursuing Research Questions
The first two questions address locations in which pole dancing can be performed. I intended for my work to be performed at LIVE Nightclub in Ann Arbor, MI, as well as in the Betty Pease Studio Theatre and at the Duderstadt Gallery at the University of Michigan. Pole dancing has been strongly tied to gentlemen’s clubs in North America since the mid-20th century. In my relocation of this movement form to a theater, I do not wish to erase its history; rather, I want to highlight the strength and expertise that has been developed over the years. Pole dancing, like ballet, is a graceful, gravity-defying dance form, which is rewarding to participate in and entertaining to watch. The artistry that goes into crafting pole choreography can be heightened by using theatrical elements such as lighting, sound design, and staging.
I understand that the location a work is performed in has a strong influence on how the audience perceives the work. The space dictates audience behavior, what they can see or what is obscured, how closely they sit or stand or interact with the performance, whether they are eating and drinking or sitting quietly, and so on. I would also wager that it affects the way dancers perform. My prediction was that at LIVE, the audience (or crowd, in this setting) would be relaxed, having a cocktail, and possibly physically and vocally active. I have attended drag performances in the venue in the past, where I witnessed a great deal of cheering, singing along with the performer, dancing, and enjoying the nightlife while a performance is ongoing. The performers in those events were very tied to the audience, seeking and receiving approval, interacting, touching hands, accepting dollar bills, and appearing to have a great time. Between performers, the crowd was able to purchase more drinks, have fun on the dance floor, and socialize.
If my thesis work were performed at LIVE, the dancers in my work would have had the opportunity to interact with the crowd as they performed. I made plans at this point for me to attend more performance events at LIVE and other nightclub venues in Ann Arbor, with dancers in my thesis cast coming with me. I wanted the dancers to build on their own experiences in order to create ownership of the movement and their performance so they could interact with the crowd during their own performance.
I was interested in the weight of placing artwork in a gallery - a gallery space frames what is in it as worthy, as “art.” At the art gallery in the Duderstadt Center, the floor, walls, and ceiling are light and neutral in color. The lighting is provided by bright, focused gallery lights, which is quite the opposite of strategic dark lighting that is present in nightclubs and pole fitness studios. In addition to the way the space frames the work, placing performance work with live bodies in an art gallery allows observers to see the dancers close-up. I planned to incorporate an installation of pole artifacts as well as live performance, creating an opportunity for gallery-goers to see these objects in a new light and to ask questions.
My third research question pertains to the choreography I created with University of Michigan Dance students. A list of dancers involved in the work names the following:
Mickey Erickson (Dance major, performing in work)
Erica Gavan (Inter Arts major, performing in work)
Mackenzie Larrance (Dance major, performing in work)
Paula Modafferi (Dance major, performing in work)
Marisa Diamond (Inter Arts major)
Cecilia Ngo (Engineering major)
Each dancer brings a unique style of movement and creativity to the work. I was tremendously interested in the ways that they learned how to do existing pole dancing vocabulary on top of the movement styles they have trained in for years. For example, Marisa Diamond is a circus performer and has trained in aerial work for most of her life. Her movement on the pole included attack and quick dismounts. Mickey Erickson, however, is a ballet dancer before any other form. His movement on the pole reflected his training and highlighted his awareness of body lines. Cecilia Ngo is actively involved in the Michigan Pole Dancing Society, a student organization on the University of Michigan campus. She trains at a variety of pole studios in southeast Michigan as well as on their home poles. Each dancer’s personality and movement training informed how they approach my movement on the pole.
My fourth research question addresses pedagogy. I spent some time in the summer of 2015 teaching free pole dancing classes to University of Michigan students who were interested and available. This included some of my cast members, but it also included a great deal of less experienced dancers. In the Winter 2016 semester, I taught a section of Dance 100 entitled “Introduction to Pole Fitness.” In this class, I applied much of what I learned during the summer months and in the time since then. I am interested in the relationship between building strength, physical fitness, dance techniques, and creativity. In “Introduction to Pole Fitness,” students developed greater strength, set physical fitness goals, and learned a new dance technique. I intended to guide them through creative exercises on a regular basis and lead them to take more control over their own creativity. Their participation in the gallery installation and performance was to be a culminating, final opportunity for them to demonstrate their creative expression and physical aptitude with pole dancing.
Review of Literature
There is very little scholarly research on the topic of pole dance at this time. Much of the existing literature focuses on the striptease culture, the women who perform in strip clubs with or without a pole, the popularity of burlesque, and the economics surrounding the success of strip clubs. At the outset of this research, I chose to more deeply investigate the art of pole dancing specifically, how dancers train for it, and how they create their choreography.
Pole dancing has existed as an erotic form of entertainment in North America since the 1960’s, according to the International Pole Dance Fitness Association. A branch of fitness training has emerged from the pole industry, which has evolved into a form of competition dance. Women and men participate in these pole competitions, with choreographic themes that range from sensual to fantastical, abstract to gravity-defying.
Through this review of literature, it is my intention to examine existing, academic research in the field of pole dance and pole arts. Further, I intend to discover the choreographic influences present in the field and later to develop my own methodologies of choreography and teaching pole arts. At this time, I have identified the following research themes in pole fitness literature who participates in pole fitness classes and why, feminist studies of pole fitness, investigations into oppressive and empowerment theories, and the influence of erotic pole dance on pole fitness classes.
Who Participates in Pole Fitness and Why?
“Recreational pole dancing classes are predominantly a western cultural phenomenon,” according to Whitehead and Kurz (2009, 226). Although these authors’ research takes place in Western Australia, I think their use of the term “western cultural phenomenon” reaches beyond Australia, to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Further evidence that supports my use of the term “western” culture in this way includes Potopsingh’s work in Canada (2007), Holland’s research in the UK, Sydney, and New York (2010), Hamilton’s research in Canada (2009), and Owen’s review of pole studios in the US and the UK (2012). Participants in pole fitness classes are generally women (Whitehead & Kurz, Potopsingh, Holland, Hamilton), with just a small number of male participants (Whitehead & Kurz).
In order to answer the question, “Who participates in pole fitness and why?” these studies employ a variety of data collection methods. Kally Whitehead participated in a small number of classes in Western Australia, Nicola Kim Potopsingh participated in classes in Ontario, and Samantha Holland participated in classes in the UK, New York, and Sydney. Aside from attending classes themselves, authors also conducted interviews (Hamilton 2009; Holland 2010) and analyzed media (Whitehead & Kurz 2009; Potopsingh 2007; Owen 2012; Giuffre 2011). Additionally, Holland created an international survey, for which she received input from 135 participants representing 9 different pole schools worldwide (2010, 2).
Who Participates in Pole Fitness?
The above authors’ results indicate that it is predominantly women who participate in pole fitness classes, with the only indication of male participants appearing in Whitehead and Kurz’s interviews, for which they included 20 women and 5 men (2009, 2). It can also be stated that current research indicates that pole fitness participants are those with disposable income who can afford to pay for fitness classes (Hamilton 2009). According to Holland, participants’ ethnicities were primarily white, with some South Asian and African American. On the other hand, Hamilton’s evidence shows that non-white women were non-existent in her pole dancing sample. (On racial/ethnic inquiries see also Im et al. 2013. ) In terms of age, Holland (2010, 2) indicates that women ages 18 to 62 participate in pole fitness, while Hamilton’s research showed women ages 15 to 55 years participate (2009, 68). Lastly, there seems to be some pressure, at least according to Owen, for women who participate in pole fitness to have lithe, lean bodies and an established level of physical fitness (2012, 89).
Why Do People Participate in Pole Fitness?
Pole fitness studios advertise the benefits of their classes: “reduce fat, improve cardiovascular endurance, build muscle and strength” (Whitehead & Kurz, 2009, 227), “providing top class group fitness teaching in a fun and friendly environment (Vertical Dance 2012),” “boosting confidence and improving all over body tone,... [and] increase flexibility and reduce the risk of osteoporosis (Pole Secrets 2012)” (Owen 2012, 84). The “fun and fitness” theme was evident in Whitehead and Kurz’s article, which states that the “choice to take up recreational pole dancing [is] empowering through attainment of fun and fitness,” (2009, 239). This is also evident in Holland’s book, where she states, “Some of the main themes which arose from both the interviews and the questionnaire were of camaraderie, friendships and respect for instructors” (2010, 178). Potopsingh also indicates the importance of women looking for friendships through pole fitness in that studios strive “to be inclusive in nature” (2007).
Beyond the goal of having fun while improving physical fitness, some pole studios also encourage women to have fun in a completely different context. According to Owen, the “stag and hen rituals” of the contemporary wedding industry draw women to pole studios for bachelorette parties (2012, 90). Performing sexuality continues in pole studios outside of bachelorette parties, which I discuss later in this section.
Feminist Analyses of Pole Fitness
Of the studies mentioned in this review of academic literature, many chose to investigate pole fitness with a feminist perspective. In particular, researchers sought to supplement existing discourse regarding feminist theories surrounding pole fitness (Whitehead & Kurz 2009; Holland 2010; Donaghue et al. 2011; Owen 2012) and to examine ‘sex positive’ feminist ideals with pole (Holland 2010; Giuffre 2011).
Encouraging Feminist Discourse
As stated in the abstract of the article "‘Empowerment’ and the Pole: A Discursive Investigation of the Reinvention of Pole Dancing as a Recreational Activity," Whitehead and Kurz use a “feminist post-structuralist approach to the investigation of this topic through the discursive analysis of talk produced in a range of focus groups and interviews” (2009). The authors go on to say, “As has been noted by several authors (e.g. Edley and Wetherell 2001; Peace 2003; Renzetti 1987; Riley 2001), the discursive redefinition of ideas such as ‘equality’, ‘subordination’ and ‘liberation’ in certain mainstream discourses of ‘power femininity’ (Lazar 2006, 21) actually serve to invalidate ongoing attempts to challenge pervasive, hegemonic patriarchal power structures… Thus, we currently reside in a historical and cultural moment whereby the activity of pole dancing (as a way to ‘get fit’ and ‘feel liberated’) is potentially able to make available a range of discourses and subject positions to women” (2009, 229). Whitehead and Kurz collected arguments from various feminist sources in order to demonstrate the existing discourse prior to adding to it their own conclusions. “[P]ole dancing may reinforce societal notions of both masculine and feminine sexuality as a result of encouraging women to construct themselves as erotic objects.” (241)
Samantha Holland (2010) also wishes to promote discourse. “Using pole dancing classes as a starting point for a wider discussion about gendered physicality, body image and embodiment, leisure, empowerment and pleasure, the voices of the participants are placed alongside current discourses, drawing on leisure, gender studies, cultural studies and sociology to reveal a phenomenon with many contradictions: for example, the recurring theme of participants disliking physical exercise, but of feeling liberated, and even empowered, by pole classes. Such findings challenge the image of pole classes as sexualized and objectifying” (back matter). Giuffre (2011) states that Holland does manage to increase the discourse on the subject. “In the conclusion, Holland reviews the debates about empowerment without taking a firm side. She states, ‘For me, pole classes are a wonderful thing for those women who find the classes transformative, and a beautiful awe-inspiring thing to watch’ (Holland, 186)” ( quoted in Giuffre, 312). It sounds as though Giuffre does not believe that Holland contributes any kind of opinion to the discourse, but that she brings it to the forefront so that others may discuss pole fitness more openly.
Sex Positive Feminism
Owen (2012, 91) constructs an interesting argument about the possibility of pole fitness masquerading as a sex positive form of feminism, while underneath, it remains exploitative.
Meanwhile, we might see fitness pole dancing as a kind of post-feminist scheme in which profit is pursued through the informal provision and exploitation of activities that overtly construct hyper femininity as not only desirable, but normative. If these activities also covertly construct female subjectivity as one of (pleasure-giving) service, it is through participation itself made possible through waged labor. However ambivalently or ironically the practice is constructed and received, I understand this as the scene of a double form of exploitation, and that "by these means of containment in the landscape of spectacular femininity women are removed once again from public life, the political sphere and from the possibility of feminism" (McRobbie 2007, 734). Given the disproportionate effect upon women of post-crash governmental budget cuts, and the current assault on women’s reproductive freedoms in both Britain and the United States, the depoliticizing normalization of ‘spectacular femininity’ is symptomatic of a ‘feminist tragedy' (734) with implications not just retrograde, but disturbing.
I am intrigued by Owen’s connection between pole fitness, exploitation of women, and limitations on women’s reproductive freedoms in Britain and the United States. As I continue to pursue pole research in the future, I hope to address these social connections which extend beyond dance and fitness. At this time, I do not buy into the idea that pole fitness remains an exploitative form of entertainment. In my experience, it truly can be empowering to learn new forms of dance, to develop and realize physical strength, and to develop an acceptance of self.
Contrary to Owens’ pessimistic views of pole fitness exhibiting sex positive feminism, Holland (2010) “lean[s] towards what Catherine M. Roach (2007, 5) calls a ‘sex positive’ feminism, by which she means a ‘type of feminist response … [which] often also defend[s] pornography and prostitution as at least potentially empowering and legitimate, under the right circumstances, for the women who choose these professions [my emphasis]’” (Holland, 178). In response to Holland’s statement about sex positive feminism, Giuffre (2011) points out the differences between second wave and third wave feminist viewpoints. “From a second wave lens, I might maintain that pole dancing is heterosexualized and ultimately for heterosexual men’s pleasure, regardless of whether women who attend pole classes say they are liberated and empowered by them. From a third wave feminist point of view, I might argue that women in pole dancing classes are doing this for themselves because they say they are, and emphasize their sense that this form of exercise or leisure makes these women physically and emotionally stronger” (Giuffre, 312).
Oppression versus Empowerment
Although this may be yet another facet of the feminist analyses described above, it appears so predominantly in the literature that I think it best to represent the Oppression/Empowerment debate in its own section. Within the Oppression and Empowerment arguments, the authors reference what is part of a much larger discourse in the field of feminist studies.
Defining Empowerment / Oppression Debate
As indicated in the second and third wave feminism comments made by Patti Giuffre (2011) in the section "Sex Positive Feminism" of this paper, there are supporters of pole fitness who argue that pole fitness empowers women. Likewise, there are arguments against pole fitness, which imply that it “contribute[s] to gender oppression” (Hamilton 2009, 2). Potopsingh (2007) says in her abstract that the “[d]ominant narratives include a debate as to whether pole-fitness empowers or oppresses women.” Whitehead and Kurz (2009), Potopsingh (2007), Hamilton (2009), and Holland (2010) all make reference to the empowerment or oppression of pole fitness.
Whitehead and Kurz’s (2009) “analysis focuses on the ways in which ideological dilemmas surrounding issues such as empowerment, control and the male gaze are managed within the participants’ accounts” (abstract). Their work “characerize[s] three ways in which the issue of (dis)empowerment was constructed within the talk, with these relating to discourses of (1) fun and fitness; (2) control of money and choice; and (3) performance and the male gaze” (p. 232). It seems that when women are in control of making a choice about whether to participate in pole dancing activities, they feel empowered: “The theme that runs through all three discursive constructions of pole dancing reported above revolves around issues of choice and control.” (Whitehead and Kurz, 239).
Although the authors I have chosen to review all speak to the empowerment of pole fitness classes, they still manage to assign negative connotations to pole dancing or seem otherwise unconvinced of its empowering appeal to women. For example, Holland’s (2010) use of the word ‘problematic’ in the following statement implies negativity: “In particular, I want to explore how women initiate agency and espouse liberation and, sometimes, physical empowerment through something as seemingly problematic as pole classes” (op. cit., 2). Perhaps she is anticipating what her audience might think, or responding to some of the feminist researchers she references in her book. Holland “explore[s] the paradoxical nature of pole classes; and interrogate[s] the feelings of physical empowerment and liberation experienced by pole students and the possibilities or limitations of those feelings” (ibid., 4).
Whitehead and Kurz claim that the emphasis of advertising pole fitness “to be both ‘personally empowering’ and ‘sexually liberating’” is tied to a cultural phenomenon known as ‘raunch culture.’ “This ‘raunch culture’ encapsulates the cultural trend in popular fashion towards the pornographic and also incorporates the assertion that it is no longer enough for a woman to be beautiful or thin to be considered desirable, but must now also be considered sexy and comfortable with an open, exhibitive sexuality” (2009, 228).
Louise Owen (2012, 86) makes references to a number of pole fitness studios, websites, feminist bloggers, and other researchers. In one instance, she quotes Whitehead and Kurz (2009, 240) about the economic power a woman has when she engages in pole fitness classes.
The female subject is constructed as empowered through her access to control and choice as to when she positions herself as the erotic object. (Latham 1995.) Unlike the professional pole dancer who must dance for her patron because she has been ‘bought’ as a sexual item, the recreational pole dancer is constructed as having control and choice because of being the consumer in the exchange (rather than the service provider) and the discursive redefinition of the male gaze of ‘loved ones’ as ‘appreciative,’ rather than ‘objectifying’.
I think this argument is fascinating. By removing any barriers about what kind of woman participates in pole fitness and redefining the audience of the performance, a completely new attitude has been created around pole fitness. Potopsingh (2007, 122-123) makes a note about diversity of participants in Canadian pole fitness classes.
As was seen in a variety of themes and within the results of the survey (Eskes et al. 1998), pole-dancing classes have more diversity among their participants than was originally suggested by the Oppressive Perspective. It was hypothesized that older women would not feel comfortable taking part in pole-dancing because of how older women’s sexuality has been viewed in western culture (see Anderson and Cyranowski 1994; Gill 2008; Kilbourne 1998; Schaie and Willis 1991; Shrage 2005; Strong and DeVault 1997). However, according to the survey results and findings from other methods, it was not uncommon for women in their forties and fifties to be participating in pole-dancing. In fact, during the interviews one instructor explained that she even had a 60-year-old woman in one of her classes. Therefore, the fact that women of a variety of ages participated in pole-dancing contradicts the hypothesis made in the Oppressive Perspective, and therefore, could be said to offer support for the Empowerment Perspective and its focus on diversity.
In terms of the Oppressive Perspective, I will again draw attention to Patti Giuffre’s (2011, 312) analysis regarding second wave or third wave feminism. From a second wave lens, it would seem that pole fitness is oppressive toward women, regardless of the context, simply due to the erotic entertainment history of pole dancing and the fact that women are “paying to become sexualized and self-surveilling objects, as part of ‘self-improvement’ and ‘fitness’ regimes.” Hamilton (2009) indicates a similar viewpoint in her abstract: “There still remain oppressive and exclusionary aspects to pole-dancing fitness however, and the classes can add to the objectification of women in popular culture.”
Finally, Poptopsingh (2007, abstract) concludes that “there is a preoccupation with women and raunch in Canadian media and that pole-fitness serves the economic interest of Canadian consumer capitalism where women are encouraged to buy their way to fitness and personal empowerment.”
Pole Choreography and Performance
Among the seven authors’ works which are reviewed in this document, only one mentions the choreography of pole fitness classes or pole arts performances. Louise Owen (2012) devotes a section of her paper to evaluating the types of movements performed in a pole fitness class, where pole fitness draws its choreographic inspirations, and reviewing websites that advertise pole fitness instruction.
Firstly, Owen (2012) points out that pole choreography “draws sustenance from circus, aerial performance, and burlesque, but is most conspicuously an adaptation of exotic dance performance, largely practiced in the strip club, a scene of labor that (as I discuss later) is itself notoriously precarious” (Owen, 80). She references Liepe-Levinson’s 2002 publication Strip Show: Performance of Gender and Desire as she describes what movements specifically originated in striptease. In describing her own experiences at a pole fitness class, Owen notes that “the categories of movement featured in ‘early strippers’ whole-body choreography’ (Liepe-Levinson 2002, 111 quoted in Owen) and the basis of contemporary forms of striptease - ‘the gyrations of the ‘bump,’ the ‘grind’ and the ‘shimmy’ [...] and the signature sexy walk of each performer known as the ‘strut’ or ‘parade’ (ibid., 111) - acted as the foundation for pole-dance movement. One of the first moves I learned was the strut around the pole, which provides momentum for spins, enhanced by the use of high heels (which for me were otherwise cumbersome, my inexperience resulting in accidental calf scratches and ungainly landings)” (Owen, 89). Owen goes on to describe the strength required for spins, or trick moves. “The spins themselves required a great deal of strength, but, as Holland and Attwood note, the practice, in the manner of ballet ‘draws on a tradition of women’s strength being controlled or concealed rather than displayed’ (Holland and Attwood 2009, 177 quoted in Owen)” (Owen op. cit., 89). This comment about hiding strength behind elegant movements, as in ballet, seems very familiar to me. I have heard in many ballet classes messages like, ‘don’t let the audience see how much you are working.’ It seems that pole and ballet have a similar desire to hide the effort behind graceful movements in order to display elegance, effortlessness, etc. (See also Shaver 2012, Baumgardner 2015.)
Ballerina Turned Pole Artist
One of the pole training websites (Pole Dancing School 2012) that Owen (2012) addresses features Elena Gibson, founder of Pole Dancing School. According to Owen, Gibson was a professional ballerina, touring and performing around the world before suffering an injury that led her to a career change. Owen notes that Gibson’s ballet training influences her pole aesthetic in specific ways. “The aesthetic is clean and monochrome, accentuating the lines of the dancer’s lean physique, suggesting both a transmutation of the ballet form, but, as Samantha Holland argues of pole dancing more generally, a fundamental relation to it (Holland 2010, 60 quoted in Owen)” (Owen, 2012, 89). It is worth noting that the ballet presence is very obvious in the picture Owen includes from Gibson’s website. Gibson is dressed modestly, in smooth black dance attire, and has her hair in a classic low bun (ibid., 88). I believe that Owen’s references to clean lines and ballet aesthetics are directed toward the advertisement photos and videos that Gibson is using for her pole school; there is no reference to performed choreography.
Existing research on pole arts addresses pole fitness (Coan 1989, Eskes et. al 1998, Potopsingh 2007, Holt 2008, Lindmark 2008, Stern 2008, Hamilton 2009) and striptease (Liepe-Levinson 2002 quoted in Owen 2012) pole dancing. At the current moment, I have been unsuccessful in locating research on pole choreography. Within the context of this literature review, I have focused my efforts on pole fitness research, which addresses topics such as, Who participates in pole fitness and why?, feminist studies of pole fitness and its repercussions, and the empowerment / oppressive theories. There are small references within those works about the inspiration of the movements that are performed in pole fitness classes, but only one author, Louise Owen (2012), makes specific references to choreography.
There is room for me to contribute further research into the area of pole arts and pole dancing choreography. Additionally, I have seen no mention of the choreography that is used in pole competitions. Finally, there exists an effort behind separating pole fitness and pole arts from strip club pole dance culture. However, I think it will not be possible to separate the two; further, I think it detracts from the experience of the women who participate in pole dancing to accept one form over the other or to discredit the erotic arts.
Due to the fact that I was unable to find scholarly research that addresses the choreography of pole dancing in performance, at nightclubs, in theatrical settings, or anywhere else, I pursued my own study of pole performance to develop some understanding of what other pole artists do. I analyzed a great number of online videos and live performances, noting choreographic choices, costumes, theatrical elements, and how the performers and audience interact. I noted the following four categories of influence for these videos: acrobatics, burlesque, urban pole, and pole fitness. There were also performances that did not fit into any of these categories, but I chose to hone in on these four. In the next four subsections, I share samples of my performance analyses based on the above criteria.
Acrobatic Pole Dancing
I define acrobatic expertise to broadly include extreme flexibility and contortion, aerial flips and maneuvers, and the ability to balance for extended periods or in unusual positions. Performers who demonstrate acrobatic expertise could be found in many genres of pole dancing, including historical forms (Indian Roots to Gymnastics - Athletic News. NDTV Sports, 2007; Sangam Institute of Indian Martial Arts. 2011; Patnaik 2011). Mallakhamb, or Indian pole, has existed for centuries as a mode of agility training for male wrestlers (IPDFA, n. d.). Typically, when executing pole skills, an athlete will move very quickly from one shape to another, highlighting their quick thinking and agility. Mallakhamb has grown to include artistic elements, as demonstrated in Kalpesh S. Jadhav’s (2015) video of the work, INDIA. This work is performed in a theatrical space; it uses lights, music, and other theatrical elements to amplify the strength and grace of the performers. Additionally, unlike traditional Mallakhamb, it involves several performers, each on their own tall, tapered, wooden pole, moving quickly then slowly, and at times in unison.
Another historical form that has been re-imagined is Chinese pole (Berhet et al. 2007; Shen 2007; Doane 2015). Cirque du Soleil incorporates acrobatics, circus training, and Chinese pole in Josh Saporta’s (2012) video, “Chinesse (sic) Poles- Saltimbanco Cirque du Soliel @Italy.” These performers move in unison or in groups to create a larger image. They perform awe-inspiring feats of strength and take great risks, such as suspending in a lateral shape while holding onto the pole only with the hands or flipping from one pole to another several meters in the air.
Burlesque and Pole Dancing
The second video category I have analyzed is pole dancing that incorporates elements of burlesque. (Burlesquefest, and other videos.) My understanding of burlesque is that it involves humor, is often satirical, and celebrates the tease of erotically removing clothing. Unlike stripping that happens in stripclubs, burlesque ends when the performer gets down to their last layer of clothing. (McGlynn 2006; Essig 2007; Kataria 2010; Dundson 2014.)
While attending the International Pole Convention in June 2015, I had the opportunity to watch more than a dozen showcases of performers on the main-stage. One showcase featured sexy pole dancing and included a warning beforehand for people to leave the audience area if they were concerned about being offended by partial nudity. Michelle Minx performed a Little Red Riding Hood inspired burlesque/pole piece in this particular showcase. Rosie Price (2015) caught the entire act on video, which gave me the opportunity to re-watch it later and to analyze Minx’s performance more closely. At the beginning of her performance, Minx sets the tone with a long, red, satin dress, a faux wolf fur on the floor, and wolf howling sounds in the sound score. As the piece goes on, she removes the red dress to reveal red panties, a red bra, and red platform heels. With the added skin exposure, she has added range of motion and access to friction to stick to the pole. She moves fluidly, swivels her hips, and plays between moving fast and slow to express sexiness. In the last moments of the dance, while spinning upside down on the pole, Minx removes her bra, her panties, and thong underwear to reveal pasties and a matching g-string.
Urban pole seems to be very popular in large cities, but I had never heard of it prior to this phase of my research. I define urban pole as the act of pole dancing or using pole dance movement vocabulary on public structures, such as the safety poles in a subway, on a children’s playground, or on street signposts (See Auf der Lauger's blog; Dawn 2011; Méndez 2014.). Subway pole dancing exhibited in Sarah Bouhnick’s (2013) video, “Subway Men hiphop PoleDance,” is indicative of a lot of the New York City urban pole dance videos that I found online. In Bouhnick’s video, a group of men swing around the poles on the train and they use the railing overhead to hang and do tricks. Their movement style is very quick and tight: their movements flow together, but their core strength remains closely engaged.
Pole Fitness Craze and Competitions
Pole fitness, as I mentioned in the introduction to this paper, was my entry point to pole dancing. Having participated in pole classes for a few years now, my reactions while watching others perform have grown from awe to something visceral. I can imagine doing some of the combinations I see performed – and I am still mesmerized by many others.
I have watched and analyzed several videos of winning performances from a variety of pole competitions, as well as videos from pole studios around the United States. One of these studios is called Vertical Joe’s, and it is located in Atlanta, GA. They published a promotional video (2012) to encourage plus-sized women to participate in pole dancing as a fitness class. The video includes a performance by RoYale, who looks happy, confident, and sexy while performing her routine. The video seems to have the message that any woman, no matter her size, can learn how to pole dance and can develop the confidence and grace that RoYale performs.
Alex Schukin’s (2014) video “Woman VS Man Pole Dance Battle Alex Schukin Michelle Shimmy,” is a competition between a man and a woman -- Schukin and Shimmy. Throughout their so-called battle, they take turns performing intricate dance combinations on and around the pole. YouTube users who commented on the video noted the different styles of the two performers, with some commenting on the “sluttiness” of Michelle Shimmy’s choreography and the “strength” of Alex Schukin’s movement. Perhaps what those users saw as “slutty,” in the female performer’s movements was the way she flips her long hair, circles and swivels her hips, rolls on the floor, and hides the strength behind her movements in other flourishes. I think these users read the male performer’s movements as “strong” due to how smoothly, directly, and clearly he executes his pole moves. The comparison also carries into their physical appearances: Shimmy dances in heels with her hair flying loose, while Schukin dances in shorts without any adornment.
I share these analyses in order to further illustrate the existing pole publications that I have found. While I have not found scholarly publications that analyze the choreography of pole dancing or see its crossover into theatrical performance, there is a large amount of visual material and non-scholarly work available. Many of my observations that apply to one genre of pole dancing could be applied to any other genre as well. These forms continually crossover and influence one another as artists collaborate, share, and publish their performances. SUPERbeneath, the choreography that has resulted from my time with University of Michigan dancers and our collaborative research into pole dancing, also includes a combination of elements that the dancers and I have been exposed to. There are acrobatic elements, as well as use of burlesque and ballet shapes. These are molded into something new and unique that reflect our shared creative voice, which I would consider modern dance combined with theater and pole dancing.
The scope and execution of this project has changed significantly over the past two years, as I have gathered existing literature and publications, collected equipment, and worked with an array of dancers. I read books and articles that study pole dancing from a sociological perspective, such as ‘Empowerment’ and the Pole: A Discursive Investigation of the Reinvention of Pole Dancing as a Recreational Activity by Kally Whitehead and Tim Kurz (2009). I also found several articles and books written about pole fitness, such as Pole Dancing, Empowerment and Embodiment by Samantha Holland (2010) and Reading Pole-Fitness in Canadian Media: Women and Exercise in an Era of Raunch by Nicola Kim Potopsingh (2007) . The majority of what I read addressed feminist critiques of pole dancing, in the club or as a form of fitness, and many were written through a feminist lens. However, I did not find adequate literature about the choreography of pole dancing or its appearance in a theatrical setting or in concert dance. In addition to the study of written works, I also watched a large number of videos of pole performance and wrote my own analyses of these performances, as discussed in section "Ethnographic Research". Based on this first phase of research, I set out to create my own concert dance work or works that would incorporate pole dancing.
The equipment that I used throughout the development of this work greatly informed how I was able to work and what I could create. In my first semester in the MFA program (Fall 2014), I created a piece called Beautiful / B34U71FUL / 13-E-14-U-T-11-F-U-16 (Beautiful, for short) that incorporated video of me using my home pole and live performance of me using a ballet barre. The vertical metal bar of the pole contrasts the horizontal metal bar of the barre in the space. As this solo evolved for performances outside of the University of Michigan, my video edits became clearer and my equipment changed somewhat. I built a barre that was stable enough for swinging and throwing my weight around, in a way that was more haphazard than I could manage with the first barre I used. Beautiful exposes my personal experiences with being objectified by men, and even dealing with small forms of harassment. In the video, my feet never touch the floor as the clips cut from one effortless, floating pole move to another, whereas my live body struggles to stay off the floor, climbing, inverting, and spinning around the barre. With the sound of Portishead’s You Make Me Feel Like a Woman playing, I remove my makeup and jewelry, and enter into a world where I can move without the weight of those outward expressions of femininity. When the sound score shifts to my recollections of comments and actions made by men toward me, I illustrate the seemingly endless cycle of the objectification I experienced by flipping over the barre again and again. The piece ends with me precariously balancing on the barre, with my shadow cut out into the projection on the upstage wall.
In the Winter 2015 semester, I applied for and received funding from the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) to purchase two freestanding dance poles. These began to make an appearance alongside the ballet barre in my choreography projects, where I explored dividing the performance space vertically and horizontally, dancing from ground-level to ten feet up, and use of strength. Moving forward, I began to teach pole dancing to several dancers in the summer between my second and third semesters. These dancers and I shared the two poles, and soon I added a third pole to the mix. By the end of the Fall 2015 semester, it became important for me to be able to use the poles to create a landscape in my thesis work. I had wanted a group of at least five dancers from the beginning, and by December 2015, I had five dancers. I decided to use five poles for five dancers to create a balance between people and objects on the stage. Therefore, I purchased two more poles and began to use them in rehearsals.
In April 2015, at the end of the winter semester, my cohort and I held an audition for our upcoming MFA thesis works. Despite the audition being at the end of an exhausting semester, it was important for me to find a cast before summer began. I wanted to know who I would be working with once rehearsals began so that I could encourage them to begin strength training and taking pole classes on their own ahead of time. Several Dance majors attended the audition, along with some students who study other forms of performance outside of the Department of Dance. From that bunch, I cast: (1) Michael (Mickey) Erickson, a Dance major, was one of the strongest in the audition. He learned the material that I presented very quickly. In addition, he and I had a ballet class together in my first semester and began to build a rapport at that time. We spoke about pole dancing, taught each other partnering moves that we had learned from our very different backgrounds, and made plans for how he could contribute to my thesis work. (2) Mackenzie Larrance, a Dance major, was one of the strongest movers in the audition. Like Mickey, she picked up the pole combination I taught very quickly. She grasped how to balance differently when dancing with a pole than when dancing without it. She had a quirky personality and seemed like she would be fun to work with. (3) Paula Modafferi, a Dance major, was tentatively cast after the spring audition. I knew that she would be in at least one other MFA thesis work and was concerned about over-casting her. She assured me that she was very interested in pole dancing; we agreed that she could practice with me throughout the summer and that we could make a final casting decision in September. (4) Erica Gavan, an Inter-arts Performance major, was very focused and excited about pole dancing at the audition. Although I did not know Erica very well at this point, I was impressed with the two performances I had seen her in: a BFA capstone piece and one of her own solos. She was creative, ready to collaborate, and had a strong history of dancing. (5) Chelsea Hamm, an Inter Arts Performance major, was also excited about pole dancing at the audition. I was hesitant at first to cast her because she needed to develop a lot of upper body strength. However, she assured me that she was very interested and would spend the summer months preparing herself for rehearsals in the fall. I was excited and encouraged by her enthusiasm. (6) Marisa Diamond, an InterArts Performance major, was a student who I met several months prior at an Elizabeth Streb event. Marisa sought me out to tell me about her circus background, which included training in aerial silks. Due to her experience and the reputation as an InterArts student being a good collaborator, I scheduled a private audition time for her. I was immediately impressed with her strength and confidence.
I practiced pole with Mickey and Paula from May through August, with Erica, Mackenzie, and a variety of other dancers also working with us from time to time. Mickey and Paula were strongly committed to learning this new form, and the three of us scheduled two- to three-hour sessions, at least twice a week, for three months. At the end of the summer, I officially asked Paula to be in the work and she excitedly agreed. In September, I began rehearsing with the cast four days a week, where each dancer was scheduled for five hours across two of those days.
Partway into the Fall 2015 semester, Chelsea realized that she had taken on too much and withdrew from the work. Not much later, Marisa had an exciting opportunity in Chicago become available for the Winter 2016 semester and also withdrew. I contacted student organizers who were involved in the Michigan Pole Dance Society, a student organization on campus, and found two more dancers to bring into the work: Suzy Wang and Cecilia Ngo. Suzy was not able to commit to our rehearsal schedule and withdrew right away. Cecilia rehearsed with us for just over two months before deciding that she had taken on too much and would not be able to be in the work.
By February 2016, I had four dancers: Mickey, Erica, Paula, and Mackenzie. I had been back-and-forth for months about whether I would be in the work. I was conflicted about losing my perspective as an outside eye, not fitting in with the movement styles of the other dancers, or not being as powerful of a performer as the other dancers. I pushed back my worries and decided that for my vision of a large group work to come through, I needed to be part of the cast. I jumped in with intentions of doing my most advanced skills with Mickey and Paula (who had trained the most intensively), to be part of a powerful trio with those two.
However, the month of March brought yet another, unexpected cast change. I found out on March 9 that I was pregnant and that pole dancing would become very difficult for me very soon. I decided to keep myself in the work, but made significant changes to how physically demanding my portions of the choreography could be. For example, my medical provider recommended a lifting restriction of 30 pounds to prevent pregnancy-related muscle injury, which meant that I could no longer help pick up the poles (which weigh about 200 pounds apiece).
From April 2015 to March 2016, from a selection of nine dancers who were involved in the work at some point, my final work was performed by the original five who had been there since the beginning. I was surprised that some of the dancers who we picked up along the way, like Cecilia and Suzy, were not able to stay involved for the remainder of the project. Erica, Mackenzie, Mickey, Paula, and I developed close relationships and a special kind of rapport. Our pole training required a huge amount of trust and communication skills; in short, we became a close-knit group due to this project.
In the proposal for this project, I described three venues that I wanted to perform my work in: a nightclub, an art gallery, and a theater. In response to the popular conception of pole dancing in gentlemen’s clubs and part of a nighttime entertainment scene, I wanted to create concert dances that use poles and transplant them into two very different venues. I wanted to see how the work and its reception would change depending on audiences’ expectations. A nightclub’s dark, strategic lighting would be distinctly different from theatrical lights that guide an audience’s eye through the choreography. The presence of alcohol and a dance floor would create space for an interactive, uninhibited audience or crowd of observers. I wondered if a nightclub crowd would notice the artistry of the work and if they would see sexiness in dancing that I do not perceive as sexy; I wondered if I could dictate what is or is not sexy through my choreographic choices and the performance of the dancers.
In contrast to the loud, dark space of a nightclub, my idea of an art gallery is a quiet, brightly lit space with white walls where every detail is starkly illuminated. Gallery-goers expect to look at the artwork as closely or as cursorily as they please. I wondered how placing a live performance in this space of independent observers would change how people navigate the gallery. I wondered how the stark, bright lighting would expose the hidden aspects of our performance that are hidden with theatrical lights. Most of all, I wondered how this space, that carries some authority of framing what is accepted as “art” would influence people’s opinions of pole dancing, especially the opinions of the performers, Department of Dance faculty, gallery-goers, and me as choreographer.
Venue Fantasy into Reality
I contacted the manager at LIVE nightclub in Ann Arbor, and later contacted the manager of Necto. I think that there is potential for performing in both of those spaces in the future, but that I did not have the necessary budget, skills, personnel, and time for putting that together for my thesis performance. I intend to reach out to them again at a later date.
I also reached out to several art galleries around Ann Arbor, and spent a lot of time perusing photographs of the various spaces around town. I ran into difficulties with finding a formal enough space that would allow for pole dancing. I was told that there was no way pole dancing could happen near the artwork on display at the galleries at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). In the end, I applied to use the art gallery at the Duderstadt Center on north campus. Fortunately, the organizer of this space, Kathi Reister, was excited about my project and very helpful with bringing it together.
The third venue I described was a theater. I researched the theater spaces around Ann Arbor and realized that I did not have the budget for any of these spaces, as beautiful as they were. I decided to use the wealth of resources available to me and hold my performance at the Betty Pease Studio Theater, in collaboration with Michael Parmelee. Michael and I coordinated with stage manager and lighting designer Mary Cole, administrative assistant Megan McClure, and technology coordinator and production assistant Sean Hoskins to get our production elements in order.
Two Directions of Reality
At the same time that I was working out my shifting expectations regarding equipment, dancers, and performance venues, my research ideas began to coalesce into two main areas: performance and pedagogy. The performance aspect encompasses the collaborative efforts that went into the Betty Pease performance of SUPERbeneath: dancers, artists, production personnel, and designers. The pedagogical aspect includes all instances of me teaching pole dancing from December 2014 to present: Studio Soar (West Lafayette, IN), my group that gathered during Spring Term 2015 (University of Michigan), teaching my thesis cast how to pole dance Fall 2015 and Winter 2016, and “Introduction to Pole Fitness,” which I taught in the Winter 2016 semester.
As it turns out, I am more interested in the making of work than in its final execution; the process of creating SUPERbeneath is far more interesting to me than its performance. I enjoyed the collaborative processes that I engaged in with the dancers, production designers, and others. In my entire experience as a modern dancer, from January 2008 to present, I have had the privilege to experience firsthand how the creative process is a mode of research. I like to engage in situations in which each collaborator has the autonomy to make artistic decisions within a shared idea for a project. The choreographer(s) make the final call and figure out how to fit all of the pieces together, but the dancers and designers contribute freely throughout the process.
As I entered into the process of creating SUPERbeneath, I felt that I should have a heavier hand in the direction of the work since it would be my very important thesis research. Through the evolution of the work and the development of rapport among the cast, I realized that rather than requiring more direction than I had used in the past, these dancers actually required more freedom within the work. Mackenzie, Paula, Erica, and Mickey are accomplished, intelligent artists who can create and contribute. They were a great joy to work with and became a source of learning for me as well as the other way around. The creative process for this work is synonymous, for me, with learning and research. It was an active form of engagement, posing questions, and seeking possible solutions.
I further discuss the rehearsal process as a mode of research later in this document, in the section "SUPERbeneath" and in the section "Larger Field" and section " Composing with Pole".
In the same way that rehearsals become a space for experimentation and messy ideas, the classroom space is also a place where ideas evolve. When I have an opportunity to teach something, I can never be certain how it will be perceived and how well it will be learned. With that in mind, I consider my lesson plans to be a starting place for a laboratory experience. My pole teaching techniques have evolved with each group of students and with my own growing knowledge. This evolution is not limited to pole technique classes; pedagogy is a form of research for me in a studio dance class, fitness classes, mathematics classes, or a in one-on-one tutoring scenarios.
Structure of the Dance
SUPERbeneath was built of small sections, that could either stand alone as a vignette or could flow from one to another to create a narrative. It was a long process of trial and error to figure out the order of those sections for any sort of narrative to make sense. The piece begins with a duet entering stage right at the same time that a trio enters stage left. The stage is laid out in a landscape that includes three vertical poles, one on center stage, and two evenly spaced in the upstage corners. There are also two poles that are joined together like a dumbbell downstage center, with the circular platform bases creating large, black obstructions. The dancers are dressed in five distinct costumes, each one a different color: pink, blue, green, red, and black. These colors reflect some aspect of each character’s personality and super power.
Obtaining superpowers. For the better part of five months in rehearsals, the nature of each character’s super powers slowly evolved. We began with movement investigations about strength portrayal for male and female superheroes, comic book characters, animated movie characters, and other entertainment personalities. As this investigation deepened, the areas we investigated broadened. We began looking at the spectrums of good/evil, outgoing/shy, masculine/feminine, collaborator/soloist, among others, and used this to shape what each dancer felt they could express about their own personality and about the personality of the character they were constructing. Thus each dancer’s individual contributions shaped how this first section of SUPERbeneath came together.
In this section, each character and their power is introduced. One at a time, they hear their name spoken over the sound system, their name pops up on the projection, and they cross the barrier of the center poles. The projection also shows a video clip of the element each character controls, while sound effects that match that element play over the music. After their powers are activated, the superheroes run around the stage and engage with the poles, drawing more power from them and building the energy level as this section goes on.
The trio approaches the dumbbell structure and tries to activate the magic that they know will come out of it. They press buttons, trace the circles of the platforms, and try any means of finding a secret activation. The duet is more cautious, watching from the edges of darkness around the space. The “Automated Virtual Assistant,” or AVA, speaks over the sounds of suspenseful music and introduces each character by their new name as they discover their superpowers. Bubblicious crosses the bar to the sounds of bubbles popping and blows her own bubbles. Tsunami splashes under the bar while water sound effects play. Linea entwines herself around the bar, crossing the barrier to the sounds of twigs snapping and plants growing. The three feel energized by their new powers and run through the space to try them out.
The duet approaches the power-giving structure and have a dramatic, elemental reaction when their names are spoken. Match discovers his ability to create and control fire; Cirquette finds her strength in controlling electricity and magnetism. They each convulse as their powers activate in their bodies. AVA conducts the five newly powered characters to work together in moving the dumbbell structure around the space and separating the two poles. Cirquette is magnetically drawn to the center pole, where she not only exhibits her powers, but is recharged by the happenings around her.
Electricity. Electricity evolves out of the first section when Cirquette is drawn to the center pole. Linea and Bubblicious each handle a pole, rolling it along its platform edge. The two together, splitting the stage with Cirquette in the middle, create a living, moving turbine. The electricity builds in this section until Cirquette is reigned in by Bubblicious to begin working together as a team. At the end of this section, four poles are lined up against the upstage wall, with the center pole being the fifth and final pole put into place.
While the turbine generates electricity and builds Cirquette’s powers, Cirquette’s movements become daring, dangerous, and gravity-defying. She hooks one knee around the pole, grabs onto her foot, and falls backward, to sail around headfirst. She disengages from the pole and loses her powers, only to be recaptured by its magnetic pull. Cirquette feels the electricity coursing through her veins as she climbs the pole, inverts, and holds herself in a long shape supported just by her hands and one ankle. As the two spinning poles come to a halt upstage, next to the two that started in the corners, Cirquette finds herself losing control. AVA calls on Bubblicious to calm Cirquette with her electric-cancelling bubbles. Bubblicious directs Cirquette stage left while Linea, Match, and Tsunami adjust the landscape and interact with the poles to prepare for a moment of teamwork.
Wall Section. The Wall Section is a moment of organized choreography that demonstrates how all five dancers can move together. Their teamwork is evident in the way they move in unison and in canons. Rather than competing, trying to control one another, or following AVA’s directives, this section is a time when they are strictly dancing together. These five very different personalities can move together and support one another while still maintaining their own characteristics. With the five poles arranged just in front of the upstage wall, introductions of the characters’ powers continue. Each dancer enters from stage left in a canon, using the wall to control a horizontal run and spin around the pole, one pole at a time. There is a moment where the perspective of the observers is shifted: The dancers control their slow movements and leg gestures, with one leg pressed against the wall and their backs pressed against the poles. Three dancers are upright, partway up the pole, and two dancers are inverted, with hands on the floor. On a descending tone in the music, all five dancers come to standing, facing upstage. The elemental video clips from the first section are projected again, this time in vertical strips that show up on their backs and overflow onto the white wall behind them. There is electricity zapping on Cirquette, bubbles floating on Bubblicious, flames and sparks on Match, vines growing on Linea, and waves crashing on Tsunami.
Transition. AVA directs the characters to arrange the “final landscape,” at which time video projection of each superpower continues to play on the white wall. The center pole is moved away from the wall and placed back on center stage. The two poles next to center are placed in a line with the center pole, one on stage left and one on stage right. Tsunami splashes over each pole with the blue towel from her utility belt, wiping sweat and oil off for better grip. Finally, the two poles from the upstage corners are brought downstage to the quartermarks. The five poles create more depth in the space, traveling downstage from the most-upstage position they could be, to create two lines (two in front, three in back) from center stage downward.
Electricity & Fire Duet. As the two most volatile powers, electricity and fire are well paired in this section. Their backstory, which Paula and Mickey created, says that Cirquette and Match are siblings. They had a rough childhood on the streets of Las Vegas and can handle extreme conditions. In this section, a bit of sibling rivalry shows through as they try to outperform one another and eventually take each other’s powers. Cirquette and Match re-enter the space, moving through the downstage-most lane. They illustrate their combined strengths, falling, gliding, and rolling through the space. They use teamwork to move in unison until they are suspended on the floor with feet in the air -- at which time they are each overcome with their elemental power flying through their legs and into the rest of their body. At this point, they drop any sense of teamwork and their competitive nature shows through. They stare each other down as they swing around one pole, then another pole, until Match reaches out to Cirquette. Cirquette approaches him while Match is up high on a pole, accepts his hand, and swings around a full revolutions, suspended by Match’s hand. Again drawn to the center pole, Cirquette becomes a conduit for Match to reignite his powers and explode into athletic pyrotechnics. Drained of power, Cirquette staggers off to the stage left quartermark pole to recharge.
Fire. In this section, Match’s powers become the overwhelming theme. Growing from his power exchange with Cirquette, the fire gets out of control. Bubblicious is in danger from the heat and must be saved by Tsunami’s water powers that will wash out the fire.
Fully charged, Match gleefully engages with the fire he creates around himself. He alternates running through the space, flying through the air, dancing on the center pole, and flashing a red cape artfully through the air. He demonstrates his flexibility and strength on the center pole, wrapping his back around it and reaching his arms and one leg away, as he spins in place. Just as before, flames and sparks project onto the white upstage wall as flame sound effects come through over the heavy metal song on the sound score.
Meanwhile, Match is blissfully unaware that Tsunami and Linea are floating gently on the two stage right poles and that Bubblicious is stuck at the top of the upstage-left pole. Unable to cope with the heat of the flames, Bubblicious is helpless until someone can quench the flames and come to her rescue. Fortunately, Linea notices! AVA directs Linea to seek help from Tsunami. Linea runs over to Tsunami’s pole, gets her attention by climbing onto her pole and twining her way through Tsunami’s space, and motivates her to cancel the flames with her water. Tsunami touches Match with water, forcing him off of the center pole. She continues to cool him down by shooting more water in his direction. Looking for a way to neutralize him completely, without actually harming him, Tsunami spots the red fire cape lying on the floor. She picks up the cape and envelopes him alongside her, and the pair spin off toward stage left together.
Linea makes her way to Bubblicious and calls on her plant-like climbing ability to ascend the pole and help Bubblicious come down.
Plant Powers. The seventh section of the work is one in which the calmer powers, plant-growth, water, and air, take over the space. While Linea, Tsunami, and Bubblicious engage as a trio, Match and Cirquette recharge from their huge energy expenditures by leaning on an upstage pole.
As Bubblicious and Linea descend the pole at the end of the Fire section, they join Tsunami in a meadow in the middle of a forest to celebrate Linea’s plant powers. The trio travels to the stage right quartermark pole. Match and Cirquette reunite upstage-left to regain their powers on the pole that is located there.
The trio create a range of radially symmetric shapes with their limbs and torsos, arranged around a single pole. Laying on their backs, with their torsos draped over the edges of the pole platform, they create a diamond shape with their feet on the pole and a similar diamond with their arms on the floor. They circle one leg through the air, roll onto their stomachs, and transition so that Tsunami and Bubblicious are kneeling back-to-back with the pole between them. They support Linea as her tendrils climb over their knees and shoulders and up to the top of the pole. The three together create an opening and closing flower-like shape, with Linea blooming in the center. She descends slowly to the floor to be welcomed back by her comrades.
Superhero Competitors. In this final section, the trio and duet again become separate teams of competitors. Their movements emulate superhero motifs, showing strength and power as they throw their invisible capes around themselves. This evolves into a competition with AVA announcing who is in each spotlight. For a moment, Cirquette becomes the focus of the other four characters, just before they split to separate poles and end suspended off the ground.
With a sudden musical shift, Bubblicious, Linea, and Tsunami realize that they are being stared down and challenged by Match and Cirquette. The trio make their way to their feet and return the stare. In unison, all five dancers charge laterally across the space, making strong shapes with their arms, flexing, swinging around invisible capes – continuing to challenge one another. The trio travels stage right to stage left facing upstage, while the duet travels stage left to stage right facing downstage. Match and Cirquette continue with the dramatic, cape-tossing movements as the trio runs around and jumps around the poles.
As AVA announces who is competing at each moment, highlights from earlier in the work come back. The trio has a moment together on three poles, followed immediately by a moment with Tsunami and Bubblicious together on the center pole. This continues with some crossover between the two groups, highlighting soloists, and bringing back big moments. After running around the whole stage, all five dancers remount the poles, with Cirquette in the center. As she sails around the pole with her bicep holding her up and both hands reaching behind to hold both feet, the other characters show their awe at her skills. They circle around her and gesticulate in amazement. Then all five scatter to different poles, jump in unison, and find one final, signature shape. Sounds of electricity, fire, waves, twigs snapping, and bubbles popping come out in quick succession as the spotlights fade out.
Production Elements. To incorporate all of the supernatural ideas the dancers and I shared, I decided to use as many theatrical production elements as I could manage. I considered costume changes, special lighting effects like strobe lights, video projection, use of a bubble machine, sound effects, interactions with the audience, speech and vocalization, and a musical score for this work. As we researched these ideas, in rehearsal and otherwise, I eliminated a few of the more cumbersome options.
Sound Design. On other projects in the past, I have had the good fortune to work closely with a sound designer, but I have also compiled my own sound files many times. For this project, I was concerned about spreading myself too thin and that I would not have time to work closely with too many designers. I had a good idea of what I wanted the sound to be like, and I knew that if I designed it myself that I could change it during rehearsal, make last-minute changes right before a rehearsal, etc. I used free online resources to find sound effects that fit each superpower: fire burning, electricity arcing, bubbles popping, twigs snapping, and waves crashing. I held onto these for a while as I figured out the arrangement of sections of the work and which music to play for each section. I used a wide variety of music throughout the process, including laid back instrumental music, hard rock, songs with and without lyrics, theme songs from action movies, musical theater tunes, and so on.
During the last few months of rehearsals, I had a newly edited soundtrack at nearly every rehearsal. I was experimenting with layering sound effects over the music and placing tracks in different orders. At one point, I realized that because it changed every time, there was no sense of us as dancers “knowing the piece.” So I added a layer of stage direction, recording my voice. The aspect of having a monotone, soft voiceover took on a new dimension in the work. With input from Erica, Mackenzie, Paula, and Mickey, I gave the voiceover a name and updated lines. We called the voice AVA, or Automated Virtual Assistant. Instead of giving stage directions, we made it as though AVA were somehow responsible for the characters gaining power from the poles and directing us in how to use our powers.
I created a few different maps of how I thought the sections of the work would go together. These maps included layers: duration, energy level, what part of the stage was being used, who was onstage, and what elemental powers were being highlighted. As I assembled these pieces in various orders, I realized that there were a couple of very high-energy sections and a couple that were much lower energy levels. (It was important to have this dynamic range so that the dancers could recover from the anaerobic work of pole dancing throughout the work). I chose to put the high-energy sections far apart from each other in the map, with a middle-energy section in the middle. In making these decisions, I rearranged the sound score to match it; but at the same time, the sound score had a big effect on how I made those decisions. It was a reciprocal relationship between the two.
Light Design. I was pleasantly surprised by Mary Cole’s artistic vision for the lighting for my work. We met after she attended a rehearsal, and she described the scenes that she saw and the use of superpowers. She could see where we, as performers, were imagining different things happening and knew how to use lights to amplify the choreography. She could sense the mood in each section and described how the lighting could enhance that mood. This was a very smooth meeting for me, with a lot of agreeing with the things that she saw – we were securely on the same page.
One of the special features that I wanted to explore was the use of a strobe light to simulate the effects of lightning. Mary helped me get in contact with a theater supply rental company in Ann Arbor and researched their gear to see if it would be compatible with the equipment in Betty Pease Studio Theater. Unfortunately, it was not, so we did away with the strobe light idea. Mary provided an alternative idea for me: the light over center stage could pulse slowly, then more quickly, during the electricity section as the music and dancing intensified. In this way, Mary helped me shape some of my more extreme ideas into something manageable for the theater space we worked in. In her role as stage manager, Mary also talked me out of the idea of using a bubble machine due to the risk of messy, slippery residue on stage. Instead, Bubblicious had touchable, non-messy bubbles that she blew to exhibit her powers.
Collaborations. This entire piece – the entire concert – was built through collaboration. I worked in collaboration with the dancers at every rehearsal, from May 2015 through April 2016. As the concert dates approached, I worked in collaboration with Michael Parmelee in order to share the concert. We met frequently, with more frequency beginning in January, in order to discuss advertising, budgeting, details of the program, how to plan a reception, and so on. Around the same time, my production meetings and lighting design meetings with Mary Cole also became a priority. Mary brought a history and competence with using the studio theater that I could not have found elsewhere.
Visual Designs. Caleb Carithers, a senior in graphic design at Purdue University, designed the video projection that played during the work. I had already made several drafts of the projection, using free video footage and stock footage that I found online. However, after putting several hours into it I realized that I did not have the skills needed for this project. Luckily, the promotional graphic designer who I worked with recommended Caleb. Caleb used the video clips that I found, and he formatted them so they were similar to a comic book background. A simple change of adding a white background, geometric frames the video showed through, and dots to give a pop art effect made this video projection the sparkling piece of craftsmanship I was looking for. Jess Emery was also a senior at Purdue University this year, studying graphic design. I danced with Jess during my time at Purdue as an alumna (2013-2014), and she even performed in one of my jazz pieces at Purdue. I like working with designers that I have a history with or have somehow established a positive rapport. I contacted Jess about poster design, working on the layout of the program, making a postcard, and other visual design materials for this project. I had been working on playing cards for the five characters in the dance work which I modeled off of Magic The Gathering cards that I found online. However, I was struggling to make the front of the card. So this was one more project that Jess helped with.
Accessing Dancers’ Other Talents.I usually design and construct my own costumes for my dance works. This is in part due to having a very limited budget in most circumstances, but I also enjoy designing and creating clothing. I began working on costume ideas in October of 2015. I had a color palette in mind and purchased cheerleading briefs for all of the dancers to wear. The briefs worked fairly well but were plain. As the piece evolved, I decided that I wanted each character to have a unique costume design that reflects their powers while still being functional for pole dancing. I had this image of using unitards with briefs, and possibly removing the unitards at some point in the piece. However, every variation of unitards that I tried, even with cutting into them, did not work. So I chose to meet with Mackenzie Larrance, who also has an interest in costume design. We sketched images of a variety of silhouettes for each dancer, playing with ways to coordinate them as a collection. Putting these ideas into action required some help from Erica Gavan as well. She had great ideas about construction, color palettes, and even photography sessions. In the end, costume design was a three-person collaboration, with the majority of the construction work that I completed.
As I mentioned above, the entire process of creating this work was a collaboration. A beautiful example of how that came together in the dancing is the duet that Mickey and Paula perform together in the fifth section of the work. I had several pieces of movement phrases that I wanted to incorporate, but it was difficult for me to work in the modular way I usually do when constructing a dance section. Mickey and Paula were happy to take on the challenge of incorporating the movements I selected into the narrative that we co-designed during rehearsal. They really owned this section and thrived during rehearsals and in the performances.
Set Assembly. The last group of collaborators who were involved in the performance of SUPERbeneath were the crew and a handful of students from my Winter 2016 Intro to Pole class. These students assisted with setting up the poles before dress rehearsals and each night of performance and with putting away all of the poles during intermission. Looking for a way to preserve my energy and that of my cast, I asked the Intro to Pole students to assist. They already had the skillset. They were well practiced at setting up and tearing down the poles from doing it each week before and after class.
Along with the groups of my students who helped with the poles, the crew members also had an important role in setting up and tearing down. KC, Beynji, and Amanda learned how to properly handle all of the equipment, which pieces go together, and how to assemble everything. I had not expected them to help with this part because it is so specific. But they told me that it should be part of their job and that they were willing to learn it. I was very grateful for all of the extra hands.
Finally, the Video 1 presents SUPERbeneath, the final product of collaboration, efforts, and preparations mentioned above.
Video 1. SUPERbeneath. Amy Cadwallader, choreographer.
Copyright by Amy Cadwallader and The University of Michigan in the Department of Dance.
Music used in this soundtrack is being used under creative commons rules.
Composers whose work appear in this soundtrack are:
Brian Tyler, Two Fingers, John Powell, Five Finger Death Punch featuring Rob Halford, Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro.
In the larger field of pole dancing, I see this work as a member of the “pole art” subset. Pole art tends to refer to any pole dancing work that goes outside of the existing structures and expectations in other pole dancing environments. For example, in a pole competition and in pole fitness performances, there are two poles anchored to the floor and a truss system above: one static and one spinning. There can be any number of dancers (I have seen between one and five), use of props, costume changes, and so on. References to pop culture are pretty common, as are references to sexiness. My work is very different from this format since the poles are freestanding and can be relocated around the stage. The content of the work, superheroes, is not original, but our execution of it was.
In relation to other dance forms that I have studied, I think there is a similarity between pole dancing and contact improvisation or weight-sharing in modern dance. The movement vocabulary in this work was generated in the same way that I would generate movement for any other modern work: it was idiosyncratic, specific to characters, and came from improvisations based on research from outside the studio. The dancers and I would often begin rehearsal with a discussion of some idea that I wanted to explore, e.g. how strength is expressed by female Disney characters. Then we would design some improvisational score based on that concept and begin to shape original movements.
A great deal of the feedback I have received about this work is that people are surprised and excited to see pole dancing incorporated into a concert dance. I have participated in conversations about how versatile the poles became in SUPERbeneath: switching between prop and set piece, changing perspective by using the wall, moving the poles around the space with the 60-inch platforms rolling along the floor. More specific areas of feedback that have come up are: the role of gender in my pole dancing work, how my work relates to the sexual perception of pole, and what it means to teach pole as a technique class.
In the beginning of the rehearsal process with Mickey, Paula, Erica, Mackenzie, Marisa, and Chelsea, we explored gender in a number of contexts. I led rehearsals with the following questions framing our movement explorations:
How is strength portrayed for men versus women in comic books? Movies based on comic books? Disney movies? After completing a gender identity quiz online, how would you define your own gender? For example, would you say that you are 75% feminine and 25% masculine?
Portrayal of Strength in Fictional Characters. I asked the dancers about how the strengths of male and female comic book characters are portrayed in order to look at an extreme case. I thought it best to remove us from everyday life to some degree. After compiling a very long list of characters, we then acted out some of those characters’ signature moves, catchphrases, and poses. We discovered that based on our perception, male characters have a lot of upper body strength and exhibited postures of confidence and power whereas female characters key body language emphasized their curves, luscious hair, or were somehow sexy. Some female characters also use powerful poses, but are often illustrated from an angle that focuses on their legs or busts.
The following week, we focused on Disney movies. We again composed a list and separated the characters by male human, male animal, female human, and female animal. Going through the same exercise of embodying each character’s signature moves, poses, and catchphrases, we found that male characters were often more memorable or more interesting. They had strengths that would be fun, like flying a magic carpet or controlling a kingdom. But many female characters needed help and fit the “damsel in distress” role.
Next, we examined the types of powers and strengths male characters had compared to female characters. Many of the male characters’ strengths were exaggerations of so-called manly features: the ability to destroy, flying, picking up very heavy objects, running very fast, and so on. Similarly, female characters had powers that were exaggerations of so-called womanly features: mind control, altering the weather, becoming invisible, being extremely flexible, etc. We created a number of movement phrases based on these explorations. Trying to figure out how the genders of the cast fit into the genders of the characters we researched was a difficult task. This led to our next exploration: how we each define our own genders and gender expression.
Defining our Own Genders.In preparation for rehearsal one week, I sent the dancers a gender identity quiz. It asked questions about typical behaviors, whether you leave your clothes on the floor, if you like someone to pick you up for a date, what kind of sports you like, among others. At the end of the quiz, it identifies the quiz-taker along a spectrum of masculinity and femininity. This turned out to be an excellent conversation starter. I asked the dancers to journal their responses and to bring those journal entries to rehearsal. The most memorable reflection came from Marisa. She disliked the quiz and did not agree with it. She wrote the following in her journal: "I got 76% gender neutral on the quiz, which is bogus! I’m female, I identify as female; if gender is a spectrum here’s me: Just because I’m tough, strong, and like “raunchy” comedies does not mean I should or WANT to be labeled as male...".
Marisa was not the only one who disagreed with either the gender quiz or the commonly used gender spectrum description. Mickey wrote that a spectrum is “a little bit too linear, implying that people exist at some point between the constructed ideas of male and female.” He went on to say that he thinks people self-identify as male or female based on societal pressures. Erica provided an image, shown here, that opened up an exciting dialogue.
Paula pointed out that adding to her masculine attributes does not detract from her feminine attributes: that she can be 75% feminine and 60% masculine. I found this to be completely fascinating and launched other ideas off of this concept, which were later used in our character development.
As a cast, we created a long list of spectrums (not just gender) that we thought could be used to describe a person. Each dancer chose five from that list and marked what percentage they felt described their character. For example, Paula identified Cirquette as being 80% good, 40% evil, 90% outgoing, 60% tainted, and 60% silly. Having these ideas, along with original backstories for each character, helped us shape how they would behave and interact in the scenarios that we created in the work. By having someone exist along a spectrum of, say, good and evil, we opened up the depths of possibilities of what kind of behavior they might display.
Sexual Perception of Pole
Another concept that we explored in early rehearsals was the dancers’ perception of sexiness in pole dancing. I asked them to respond to the following two questions:
Pole as a Technique Class
The third critique that has come up in a number of conversations is in regard to pole dancing as a technique class. It is no secret that I have enjoyed teaching and participating in a variety of fitness classes over the years.
With this in mind, various Dance faculty members have asked what it means for me to teach pole dancing as a technique class and how it is different from teaching pole fitness. I define pole technique as a combination of movement techniques that incorporates strengthening certain muscle groups to train for pole skills, moving with the whole body on or off of the pole, possibly choosing to incorporate this movement with music, and making creative choices about how these concepts combine. My style of pole dancing develops a specific type of body – everyone of differing body types can participate and learn, but the strengths that they develop are in the same areas: hands, arms, shoulders, core, and back, for starters. I further discuss my pedagogical practices in pole classes in the section "Pedagogy".
Pole as Partner
I like to compare climbing on a pole to my experience of being a flier in contact improvisation. In the same way that a flier is always responsible for their own body weight, relation to gravity, and personal safety, the same is true for a pole dancer. Rather than a living, moving partner, a pole dancer navigates a fairly static structure and how their momentum and speed effect possible shapes and movements. Pole dancing has a dual relationship between pushing and pulling, falling and lifting, which I find very similar to contact improvisation. For example, in order to climb the pole, I might push against the pole with my leg and pull with my hands. In order to climb an improvisation partner, I also might push through that person’s center while pulling my center over theirs.
In order to spin around a pole, I fall in the direction I wish to go in order to create centripetal force that carries me around, while also lifting my body into a desired shape. Likewise, in contact improvisation, two people can find wonderful moments of centrifugal force, spinning in and out of contact with one another, by falling toward the center and staying lifted in their cores.
Just as with contact improvisation, the possibilities of partnering are not limited to one-to-one ratios. In videos of Chinese pole and Cirque du Soleil performances, I have seen as many as five people on one pole at a time. The poles they used were probably close to thirty feet tall and were anchored at the top as well as the bottom. In my experience with my thesis cast using the X-Stage Lite freestanding poles, we have had up to three people on a pole at one time. In the seventh section of SUPERbeneath, Tsunami, Linea, and Bubblicious do a backward-traveling spin on one pole in unison. In addition to each person managing their own weight and centrifugal force, the weight and forces of the other people also affect what can happen in that spin. Understanding these forces and how to control our own speed gave us the tools to execute this trio skill.
Composing with Pole
In much of my modern choreography, I work modularly in collaboration with the dancers. I design improvisation scores so that a new, idiosyncratic movement vocabulary can be generated by the dancers for that piece. Then, I structure these movements into small phrases and later shape them into sections. This modular style gives me easy access to rearranging the pieces, layering them, and making variations that the dancers and I can name and recall. However, with pole dancing, I found that each dancer embodies my movements uniquely. So, rearranging who does what movement phrase and placing one dancer’s movement on another became more of a challenge than without poles.
To deal with that challenge, I led my cast to create their own versions of dance movements and phrases that fit into a specific theme that we were researching in a given rehearsal. As the work came together, I gave the dancers much more liberty than I have with other works, asking them to embody their characters through all of their movement generation and assembly. This process required more directing in a one-on-one fashion than with my typical mode of choreography.
My inquiry into pole dancing has included a great deal of embodied research: enhancing my pole dancing skills, teaching other dancers how to pole dance, creating pole choreography, and designing my own pedagogical methodologies. All of this embodied research overlaps with my developing pole dance pedagogy. In the spring of 2015, when I began training intensively, other dancers trained with me. I had the opportunity to re-learn the basics as I explained them to others, which helped me anticipate their questions and better explain how to do each skill. As those dancers acquired more skills, we became a collaborative group who could teach one another new skills. In choreographing SUPERbeneath, I designed several pedagogical tools that would influence the success of my choreography. A few of these tools are: I teach the following side climbs in a progression that leads to being able to do a Cupid (holding onto the pole with a hooked leg and pressing through the arch of the other foot with hands free): Cherub with a strong grip, Cherub with a split grip, 5-point star, Cupid with a strong grip, Cupid with an elbow grip, Cupid with no hands. This progression usually takes about four to six weeks, maybe longer to master.
A lot of students are excited about going upside down on the pole. In order to ensure their safety from muscle strain as well as from falling, I teach inversions with the following progression: Knee tucks on the pole with arms in a strong grip, Chopper preparations on the floor with bent knees, Chopper preparations on the floor with straight legs, Knee tucks on the pole with one leg straight, Basic inversion preparations on the floor in order to find the correct placement of the legs when upside down, Basic inversion on the pole with a crash pad underneath and a spotter, Basic inversion without a spotter, Chopper. There are many more inversions, but this is the beginning list before getting into the more complex variations.
It is important to me that dancers develop endurance for staying on the pole for a long time. I have created a particular spin combination that can be done on static or spinning pole, to help train hand strength and endurance.
It is also important to me that dancers incorporate their own creativity into what they learn. We play “Three Hooks” and “Add-On” to invent new pole dance combinations. In “Three Hooks,” a dancer identifies three points on their body that they will use as hooks on the pole, then they improvise while moving through those three points. In “Add-On,” dancers take turns adding one movement onto a phrase that they develop together. It quickly becomes a long and challenging task.
Introduction to Pole Fitness
The biggest arena for designing my own pedagogical methodologies was my designed course, Introduction to Pole Fitness that I taught in the Winter 2016 semester. In this course, I had 23 students whose majors were not Dance. There was a range of strength and skill in the class: students who could not do one push-up, students who had danced their entire adolescence, students who practice gymnastics and tumbling regularly, and one student who had practiced aerial silks for years before coming to the University of Michigan. With such a broad range of skill levels in the room, it made the most sense for me to create opportunities for the students to show individual growth and to work with others who were similarly-skilled. Therefore, I designed a tiered system for building strength and coordination that would be necessary for each subsequent pole trick or skill.
Within that tiered system, there is scaffolding for many skills. In my experiences with teaching over the past 6 years, scaffolding refers to teaching small skills and then presenting those combined skills as a larger, more advanced skill. With pole dancing, scaffolding starts at the very beginning. In order to understand the momentum needed for a spin around the pole, a dancer first has to learn how to walk relying on momentum instead of their own balance. Once that starts to make sense, I teach a particular spin that is similar to walking with larger, more stylized steps. That spin grows into another spin that relies on momentum slightly differently. These can eventually be combined into a short movement combination. The idea of scaffolding continues in preparations for inversions, a variety of strength-based skills, and so on.
Teaching Dance Majors
The Dance majors who I worked with during spring and summer of 2015 as well as through the school year brought a great deal of strengths to the studio. Their significant physical training helped them to quickly learn the movement patterns in what I taught them. Although their hand strength was slower to develop, their strong cores and legs aided them in learning climbs and inversions quickly. I noticed that ballet dancers’ strong torsos, especially from practicing an arabesque position, helped with spiraling around the pole and achieving certain shapes in pole spins and climbs.
There were also challenges with teaching Dance majors about pole dancing. Because they were accustomed to having a high level of skill in their dance training, they also had high expectations for themselves with pole dancing. Their strengths made it possible for them to achieve tricks that were at higher levels than their pole skills actually prepared them for. This led to a few injuries, clumsy execution of movements, and a lot of bruises. With time and practice, they learned the fluidity and control of pole dancing and how to apply their strengths in this new form.
In July of 2015, I applied for use of the art gallery at the Duderstadt Center. I had intentions of performing my thesis work there and including some kind of live installation, but those plans changed as the work developed. The purpose of the gallery evolved to be a place to exhibit pole dancing with the live installation manned by my Introduction to Pole Fitness students. These students signed up for one-hour time-slots that took place in April 18, 19, and 20 between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Many were so excited about it that they signed up for additional hours or stopped by while they were on campus.
We set up the poles in the gallery for three days, April 18-20. From 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on each of those days, dancers occupied the space. Also in the gallery were posters of my thesis cast, designed by Jess Emery, photographs taken by Patrick David, and artifacts of pole dancing. Artifacts included grip aids, isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle, rags for wiping the poles, and any other gear we thought we would use that week.
Installation. During the three-day installation, my students were given an opportunity to practice all that they had learned during the semester and to interact with passersby while they danced. Some students even elected to create short performances, choreographed to music, to perform in the gallery. Since the entire class was spread out across three days, they did not have to share poles as much as during a normal class. Several students commented about being tired more quickly because there were fewer rest periods.
Several students invited their friends and family to come see their new skills. I met parents and had conversations about what we did in the class. Students who stopped in to see the exhibit asked me if the class would be taught again in the future and whether they might have an opportunity to take it. It was encouraging for my students to be able to talk about how cool the class was and to have such a positive reception from their peers.
Audience. I was pleased to see that my students invited their friends and parents. They were proud of what they were performing and wanted to share it with people who are important to them. Additionally, as the Duderstadt Center is a hub for engineering students, there were a great deal of audience members passing by or stopping in to watch. The gallery has a large window wall along the corridor that connects the Duderstadt Center to Pierpont Commons, which made it easy for passersby to peek in. Several people were unsure what to make of a live installation. They asked me when the performance was happening, who we were, why we were there, what we were doing, and more. I was amused at the level of people’s curiosity and their seeming discomfort with their curiosity. For example, in answer to, “When is this happening?” I said, “Right now!” This prompted people to ask what was happening. I lost count of how many times I described my thesis work that involved teaching Dance majors how to pole dance, and later teaching Introduction to Pole Fitness. I spoke about attending the International Pole Convention and pole studios everywhere that I could. I talked with some people about how my style of pole dancing relates to gymnastics, circus arts, and the pole fitness competitions that they have seen online.
My favorite part of the installation by far was how excited my students were to perform in the space once they got over their nervousness. Following that, my next favorite part was when people asked me to teach them some pole moves. I had a waiver for them to sign and taught a small number of people how to do a basic spin combination. They were thrilled to try something new and discovered how much strength is required to be able to develop fluidity and smoothness in pole dancing.
Practice as Research
Throughout my two-year experience in the Dance Master of Fine Arts program, the concept of “practice as research” has created a through-line in my coursework. I was not always able to find the connections between what I learned in my reading and writing assignments and what I created in the studio, but I have the tools now to be able to do that in the future. In section 3.A. Performance and section 3.B. Pedagogy, I discuss in more detail how the rehearsal process and my pedagogical practices are modes of research.
Future Runnings of SUPERbeneath
My thesis project, SUPERbeneath and the development of my own methods for teaching pole dancing, have just begun a trajectory for my career. I hope to restage SUPERbeneath, possibly on dancers at Purdue University. My friend Amberly Simpson, who I mentioned in the introduction, created a concert work with three poles for a Division of Dance performance in 2015. Perhaps some of the dancers in the Purdue Contemporary Dance Company still have an interest in performing pole. I hope to teach pole technique classes again in the future, whether that is in a university setting, in my own studio, or as a guest teacher at a pole studio. I have developed what I believe are great methods for harnessing creativity and building strength for pole dancing. I want to continue using and practicing those skills.
I began this project with the hopes of addressing four key questions, outlined in the introduction of this document. These questions evolved and became new questions, namely to do with how dancers with years of modern and ballet training would learn pole dancing and how we could collaboratively create work together. Our questions about gender morphed into questions about a huge range of “spectrums” that we all exist on and how to discuss and illustrate those concepts. I learned a lot about how people perceive pole dancing in daytime, brightly lit public spaces. I still want to experience people’s perception of what I would consider theatrical pole dances in a nightclub space. I am still curious about how I can apply what I have learned about feminist examinations of pole dancing to my choreography. In short, although I answered some questions for myself, there are still a great deal of unanswered questions.
Note: This research was executed for the purpose of writing the thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts (Dance) at The University of Michigan 2016.