Pole dancing reminds me of my clown training from arts college. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but gimme a minute. I can explain.
During college one of my favorite classes was clown. It was one of the few acting classes that i really enjoyed (my other favorite classes were all Theater History, Playwriting, and Performance Art History and Theory), and I think it was largely because of the extremely physical nature of clown work. Clowns begin as a physical form that is then filled with a character. You start from the shape and tendencies of the body and develop personality from there. Essentially, the whole course was devoted to figuring out who our clowns were once we got what they looked like.
For those who haven’t met her, this is my clown Portia:
Portia is very shy and she is convinced beyond a doubt that she has no friends, so she tries very hard to make friends with everyone. She loves dancing and soft, fluffy things, and she hates messes. If we were to give her an age, I think she’d probably be a five year old. She cries a lot. Every once in a while I fall into her personality, like when the water in the shower gets cold (“Noooooo!!!”) or if I drop something, again, she hates the messes. Anyway, that’s Portia.
What does my cute (definitely not sexy) clown have to do with pole dancing? Well. First pole reminds me of working with objects as partners. In clown one of the exercises we would do is have our clown forms interact onstage with a giant Firestone Tire. Firestone Tire became our scene partner. Our clowns discovered its existence. We poked it. We hugged it. We rolled it. We (tried) to roll on it or if we were tiny enough, we tried to roll in it. We enthralled by the sound it made when it got squished. We licked it. We tried to take out walls with it. You would not believe how much shit you can do with a tire.
And Firestone Tire was a great scene partner because it could be nothing other than itself. It’s interesting all on it’s own. If you’ve ever been to outdoor theater, or especially if you’ve been in outdoor productions, one of the most distracting things that can happen during a show is for a dog to walk/run/play through the vicinity of the production. Why? Because everyone will stop watching the show and start watching the dog. This happens because the dog is just being itself. The dog is just honestly and unabashedly a dog and can be no other way. Meanwhile all the humans on stage are trying really fucking hard to be honestly and unabashedly fictional characters memorized off a page and transformed into flesh and blood. Actors have it a lot harder than the dog. The same is true for all object-partners that one could have onstage. In clown this was Firestone Tire, now I have Pole.
Pole is a lot like Firestone Tire. Pole, just like the tire and the dog, can be nothing but itself. Pole tells me when I mess up. If I really mess up, Pole (and her best friend Gravity) throw me on my ass. Pole gives very good feedback, sometimes in the form of bruises. There is a feeling, that I wish I had better words for, that happens when things “just work” onstage and it’s exactly the same when a move finally “just works” on the pole. It’s a combination of being present and really having a moment-to-moment relationship with who (or what) you’re working with as your partner. In clown when you and your partner (Tire, Balloon, Other Clown, Pudding, Audience Member) are working together, the result is that people find the work funny. In pole dancing, when you and your partner (Pole, Floor, Chair, Clothing Item to be Stripped) are working together, the result is that people find it sexy.
The very first game that we had to play in clown class, before we even got our clown’s physical appearances nailed down, was what our lovely instructor David Taft called, “Be Funny.” One by one we had to get up in front of the class and be funny. This was a long, terrible, painful, and ultimately not-very-funny process. People told jokes. No laughs. People stood up there doing nothing, wracking their brains for something smart. Nada. People ran in circles. People sang songs. The response of crickets would have been more comforting than the silence of the rest of our classmates. The stuff that finally worked was the stuff that no one planned to do in the first place. I made out with a support pillar while staring one of my best friends in the face. One of my classmates put his shoe in his mouth, which wasn’t funny, then he stopped, gave up, and said, “Sorry, I have to do that again.” And proceeded to stick his shoe back in his mouth. That was funny.
I often find that I am playing a very similar game in pole dance classes. Actually, it’s the same game, just played with a different adjective: “Be Sexy.” As it turns out, if you just try to “be sexy” you’re not going to get very far, just like trying to be funny. Things tend to work a lot better when the focus is on doing something instead of being sexy. How big can I make my hip rolls? Can I get my butt farther off the floor when I caterpillar? How slowly can I move through a backward roll (while maintaining eye contact with someone)? This is why I appreciate challenges in pole dancing. Climb the pole and don’t come down for a minute and a half. That means you have to focus on DOING SOMETHING rather than being a certain way. And doing things is waaaaay more interesting to watch.
A side note, that I also find fascinating, is that when someone fails at being sexy, the result is funny. Just the other day we were working on a series of moves that were supposed to end in Superman. When I tried (I had never done a Superman before) I slid way down the pole, my knees were bent, my arm that wasn’t on the pole was bracing my body from hitting the floor, and my head was down. I’m fairly sure that my yelling, “FUCK!” as this happened contributed to my peers howls of laughter, but I’m certain that even if I didn’t swear, it would still have been funny because I was unabashedly trying to nail the move and honestly didn’t intend to land in whatever Not-Superman- Position that I did. It just happened. Pole was clearly displeased.
Cherry Manhattan, Seattle burlesque performer/coach and teacher of the Cornish burlesque cirriculum, calls burlesque “sexy clown.” She’s right and I think that the same description can be applied to pole dancing. Perhaps “sexy clowns with steel” or something. Clown is a form of masked performance. The smallest mask in the world is the red nose. You put it on and suddenly, you are someone completely different. I don’t think that Pole has as recognizable a mask as a red nose, but with a mismatched combination of Pleasers’ heels, physical specificity, and intent, the same sort of magic happens.* There is a kind of masking that happens in pole dance despite the lack of a literal mask, and sometimes despite the lack of any clothing at all. David always told us that, “Masks hide to reveal,” and pole is all about the journey to the reveal. So, pole dancing reminds me of my clown training. I’m very happy to be a sexy clown.
*Part of this mask, I think, is related to the objectification of people who pole dance (primarily women), but that’s a whole other blog post!