Article: Pole Dancing, Fitness, and Particle Physics

So, apparently, there’s a poet, playwright, and all-around icon of female sexuality and empowerment out there called Chanje Kunda who is using pole dancing to address particle physics and the philosophical quandaries of the universe.

Yes. Seriously. And she made national news.

To take a snippet from the BBC’s own interview with Kunda, who is launching a new one-woman show, Superposition:

[As part of the show] I decided to research the laws of attraction by interviewing particle physicists, a professor of philosophy and also attend a lap dancing course, because they might have a different take on laws of attraction.

I found that research absolutely fascinating, very intellectually stimulating and very inspiring.

Wowsa!

What Kunda is suggesting might sit oddly with some people – pole dancing, lap dancing, philosophical poetry, and artistic performance…

…Really?

Yes, really!

Because, here’s the thing about pole dancing: It’s not just a performative method of income revenue reserved for the cis het male sexual gaze. Granted, it can totally be this (and that is valid), but it’s also a completely legitimate performance method, a valid form of strength training, and (if you want it to be) a highly political form of social intervention and activism.

Mostly, though, pole dancing is just mesmerising, in so many ways, and is still fighting to find its place in the world. Depending on who you talk to pole dancing can be a ‘degrading’ and ‘exploitative’ sex act, a feminist statement, or a purely athletic feat, and the reconciliation of these elements is still very much a work in progress. One need only look in to pole dancing in more depth to unearth and entire area of serious discourse, so let’s do that, shall we?

The History of Pole Dancing (?)

If you look at many pole dancing fitness pages, there seems to be a vested interest in linking modern Western pole dancing techniques to two or three traditionally pole-based performance methods.

The first is typically the Indian practice of Pole Mallakhamb (which translates to ‘wrestler or pole’). Dating back around 800 years, Mallakhamb would provide a competitive warm-up to wrestling and wasused to develop speed, improve one’s reflexes, and increase one’s concentration. It typically involved minimal clothing (inspired by yoga) and would involve running and flipping around the pole, in addition to other exercises. Nowadays Mallakhamb is its own sport and there are 14 states in India where championships are held. Women are banned from participating in this male dominated practice.

The second is Chinese pole, which dates back to the 12th century and involved Chinese acrobats using a pole of 3-9 meters in height, laced with a rubber material to do athletic performance feats such as hanging straight out from the pole and climbing up/sliding down the pole in displays of fully-clothes strength. Again, it’s still practiced to this day and involves rigorous (often painful) daily training.

And the last? Maypole…A bit of a stretch.

…I’m not buying it.

In actuality, it’s much more prudent to link Western pole dancing to its Western source, which is decidedly more modern and sex-related: During the early1920’s the American depression saw an increased interest in travelling fairs and, as part of these fairs, there would often be young female dancers who would entertain the crowd in various, often flirtatious manners. As an element of this sex appeal-based morale boost, these ‘Hoochi Coochi’ dancers would cleverly use any props they had, including the poles that propped the tent up.

From there, the earliest ‘true’ documentation of erotic pole dancing can be found in Oregon, US in 1968 and didn’t really get much recorded attention until the 1980’s in Canada, making it a very recent (and erotically-based) performance exercise.

From there pole dancing proliferated and then eventually was opened to public instruction in 1994, again, in Canada.

Pole fitness was then developed from this non-club based approach, allowing people on a larger scale to develop their physical prowess, and why the fuck not? Let’s face it: Any situation that involves climbing from, spinning around, and dangling off of a stationary object is going to target muscles, utilize body weight, and generally act as a fantastic way to develop one’s overall strength and cardiovascular endurance. Plus, different types of pole move can engage different levels of capability, giving pole dancing the perfect amount of variety to allow anyone to get in to it. As Kunda says, ‘it’s about fitness and strength and doing the things that make you feel fabulous regardless of your size.’

The ‘Sex’ Dilemma

But why, if Western pole dancing is so beneficial, do so many pole dancing fitness instructors and sites feel the need to appropriate other pole-based practices and, essentially, try to distance themselves from its true sexual origins to a more athletic one?

The answer is most likely in the question itself. Pole fitness is a type of exercise that is trying to carve a space for itself as a professional athletic act in the Western fitness industry. As such, it’s most likely desirable if they can A) Link it to a long-standing professional/strength-based practice, B) Add in a bit of esoteric validity for good measure (links to yoga and a sense of ‘ancient’ practices), and C) Try and act like ‘This is totally not about sex guys, omg, we’re not asking you to exploit yourself. Not at all!’

Of course, this isn’t always the case: A lot of pole dancing studios will encourage women to embrace their sexuality and boost their confidence through sensual displays. But there still seems to be an overall tension in the industry and a need to separate itself from the more ‘sordid’ elements of pole dancing – some of which are valid and some of which are rooted in sex shaming culture.

After all, what does it say that many sites would rather link pole fitness to an Eastern practice where women are literally still barred from competing, than just blatantly acknowledge that it came from the entertainment industry and the creative performance endeavours of travelling women earning their way through their athletic prowess?

Inherently Problematic

Alas, there still isn’t a clear way to navigate pole dancing and its many elements. Pole dancing is, it should be mentioned, still a very popular form of erotic entertainment, and the divide between this form of performance and the fitness element seems to be a core focus for many. This is certainly the case in many news stories where people defend the pole, and I wonder what impact this has on the rights and empowerment of any individual who decides to engage in pole dancing for income.

And, even in pole dancing fitness studios issues of gender, sexual discourse, intersectionality, and feminist discourse are practically inherent. As academic Kerry Griffiths notes in her publication, Femininity, Feminism and Recreational Pole Dancing:

Pole fitness classes take the activity out of the lap dancing club setting and into a health and fitness arena, removing the performance to an audience and the exchange of this act for money. Yet the women who participate in the classes still appear to be young, partially nude, and are taught techniques of a “typical” pole dance, they use the same type of vertical dance pole, and they often (although not always) wear the same high heeled glass slipper styles shoes.

And then, of course, there are artistic performers, such as Kunda, who do perform in front of an audience and may or may not take money for their performance, adding further considerations to the power of the pole.

The Power of the Pole

But perhaps the best way to pursue pole dancing is not to give the power to the pole at all. Instead, the solution to pole dancing – how it’s used, what it means, and what can be achieved with it – is much more about the power of the people who chose to approach the pole.

Autonomy and agency are crucial to all elements of personal and social empowerment. It’s for this reason that Griffiths created her publication by interviewing those who chose to pole dance for fitness, and through this sense of self-control that erotic pole dancers can feel either strong or exploited. In group classes this personal power is amplified further by a sense of solidarity, in addition to a personal commitment to holistic self-love in the manner that works best for that person, which is friggin awesome whether it’s 800 years old in origin or 80.

And, perhaps, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that part of this personal agency can include embracing one’s sexual prowess and identity as well as just the physical, philosophical, or otherwise.

It should be no surprise, then, that Kunda is blazing forward with her performance with a very similar attitude, and so I shall give this amazing individual the parting sentiment for this article:

I wanted to explore female sensuality and eroticism because female sensuality within the media has been commodified and cheapened and exploited, and I wanted to try and find new ways as a feminist to be able to celebrate that.

A commendable way to claim one’s own autonomy if I ever saw it, sexual prowess and all.