As of early October 2017, pole dancing got (provisionally) recognized as being an official sport after an 11-year-battle (Telegraph reporters, 2017; Terrel, 2017). How did pole dancing evolve from a performance by strippers in clubs, to being an officially recognized sport worldwide? And what effect did social media have on this?
Two years ago, I went to my first pole dancing class myself. I have to be honest, before that first class, I had the same feeling about the sport as most people do at first. It did sometimes lead to offensive and sexual comments about how I was spending my free time. However, after that first class, it did not take long before I fell in love with the sport and other people in my environment also saw the beauty of it. Not only that; I also became part of a community, where instead of judging one another, people support each other to improve themselves and others.
Where at first, it was difficult to get in touch with other members of the light community, i.e. a community of people with like interests that shares certain features, of pole dancers, social media now provide us with various platforms where one can show his or her improvement, give tips and tricks and also support each other when receiving negative reactions on the sport. This has lead to interconnectedness in the pole community on a global scale, through processes of cultural flows and networks. These flows and networks are fluid and chronotropical, i.e. you can connect them to a certain time/space. The pole dancing mediascape (social media) had a big influence the shifting image of pole dancing.
The origin of Western pole dancing
Before going into the shift in the image of pole dancing from being seen as an activity for strippers to an officially recognized sport, it is good to briefly go into the history of Western pole dancing.
In earlier times, pole dancing was seen as a performance for strippers to seduce and entertain men. It was mostly seen as an activity practiced by women. Pole dancing had and still has influences from exotic dance. This dance style underwent quite some influences from the dances performed in Parisian gentlemen clubs like the Moulin Rouge, and Latin dance styles, such as the Rumba and Tango. It is understandable that it is seen as seductive. (History of pole, n.d.)
In earlier times, pole dancing was seen as a performance for strippers to seduce and entertain men.
Modern day pole dancing is a combination of the older - earlier mentioned - techniques and fitness. Over the years, especially since the early 2000s, people started to feel the urge to take away the sexual stigma attached to the activity (Telegraph reporters, 2017); so the high heels were taken off and as it is a work out, pole dancing was practiced in a sports outfit.
Pole dancing: an (online) community
In ‘The Culture of Connectivity: a critical history of social media’, Van Dijck (2013) states that our networked communication has transformed to a ‘platformed’ sociality. The first forms of social media platforms (e.g. weblogs and e-mail servers) were made to connect people to each other. The services were a way to form online communities or to support offline groups. Van Dijck states that social media platforms are not social anymore, and they would rather be called ‘connective media platforms’. The platforms contribute to being connected to people from all over the world, but as mentioned, Van Dijck states that it makes us less social instead of more social.
Social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, have made it easier for us to connect with people that share the same interests. This happened with the pole dancing community as well. The pole community has their own ways of communicating, their own norms, values and habits in certain settings. Therefore you can refer to the pole community as a 'light community', a community that shares certain features or interests and can thus be recognized as a specific community (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). This also makes it a part of our polycentric lifestyle. We have and live up to different identity repertoires depending on the context, but they do operate together. This means that when I am not at the sports centre practicing pole dancing for example, I am still a part of this community. I'm simply not 'showing' that part of my identity in that specific time and space.
The pole community is an online community as well as an offline community. As Castells (2010) states in ‘The Rise of the Network Society’, globalization shapes new forms of society. This does not only have to be on the level of local communities; it can also be found online, meaning they are global communities. An example of a place where you can find the online community of polers is the Facebook group ‘You Know When You’re A Poler When…’; this group consists of more than 31,000 people, sharing each other’s progress, showing new moves and supporting each other.
“The Facebook group 'You Know When You're A Poler When...' is a community and haven for international friends.”
In order to get additional information about the reasons for establishing the Facebook page, I contacted the group's founder. It started as a silly idea after some glasses of wine, she said, to create a group for the polers she was befriended with on Facebook. Her friends added friends too and it kept on growing to the more than 31,000 people that are in it now. At first, the group was open to join for everyone. However, in order to create a safe environment where polers would feel comfortable sharing their progress, the decision was made to close the group. As the founder says herself: “Now it’s a community and haven for international friends.”
Relating this to Van Dijck’s theorizing, it is likely that social media platforms like the Facebook group ‘You Know When You’re A Poler When…” are not just a place to connect to fellow polers, but also a place where they are socially connected. The videos and pictures that are shared in the Facebook group show real people in a vulnerable way. In many cases polers only wear short shorts and a sports bra or top, since you need a lot of skin to stick to the pole. Because of the image the sport had, it is understandable that polers feel a need to have this safe haven to post their progress without being judged.
One example of a post was about a poler who would be on a television programme, to talk about pole dancing becoming a recognized sport. Not only was the woman asked to contribute to an interview, but also if she could give a performance. However, when arriving at the studios she was greeted by a stripper party bus with a cheap stage and pole, which is not only offensive, but also not safe. She walked away. The woman who posted it says:
“Why on earth would they invite Kath on here to discuss pole as a form of fitness, artistic expression and everything in between (including supporting classique and expressive styles) and it's Olympic status only to discredit all of that by making her perform on a tacky party bus??”
In the Facebook group, this post was shared and the poster received a lot of positive feedback about this matter. Other users felt that she was right to walk away from this situation.
Another example is a poler who posted that she started poling three months ago and most people are very positive about it. However, there were people in her family that made negative comments about her decision and about this she writes: “Except for the one aunty who made a dumbass comment about people sticking twenties in my knickers.” This person shared her story in the group to ask what kind of comments fellow polers got on their hobby in order to support each other in matters like these. In addition, the Facebook group is also a place to get new followers for other social media platforms, like Instagram, which is another important platorm for polers to connect with one another.
When looking at the hashtag ‘poledancing’ on Instagram, there are over one million public posts. Most of these posts are about pole dancing practiced as a sport in a studio, and not in a club.
Whether it is because of the sport or because you show a lot of yourself, you can say that the pole dance community is a strong community online as well as offline. Looking at my own ‘offline’ community, we are not only fellow polers; we also became friends. We do not only do things ‘pole related’ and looking back at where we were two years ago, when we just started, every single one of us was really shy to show some skin during class. Now we all attend our classes full of confidence. An important part of the sport is trusting your fellow polers. When learning something new you will mostly need someone to spot mistakes and make sure they will catch you when you fall; this takes trust and courage.
From exotic dance to sport
Globalization leads to creating new cultural scapes; it has made the gap between different groups of people and cultures smaller (Appadurai, 1996). Cultural scapes are fluid dimensions that contribute to the global exchange of ideas and information; this creates new habits and new points of view in the global and local culture. In the Netherlands for example, you can start pole dancing in almost every big city and at the Tilburg University sports centre there are pole dancing classes three times a week. However, in other countries the sport is not that common. In Belgium, for example, it is still not that common to practise pole dancing as a sport.
Where the shift exactly started is not clear. However, there are some examples of putting pole dancing in a positive daylight that have been very important.
As mentioned before, pole dancing was recognized as being an official sport in 2017. Performing pole dancing as a sport only started in the early 2000s, when the heels where taken off and the sports outfits were put on. This was one starting point of it becoming a sport. The process of recognition, however, started in 2006, with a petition to get the sport into the Olympics (Terrel, 2017). Another important event was the founding of the International Pole Dance Fitness Association in 2007. It was one step closer to getting the recognition polers wanted.
“...our experiences had massive potential resonance to the world around us and to the feminist movement on a global level”
(Sascha Alexander about the short movie 'Why I Dance')
In 2015, director Melanie Zoey Weinstein made the movie 'Why I Dance'. This is a short movie about pole dancers and how it should be normal that women show themselves without being (a)shamed. They had experienced that women were helped by the sport in their local studios; helped to reclaim their bodies and freedom, and not be afraid of their sexuality. One of the film's co-producers, Sascha Alexander, tells about the reason for making the movie:
“We were inspired to create the film when we realized that our experiences had massive potential resonance to the world around us and to the feminist movement on a global level.”
Helping other women they did; the short movie went viral and won several prices at the Women’s Independent Film Festival. As seen on the poster, Vanity Fair reviewed the movie as being "a cry for freedom". In an interview with filmmakers Melanie Zoey Weinstein and Amy Main, for the website 'We are moving Stories', they provide more context to the reasons for making the movie and why it can be seen as 'a cry for freedom'. Not only did they make the film to share their love for pole dancing, but it is also a way to express their feminist and liberating intentions. They feel that all women are beautiful, sexy and powerful, no matter what they look like or what background characteristics they have. It is an empowering message to all the women out there, whether they are pole dancers or not, and a message towards society about body freedom and respect, from the female perspective ("Berlin Feminist Film Week - Why I Dance", 2017).
Pole dancing revisited
The pole community is a light community that can be found online as well as offline. Globalization and cultural scapes have led to the interconnectedness of the pole community through social media. With the founding of the Facebook group ‘You Know When You’re A Poler When…’, a safe haven was created and an online community was established. Polers can easily follow each other - literally and figuratively - on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and especially on Instagram, which is a more public platform, polers can use hashtags to easily find fellow polers. As stated by Van Dijck (2013), social media platforms have made us less social, but more connected.
However, in my opinion social media platforms did contribute to larger social networks and more integration inside the pole community, since the offline communities are smaller. Online communities and social platforms have a broader range concerning background characteristics. Globalization and social media are the reasons that the sport increased in popularity. With hashtags on Instagram and the ease to share a video like ‘Why I Dance’, the community gained a way of showing who they are, but also claimed its feminist voice, stating that women should be proud of our bodies and of who we are. Pole dancing is, even though you only wear a sports bra and shorts, a beautiful sport and work out, where you can be gracious and gain strength at the same time. It is a good thing that pole dancing is now being recognized as an official sport and therefore we should also refer to it as a sport, instead of as a performance by strippers to seduce and entertain men. I believe that the recognition of the sport has made it easier to start practising the sport and has lowered the threshold to post about it online. I am proud to say that I am part of this beautiful and feminist community.
Anderson, H. (2015, April 3). Why You Should Take a Pole Dancing Class.
Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Mineapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
Berlin Feminist Film Week - Why I Dance. (2017, March).
Blommaert, J.& Varis, P. (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: essays on contemporary identities, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies,139, Tilburg University
Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society (2nd ed.). Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Van Dijck, J. (2013). the Culture of Connectivity: a critical history of social media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
History of pole. (n.d.).
Telegraph reporters. (2017, October 16). Pole dancing now recognised by international sports body - leaving the door open to inclusion in the Olympics.
Terrell, A. (2017, October 17). VICTORY LAP (DANCE) Pole dancing officially made a sport and could now be included in the OLYMPICS.
Weinstein, M. Z. (2015, February 12). Why I dance [Video file].