I’ve always believed that before you judge someone, you have to walk a mile in their heels.
So on April 16, I girded my loins and took the plunge into the world of pole dancing, with a male trial class at Slap Dance Studio and a subsequent interview with the studio’s practitioners.
Male friends looked askance when I told them I had signed up for a pole dance class; my brother enquired if I had taken a knock to the head; reactions from my acquaintances generally ran from mild disbelief to outright innuendo.
If you believe the social scientists, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this sort of reaction. Sociologist Erving Goffman has a theory called impression management, which draws parallels between individuals and stage actors. Like Shakespeare, Goffman believed that all the world is a stage, and that there are certain stereotypes that we as individuals are expected to perform, certain impressions we have to manage based on age, gender and surroundings.
To belabour the metaphor, a Singaporean bloke learning how to suspend his body weight from a pole – accompanied by glam rock and Top 40s tracks – is a bit like an actor deliberately going off-script.
It may sound a bit strange to think of a space as ‘gendered’, but I believe that it’s a generally accurate observation: Modern gyms were generally male-dominated spaces before the #fitspo trend exploded online, and the gymnasiums of Ancient Greece were training grounds exclusive to male athletes.
When women’s Mixed Martial Arts started to gain traction as a popular element of the sport, female fighters were slurred for their efforts within the Octagon, with detractors trying to delegitimise their grit and athleticism. When we see a bloke in a skirt, we wonder if he’s eccentric, unless he happens to be playing the bagpipes.
Slap Dance Studio – located on the second storey of a stretch of shop houses along Telok Ayer Road – is a prime example of a space catered first and foremost towards women. The dance studio is filled with natural light from large windows, and immaculately clean; bra tops and booty shorts are on sale near the front desk; a small sign on the wall at the studio front cautions that videography and photography are strictly prohibited.
As I ascend the stairs with my colleague for our interview, we hear the sound of uninhibited female laughter, raucous and melodic at the same time. It’s a beautiful sound; the sort of laughter one indulges in when one feels completely safe.
In contrast, the laughter I heard during my male trial class a week before had tended towards the sheepish, a way to defuse the underlying sense of tension from being in a foreign space.
Pole dancing has yet to take off with any sizeable segment of the local male population, although according to Jasmine Han, one of the three owners of Slap Dance Studio, interest has slowly begun to pick up.
“There are men who have been calling up to enquire,” she tells me. “Which is why we decided to have a group trial class to gauge interest. But there are definitely fewer men doing pole in Singapore [compared to other countries]. If you look at pole acrobatics in China, in Russia, in Cirque Du Soleil, most of the performers are males.”
THE HISTORY OF POLE
Mention the words ‘pole dancing’, and the image that still comes up on a regular basis is of smoky rooms, women in various states of undress, and dollar bills strategically shoved into G-strings.
It’s a stereotype that sorely needs debunking. In the West, the history of pole dance does indeed seem to have a sexualised origin, as it moved from tent to bar: during the Great Depression of the 1920s, ‘Hoochi Coochi’ dancers at travelling fairs would dance with the poles holding the tents in place.
But according to Jasmine, the origins of pole has multiple threads, and goes much further back in history. “There’s always taboo, but it depends on where you look at it; it depends where you grew up,” she tells me. “If you grew up in China, then you’d think of pole dancing as pole acrobatics, which is more of an Olympian sport. I’m not trying to be biased, but a lot of people are exposed to pole dancing only from the viewpoint of striptease and dance club. So maybe they see it in a different way.”
The alternative narrative that Jasmine informs me about dates back to 12th century China, where pole acrobat performers used a pole laced with rubber and in full body costumes. Contemporary pole dance moves like ‘the flag’ – where the body is suspended 90 degrees perpendicular to the pole using pure arm strength – originate from Chinese Pole, which grounds the sport’s history in a more acrobatic tradition, with crossover to modern day acts such as Cirque Du Soleil.
Another pole tradition, Mallakhamb, dates back 800 years, to India, Maharashtra. The tradition was meant as training, to develop the coordination, speed and reflexes of wrestlers.
One doesn’t have to look too far beyond the stereotype of pole dance as being purely about ‘big boobs and slut heels’ – as one of the ladies I interviewed teasingly ribbed me about – to see that the sport has a nuanced history in various cultures around the world.
In case you’re wondering: No, gentle reader, there are no photos of me from my trial class.
I don’t possess nearly as much confidence as the ladies whom I interviewed, so you won’t be subjected to torturous images of yours truly, clinging for dear life to the pole with all the grace of a hog on a skewer. All joking aside, I wanted to experience pole dance not to evoke amusement, but to interrogate some commonly-held misconceptions.
My trial class helped me to better understand the sport’s rigour, and the ladies whom I interviewed at Slap Dance Studio were more than happy to help me debunk the cliches commonly associated with Pole. Here are the top 3 stereotypes that we’ve attempted to disprove.
Stereotype #1: Pole attire is meant to titillate
Reality: Pole attire is highly functional
When I spoke earlier of girding my loins, I didn’t use the expression solely in jest. Pole practitioners dress skimpily because bared skin allows enough friction for one to grip the pole without compensating with excessive strength. To mount the bar in a basic fashion – termed a fireman climb – one has to lock the pole between one’s inner thighs; the front of one’s shin and the lower calf of the other leg are pressed against the pole for additional support.
I was clad in knee-length basketball shorts during my trial session, under the mistaken belief that they would both offer the skin of my inner thighs some protection. Thanks to my choice of garb, I found myself having to rely a lot more on pure arm strength to keep myself suspended.
“Actually, I didn’t want to tell my friends, although my good friends understand,” Evangline, an undergraduate nursing student and pole practitioner, shares with me. “I mean they try hip hop, some of them try cheerleading. You’re wearing quite little for cheerleading as well, and you flip around, but for some reason that’s more acceptable. I think the stereotype is still quite strong.”
Stereotype #2: Pole is sexual in nature
Reality: Pole fitness progressively helps its practitioners build body confidence and athleticism
While there may be a sexual element to pole dance, the pole students I interviewed seem to be mainly attracted to the athleticism of the sport, despite the taboo that occasionally still surrounds it.
“I started pole because I wanted to do a human flag,” Janice, a student at Slap Dance Studio, tells me. “When I post videos of myself on social media, I still get people asking ‘why are you posting a video of yourself in your underwear?’ But I think people are starting to realise that pole is very athletic. It helps people become more confident with their own bodies.”
“If you take a look at what we wear in pole fitness or pole dancing class alone, we don’t get to wear a lot of clothes because we need skin-to-skin contact,” Jasmine shares. “It takes a lot for some women to show up in a tank top and shorts, like a mum who has stretch marks, or a lady who’s suffering from a skin issue. Most of the things I get are: I’m too fat; I’m too skinny; I don’t have any fitness background; I’m not flexible. All these are misconceptions; we start our students from the most basic level, so there’s something for everyone.”
Stereotype #3: Pole is ‘effeminate’
Reality: Advanced pole techniques are highly challenging, both physically and technically
Yes, sexual dimorphism is present in humans. But the odious notion that ‘feminine’ means ‘weak’ is, quite thankfully, becoming an archaic relic of male chauvinism.
The male trial class I attended had catered for a lesson that took into account the greater arm muscle mass of men in general, but the vast majority of us were unable to even attempt the High Kick Holds and Half Flags that our instructor, Mia, pulled off with ease.
Likewise, the ladies I interviewed at Slap Dance Studio were all fitter and more body confident than either myself or other sedentary males of my age group. “For females, pole dancing actually builds you up,” Angelene, a part-time instructor at the studio, shares with me.”I’ve become more athletic; my rib cage has expanded, and my arms are more muscular. My body’s not as typically feminine as it used to be.”
“You don’t have to be skinny to be feminine, ” she adds. “You can be strong, and strong-looking, and I find that empowering in itself.”