How and when did poles become inextricably linked with women taking their clothes off? And how, more recently, did pole dancing become a trendy workout for women looking to “find their inner diva” or whatever? Camille Darroux reports:
Obviously, upon hearing the words “pole dancing,” one immediately thinks of strip clubs and sex work, and often a discussion about the objectification of women isn’t far behind. Since the early 2000s, however, pole dancing is being rebranded as a trendy, not-necessarily sexual, artistic sport. In fact, reports of a possible recognition of pole dancing as Olympic sport are being published every year. But how did this erotic dance make its way to the mainstream? And how was it rebranded as a way to work out for sex-positive feminists and basic bitches alike? Below is a brief history of life on the pole.
Blurred Origins, Ancient Sports And Phallic Symbolism
Weirdly enough, the exact origins of pole dancing are hard to trace. But supposedly, using a pole for dancing purposes first occurred in India long before our era, as a sport akin to gymnastics called Mallakhamb. Its name comes from malla which denotes a wrestler, while khamba means pole.
Other possible origins are linked to ancient circus discipline Chinese poles, Germanic folk festivals involving a maypole—which Sigmund Freud obviously deemed as phallic symbolism—as well as African tribal fertility dances, though reliable sources are near impossible to find.
From Enter the Void
Pole Dancing And The Sex Industry
Similar challenges are faced when trying to find out how, and when, pole dancing has become an integral part of the sex industry. The most common belief is that hoochie coochie dancers, who were part of traveling sideshows in the US, ended up using the pole that held up the tent they were performing under.
According to Sheila Kelley, author of The S Factor: Strip Workouts for Every Woman, pole dancing was introduced to clubs during the 1950s as part of burlesque’s growing acceptance. During the 1980s, strip clubs gained in popularity in both the US and Canada, but the earliest record of pole dance itself can apparently be traced back to 1968.
Later on, the rise of chains such as Spearmint Rhino contributed to making pole dancing a regular staple of strip clubs across America. Lap dancing venues then started opening in the UK and also featured pole dancing on stage.
The 1980s and 1990s are when pole dancing became tightly linked to the performance routine of strippers. This is also the point where the explicit imagery associated with today’s performers was defined. Consequently, pole dancing became one of the main symbols of the common representation of sex work.
The White Stripes, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” directed by Sophia Coppola
Pole Dancing In Pop Culture
1995 saw the release of Showgirls (the first NC-17 rated film to receive a wide release in mainstream movie theaters) and its many pole dancing scenes. Likewise, several other films featured pole dancers over the past 2 decades, including Dancing at the Blue Iguana, Closer and, more recently, The Wrestler.
As a director, Sofia Coppola also seems to be fascinated by pole dancing. Her movies Lost In Translation, Somewhere and The Bling Ring all featured a pole and she filmed Kate Moss pole dancing in The White Stripes’ video for I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself in 2003. The result is one of the sexiest music videos of all time, its stripped-down aesthetic allowing viewers to focus entirely on Kate’s aura and skills.
In 2013, Rihanna’s hit single Pour It Up’s video featured professional pole dancer Nicole “The Pole” Williams, who performed to a Bruno Mars song at the MTV EMAs that same year.
In popular culture, most depictions of pole dancing involve characters that are sex workers. In the collective imagination, this dance type is inherently associated with sex work, but also with characters who are the ultimate femmes fatales.
By Ivar Wigan
Rebranding As Non-Sexual Workout
One of the first contributors to introducing pole dancing to non sex workers is Fawnia Dietrich. The Canadian exotic dancer “fell in love with the pole” in 1994 and was shocked to find that learning how to work the pole on the job was her only option. Not long after that, she founded the world’s alleged first exotic dance school, in Las Vegas. This school still exists today and is called Pole Fitness Studio—the name seems to distance itself from the exotic dance field, although it does offer an exotic dancer 4 week course.
Over the past 10 years, pole dancing schools started opening all over the Western world—a phenomenon that can be linked to what researchers and the media alike describe as increasing sexualisation of society. However, a lot of people who do pole workouts insist that it’s not sexual, but more of a fun way to exercise, with the added bonus that it helps them tremendously in terms of body acceptance.
This was showcased in viral video Why I Dance, in which amateur pole dancers hold signs stating their reasons for doing it. For these women, pole dancing is not only a way to stay fit: It also allows some to “reclaim their bodies and themselves” and others to deal with “issues such as empowerment, control and the male gaze.”
Pole Dancing Goes Mainstream
In 2003, Oprah Winfrey’s talk show featured a segment about pole dancing in an episode dedicated to “Releasing Your Inner Sexpot” (lol)—one of the first obvious examples of pole dancing going mainstream. The fact that Oprah endorsed pole dancing as a socially acceptable activity meant that it was definitely no longer one just for sex workers.
Founded in the late 2000’s, both the International Pole Sports Federation and the International Pole Dance Fitness Association are lobbying to make pole dancing recognised sport, and thereby an Olympic one.
Olympic sport or not, pole dancing has undeniably become mainstream. To quote The Great Feminist Denial, pole dancing has even become, “alongside terrorism and blogging… an era-defining activity.”