For Feminist Wire writer Kira Jane, the mention of being a pole dancer evokes a whole range of emotions in conversational partners. Here, she sets some common misconceptions straight, and puts forward a spirited and humorous defense of the art form.

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(Andy Wilson / Flickr)

By Kira Jane at The Feminist Wire

Admitting to it causes the first onset of swine flu-like symptoms: the beads of sweat, searchlight eyeballs, shivers to rival a damp chihuahua. But my words slither out in an Edith Piaf vibrato, courtesy of the jittery nerves.

“I’m a dancer.”

The response is predictable. The Interrogator lowers their peepers for a rapid full body scan, computing to see if I fit the description. In response, I vacuum in my belly and crane my neck skyward: a feeble attempt to disguise my Quasimodo-esque posture.

Oh god.

I start to lament the second piece of pie I had last. No point in trying to justify the third: what’s done is done, we’ll call that one humble pie (the chocolate truffles don’t count, they are a rite of passage, essential caramel-laced squirts of WD40 in the rusty machine of my mental health). Wishing my arches were higher, my limbs more sinewy and that I could Gumby myself into a jumping split for posterity, I briefly weigh up the pros and cons of perpetually wearing a tutu. Or sequined bell bottoms, perhaps a disco medallion and sprouty chest hair to squelch this line of questioning. There is a silence and a skinny smile of approval from the Interrogator.

Dancer status: approved.

But my knee starts to shake, because I know it doesn’t end here. The category is too vast, arabesque-ing and pirouetting from genre to genre in the Interrogator’s mind. They need this shit pigeon-holed.

“What kind of dancing do you do?” The Interrogator’s arms burrow into a fold. I am beginning to resent this Poirot-ian persona they are taking on.

Somehow I witness their mental rolodex scrolling through the accepted options: contemporary, tap, salsa, jazz with the funny hands, tango… something more like Morris dancing, maybe. Perhaps they have a little giggle to themselves as they think of hip hop and envision the baby Beluga-complexioned girl before them krumping to ‘Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz.

But I throw the game off.

“I’m a pole dancer.”

And this is where it gets interesting. The Interrogator, who could be anyone–your co-worker, your mother, a dude at a cocktail party, the man who waters your Poinsettia and your gerbil when you escape town–opens their pie-hole and forgets to close it again. One eyebrow might curl downwards like a migrating millipede. For a few painful moments, they have nothing to say. And it is probably because they are now seeing you in a different light. It’s a strobe light. You are no longer a pasty-skinned, suspiciously sweaty, pie-devouring individual with a carriage like Igor. Now, you are a booty-rippling, g-string strangled glitter shedder, who uses her cleavage in lieu of a piggy bank and who only answers to wolf-whistles and the holler of “Chardonnay!”

Contortion pole dancer

(alexbcthompson / Flickr)

The Interrogator’s lip twitches, mouth poised as a famished venus fly trap might be. “I hear it is good exercise.”

Then I relax a little. And if they haven’t launched into a “where do you put all the singles!” or a “man, would I like to be a fly on the…” then I am delighted, I lower the seven inch stiletto sequestered behind my back and we can talk. Because there is an openness.

And that is all we are asking for.

A couple of women at the studio I dance at were recently pulled into an HR meeting at their corporate office after someone complained that they were discussing their dance at work. I’m quite sure had they been salsa dancers, no one would have voiced concern. Perhaps the stigma, like with many things, stems from a lack of understanding. Maybe if we shed light on what it is like to go to a pole class, we can save a few overwhelmed HR representatives a pricey bar tab or two.

The day of my first pole class was like an episode of “I Love Lucy” gone bad. I teetered on high heels (I’m vertically challenged at the best of times) and quickly developed shipyard worker calluses from my death grip on the pole. I did stiff hair-tosses and got acute motion sickness while trying to do a single on-the-spot twirl. I danced with all the elegance of a Weeble Wobble. Incidentally, at the time I didn’t have enough hair due to an experimental foray into the realm of the “mohawk,” so every time the rest of the Godiva-haired goddesses in my class flung their tresses around, I looked like I was seizing. We started to learn a routine under the gentle watch of our teacher, who, most irritatingly, danced like she was made from ribbons. In short: I sucked. But I persisted. I came back.

There was even a threat to my new marriage. Once a week, I skulked off into the night sans engagement and wedding ring (rings scratch the pole), and returned with wild, squall-survivor bed head (hair toss practice) and smelling of men’s Gillette shaving cream (issued by my studio to help my legs grip the metal).

But I still persisted and my marriage survived, thrived even. I tossed my hair (as it grew) and eventually, under the safe watch of my ribbon-woven instructor, I was allowed to start attempting to climb. There were days I left the studio laughing, days I left crying, days I high-fived perfect strangers and also many bouts of whiplash (hair tosses). There were breakthroughs, breakdowns, revelations, and bruises. Oh, the bruises. What started out as inconvenient and unsightly blemishes that I tried to cover up, soon became small and sometimes inexplicably large badges of honor: temporary tattoos for the brave. I changed my attitude and my language, no longer allowing myself to say “can’t” about a particular move or challenge and rechristening the bruises “pole kisses.”

It quickly became an addiction, because for the first time in my life I was able to watch physical achievement: my baby steps added up towards a visible goal right before my eyes. This was not something I had ever experienced as someone about as athletically motivated as most garden slugs, and I gained more confidence (a relief seeing as my previous self image was an albino octopus). Things that my mohawk-sheared self could never imagine doing are now things I can do. Even the frickin hair toss.