Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘stripping

Pole Dancing for the Very First Time

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I’m sat on a train opposite a nun. Not one of those wishy-washy nuns who wear ordinary clothes and do voluntary work, but a real, honest to God nun with a black and white wimple, a brown habit and a bit of knotted rope hanging from her waist, which, combined with the windbreaker, makes her look like a nun ready for the high seas. She’s just crossed herself, opened a leather-bound Bible and settled in for the journey, so I thought this would be a good time for me to talk about pole dancing. To you, not to her, because I don’t want to cause a serious incident on the East Coast Mainline.

Last week I had my first pole dancing class. If you have been reading this blog, you will know that until recently I had attributed my dislike of pole dancing and associated activities (lap dancing, over-zealous waxing, etc) to feminist principles, considering that it reduces women to sexual objects, and not very interesting sexual objects at that. Then I got to thinking that, since I enthusiastically support burlesque, which is, ultimately, stripping out of old-fashioned outfits to the music of yesteryear, I am being inconsistent, if not hypocritical. If I’m going to reject something on aesthetic grounds, I should have some experience of it. Standing at the back of a room in a Soho lesbian bar, glimpsing the odd elbow through gaps in the crowd as two women performed on stage probably isn’t enough. So, I decided, I would experience pole dancing for myself. I’ll be the first to know if I feel degraded.

The class I chose was on a Sunday evening. I don’t know what the nun would say about pole dancing on the Sabbath, I’d better not ask. I sent off an email to book a place, and received a confirmation entirely in text speak. My worst prejudices were conformed; there was a lot of lolling. Either she was an hysterically giggly woman, or her relationship with the English language was verging on abusive.

Nevertheless, I turned up at the village hall, ready to take pole dancing for a spin. We were herded into a room with two poles, and everyone wriggled out of their outer layers. Suddenly I was the only fully clothed woman in the room, self conscious in my stretchy trousers and vest top as others flaunted flesh beneath their hot pants.

I don’t want to step on anyone’s dreams, but it has to be admitted that certain items of clothing look much better on some body types than others. I’m not bitter about this because it works both ways. Corset on a skinny girl: What’s the point? Corset on me? If you’re lucky, one day I’ll show you pictures. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever go for a latex cat suit, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans, and you’d have to pay me to get into that nun’s habit. There are those who disagree with me. This girl is proud of her skinny jeans, and good luck to her. It is a personal opinion, and one which I would not visit on anybody else, that hot pants look best on the slender. A couple of years ago, say, at the end of my last cycling holiday, I could have pulled them off. Currently, I think it would be best to reserve the sight of my upper thighs for those who already know and like me.

I didn’t have time to give other women’s thighs much thought, though, because we were beginning with some aerobics and stretches to warm up. This is when my second bout of body-consciousness kicked in, as we were invited to circle our arms like energetic windmills, giving me the opportunity to wow the crowd with repeated glimpses of my under-arm hair. As I’ve written before, I refuse to believe that hair, on women, is automatically disgusting. In fact, only yesterday I was chatted up by a man who specifically asked if I shaved and noticeably redoubled his efforts at seduction when I said I didn’t (he also said he’d like to watch me pee, however, so I’m not sure he’s a representative sample). In the context of the pole dancing class, though, I was troubled. If any of the women were challenging beauty norms, they were doing it very subtly. Most of them were wearing make-up. Two of them sported genetically unlikely combinations of blonde hair and tanned skin. Nails were painted and in some cases artificially extended with acrylic tips. Hair was straightened, skin buffed.

I flailed my arms around a few times, then, in my discomfort, managed to draw even more attention to myself by accidentally whacking someone stood nearby. Not the best beginning.

We divided into two groups, five people to a pole. I found myself with four women, including the two with the anomalous colouring. I would guess that all of them were younger than me. My sense of being huge, grotesque, even, persisted. Everything about these girls, from their boyish hips to their pink iPods, seemed designed to minimise their presence. “Why did you decide to join?” asked the girl next to me. I summarised the wilfulness of my main character and my fear that I disguise prejudice as feminism, then asked, “why did you start?” “I just thought it would be a laugh,” she replied.

The lesson began. The tutor demonstrated a move and we attempted to imitate her in turn. The other four, being more seasoned pole dancers, did a much more impressive job than me. They managed recognisable versions, at least. I, on the other hand, spent a few seconds dangling from the pole, legs dangling redundantly, before my hands slipped down and my feet met the laminate. I did it again, and again, and again. Each time I slunk away to the back of the queue, cursing my height, my weight, my lack of pneumatised bones, all of which made lifting my body difficult. “Very good,” the teacher opined a few times, rather unconvincingly. “It really wasn’t!” I eventually retorted. “My first lesson,” she replied, “I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground.” I felt a bit better after that.

Now and again we were distracted by a particularly impressive move being executed by a member of the more advanced group on the other pole. For the most part, though, I fell into the rhythm of watch, queue, dangle, and queue again. As the others span and swung, made mistakes, gained bruises, complimented, encouraged and ribbed one another, something strange happened. I don’t know whether it was the cheesy music playing in the background (which seemed to have no influence on the rhythm of the dancing) or the consistent good humour of my group, but somehow the lesson became fun.

I can understand why women pole dance. I can understand that the approval of men is an attractive factor. Merely mentioning that I was going to write this post, while queuing outside a television studio on Upper Ground, caused a middle aged man to turn from his wife and say to me “pole dancing? I’m listening now!” I also understand that there are other factors. I’m going to go back, and my primary reason is a hatred of failure. I want to know that I have the strength, skill and ability to perform moves which the weaker-looking women managed with ease.

Can pole dancing be feminist? I’m still undecided. The class did not have the seedy tone which I had associated with pole dancing due to its association with strip clubs. Even as we ground against the pole, the atmosphere entirely lacked sexual charge. The naturalisation of artificial gender roles was very noticeable, from artificial nails to cutesy pink accessories, but it seems more likely that women who buy pink iPods take up pole dancing than that pole dancing encourages the purchase of pink iPods. The forces which shape feminine identity are a big tangle, and I don’t think pole dancing is completely blameless. When I’ve unknotted it somewhat, I’ll let you know.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

May 10, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Meeting My Inner Stripper

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I don’t like pole dancing. I don’t like exotic dancing, and I certainly don’t like lap dancing. I recognise that there’s some gradation from artful spinning around a pole to grinding a man to orgasm with your naked buttocks, but I’m sorry, I don’t like it.

I’ve had to confront my dislike of it in the last two weeks. One of my characters got a job in a gentlemen’s club. I can’t actually go to one myself, because they require women to be accompanied by a man, and I don’t have any local male acquaintances I would be willing to ask. I could take pole dancing lessons, though. I haven’t so far, because I have been able to find an excuse every Wednesday.

Next month there’s a burlesque workshop on in Leeds.  I’m so excited! It’s much further away, longer and more expensive than the pole dancing, but who cares? I could learn burlesque! I can see myself in heels and stockings, learning how to sensually slip elbow-length gloves from my fingers. I have a burning desire to be a burlesque dancer.

Surely if I find pole dancing repulsive, I should feel the same about burlesque. The purpose of both is to make entertainment for men out of the female body. They are, at core, commodifying and objectifying. I’ve always assumed that my objection to strip-clubs was a feminist one. Now, I’m not so sure.

Given that I love burlesque, could my objection to pole dancing be based in class? Pole dancing is trashy. Its fabric is nylon and its heels are Perspex. It is available in every town to everyone (male), the staple of sleazy middle-management men and stag parties. Burlesque, made of silk and satin, is an entirely different beast. Or do I resent the pressure that pole dancing puts on me, as it becomes more popular and its looks become more mainstream? No one wonders why I’m not dressed like a burlesque dancer (to the best of my knowledge) but high heels and thongs seem to be expected. Is my love of burlesque simply the effect of nostalgia on something equally terrible?

I’ve been going around in circles like this for weeks. Tonight, I identified my feeling about pole dancing. It’s the same feeling I get when I tell my father what I’m making for dinner, and he says “I’d rather have beans on toast.”

It’s sadness, rejection, disappointment, betrayal. I’m quite a good cook. I bake my own bread. My scones are light and my pastry crisp. My meringues are little white crumb-bombs, as they should be. Last week, I even made my own butter. So why does he reject my offering in favour of a tin of beans coated in sugar and salt, topping shop-bought bread?

I can recognise a diversity of tastes I don’t share. You may eat pheasant, or fancy blondes. Fine. The thing is, though, that women are great. They vary. They can be sexy, and funny, and acquire skills like martial arts or meringue making. The whole culture around pole dancing, lap dancing and stripping seems to conspire to make women less than they are. I’ve come across numerous dancers saying they dumb down to please the guys. It’s not just that they are reduced to a body, but that they dress up in cheap fabrics and trashy shoes to embody a fantasy, and that there’s nothing clever or subtle about that fantasy or it’s practice (although I bet it’s hard work). It’s the sexual equivalent of beans on toast.

So that’s why I don’t like pole dancing. I spent all this time learning to make meringues, and I’m disappointed there’s no one here to eat them. All the same, recognising that this is a journey, I’m going to give it a go. I’ll go to the pole dancing class, as well as the burlesque class, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oh, and if you know anyone in Yorkshire who’d like to take me to a strip club or a burlesque show this weekend, do let me know.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 25, 2010 at 11:59 pm