I get no respect I tell ya’

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This past year, there’s been talk of pole-dancing being recognized as a sport in the Olympics. Many people think the idea is laughable, but I don’t. Although for me, pole-dancing isn’t a sport as much as a dance form its acceptance into the Olympics would be an enormous step towards legitimizing it.

The first pole-dance I ever saw (outside of movies) was a recorded performance on YouTube. It was a pole competition, and the dance was an incredible fusion of ballet and pole-dance.

The minute I saw it, I was hooked.

I started researching pole-dancing competitions, and was floored by how unbelievably talented the women were. They could hang by their knees, waists, or their shoulders and they looked as if gravity simply had no effect on them. I had to try it for myself. Once I did, there was no turning back.

Now, as a pole-dancing student, I often find myself needing to defend what I do. “No, I don’t take off my clothes,” I say.

“Yes, it’s a legitimate form of dance. No, it’s not a stripper pole; it’s just a dance pole.” Of course, not many people believe me. Most only know of pole-dancing as something that strippers do in clubs, and assume that it’s a solely sexual performance. They don’t consider it something to be taken seriously.

Some pole-dancers, as well as some strippers – the lucky ones who don’t strip as a last resort – will say, “Yes, pole-dancing is sexual. So what? We embrace our sexuality, and it empowers us.” Well, that’s fine for them, but it doesn’t satisfy me. The feeling I get while pole-dancing is the same feeling I get when I dance ballet, or bharata natyam, or modern dance, and I’m hesitant to term that feeling “embracing my sexuality.” It has much more to do with aesthetics than sex.

Does pole-dancing have to be sexual?

I’m not sure that it does. It’s true that, in the U.S., our pole-dancing culture originates in clubs, but there are other pole-dancing traditions in the world. In China and India, for example, male pole performers use tricks that are similar to Western pole-dancers’ moves. In their cultures, though, the men are seen as acrobats, not erotic performers. If someone, in the context of Western society, sees a female pole-dancer, we are likely to immediately associate that with sex – but it’s because of our previous experiences, not because of what she’s really doing.

For the most part, it seems to me that Western pole-dancing is perceived as sexy because of our associations with it, not because of the dance form itself. However, it’s also very hard to learn how to do Western pole-dancing without moving your hips, doing body rolls, or crawling on the floor. That, of course, is because pole-dance is still very much in its first or second generation, and people who pole-dance now mostly learned from strippers. So is it really true when I say, “No, I’m not a stripper”?

I think it is true. I’m trying to find a way to differentiate my kind of dance from strippers’ without devaluing what they do. As a pole-dancer who isn’t a stripper, my goal when I dance for other people is not to provoke sexual arousal; it’s to create an artistic performance. My movement is intended to be aesthetically appealing, not sexually appealing. The pole-dancing that strippers do could be considered artistic, but its ultimate goal is to arouse the spectators. I don’t want to reject the things that I’ve learned from strippers, and I don’t want to demean the things they do, but I do want to differentiate the way I dance. The pole-dancing that I do may, at times, be sexy, but its ultimate goal is to showcase the grace and athleticism of the human body.

Like any dancer, I want to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, as long as pole-dancers who consider themselves dancers are categorized with strippers, very few people will view us as serious artists. Whether or not pole-dancing is ever recognized as an Olympic sport, I hope that it will eventually become accepted enough to be showcased like any other art form.

As I become a more advanced dancer, I want the opportunity to perform and to teach. In order for that to happen, I need people to stop assuming that pole-dancers are only looking for sexual attention from men. We’re not. We just love to dance.

Sophie Kaner is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].