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Is Pole Dancing Actually Empowering for Women?

Is gyrating up and down a pole really the path to empowerment?

I’m getting ready to try out a new gym in a few days, one that is geared solely toward women. Such establishments typically excite me, as I love the idea of a place where women can feel completely at ease and comfortable with themselves. No men checking them out in gym mirrors, and no need to feel “cute” while working up a sweat. Just pure health and fitness goals.

As I was perusing this gym’s various creatively themed classes from “sassy sutra” and “monarch” aerial yoga to "ABS-solutely” and “meet me at the BARRE,” I was intrigued to see an extensive listing of pole dancing classes. Considering myself open-minded, I started reading up on the teacher bios. What was it that was drawing them to pole dancing? Sure, many say it’s a great workout and fun. But the same thing is said about Zumba and other cardio classes set to great soundtracks. Many of the instructors spoke about bringing pole dancing out of the closet so to speak. They want to remove the shame factor and let women have fun with it.

Having had friends and acquaintances who attend and teach pole dancing, I have seen that women often do approach these classes as something new and fun. Many see them as a space that allows them to feel sexy. But buzzkill that I so often am, I can’t help but feel a tad skeptical.

At its outset, pole dancing has been and continues to be associated with strippers and the exploitation of women. Though I’ve wracked my brain to come up with an equivalent of pole dancing for men, I just can’t think of a single one. Readers, I welcome your help on this one! Further, why is gyrating and twirling around a pole supposed to engender sudden feelings of empowerment and sexiness? How come doing charitable work and a new haircut can’t provide the same?

It’s interesting that on the one hand the nation expressed disgust at Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, and yet we’re still encouraging women to embrace analogous bodily gestures and movements as a form of “fitness” and “fun.” If we recall correctly, she pole danced before she twerked. Hence, if the stigma of pole dancing is really being removed, then why isn’t it in our children’s P.E. classes alongside flag football and tennis? And frankly are more Miley moves going to appear as new fitness crazes?

Yes, women have tried to eradicate derogatory mysogynistic artifacts. They attempted to reclaim words like “bitch” in an attempt to neutralize the word. But has it worked? Isn’t it still considered profanity? In the same vein, it’s unlikely that pole dancing will ever be reclaimed as a sign of women’s strength and empowerment. It seems to me at least it just plays right into the self-exploitation of women. It objectifies women’s bodies and was historically set up for the satisfaction and pleasure of men. Maybe women do want to pole dance privately for their partners and that is obviously none of my business. However, some feminist scholars argue that objectification of women in part plays into rape culture. As such rape and assault is more likely to occur in a society where women are in essence treated as objects.

Dance is a universal and beautiful form of self-expression. Music naturally encourages us to dance around and move to its beat. Let’s be honest though—who ever saw a pole and had the immediate and instinctual thought, “Why don’t I start grinding on it?” While I’ll still check out this gym and some of their classes, the jury is out on whether I’ll ever be sold on pole dancing. Readers, what are your thoughts?

Further Reading:

Bragg, Sara and Buckingham, David (2009). Too much too young? Young people, sexual media and learning. In:Attwood, Feona ed. Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture. London: I. B. Tauris, pp. 129–146.

Bott, E. (2012). Pole dancing, empowerment, and embodiment. Feminist Review, 101, e1–e2.

Whitehead, K. & Kurtz, T. (2009). 'Empowerment' and the pole: A discursive investigation of the reinvention of pole dancing as a recreational activity. Feminism Psychology, 19, 224-244.

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