Pole Is Therapeutic – It Is Not Therapy

I am envious of other women’s heaving cathartic sobs. My cries are rare, and when they occur I feel drained for hours afterwards, my eyes are itchy and thick the following day, and often they don’t make me feel better. I want to cry more often. I have never desired a cry at my pole studio though…

Strip Down, Rise Up – a documentary supposedly about the pole dancing phenomenon – is saliently about women crying. We should normalise crying, yes – we all do it and it shouldn’t be seen as a weakness or embarrassing and I truly think crying in public should be more accepted. If you are upset or frustrated or overjoyed, then of course your pole studio is a safe space for a share and a cry. Pole is a safe space, amongst many things.

But it is not therapy.

What we are shown in the documentary is the start of a beginner course at Sheila Kelly’s studio. She could of course have done some gentle warm-ups, taught a foundation move or two, a few fun spins perhaps – like you would expect if you had come to learn pole. Instead, they are rounded up and asked why they have joined pole – an innocuous enough seeming question except it is layered with the expectation that you reveal something much much deeper than ‘I want to learn pole because it looks cool’ – although one woman does say something like this and is visibly startled at what is happening around her and almost shamefaced that her desire is as simple as that.

This is an enforced safe space – not an organically grown and nurtured environment. Day one, have barely heard each other’s names, before sharing their trauma. I would argue as well that it isn’t fair to hear someone else’s trauma before you are ready.

To be fair, Sheila Kelly has a point to all of this: reclaiming your erotic self. We repress it, lest it be interpreted as an invitation, as experience has taught us all. I’m just not convinced laying bare your traumatic past is the way to go – but gradually laying bare bits of your body? Hell yeah.

Which comes first: the stripping off or the sexy moves? At your first pole class, your attire will consist of baggy tops and shorts – the shorts only because you were told you would need them otherwise you definitely would have stuck to your trusty butt-lifting leggings. You will grip the pole too tightly – your spins will not yet be long and wide and graceful. You will move with all the fluidity of an uncooked noodle for your first body wave. Incrementally, you will build: your strength, your flexibility, your confidence, and before you know it you’re wearing garter shorts and running your hands over your breasts and bum, tracing infinity signs in the air with your pointed toes and taking pictures for Sunday Bumday. And it’s not for anyone else – it is for you.

For me, as well as offering this permission to love my body in all of its glory and to act sexy, to be sexy, pole has transformed by body and mind. Movement is magic and pole gives me a freedom to dance and move and jump and twirl and a reason to improve my strength and flexibility. In each lesson, there are successes and new goals, however small, reached and made. Nothing can beat the ring of a YASSSSS throughout the studio as you nail something new. It gives a connection to yourself and others.

Each burning hold is a promise to myself to keep going.

One woman in the documentary asked: ‘How do you feel bigger and bolder outside of the studio?’ She described this as ‘the intoxicating part of pole’. She gets it. Pole is therapeutic and good for you because it is pole, not because you can tell others about your intense traumas.

Mindfulness isn’t just something anyone can lead, therapy isn’t something that just anyone can give. The mind is a powerful thing and should not be messed with. Somehow we are both caged by and freed by that organ in our skulls. Our imaginations and ideas can be unrestrained and beautiful but they can also trap us in vicious circles and force us to relive moments we’d rather forget.

This documentary missed out a lot too with its framing of ‘pole as therapy’. Cursory mentions of its roots in the sex worker industry, not much about it being more than erotic dance, it didn’t touch on male pole dancers, a few moments about it being ‘an industry built by women’, but nothing deeper explored there. Why did so many in the pole fitness industry shun the sex worker roots and work hard to make distinctions between the two? You wouldn’t have one without the other. Pole for some is exotic dance, but for many it is a form of strength and flexibility fitness or modern dance. Is there something lost from the space when men enter it? Are women working on making it an inclusive space for men and non-binary folk? What can we learn about women in business from the way the pole industry has blossomed?

I am all for having a safe space to share and building up a support network but pole is not the space for you to get therapy – therapy is where you should get therapy.

Image courtesy of Mahir Uysal.

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