Yes A Stripper: Sex Workers Need To Take Back Pole Dancing

Updated March 21, 2016 11:57am PDT
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One would think, with the surge in pole dancing as a form of fitness and sport, that at some point there would be a big break in stigma against strippers and other sex workers who use pole dance as a way to make money.

One would think that; one would be wrong.

In almost every article written about pole dancing as a fitness trend, you will almost always see some variation of the phrase: “Pole dancing: it's not just for strippers anymore!” 

Every studio owner who gets interviewed by the press seems to want to make it very undeniably clear that they are not strippers, and that the type of pole aerobics and gymnastics that they practice are not degrading to women—it's just a great workout! 

It's not anything like what those nasty, dirty, no self respecting strippers do.

One would think this (legal) form of sex work would be more acceptable than ever. There's televised award shows and showcases of pole athletes emulating strippers, flawlessly pulling of practiced moves that we have created and, in some cases, are even named after us.

But more and more, we are left out of the conversation. Folks want to erase stripper and stripclub culture from the sport.  

There have been many arguments, with no real conclusion, as to the origins of pole dancing. Chinese acrobatic pole, ancient Indian Mallakhamba, circus and sideshow performance. Pole fitness enthusiasts like to throw this history at us to prove they aren't like us; what they do is an art, a performance, a skill.  

I will never be one to argue about the origins of the craft—the fact remains that modern pole fitness most closely resembles pole dancing, like the kind you see at a stripclub. The acrobats of yesteryear never donned 7 inch pleaser heels or glittery outfits or finished their routines with hair flips and booty pops. That is stripper culture. No amount of distance you put between yourself and that culture changes the fact that you are emulating it, and very blatantly.

The pole fitness community even went so far as to create the hashtag #notastripper so people on social media wouldn't get them confused with those pesky, ever present, good-for-nothing sex workers. Strippers pushed back, with our own hashtag #yesastripper.

We all know it—we've all seen it. At least once a month, a group of women come in, tipsy on white wine, to talk shit, to let us all know they they are really good at the pole, but like, the real sport, not the "poor excuse" for pole art we do. 

What a lot of civilians fail to realize is: unless you're at specific gentleman's clubs or maybe Las Vegas, whether or not you are "nasty on the pole" will have very little to do with your success as a dancer. Lots of dancers who are great at the pole save that stuff for special moments; special crowds, people who tip

We don't feel a need to show off for a group of self proclaimed “pole junkies” with disapproving looks on their faces.

Sometimes you do get that glorious feeling of landing in a loud split, clacking your heels at just the right time to make the money rain down from above, and the crowd goes wild. 

Most of the time, though, you're risking life and limb to do some incredible upside down feat while people sip their beers and watch the game.

We didn't learn our pole tricks in a controlled environment. In a clean studio with brand new sturdy poles that get cleaned multiple times a day. We didn't practice without makeup on, with a group of our peers, in a well lit, encouraging environment.  If we cared enough or knew enough, we brought our own cleaner and cleaned the pole off in between stage sets to get rid of the baby oil and glitter lotion.

We practiced in the dark club.  With loud music—which more than likely sucked. Sometimes with a fog machine blowing smoke at us. On a stage other sweaty bodies have been rolling around on all day and night.  In front of a live audience. Of cheering and jeering and leering men. Drunk men. And drunk ladies. Mean ones who yell “do a pole trick!” and laugh at you when you bust out the spin you'd been working on all week 

We practice on dead Sunday afternoons and early Saturday nights before the crowds get there. In 7 inch, sometimes 8 inch heels. Sometimes with a few drinks in us. And we don't just wear the heels for an hour or two while we're practicing. We wear them all night long.  For seven hours or more. And we walk up and down stairs to get to stages, bathrooms and dressing rooms in them, too.

Our peers are our direct competition—if you're the new girl at the club, it might not be some welcoming loving vibe where everyone wants to show you how to do that awesome shoulder mount you saw. Some of the other dancers might want to show you up. They might even be the ones sitting at the bar giving you nasty “so you think you're all that” looks from across the room.

Some of us have kids to support and rent to pay and a car to buy and probation fines and student loans and medical bills and other shit going on—that's why we're stripping in the first place—so maybe we don't have enough extra money to buy a $300 Xpole. Maybe we don't even have a living room big enough to practice spins in anyway.

So we can only practice at the club. And those ones? Those are the ones who really deserve the goddamn pole awards.

Some of us love pole so much, and get so good at it and have so much fun and love the feeling and want to take it "to the next level". So we go to a pole studio for lessons.  

It's not really a loving welcoming vibe there either.  They'll tell you well, I understand you're an “exotic dancer” but what we do here is different.  It's aerobics, it's fitness, it's gymnastics, it's aerial yoga, whatever it is, it's definitely not stripping.  And you can argue maybe that you're a feature dancer, and can show them video of you doing inverts, and more advanced moves—they'll still treat you like shit and tell you you need to re-learn everything and start with basic beginner lessons.

And if the other students in the class catch wind that you're a stripper, they'll alienate you all over again. 

Just like being the new girl at the club.

Except now you're paying instead of making money.

When any of My non sex worker friends put up photos and videos of their progress on the pole, everyone congratulates them, tells them how strong they are, how amazing. They write blog posts about how hard it is and how much it hurts and proudly post instagram photos of their bruises to prove that they are warriors, #notastripper.

It's awesome and inspiring and empowering if you pay for the privilege of pole dancing. But if you make a living at it, it's disgusting and degrading.

So, what can you do? What can we do? Maybe you now feel a little conflicted because you think pole dancing looks like a lot of fun and your friend got a Groupon for lessons.

If you have enough extra cash to get pole lessons, you have enough money to support a pole dancer making their living as a sex worker. That doesn't mean you have to go to the club and drop $300. Go on a Sunday afternoon when there's no cover charge. Ask the dancers who is the best at pole there. Find that dancer, tip them $20 and ask for a pole show. They'll be thankful; I promise.

Tell them you're thinking of taking pole classes; ask if there's a studio they recommend. Hell, maybe they want to teach you, and you can have one-on-one lessons from an actual professional. They can probably even teach you the hair whip for real.

There's no nationally or internationally accredited way to get certified to be a pole teacher.The art form in it's current state is that new. 

It's so new that it's not too late to make it a great venue to destigmatize sex work.  

To the studio owners and teachers I say: include us!

Find the best polers in the adult industry and ask them to teach at your studios. Have classes specifically for dancers. By dancers. For dancers. With sliding scale fees. One night a fucking month; it won't kill your business.

Start a scholarship fund for sex workers who really fucking deserve to be at pole showcases but can't afford the travel or entrance fees.

If strippers want to come take classes, let them show you what they're capable of so you can place them at the proper skill level. Maybe even learn a thing or two from someone who has potentially been doing this a lot longer than you.

To aspiring hopefuls: ask instructors how long they've been doing pole. For some it's as little as 6 months before they start teaching. Go and ask the stripper who is nasty on the pole how long they've been practicing.

Don't let someone who just discovered this make money without recognizing all the hard work and innovation put in by strippers.  

Let those who have paid their dues reap the benefits.

Ask studios if they have any former or current dancers who work there. See how they react. If they stick their nose in the air and assure you that nobody like that is associated with the studio, school them and leave. Don't go to that studio.

Find another one. One that's more welcoming to sex workers.

If your studio has pole showcases, go to the clubs and let the dancers know. Let them know they are welcome to enter competitions.

And fellow strippers: we have to just keep going to classes, keep entering competitions, keep getting nasty on that pole. Let them know we aren't going away. Offer lessons. Find out what it takes to become an instructor. Infiltrate! Win awards and shout out the club you work at on the mic.  

Ask your favorite customer to pay for entrance fees if you have to.  

Do whatever you can to get on the stage. Say it loud and clear: #YesAStripper.

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Bella Vendetta is a professional & lifestyle Dominatrix with over 15 years experience and training. In addition to living the kink lifestyle, she is also an exotic dancer who travels from club to club, a sex educator getting to speak at colleges and Universities, and a rock and metal journalist. She is a founding member of Rites of Passage Suspension Group and is passionate about doing very dangerous things as safely as possible. When she's not doing sex work or writing, you can find her in the mountains and exploring old cemeteries.