By Elyssa Goodman
Are we here because we think pole dancing is sexy, or because men think pole dancing is sexy?
“You are beautiful and sexy,” Mizz Phil says to all of us in a slow, curvy drawl, “and we’re going to have some fun today.” I know it’s part of her job to say something like that, but somehow I instantly believe her. Okay, Mizz Phil. I will follow you wherever you will go.
And she goes out onto a wooden dance floor, out of which spring six 10-foot high silver poles, the reason I am here today: To take a pole dancing class.
Mizz Phil, our instructor, wears shiny, thigh-high patent leather stiletto boots and stands in front of us, speaking with goddess-like authority. A former construction-site manager, she easily shows us she means business.
It might be difficult to “mean business” in a place like this. Everything here is pink. Pink corsets, pink high heels, pink feather boas—and it’s all a very impish hot pink, the colour of a naughty Barbie doll package if it existed. And “naughty” really is the right word because when I first walked into Pittsburgh’s Fitness With a Twist exercise studio, that’s exactly how I felt. Like eating cookies before dinner, the sugary sweetness was worth any consequences that might come of it.
Before we start on the poles, though, we have to choose a pole name. “It can be anything,” Mizz Phil says. “It can be a place you want to visit, a color, a food—anything you think is sexy.” “Sexy”—the word flies around the studio like glitter in a drag queen’s dressing room. After mere seconds I decide I am Scarlet Morocco, a worldly temptress like Mata Hari. I laugh to myself at how easily I can drum up this fictitious persona and even then, at the beginning of class, I begin to wonder—maybe Scarlet was in there all along?
And as we begin our warm-up, I begin to see Scarlet more and more. A lot of the movements come really naturally to me, like there is a part of me in there that already knew how to do all of this, waiting to get out and play. Warming up to songs like “Buttons” by the Pussycat Dolls that are chock full of aural sighs and moans, neck rolls are not just neck rolls and push-ups are not just push-ups. You also have to caress your neck, chest, torso, whatever. “Come on, you gotta make it a little sexy! Touch what you think is sexy about you—maybe your legs, your neck, your thighs. Make him want to be those hands,” Mizz Phil instructs. I follow with close attention to detail. I add a hair flip here and there, spread my legs extra wide for the push-ups, make eye contact with myself in the mirror, bat my eyelashes. It is almost funny to watch myself in the mirror. The simplest movement becomes sex with an extra thrust here or a caress there. Not only that, but my upper body is getting a crazy workout and my pelvis is along for the ride.
When we begin working on the poles, Mizz Phil first demonstrates “The Fireman,” taking three long-legged, purposeful, sultry steps around the pole before promptly hooking herself and gliding down it. In six-inch black patent leather stiletto boots, she is just as graceful as a ballerina.
Of course my attempt looks a lot different, though I have much more success with “The Pretzel.” I am pleasantly surprised—I was never the kid on the playground who tackled the monkey bars like a champ. I have never really had much upper body strength, and I didn’t think I’d be able to do any of the pole work. “You just have to trust yourself,” Mizz Phil says. So I listen. Trusting yourself is a big part of being successful on the pole, and it’s interesting to think how much faith you need to have in yourself to do anything in general.
Mizz Phil tells us about one girl who was taking a public speaking class, and she wasn’t doing very well in it. After a few weeks of coming to classes, her teacher told her she sounded so much more confident and had really improved. What had she been doing, he asked. “Oh, just practising,” she replied. But of course it was the pole dancing.
I practice “The Pretzel” a couple of times, wrapping by body around the pole and spinning downward. Yeah, I think to myself. I just did that.
I’m not doing it exactly right, though, so Mizz Phil comes over to help me. “What’s wrong with your grip?” she said. “You gotta hold it like you hold your man!” she says and promptly fixes my hand placement.
Like I hold my man?
I didn’t think I was doing this for or in reference to a man, to be sexy for a man, but then I realize we are all here, bumping and grinding on these enormous, 10-foot steel phalluses. I begin to wonder, are we are here because we think pole dancing is sexy, or because men think pole dancing is sexy? I also wonder if it matters either way. I continue doing the movements—“The Secretary,” “The Descending Angel”— and I am still enjoying myself, but I keep thinking about these questions. I watch Mizz Phil revolving around the pole as she demonstrates more moves and I realize I think pole dancing is sexy to me. It feels good to be sexy for fun and just for myself, not for a man.
Sometimes I really do think I’m sexy, like I’m a pair of red patent leather stilettos, but in the back of my head I’m always wondering if that’s true or if I’m just some big joke, like a completely unsexy pair of Birkenstocks or, worse, clown shoes. Even though I’m not completely comfortable in class feigning sex with a giant metal rod in front of a bunch of people I don’t know, pole dancing makes me feel like maybe I’m not a joke, that maybe I am someone who can be desired. Like maybe I am those red stilettos all the time.
I am surprised at myself. When I was younger, I thought sex and sexuality were gross—I did everything possible to hide my developing body as a pre-teen and only when I got to college did I first begin to unravel from this tightly wound spool of self-repression. I began to understand and appreciate sexuality for the essential part of human nature that it is. After all, this idea, coupled with a growing acceptance of my own wonderfully imperfect frame, led me here today.
But shouldn’t we have the confidence in ourselves to “bring the sexy” with us everywhere we go, trust ourselves all the time, instead of just on the pole? This “sexy” I’m talking about is not just sex appeal. It’s confidence and pride that we can have as women, as curvaceous, alluring beings. It’s not for our potential partners, male or female, but for ourselves.
That’s one of the reasons Mizz Phil does it. While managing construction sites around the country, Mizz Phil was surrounded by men all the time. She says with regret that she picked up their habits, their foul language, and other characteristics so much that she began to lose her sense of what she defined as her own femininity. “We have been trained to not show our innate sensuality,” she says sternly but sadly. “Women are gorgeous, sensual people.” She leans on her knees, raised up higher by her six-inch stiletto boots. She is even powerful when she is sitting down. “We lose our sensuality, sexuality and we feel uncomfortable being sexy. We amp it down (to fit in with men in the workplace), but we can’t amp it up again.” When Mizz Phil realized this, she began taking pole dancing classes, to find the part of herself she felt she lost and find “the sexy” again
“Women come here for fitness, for themselves. To be more comfortable with their own sexy. When they’re conforming at work, trying to be more masculine to fit in, they’re invisible. Here, they’re not,” she says. One of her favorite things about the studio is seeing women transform and becoming more comfortable with themselves. I can see that for Mizz Phil it has worked. She’s a woman who so comfortably wears her own skin that she sparkles everywhere, from her eyes to her six-inch stilettoed feet.
I wonder how she does it because, really, I don’t know if I could grind on a pole like that in front of strangers weekly. I wonder what it’s like.
The Cricket Lounge is a small venue that would barely stand out if it wasn’t for the neon green lights streaming along the awning, jagged lime letters screaming the word “Cricket.” It’s a Friday, Ladies Night, so my three girlfriends and I get in free. One girl dances on stage, but mostly what I see is emptiness. There are probably eight customers in total inside, excluding ourselves. They’re all men, most over 40. As one waitress describes it, “It’s a neighbourhood bar with naked girls,” so maybe they weren’t expecting too much action on a Friday night around 9:30. Beer prices flash above the stage, joined on either side by flags from Pittsburgh’s favourite sports teams, along with the prices for private dances: $25 for one song, $45 for two.
On stage, a girl dances to testosterone-heavy arena rock from the 1970s that echoes throughout the bar, but I can only hear loneliness. She looks like she is in her own world, dancing for herself, smiling but not really enjoying it. Some girls mingle with the men at the bar and I see the look in their eyes that says “I’m not really interested in you and I don’t want to be here, but pay me well for your lap dance and we’ll call it even.” It is drained of the celebratory, can-do energy of Fitness with a Twist and filled with boredom and routine.
My girlfriends and I don’t try our hand at private dances, but continue watching the stage. Because the Cricket is a totally nude club, the girls splay their legs and invite their customers to take a look inside. And the men take them up on their offers repeatedly, looking as intensely as they might if they were gazing into a crystal ball. After all, if you look at where you came from, maybe you can see where you’re going.
But strip clubs like the Cricket are meant to sell fantasy. One girl sashays in her white lingerie before most of it is removed—an illusion of chasteness but a reality of nakedness. Another girl who sports a tightly wound corset with tattoos and black heels is the bad girl who likes to rock and roll to AC/DC. The pole is their friend, always there to lean on when it’s needed, for tricks, for support, for help in collecting tips when an offered garter just doesn’t seem to cut it.
A slim girl draped in a leopard bra and miniskirt comes over to us. “Hi ladies,” she says, automatically. Her hair is solid brown, bangs cut in a perfect horizontal line across her forehead, and she has a piercing above her lip that at a quick glance looks like a shiny mole. “Anything I can do for you?”
I tell her I’m a writer—would she mind talking to me for a bit? She pauses, then says “sure,” like a child responding to the question “Do you want to go visit grandma on her deathbed today?” The answer is yes, but really it’s no. Either way, she sits. Her pole name is Bentley (“Oh, like the car?” I ask. “Yeah,” she says, smacking her gum), and she is a 19-year-old business major at the University of Pittsburgh. She began stripping to make money for college, and if she works four to five nights a week she can make about $1,000.
Though there is this nearly naked girl sitting in front of me, I find her so much less sexy than Mizz Phil. Mizz Phil oozed confidence and personality. She really wanted to be on the pole and enjoyed dancing on it. But for Bentley I feel like the pole, the stage, is just a job, like being a telemarketer or an accountant. You enjoy it a little bit but really you’re just there for the money.
Dr. Catherine M. Roach, women’s studies professor at the University of Alabama and author of the book Stripping, Sex, and Popular Culture, writes that “capitalism is motivating (strippers) and not lust.” A common misconception about stripping and sex trades in general is that those involved in it are morally bankrupt but, as Roach also writes, “For a woman without higher education, exotic dancing is the single most lucrative profession open to her.” Again, it’s about capitalism, and according to Bentley it’s true.
But for Mizz Phil the pole is about finding yourself sexy and being confident and womanly and all those things you feel on the pole that are not men’s hands or dollars on your skin. Mizz Phil does it for herself. Bentley does it for other people.
Our waitress, Sasha* used to strip at the Cricket but now chooses to waitress instead. A tall, lithe and friendly (like actually friendly, not paid-to-be-friendly) brunette, Sasha wears a t-shirt, a denim miniskirt, and glasses. Sasha stripped from ages 22 to 25, after she broke up with a boyfriend who was supporting her.
“I needed money for an apartment, for furniture, and I needed it fast. So I came here and danced and then they hired me,” she says. For two-and-a-half years, she couldn’t find work that paid as much elsewhere, so she kept stripping all over Pittsburgh at places with names like Blush, Jezebel, and Wild Things. Now, for the most part, she’s glad she’s not doing it anymore, and she is working toward getting her pre-nursing certificate at the Community College of Allegheny County. “Sometimes it was fun, but it gets old really fast,” she says. “There’s drugs sometimes and you can drink at work so you have to be careful. And you have to pretend to like these guys you’d never talk to in public. Some of them come in here just to be rude to a girl.” But then there are the things she does miss: “I miss making money. I miss the camaraderie you have with the other girls,” she says.
But what she misses the most is the pole. “If I had a pole at home, I wouldn’t miss it at all.” Sasha liked performing, being on stage, and would love the opportunity just to dance for herself again. Pole dancing made her feel “pretty and sexy.” What is it about the pole that makes women feel this way?
Do we maybe secretly enjoy being on display, being an object of lust? Maybe we all just want to be wanted. In her book, Dr. Roach writes that this is actually called “sex-positive feminism,” feminism which seeks to “empower women as the agents of their own sexuality.” Women are learning to play with sexuality as men have been doing for years, realizing they have the equal right to chase their desires. Interestingly enough, pole dancing fits perfectly into this new feminist model, whether for fun or for money.
When pole dancing is for fun, as at Fitness with a Twist, it’s what Dr. Roach calls “the aerobics of strong and sexy women,” just as Mizz Phil said it was. Women do it for themselves and not for anyone else. Though it’s different at the strip club, Dr. Roach has a similar point of view. “Perhaps strippers are simply smart women cashing in on what patriarchy most values in a woman (beauty, body, youth), and having fun doing it.” Perhaps strippers have found a way to make patriarchy work for them—if they have what men want, why not sell it to them? Of course there is the dark side of stripping—rude customers, drug and alcohol abuse and less-than-decent working conditions in general—but the dancing itself, the power of the pole, keeps people coming back. In the words of one stripper Dr. Roach interviewed, “This is my superhero persona.” The pole makes many women feel good, makes them feel sexy, and after so many years of covering themselves up with shame or fear, maybe it’s now time to strip it all away.