The pole has been at the center of both dance and debate for years. While this undeniably athletic form of movement was once seen as synonymous with sex work, in recent years it has grown in popularity as a fitness craze and hobby with studios popping up around the country, including around Miami. But this surge in demand has raised questions for consideration from all sides of the pole.
Outside of the strip club, pole dancing has evolved as a sport and is practiced in studios by sex workers and hobbyists alike. Some enjoy the fitness aspect of the art, while others use it to embrace their sensuality.
But as the demand to learn pole dancing grows and the industry changes, it faces complicated questions. Some recreational pole practitioners report being discouraged from the sport by outside influencers due to the sexual stigma around it. At the same time, the sex workers who popularized the art to begin with sometimes feel shunned and pushed to the background.
Pole can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, as the growing community provides opportunities for fitness, sport competition, sex work and recreational performances.
Melody Muñiz, a pole instructor and University of Miami junior, said she started dancing because it was a fun and different way to exercise.
“I immediately loved it—and realized how weak I was,” said Muñiz. “You realize pole dance is no joke. You feel so proud of yourself.”
Muñiz attributes pole’s increasing popularity to social media. Her mother, she said, used to have preconceived notions about what pole dancing meant for her daughter— until she tried a class out for herself.
Like a lot of pole dancers, Muñiz said she initially didn’t post about her practice online because she feared repercussions and thought it may affect her ability to get a job.
“When I owned it, I felt better,” she said. “This is my sport, this is my thing and I’m going to show it.”
Although there are many subcategories, pole dancing can be divided into three main categories: pole fitness (or pole sport), exotic pole and artistic pole. Competitions are held in multiple categories, and are often regulated by a governing organization, the largest being the Pole Sport Organization (PSO).
The pole fitness style is more athletic, like gymnastics’ distant cousin. It combines acrobatic figures and tricks with artistic choreography. The PSO organizes competitions every year in this category, and dancers are judged on acrobatics, physical strength and technique difficulty.
Exotic pole is probably what most people think of when they hear “pole dance”— think heels and legwork. While it is more sensual and not as strict, make no mistake that exotic pole dancing takes endurance, strength and flexibility. The PSO has an entire division dedicated to exotic dance.
As far as clothing goes, less is more— though this is true for most styles of pole dance. But, it’s not just to look sexy. Bare skin grips the pole best, and that can be critical considering dancers are often hanging upside-down 10 feet off the ground by the skin on the back of their knee.
From the emotion to the music to the moves, artistic pole dancing is about telling a story. Dancers take a creative approach and can use props for the appropriate genre, whether it be comedy or drama. Performers can also combine elements from pole sport and exotic pole in this category. The emphasis is on movement, musicality and expression, all while continuing to incorporate acrobatic stunts.
In all three, the pole acts as a frame for the artwork, which in this case, is the body itself. It is not just about being pretty, it’s about being powerful.
Gaby Martinez, owner and instructor at Aerial Fitness Miami, started dancing nine years ago. She said she originally thought pole dancing would lead to exotic dancing or stripping. After her first class, though, she realized these were not the only ways to enjoy the activity.
“I loved it because every class was a challenge,” said Martinez.
Within and around the growing pole community, these perceived relationships between pole, sex work, empowerment and feminism tends to generate a fair amount of controversy.
According to industry blog Pole Riot Zine, some of the most hot-button takes include whether the activity is “feminist” or not, as well as the relationship between hobbyists and sex workers.
To some critics, the activity appears to simply cater to the male gaze, while many practitioners will point out that there aren’t a whole lot of men watching pole dancing classes and that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying something just because it could be seen as sexy.
Sex work itself is a topic that the feminist movement doesn’t always agree upon. When it comes to pole dancing, the same ties that some people complain about are those that others hope to protect. After all, said stripper and pole instructor Miss Cake, it was sex workers who practiced pole before it was a trend, sex workers who have the most to lose from the negative stigma of the activity and the glorification of sex workers that largely propelled the art to the popularity it holds today.
“Please try to protect and bring sex workers to the forefront, not the back burner, of our pole community.” ~ Miss Cake, stripper and pole instructor
Miss Cake said she first learned about pole dancing when she tried out for amateur night at a club. “I saw all the girls spinning and was instantly in awe,” she said.
Pole dancing has gained popularity because of the way celebrities glamorize stripper culture. For example, Miss Cake said, artists like Lil Nas X have profited immensely from the aesthetic of pole dancing while doing little to give back to the sex worker community.
For Miss Cake, she said, pole is not only a source of income, but a form of expression and a way to heal. Dancing, she emphasized, is more than a fun fitness activity or after-work hobby for sex workers.
“This isn’t a hobby,” she said. “This is a huge part of my life, even when I don’t want it to be.”
That may be why, for Miss Cake, it’s insulting when hobbysits, and even celebrities, look to separate the activity from this community.
“If you are a pole hobbyist and you make an effort to separate yourself from being compared to a stripper, you are part of the problem,” Miss Cake said, “If you do not respect and support sex workers but still dance on a pole, you are a dancing hypocrite.”
While Miss Cake said she feels fortunate to have a strong support system, she said she does constantly worry about her safety at clubs.
“Nearly every night, I work with people that I know are unsafe to be around,” she said. “Please,” she continued, “try to protect and bring sex workers to the forefront, not the backburner, of our pole community.”
“Without exotic dancers and sex workers, we would have no pole,” said Martinez. She said strippers are the ones “that made everything possible.” They started doing tricks, splits and eventually somebody saw there was a way to combine pole with gymnastic and ballet elements. “The goal is not to separate it, the idea is to create a space for everybody.”
words_isa marquez. photo_daniella pinzon. design_maria emilia becerra.
This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2022 print issue.