Pole dancing instructors often like to tease students for our habit of looking a little too hard at ourselves in the mirror during class. They have every right to: when it comes to dance, it’s not just about how you look. It’s about what you can do.
I’ve taken a few of Zara’s* pole dancing classes now, and they are always a good time because she has no filter or shame. She’ll have us dance to anything: the Ying Yang Twins. 3 Doors Down. D’Angelo. Silence. Half the fun is in observing the nubes try to keep up with her hyperbolic sense of humor.
“Can I tell you that your ass looks amazing in that leotard?” Zara said, waddling into the studio one evening.
My classmates and I chuckled at her comment, embarrassedly shifting our feet side to side as we stood by our poles.
“Thank you,” I said under my breath. Yes, I was wearing that leotard.
“To the floor, bitches!” Zara squatted over in her hot pink skivvies and started blasting “Bad Habits” by Maxwell for warm-up. I began studying pole dancing to get in shape and to have more fun integrating my book project into my everyday life. To my surprise, the experience has made me check the assumptions I make on what people can physically do based on their appearance.
I am curious to see how my girl, Jen, from “XoJane” would react to Zara if she were to take her class. There is nothing about Zara’s figure to suggest she’s athletic; her torso is shaped like an apple. Her upper body is accented with a flat bum and heavy breasts. She doesn’t wear feminine accessories and prints like the other instructors, either. Her cherry-colored hot pants are the most eye-catching item on her, as she wears a white wife-beater up top with cropped, kinky hair around her plain, brown face. But no matter how you dissect (and perhaps objectify) her body, it is undeniable that she has enviable form in her twirls and shimmies around the pole.
In fact, a lot of my classmates in pole dancing classes have body types that aren’t particularly athletic or “hot” according to Maxim’s standards, but their movement and confidence on the poles are incredible. It doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have: big boobs, little boobs, round legs, skinny legs, wide hips, narrow hips, a high backside, a flat backside, scars, cellulite, hammer toes. Anyone with a little bit of practice and conviction can do amazing things with their bodies—and look beautiful doing it.
Frankly, seeing all the different bodies move so freely around the pole studio was a culture shock because what I’d experienced as a ballet student was so different. In ballet, virtually everyone looked “slim” (meaning rail-thin with elongated legs, small torsos and skinny arms) since it was the standard and they’d made it their life’s work. Even being healthy, dedicated and talented aren’t enough to get ahead; on various occasions I’d seen phenomenal dancers pushed out of the ballet industry simply because their bodies didn’t fit into the mold. As a result, I’ve come to respect pole dancing as much as I do ballet. Even though the latter has been upheld as the more timeless and respectable art form, the former is liberating because it creates room for any kind of woman to take part in it—and it never pressures women to look a certain way.
Because of my past as a ballet student, I look athletic. I am also very vain. In class, I walk around in tiny sports bras and hot pink “poom poom” shorts like Zara’s because they’re practical for gripping the pole with my skin. More than that, I enjoy being nearly nude and showing off my legs. I can laugh at my vanity because it is socially incorrect—like farting or calling oneself beautiful in public. But I can’t always laugh at it because vanity is essentially a mask for self-doubt that’s dolled up in some hoops and Sephora products. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my experiences with ballet and pop culture have bred my problematic relationships with my body and the food I put inside of it. Still, I love the body that I’ve been given and it shows through in the way I walk.
Despite my dancer’s build, I’m not very good at pole dancing. (Sorry if I’ve disappointed you.) I’ve lost a lot of my endurance and upper body strength from not having a consistent workout schedule. As a result, it’s a struggle for me to stay suspended in the air—even for something as small as a leap halfway around the pole. I do my best and I bust out some mean chair spins and dutty wines when it’s time to improv. But I’ve learned to lay off on trying crazy stunts anytime soon. Just this weekend I split my knee trying to twirl around the pole upside down. Ever since I’ve been walking around with a cane and giant leg cast in the streets of Manhattan. I try to look stoic but I really feel pathetic without my power strut.
At the surface, it seems that my episode of literally crippling myself is an amusing, bizarre and edifying tale on why we shouldn’t look so cocky in our short shorts when we haven’t done the lunges to earn them. But ultimately, my adventures in pole dancing class exemplify why body shaming is futile and misguided. I don’t know anything about Zara’s personal life or her relationship with her body and I won’t pretend to. I’m also not going to act like being overweight is something to proud because it’s ultimately a health concern. But I will say that it’s worth acknowledging that just as women come in all shapes and sizes, healthy and active bodies come in all shapes and sizes, too.
*Not her real name. The woman in the picture above is not Zara, either!