I don’t feel sexy when I pole dance

Sure, I can perform it. But I don’t feel it. And I’m wondering: Is there a difference?

People start pole for different reasons. Some are drawn in by the crazy athletic feats; others want to find a home within their bodies, which means getting in touch with their sexy side. And others still may not have a reason. As Devin Lytle so perfectly put it, “Men go golfing all the time, and no one asks them to explain why they do what they do . . . Pole dancing is my golf.” We don’t owe anyone an explanation—and yet pole seems to demand one more than any other sport.

Pole as a modern-day art and sport comes from the strip club. Pole dancers emulate, borrow from, and build on the movements that strippers give us. The “pole sport” movement has demonstrated why it’s unhelpful and dangerous to sever pole from these origins: Because it contributes to the whorephobia that hurts strippers, all while taking what they do, repackaging it, and championing it as “sexiness.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy, but I struggle to relate to pole dancers who come to the sport for this reason. The implication of wanting to “get to know yourself” is that your unfamiliar side is your sexy side. Which is totally fair. Haven’t women always been expected to give sex to men, all while getting shamed for any sexual desires of their own? Pole—as long as it recognizes its roots and fights for the de-stigmatization of SW and the safety of SWers—is a way to reclaim “sexy.”

But I don’t feel it, so I feel like I’ve failed. After five years of pole dancing, I still don’t “know myself.”

I had a lightbulb moment recently when talking to a friend. She ventured the suggestion that the word “stressed”—as in, I’m so stressed!—is meaningless. The term has become a catch-all to describe society’s collective, modern-day ailments. Are you stressed, or are you exhausted because you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in three months? Are you stressed, or angry that your boss has ignored your concerns about your creeping job responsibilities? Are you stressed, or are you grieving? This is a pandemic, after all, and as a society we’ve lost routine, control, purpose, and our loved ones.

I think the word “sexy” is similar. I don’t know whether it describes an internal feeling or an external action. If it’s innate or bestowed. Whether it must be one or the other, or if it can be both, simultaneously.

Probably the reason I don’t feel sexy when I perform sexy is because I know I’m being watched. I don’t know if it’s possible—or possible for me, with my unique background, experiences, personality, and influences—to feel sexiness from within, separated from the views of the people observing me. And this is always going to be a dilemma, because I share my personal pole practice with the world via Instagram.

Pole is not just a sport, after all; it’s a performance sport.

I recognize that not every dancer may feel as conflicted about this as I do. For those who say, “Pole dance makes me feel sexy,” I believe them. Sexiness is connected to empowerment—to a reclamation of movements that have historically been used to control womxn. This is the closest I get to “sexy”: I feel empowered when I pole dance. (Even if I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I’m jumping on the pole today to feel empowered.” It’s just golf.)

Here are some other words I use to describe how I feel when I pole dance: Challenged. Creative. Strong. In control. Bad ass. None of these feelings are bestowed upon me by an audience; they’re all internal. Maybe they’re synonyms for sexy, maybe they’re not. Maybe I do feel sexy, even if it’s not a concept I fully understand.

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