I struggle to feel sexy when I pole dance

I’ve never had the pleasure of feeling it, even as someone who gets on a pole and performs it.

People start pole for different reasons. Some are drawn in by the crazy athletic feats, as I originally was; others want to find a home within their bodies, which means getting in touch with their sexy side. And others may not have or know their 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.” You don’t owe anyone a reason, and yet this sport seems to beg one more than any other.

This is probably because of its history. Pole as a modern-day performance sport comes directly from strippers, who continue to influence its current shape and trajectory. Pole can’t be separated from its sexy roots, nor should it, lest we erase its creators. “Pole sport” already tried this in its early days, and it’s something the community is still trying to undo.

I’ve always had a hard time relating to those dancers who pursue this sport to “get to know themselves,” with the implication being that their unfamiliar side is their sexy side—which is fair. Pole is women-dominated, and for so long, women have been expected to give sex to men and shamed for any desires of their own.

As attitudes have warmed to women’s sexuality and sex positivity in general—and as pole continues to position itself as a safe space to explore the expression of sexuality—it feels like a personal failing to admit that, after all these years, I still don’t feel sexy when I dance.

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. “Stressed” has kinda-sorta become a catch-all to describe our 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 is must be one or the other, or if it can be both, simultaneously. Maybe it started as the former, and we’re now living in the confusing middle-times of a transition to the latter.

In this way, it can be whatever you want it to be. Stripping as a profession exists because of and (primarily) for the male gaze—in service to it. And yet, it’s also a means for marginalized genders to profit from the male gaze. On the one hand, I say, “Hell yeah! Get your money, sis, from these men who think they have the control.” On the other, I say, “I can’t separate these two stances in my head when it’s me performing the dance.” (Just to be clear, I have never stripped; I speak only as a pole dancer, coming from a studio and competition space).

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

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

I recognize that not every dancer may feel as conflicted about this as I do. For those who can confidently say, “I just want to feel sexy,” it’s a disservice to suggest they mean something else. But for me, when I say, “I want to feel sexy,” I think what’s closer to what I actually mean is “I want to feel empowered.” Pole offers this: a reclamation of sexiness, which in translation means finding control over a movement practice that has historically been used to control us.

Yet the male gaze is so damn ubiquitous. “I want to feel empowered” doesn’t always resonate with me, either. (And I certainly don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m jumping on the pole today to feel empowered!” It’s just golf.) That’s okay, too. The male gaze has made me doubt myself, my intentions, and my worthiness so frequently, especially in dance, that it’s never going to be as simple as changing myself and my individual thinking.

Here’s how I know I feel when I perform sexy movement. I feel creative. I feel in control. I feel powerful. Quite frankly, I feel bad ass. None of these feelings are bestowed upon me by the audience; it’s all internal. So maybe that does mean I feel sexy, even if “sexy” isn’t a word I understand.

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