On writing and finding time

Sometimes it all feels like too much:

A full-time job.

Teaching two pole classes a week.

Subbing classes. Taking classes. Preparing for a competition.

Running.

Physical therapy.

The many books I want to read.

A blog that doesn’t write itself.

An unfinished novel that reminds me constantly what an imposter I am.

Twelve months ago, I started a new job: a freelance gig that was supposed to last no longer than two months. But as fall turned to winter turned to spring, and I remained steadily employed, I started to blame my lack of novel progress on my new job: Since becoming a full-time writer, I simply didn’t have time to be an extracurricular writer.

One hour a day, I told myself: Sit down at your computer, open up your Word doc, and write. Just. One. Hour.

I had a clear task ahead of me, so it shouldn’t have been that hard. Five months ago, I made the decision to change my novel from third person to first person (perhaps in a fit of self-sabotage: I was just one chapter shy of a finished first draft). I calculated that, at one hour per day and one chapter per week, I could get through the entire thing in fifteen weeks.

This was in February. Twenty weeks later, the three-year mark of this project has come and gone, and I’ve gotten through just one and a half chapters total. The first-person change, as it turned out, was not as simple as a find-and-replace. I’d begun something I couldn’t see finishing, and instead of making a decision one way or another, I froze. I closed Word, and I stopped coming back to it.

Well, actually, I started a blog—which filled my need for accountability and words-on-the-page, and (more importantly) tamped down the guilt I feel for not writing.

Then, finally, I revisited my novel a couple of week ago. I was inspired after reading If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, which me realize what change I actually needed to make. (Do you see why I can’t drop reading from my list of weekly commitments?) It was a drastic change—far more laborious than a perspective change. It meant starting over, albeit with a really good outline. It was the first time in a year that I was excited to return to the novel each day. Suddenly, one hour wasn’t enough.

Writing regularly—extracurricularly—means making choices. In that hour slot, I have to give up something else that is important to me—reading or exercise. It means constantly feeling guilty that something is being neglected. But if you’re a writer (or an artist of any kind), you know that there’s no greater guilt than calling yourself a writer when you’re not currently writing.

Writing always feel good. But writing fiction feels cathartic. I want to keep at it, but I feel obligated to put out a blog post. One way or another, it’s hours of unpaid labor, which detracts from the time I could be spending on another form of unpaid labor.

(And don’t get mad at me for phrasing it that way, just because I claim to love writing. Artists deserve compensation for their time and energy, even if they enjoy creating the art.)

Either way, I’ve failed. And obviously, if you’re reading this, you know what choice I’ve made this week.

Find time, they say. As if time is hidden, not already accounted for. This is not the blog post I wanted to write—after all, I’ve barely mentioned pole dance in all 600 words—but it’s time I’ve spend not working on my novel.

It’s the twenty-first of the month, and I’ve gotten a blog post up.

This time will be different: PSO Northeast 2022

I’m competing in November.

In some ways, it feels like a first, though it’s not. I’ve competed twice before, but I’ve never been this deliberate about it. I’m not uber-proud of those performances, and it’s truly a horrible feeling. I love pole—and I have nothing to show for it.

Hello ego, my old friend.

I competed for the first time at PSO Northeast in 2019, three years after touching a pole for the first time. Three years isn’t an insignificant amount of time, but in retrospect, I was very much a “baby” pole dancer. I didn’t know what I didn’t know—which was what I was good at. I knew only what I thought I should be good at.

In the end, I placed tenth out of the eleven performers in my category. I was devastated. I came off stage so happy to have made it through my routine—without falling or forgetting my choreography!—that I couldn’t believe the judges expected anything more of me. Their commentary was eye opening. It was my first time receiving technical feedback, and also the moment it first occurred to me that I was supposed to be performing. That’s right: I made it all the way to comp day without asking myself, “Am I prepared to entertain this audience?” As a result, my first routine was a string of tricks, executed at varying levels of success, set to a song that was more of requirement-cum-nuisance than an inspiration or theme.

The competition was a success in that it made me understand my shortcomings in a way I hadn’t a reason to previously. It gave me ideas and motivation for the next one. I was crushed, but I was ready to do it again.

But then the pandemic arrived four months later. Studios closed, and I ended up pole-less for a full three months. During that time, I replaced in-person pole classes with Zoom-based floorwork classes. I moved, and though I didn’t have a lot of furniture, I did have a folding metal chair. These things—the floor and the chair—became my new apparatuses. When my studio announced it would host a virtual showcase in October, I submitted a piece using them. I had a lot of fun putting it together. Neither the floor nor the chair required as much physical strength as pole did, so I was able to focus on my transitions, lines, and musicality. I felt successful at what I was trying to do, rather than like a desperate imposter.

To my surprise, the studio scheduled my piece to run in the second half of the showcase, behind a “Warning: Sexiness” disclaimer. Sexy wasn’t my intention, but that third-party label was an indicator that, after four years of searching for “my style,” I’d finally stumbled upon it—organically.

The following spring, I entered PSO Taurus with an exotic* submission. Though I’m more proud of this routine than the first one, I’m still embarrassed by my timidity. I know that I hold myself back. I’m scared to be vulnerable in the way that a good performance requires. I feel stupid playing the part of a confidence pole dancer, when I’m anything but.

I tell myself it’s acting, but I can’t commit. Is it because I hate my body—a hatred that’s routed deeply in anti-fat bias and my own experiences as a fat child—and feel that I have no right to get on a stage and pretend otherwise?

Yes. Maybe. Partly, at least. But I’ll never be proud of a routine if I can’t push past my self-hatred. It may not sound like my ego at work, but in a way, it is. It’s my ego telling me I should be doing more, which is ultimately what prevents me from showing up as I currently am.

The only way I can think to tackle this is to get very clear on my intentions. So I’ve reflected on what I don’t like about my previous competition experiences, and I’ve come up with a definition of “success” for this time around:

  • I will perform for the audience and not my ego. A routine that’s exciting to watch is ultimately a routine that’s impressive.
  • I will commit to the role. I will be present on that stage, in body and in facial expression.
  • I will base my routine on moves I’m able to do, not moves I want to be able to do.
  • I will not panic-add “impressive” moves to the routine at the last minute. Every trick will compliment the routine, not be a display of ego.
  • I will let music inspire my movement. If something isn’t working, I’ll let it go sooner rather than later.
  • I will finalize my routine at least a month in advance—by October 19—so that the final weeks can be spent finessing the details and overall presentation.
  • I will not worry about deciding between exotic* and Russian exotic* right now. It’s okay that I like elements of both, that “my style” doesn’t always fit neatly into once category. I can choreograph the piece, then decide later where it fits best.
  • I will ask for help when I’m stuck. My peers who have given the best performances have had whole teams behind them, and I will not feel that I have to do this alone in order to be successful.

I’ve got five months. Let’s see how it goes.

*I used the word “exotic” here because that’s what PSO (still) calls it. I recognize that this word is outdated and offensive.

Pole dance, pain tolerance, and privilege

My physical therapist once said to me, “You have a really high tolerance for pain.” I was lying on my back on her treatment table as she kneaded a stainless steel scraping tool into my shoulder. As she worked, she implored, “Just let me know if this is too much.”

I was at her clinic for my cranky shoulders, a not-uncommon gripe among pole dancers. My first reaction to her assertion was a polite, “Oh, really?” I had no idea if my pain tolerance was any higher or lower than the average person’s, and no reason to think her observation was anything more than just that: a neutral observation. Your fingers are cold. Your arms are freckled. Your hair is brown. Yet I was proud. In a way, I had been training my body for many years to receive a comment like this—and not just through pole dance.

I grew up a fat, sedentary, depressed child. My body was a stranger, a thing that happened to me—all of its aches and pains, its weight meted out in gradually increasing numbers on the bathroom scale. It wasn’t until college—out of my parents’ house, alone in a new city—that I stumbled into bodily autonomy. Able to feed and dress and move myself in ways that had no baggage or expectations attached to it, I did. I became higher-educated, and I became un-sedentary for the first time in my life. The college gym gave way to outdoor running gave way to—eventually—the pole studio.

With each new endeavor, I developed a greater familiarity with my body. My eating and exercise habits changed. The aches and pains that I didn’t understand began to disappear, replaced by aches and pains that had a clear source. Sore calves? That’s from the 18-mile run I did on Saturday. Headache? Oops, I forgot to drink enough water yesterday. I became so in-tune with my body that I could even sense the earliest signs of an oncoming cold—and prevent it, with a few modifications to my behavior.

Pole is an inherently painful sport, and pursuing it has taught me the difference between good pain and bad pain. I know, for example, that the searing pain between my thighs in superman, or across my stomach in a hands-free cradle, should not worry me the same way shooting pain in my shoulder does.

Contorting myself around a hard, inflexible metal bar and using my skin as friction to prevent sliding, my nerves have become peripherally desensitized. The initial, brutal shock of the pain that is pole dance has become less and less. I wouldn’t call it a completely painless sport—not by far—but the sensations are comfortable, familiar. They throw up no red flags.

By this alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if pole dancers did have higher pain tolerances than the average person. But my complicated relationship with pain and malady goes beyond this.

This past week, my brother graduated from college and I went “home” to visit my parents. A couple of days into my trip, a pain like no other pain I’ve ever experienced settled into my bones—or what I can only guess is my bones. It was an all-encompassing, my-bones-feel-like-they’re-exploding-and-nothing-gives-me-relief pain. Not foam rolling, because the pain wasn’t in the muscles. Not stretching, which was impossible: just bending over slightly would send a searing pain down the backs of my legs and through my pelvis. I didn’t know what was causing it. I didn’t know how to make it stop. It was, quite simply, like my body was malfunctioning.

The fact that I was in my childhood home complicated this. My mother is very into natural healing and alterative medicines. Growing up, if I had a headache, a cold, a cavity, a stomach ache, eczema, or even acne, I was shamed for it—especially if I chose to treat the pain or discomfort with over-the-counter medicines. In her view, my suffering was the direct result of something I’d done wrong. If only I didn’t eat the things I ate, or took the supplements she recommended, or stopped “letting” myself be anxious, I’d be fine. My mother had the answers, and I was—and am—just a child, less knowledgeable about my own body than she.

Obviously, when this pain started, I didn’t tell her about it. I’m an imperfect human, raised by an imperfect human, and instead of saying, “It’s my body, and only I know what I’m feeling, so please refrain from offering unsolicited advice,” I waited in agony for her to go out to her garden so that I could scour the house for Advil, in hopes that it would allow me to sleep through the night.

As much as I disagree with my mother’s method of sharing her learnings and passions with the world—and as much damage as I know internalizing her beliefs have caused me—I don’t want her to be disappointed in me. It’s never been easy to earn her approval—yet it’s not even something I’m sure I want. Rational-me certainly doesn’t. It’s some other part of me that does. I have a high pain tolerance, but it’s come at a cost.

I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live with chronic pain. This last week has been the closest I may ever come to experiencing it, if I’m lucky. It was scary, thinking my body had betrayed me. I have never felt more thankful to feel nothing than when the pain lifted—whether briefly, thanks to the Advil, or finally, when at last yesterday I started feeling like “me” again.

Yet, who is “me”?

“Me” is the person who makes choices without having to consider her pain level, but “me” is also equally the person who was waylaid for a week by pain she didn’t choose or even see coming.

She’s proud, but she’s also ashamed.

I don’t 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 it 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.

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.

Why “em dash” and “elbow grip”?

I’ve not had many strong identities throughout my life. But I’ve always been a writer.

I started as many writers do—as an avid reader—but I’m not that archetypal bookworm you see in movies and on TV. You know, the one that’s reading Kafka for fun at age thirteen. I mean, I’ve read Kafka, but never outside of the classroom. And certainly not for fun.

I read my very first book before I could actually read. It was Bathtime for Biscuit, which I distinctly remembering acquiring from the elementary school Scholastic Book Fair (gosh, do you remember Scholastic Book Fairs?). Though I couldn’t read it myself, Bathtime for Biscuit was read to me so many times that I memorized not just the words, but the words in their page order, so that I could flip through and pretend I was reading along. And I still remember most of them to this day. I’m twenty-seven.

I read a lot of Junie B. Jones, probably long after I was too old for the series. And I devoured the Clique novels, multiple times over, eventually graduating to Gossip Girl and The It Girl—probably long before I was old enough. Also, I read a lot of formulaic court procedurals à la Jodie Picoult and James Patterson. I read what I found entertaining, what I found to be true about the world, what made me cry, and what made me feel understood.

Because, you see, I wasn’t quite the literary snob back then that I am these days (that’s what happens when you go to college for capital-L Literature). But I read a lot, and I think I also read differently. Sure, I loved the entertainment these stories provided, but I was “reading as a writer” before I even knew what that meant. I was appreciating sentences not for their lyrical beauty (or, not only for their lyrical beauty), but also for their underlying construction, the behind-the-scenes work that went into crafting them. Good writing, to me, is writing that doesn’t call attention to itself—but can be dissected by those who want to emulate it.

Margaret Atwood stands out in my mind as having been the writer to teach me how to use punctuation effectively. I read The Blind Assassin for the first time in twelfth grade. Open that book up and read just the first two pages. Look at what she’s doing with colons. I’d never seen colons used that way before—seemingly a simple one-for-one replacement with semicolons, but no, not quite. The phrases on either side aren’t equal. This isn’t how I was taught to colons in school—certainly not in formal writing—and yet Atwood’s usage fits perfectly with the definition of a colon: it illustrates or amplifies the thing preceding it (and there’s a textbook example for you).

Unfortunately, I do not remember my first encounter with my favorite piece of punctuation, the em dash. (Is it weird to have a favorite punctuation mark? To want to know what other people’s favorite punctuation marks are?) This little mark is so versatile. It can interrupt a sentence without derailing a thought, or it can illustrate a point—much in the same way a colon can, but in a softer, less formal way. If I’m not careful, I might just employ an em dash in every sentence. But I am careful, meticulously—perhaps even detrimentally—so. I agonize over these little decisions, changing a comma to an em dash and back to a comma again, before ultimately changing a different em dash so that I can keep the first one.

And I like it, a lot. I don’t just enjoy writing. I enjoy crafting writing.

So why “elbow grip”?

Sometimes it scares me to think that I could love something as much as I love writing. In this case, that something is pole dancing.

Writing is what I decided to go to school for. It’s what I told myself I would make a career (and money) out of. And as far as the trope of the starving novelist goes, it’s the thing I’m supposed to eat, sleep, and breath…so how can I possibly have all of this spare time to throw my body around a vertical metal pole?

I’m sorry to state it so crudely, but: I fucking love pole dance.

It’s exercise, it’s expression, it’s self-improvement. A long-term project and a short-term project, instant gratification and a dozen daily frustrations, sore muscles and purplish bruises, a split that can always be that much more impressive, a hobby, a job, a motivation, a purpose. A thing I blow off sometimes, and a thing I trek for miles through rain or freezing temperatures to get to do. It’s going to the gym and yet absolutely nothing like going to the gym, in the best way possible.

Elbow grip is a way of grabbing the pole. Can you guess with which body part? It’s probably most commonly thought of in combination with ayesha, and ayesha itself is a goal that many pole hobbyists spend months or even years working toward. It never fails to impress. You are upside down, holding onto the pole with nothing but your two hands.

Elbow-grip ayesha was the first ayesha I mastered. It took me about two years—which might sound like a really long time to some people or a really short time to others. That’s the beauty of pole. Some of us are former gymnasts and ballerinas who pick up these moves instinctively, instantly. Others have no athletic background. I had no athletic background. After I graduated from college, I started to run, but running didn’t translate into flexibility or upper-body strength. I could touch my toes, but I certainly wasn’t anywhere close to touching the ground in a split. I couldn’t do a pullup. Hell, I couldn’t even do a pushup. Even my bodyweight squat questionable: every drop of my butt into that invisible chair was a chance I might tip over backwards.

The beautiful, strong, fluid way my body moves now, on and off the pole—that’s all because of pole. Would it have helped to have been a child gymnast? Sure. But if I came to pole with a different background, with any background, maybe it wouldn’t have imprinted on me as deeply as it did. Maybe I wouldn’t have found my progress, as great or as quick as it could have been, as rewarding. Maybe I wouldn’t have stuck with it. Maybe I’d have moved on to yoga and then Pilates and then boxing and then CrossFit.

In the last five years, I’ve become a pole dancer. It’s a new identity, one that I can hardly admit is just as strong as my identity as a writer. How many MFAs don’t end up as authors? How many MFAs, sitting in their creative writing workshops right now, have made a vow that they’ll never be a failed writer or—worse—a writer who woke up one day and realized they hadn’t written in months, in years?

I’m scared of this, but the difference between me now and me as a teenager is how much I needed writing then and how much I need pole dance now. Writing got me through the traumas of my childhood, and pole dance gets me through the pain of navigating the adult world, one that values work that can be clocked, a paycheck that can be collected, and bills that can be paid on time. We tell writers they must write but we also tell them they must contribute to society in an approved way, and those two things aren’t always reconcilable.

This blog is an attempt to marry my two identities. To explore pole differently, more deeply, in the way that I explore best, through writing. But also, to give me something to write about. Because sometimes, we writers need a little boost.