Along the financial district of Ortigas lies an ubiquitous building with a studio perched on its top floor. Soft electronic music plays in the background as the women in the room stretch in front of ceiling mirrors. It’s an odd assortment of women of different sizes and ages, with the youngest among the bunch being 17 years old and the oldest close to 60, yet these aspects didn’t seem to matter, as they all came for one purpose–to engage in the sport of pole dancing.
Over the years, pole dancing representation has risen from its steamy shadows of semi-naked women in lap dancing clubs to a more socially acceptable form of workout, enticing fitness aficionados to put on their Lycra and head to the nearest pole dancing studio. Yet despite its growth and mainstreaming, pole dancing still continues to be misunderstood and berated by much of society who fail to see beyond its sexual connotations. Through the accounts of the women working the poles, we explore stories of sexual expression and empowerment and break down the stigma that pole dancers struggle with to date.
The grind and the pole
“I don’t know if you had this dream when you were a child, but as a child I dreamt of running away to the circus,” Kyla Ortigas, who has been pole dancing for 7 years now, shares. It was the gravity defying moves that first attracted her to take up gymnastics before eventually leading her to the world of pole dancing. “I was trying to find a sport or a workout that wouldn’t bore me as much as a gym would, something that wouldn’t be as [routine], and I stumbled upon this studio [Polecats Manila].” she says.
Today, Kyla is now steps closer to reaching her childhood dream of spinning and turning on hoops and trapezes in the circus. As the head trainer and coach of Polecats Manila, she finds herself helping her students breathe life across their muscles while expressing themselves with grace and sensuality for a living, and she loves it. What made her continue her practice throughout the years was the thrill of exploring her capabilities both mentally and physically. “You never feel like it’s the same thing over and over again because after every class, you discover a new muscle you didn’t know you had and you discover a new way to pull yourself and do things with the pole that you never thought you could do.”
For Monica Ouano, her pole dancing journey started fairly recently, eight months ago. Before she stumbled upon the sport, she had been doing ballet for many years before quitting in 2012. On the pursuit for something new, she tried a pole dancing class and she has been hooked ever since. “I actually went behind my parent’s backs when I first started pole dancing,” she admits. “After a while, I told them the truth and they got kind of pissed, but I showed them how passionate I was about it and I presented all of its benefits, and they eventually eased into the idea.”
The reaction Monica got from her parents is not an unusual one. Despite the rising popularity of pole dancing in the past years, the industry is still continuously looked down on and constantly in the receiving end of much backlash and criticism. “People still think it’s something very sexual,” Kyla explains. When asked what the most common remarks she would get from friends and family about her pole dancing, she answered, “[They ask] how much I make per night. Or [if] I remove my clothes. It’s not very nice, but I guess it comes with it.”
Reclaiming an art form
Thoughts of seedy bars and scantily clad women are often the first things that pop up in one’s mind with the mention of pole dancing given its heavy association with the sex industry, but if one were to look many centuries ago, they would be surprised to find its roots actually emerging from the fusion of polished performances by Chinese circus professionals, and strength and agility training known as Mallakhamb tradition for Indian wrestlers.
From there, many women have adopted the sport and mixed it with burlesque, the kind that many see in red light districts today. Kyla explains that women have actually reclaimed the art from men who were the only ones practicing it at the time.
Pole dancing and its presumed origins in the sex industry are now gradually becoming more and more popular as a fitness and recreational activity. Many women, and even men are trying their hand at the art form. Kyla smiles and explains that they have a diverse set of students in the classes that she holds in Polecats. “We have plus sizes, we have college students, we have 60 year old grandmothers. It’s very diverse.” For her, the only requirement anyone needs to start pole dancing is courage.
The international pole dancing community has also been working at great lengths for pole dancing to be considered an official Olympic sport. This is backed up by the multitudes of pole dancing competitions held in international waters which focus on pole dancing in its three aspects: Sport, art, and erotica. These competitions are strictly non-nude, focusing on the athleticism and skill of a dancer on a pole.
The growing popularity of pole dancing as a legitimate way of performing in pop culture has also established itself as an art form altogether. Just like any other dance, pole dancing has become a way of expression in the most sensual form–where grace and elegance merges with strength and power. From Cirque du Soleil to starring in Hollywood blockbusters, pole dancing has proven itself to be an art form to be appreciated and revered.
Empowering through embodiment
Kyla finds that pole dancing presents a new opportunity, another chance to turn the pages of life. Courage and heart is definitely needed. “They want to be better: Coming from heartbreak or even stress from work, and that’s what a lot of our students have here. They came from heartbreak. They wanted to get thinner. They wanted to get stronger, and later on they forget all the negative reasons why they entered and tried pole dancing and just start to enjoy it.”
Monica finds that pole dancing offers her a source of therapy and empowerment like no other. “It allows us to express ourselves in the most unique and taboo way,” she shares. “We destroy stereotypes while we defy gravity with our bodies and perform a work of art.”
Today, the pole dancing community is no longer as black and white as society puts it out to be. Though the industry still has a long way to go, it is steadily making its way into a level of appreciation and awareness that no longer relies on being set up in a sexual setting. It is only by exposing the facets of beauty, art, and skill pole dancing entails, from its erotic, competitive, and art roots, will we be able to truly unpack the stigma surrounding it.