Freedom of Sexual Expression: Empowering Women Through Pole Dancing

Image: Marissa Bose

When a friend suggested we take up pole dancing as an extracurricular activity on Erasmus, my reaction was nothing short of typical. I instantly laughed and wondered “How hard could it possibly be?” Nevertheless I indulged her and headed to the University of Essex gym picturing a scene similar to Paceville’s Havana. Instead I found a room full of floating acrobatic ballerinas eager to share their skills with newcomers. By the time I returned to Malta I couldn’t wait to learn more. I wanted to remain part of this supportive family of positive women who constantly cheer you on and are always ready to lift you up - sometimes quite literally.

A difference in attitude was instantly evident. Despite reassuring the University of Malta that I’d joined a legitimate and respected university sports team, the staff’s reluctance to acknowledge it eventually produced the euphemism “fitness course”. Is this a testament to the stifling of sexual expression in our society? I decided to ask pole fitness instructor Marissa Bose from Pole Fitness Malta to share her opinions and experiences.

Marissa took her first pole class in Toronto while researching different fitness activities to obtain her personal trainer certification. After watching videos of pole competitions she was intrigued by the athleticism and grace of these dancers’ performances. “I really enjoyed the friendly, non-judgemental atmosphere that there was in class,” she said. “You’d see women of all shapes and sizes flipping upside down and doing Cirque De Soleil-style tricks.” Upon returning to Malta and purchasing her own pole to train on, she realised there was a demand for beginner pole classes and Pole Fitness Malta was born. Her aim was to create a pole community in Malta and help pole fitness become better recognised.

Marissa described pole fitness as a fun full-body workout combining strength and flexibility training, cardio, yoga, pilates, TRX, ballet and gymnastics. In recent news, 37-year-old scoliosis-sufferer Rhiannon Davies took up pole dancing in 2012 as therapy as it keeps your body limber and muscles strong. One of the most amazing things about the sport is its inclusiveness. “Unless you’ve had a serious injury, I’d say pole is for all shapes, sizes, genders and ages,” Marissa said.

There’s a lot to learn as pole fitness keeps evolving, keeping practice fresh and exciting. Exercise routines are also flexible and vary from floor work to strength moves: “It’s malleable in the sense that it adapts from day to day depending on your mood.” Marissa also owes her love of pole fitness to the fact that it boosts people’s self esteem and body confidence. She feels that what distinguishes pole from other exercise is that “the focus shifts to what your body can do rather than what it looks like.” That said, pole fitness is a great workout and will probably still give dancers a great figure, but to Marissa this is just a bonus.

Conservatism is still rampant when it comes to sexual expression, especially that of women. With regards to the fact that pole dancing is automatically associated with strippers, Marissa acknowledges that many pole dancers “understandably try to distance themselves from the gentlemen’s club stigma” but she believes that the sport’s versatility should be celebrated. Pole dancing can be sporty, contemporary and lyrical but the sensual aspect shouldn’t be abandoned, just as burlesque is nowadays more readily accepted as an art form. Pole dancers should be proud of the roots of their art and society must learn that sensuality and self-respect aren’t mutually exclusive.

“One stereotype that may be tied with pole dancing is that women are exploiting themselves,” Marissa reflected, “or that it is degrading to women as it teaches them to fit into a male’s sexual ideal by performing for them.” She hopes to debunk this myth, explaining that the pole dancing community is a close-knit niche which fosters friendships and ignites strength and empowerment in dancers. “Pole can be provocative and sensual, but this is because the woman performing exudes confidence, because she is subjected to performing for nobody but herself.” In Marissa’s opinion, pole fitness is the most feminist sport there is as it teaches women to take charge of their own sexual expression entirely by choice.

Rarely do we witness people questioning gentlemen’s clubs in Paceville, but the moment a girl dresses or acts a certain way, eyebrows are raised accompanied by the question “Who are you trying to impress?” In her YouTube video In Defence of Pole Dancing, US National Pole Art Champion Irmingard Mayer notes that amidst this culture that polices women’s bodies, most scepticism towards the sport comes from men who frequent strip clubs. “It’s because it’s not on their terms anymore,” she concludes. “We’re claiming it and doing it for ourselves, not for anyone else’s enjoyment.”

Many view the art of pole dancing as an acknowledgement that women are sexual beings and can express their sexuality irrespective of whether or not a partner is involved. It’s high time a paradigm shift takes place in which the taboo on female sexuality is broken. One can only hope that pole dancing will eventually be pushed into the mainstream to promote a safe environment where women can not only practice freely without being labelled derogatory terms like “sluts” and “whores”, but where they can also support each other as women. Because if we don’t, then who will?

Click here if you’d like to read the whole interview.

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