My initial reaction when watching JLo and Shakira in their super bowl performance was “wow, these women are fierce, fit, talented, relentless, dominating, entertaining, sexy” etc. However, audiences were quick to jump on the “yeah, but it was too sexual” bandwagon. Having researched pole dance from a practice-led and a theoretical standpoint for the past three years, I can confidently suggest that the reason why JLo’s performance was so “sexualised”, more so than Shakira’s belly dancing, was because there were three phallic symbols accompanying her and her dancers on stage. These objects carry a tremendous amount of stigma, a stigma that derives from uses in strip clubs whereby women are paid to remove their clothes as they dance for the pleasure of a male viewer (that is not to say women do not attend strip clubs). The idea that women were once, and still are, to an extent, self-objectifying their body, alongside a vertical pole, for the pleasure of male viewer, is what is causing so much anxiety.  However, in consideration of the Super Bowl and the fact that no one removed any clothing in a sexually suggestive way means we can save the stripping conversation for another day and focus on WHY the poles were used in this performance (For now, see my writing on Hustler Movie and Mutual Exploitation in Stripping if you want to learn more about gaze and exploitation in strip clubs).

Object (auto) BiographyJLo stated in one of her Instagram stories that the poles were used as a props to showcase women being on top of the world. Open your mind to that concept for a moment. If it wasn’t a vertical pole that JLo had wrapped her legs around, and she was just stood on some sort of other tall structure, no one would bat an eye lid. Additionally, if the women on the two poles on the outskirts of the stage were performing acrobatic feats on another piece of aerial equipment, I am sure their efforts would be applauded, instead of interrogated for their sexuality. I can align with JLo about feeling on top of the world because that is how I feel when I perform my work “Object (auto) Biography” – see image. During the creative process I had choice, I made the work, and I had / have something to say.

The thing about choice, however, especially when it comes to female choice, is that people struggle to believe that women are active subjects who can make choices of their own. There is a complication, particularly with alpha female, post-feminist types, whereby they are accused of unintentionally and internally constructing themselves to appeal to men. This has some truth due to societal, cultural and capitalist influence, but in terms of pole dance, I don’t think so! The practice is just too difficult for something to be controlling you to do it. For instance, if you want to be good at pole dance, you have to be intrinsically attracted to the art form.  You have to commit to it like you would any other form of dance, athletics, acrobatics. You definitely cannot just show up and perform some of the feats present in the superbowl performance. To form an attraction to pole dancing will vary from person to person, but going back to JLo, it is clear that because she played the role of a stripper in a film that was released last year, she learned about some of the effort required to perform even one move with ease. This sense of achievement is encouraging.

I think it is brilliant that pole dance is and will continue to gain exposure to wider audiences, and, over time, I think people will open their minds. One day, people will see past the exploitative nature of the practice and understand that people who pole dance recreationally, performatively, and in strip clubs, have choice. By engaging in pole dance, women are claiming liberation, alongside actively contributing to small businesses, increasing their creativity, sense of community, physicality, coordination, self-accomplishment, embodiment and sense of self.

Rowena x

I will be back with more notes next week, but in the meantime, you can see my daily updates by following me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook