I am a bad dancer. This fact has been a part of my DNA since I abandoned ballet at five years old. I know everyone abandons ballet — except for the obvious few — but the retired child ballerinas usually take up something eventually: hockey, GAA. But my being bad at ballet led me neatly onto doing absolutely nothing physical beyond walking to the shops for a packet of Banshee Bones for roughly the next 15 years. In secondary school, my menstrual cycle was six years long.
his more or less kept me from PE throughout. I am unsporty. Even after I eventually found exercise I liked as an adult — running and snow sports — I remained to my mind unsporty. And a bad dancer.
We all believe these things about ourselves. “I can’t run.” “I’ve no upper body strength”. “I don’t cook.” And we’ve all done enough therapy or had enough proximity to people who’ve done enough therapy to know that these “facts” are not facts, but self-limiting beliefs.
When it came to pole dancing, I was addicted to watching pole dancing accounts on Instagram for a long time before it ever occurred to me that maybe this was something I could take part in. Bizarrely, a severe dose of Covid-19 in January of this year changed all that.
The lasting effects of the virus meant that, even though I recovered after a couple of weeks, I was left with breathing difficulties. I had, prior to that, consistently run 5km every second day on the beach near my house for years. I’d continued to run late into each of my pregnancies to the visible chagrin of witnesses.
But now here I was at 36 becoming out of breath just having a conversation. It was a huge adjustment for me. I had never fully acknowledged how key running was for managing my mental illness. It helped me cope with my particular flavour of “mad brain” which tends to run toward the manic end of the scale. Running subdued this. For this outlet to be taken away from me was not just frustrating, it was unnerving.
How would I manage my head without it? It was also a stark realisation of how blithely privileged I’d been in my health and my body. I moaned to friends and one of my sporty ones suggested that if cardio was out, then maybe strength training would be an option. A boring option, I sniffed privately.
Mired in lockdown, I athletically shopped online. Something to break the monotony and give us a flush of dopamine — my rage when the DHL van pulled into my lane only to go to one of my neighbour’s houses. Still, I didn’t have the limitless funds that pandemic shopping required nor the inclination to accumulate brand new things as it gives me the guilts.
However, DoneDeal provides me with the dual hit of acquisition and landing a bargain. Bargains are the cocaine of your 30s. And so there I was on DoneDeal when I stumbled across a pole for sale within my 5k. The universe wanted me to dance!
My husband did not want this. Or rather he didn’t want this pole to pull down the ancient ceiling of my house as I trundled around it. My mother was highly skeptical that I would ever go near the thing after I’d dropped a couple of hundred quid on it.
“This’ll be the piano lessons all over again,” she said.
“The piano lessons were 25 years ago! And I did them through to third grade, what did you want from me?”
In their opposition, they unwittingly cemented my commitment to learning to pole dance. Here was the perfect incentive, I now had two people to prove wrong. And not just any two people, but the two people whose sport of choice is antagonising me.
I got my pole and began to look for where the hell to begin. Videos on YouTube frustrated me. Like any baby poler, I wanted to fly and swing upside down and look like the amazing dancers on Instagram. I realised pretty quickly that freebie videos on YouTube were not going to cut it. Even though we were in lockdown, I needed a proper teacher.
For starters, pole dancing is strenuous, the moves are complex and without proper explanation, injuries happen. I warm up for at least 40 minutes before I dance. I spend more time warming up than I do dancing but the warm-up is just as fun and I feel constant pride in how I continue to progress in the moves.
I’ve doubled the reps of my warm-up routine in less than four months. My flexibility has increased exponentially and I went from being unable to hold up my own body weight on the pole to being able to do dozens of pull-up crunches — a conditioning move that is central to many tricks on the pole.
All of this is down to my amazing teacher, Arlene Caffrey of the Irish Pole Dance Academy. Normally based in Dublin 1, Arlene shifted her entire business online in the last 18 months and now has hundreds of hours of tutorials and choreography on her website.
Arlene’s explanations, not to mention additional encouragement on Instagram where we’ve become remote friends, has seen me go from zero to hot pole dancing b**** in just a few months. It has replaced running as the meditative exertion I can retreat into. Since the beginning, I have made videos of my efforts. One I made on the morning that one of my books was slated in a newspaper review.
I felt vulnerable and hurt as I do in the wake of those kinds of things. I called the video They Go Low, I Go Pole, and in it I see myself spinning and trying to be creative in spite of the confidence knock and I am proud of myself. I sometimes share clips on my Instagram, but mostly the videos are for me. I have a video I cut together of my first month of dancing. Over the course of the four minutes the changes are palpable and sure, some are physical — my body gets progressively more toned — but mainly the video documents a profound leap in confidence.
At the beginning, I am dancing in shorts and T-shirts with the blinds closed, but by the end I’ve developed my pole aesthetic which is part roller girl, part pin up. The outfits are more and more revealing, I’ve acquired the towering perspex shoes and the blinds are open. I figure the neighbours can look if they want.
If you don’t know much about pole dancing, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is solely about aesthetics, you might perhaps think, as I did, that it is shackled to the same confining beauty standards as the rest of the world. However, as I explored the space online, I saw a brilliantly diverse and inclusive community. Bodies of every type are represented. In dancing, beauty is redefined. Queer men in nine-inch stilettos with lipstick and full beards wheel around the pole, sexy fat women gracefully perch high on the pole. Everywhere dancers buck expectations and challenge our concepts of who the art form is for. A woman I follow called Neda dances in her hijab and is candid about the clap back she receives from unwanted commenters.
Pole dancing is not an apolitical space. From when it began to hit the mainstream, there seems to have been a feverish devotion to reframing it as “fitness” to sell it to white, middle-class women like me. Pole dancing is being forcibly detached from its roots in sex work and before that in African tribal dancing and Indian belly dancing.
It’s in danger of being colonised and erasing those who originated and developed the art, the women who do sex work and women of colour. In the community, there is a strong element of activism around decriminalising sex work and protecting the rights of marginalised groups.
A lot of fitness spaces bang on about empowerment, about being strong and not skinny. But the messaging can all be a bit tedious and prescriptive. Pole dancing actually walks the walk or, well, dances the dance. The empowerment to be found in pole dancing is very meaningful. I found when I first started I had to confront my own internalised misogyny. I have always had a sense of what the acceptable parts of a woman are. Breasts are good. Vaginas are bad. Ass is good. But undercarriage is gross.
I subconsciously policed the women whose videos I watched and indeed myself when I watched my dancing back and deemed myself to be showing the “wrong parts”. Gradually this faded and at this point I feel it’s all just bodies. And lovely sexy bodies at that. I adore watching professional dancers who work in proper clubs like Irish poler Ava Hennessy and professional performer who previously worked as a stripper, Sian Docksey on Instagram.
The brilliant thing about confidence is that it can be contagious and now I barely see what my body looks like, I just see what it’s doing. For my birthday in March, I bought myself a one-to-one lesson with Arlene over Zoom — come July, her in-person classes will resume. She attempted to iron out my various bad habits and even coached me through my very first (very bad) inversion on the pole, a milestone in every pole dancer’s journey.
No one was more surprised than me when I succeeded in pulling my legs up onto the pole above me, engaging every muscle from my toes to my eyeballs and taking my arms out to the side so that all 5ft 8in of me was suspended in an inverted cross. Out of nowhere, upside down I started laughing. It was laughter unlocked by sheer delight. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. It wasn’t particularly graceful and I’ve a long way to go before it is, but I can do it. I am a dancer.