Words by Elizabeth Bourne
Video by Lucy Corwin

“You haven’t seen the videos of Angela pole dancing?!” My aunt is incredulous and high-pitched as she starts opening Facebook. “You have to see them. They’re just awful!”

I settle next to her on the sofa as my aunt locates one of the videos Angela has uploaded of herself in a sports bra and pole heels. Pole heels – amazing platformed shoes that can be anything between 2-10 inches high – are also called ‘pleaser shoes’. I’ve trained in pole for a few years now and I have only been brave enough to try them twice; I prefer tricks, for which shoes are a definite choice as you don’t spend too much time on the ground. People who dance in pleaser shoes have an entirely different, very impressive skillset and understanding of balance.

“There.” My aunt angles her iPad so we can both see the video. It looks like it’s not going to be great quality filming. Angela, who I’ve only ever seen fully clothed and whose body is bright in the disco lights that excite the space around her and her fellow dancers, holds the pole with her right hand, looking straight ahead, a little concentration furrow in her brow. “Isn’t it awful?”

“Which bit?”

“Her! Doesn’t she look so…you know…”

“She hasn’t done anything yet,” I say.

When I told you I pole dance, and especially that I haul myself off the ground up and down the pole a lot, perhaps your brain summoned an image of me as skinny and ripped. The truth is, pole dancers look every different way, and I have learned over the years never to judge a book by its cover. The woman with the sagging belly is often concealing serious abs. Those with a flat stomach don’t necessarily move with grace. Men are thought of as very strong and not very flexible, but sometimes it’s the other way around. When I go to a new studio, it’s sometimes clear to a new teacher from the warm up that I regularly practice yoga, so they are surprised to see that on the pole, my leg muscles are tighter than my old prom dress! Joyfully, in every pole studio I’ve trained in, from London to Chicago to Barcelona, any expectations we all bring quickly melt away. I find myself taking and giving advice from and to every shape of body, every level of skill. When I can’t straighten my legs in a hold because my tight hamstrings flat refuse to co-operate, I am offered a work-around, and I end up making my very own satisfying shape. It’s like with most things: there’s the task and then there’s the attitude with which you complete it. The people with the most beautiful attitudes, who train hard before throwing themselves safely and ecstatically into their dance, are – utterly regardless of whatever their body looks like – the ones I can’t take my eyes off.

I’ve veered away from pleaser heels because my genuine interest lies in tricks, but it’s also true that I have been intimidated by floor dancing. You know, the moves that make people think of strippers. I can’t do that in front of other people, right? It’s basically illegal (shrieks my brain) – or at least, it’s like, not a thing a ‘nice’ girl or guy would do?! I shiver just thinking about it! But then came a showcase I attended at a pole studio in Chicago in which all students, regardless of ability, were invited to perform. A woman named Sam opened the night. Sam and I knew each other a little; we’d been in a few classes together, to which she’d brought her daughter who was perfectly happy reading a book in the corner while her mother spun around a pole in a mirrored room full of half-naked people. I sometimes wish the whole world was like that. On the night of the showcase, Sam told me that she and her husband were separating after decades of marriage, and I wondered if her performance would be affected; I was ready to do some serious cheering regardless of what I saw. But then Sam just…killed it. She barely even touched a pole and she killed it. Seriously, I think at one point she held a pole for stability during a body roll but the rest of the time, she was in pleaser shoes, snaking her way across the floor. Rocking her pelvis, chest rising slowly, her head dipped but her dark eyes meeting the audience. I’m not saying my brain didn’t register bat-wings, C-section scarring, wrinkles and folding over the edges of her black bikini bottoms. I’m not somehow immune to the unconscious training society has subjected me to – the stuff that’s made me afraid of my own sexuality. But as I found myself, open mouthed, letting out involuntary “WOO!”s as Sam inched her way confidently, delicately, tantalisingly, across the studio floor, revelling in her own freedom, in her own self, in her own body...I realised it was possible not to be afraid. It is still one of the sexiest things I have ever seen.

On the sofa next to my aunt with the iPad, I watch Angela move around the pole. I see her step deliberately, notice her pale triceps tighten as she spins and lifts her legs off the ground. I can’t see her abs but I know they are there, working with her and keeping her balanced. She pushes her pelvis forward and around then lowers to her knees slowly, with control, a small smile on her face. In faster sections, her short hair bounces with the rhythm of the dance.

“She’s good,” I tell my aunt. “Look, there, you see how she’s pulled herself to standing with just her upper body strength? And that backbend, in those heels, that’s not easy. How many of these videos are there?”


“Cool. She’s got a lot to be proud of. I’ll check some of the others out. Thanks.”

My aunt glances at me and then back at Angela. Watching her more closely.
A little concentration furrow in her brow. And, quite gradually: a small smile on her face.