Is pole dancing a 'women's sport'?

Here’s a little story for you that happened here in Sydney: a portrait photographer submits a range of photos for an exhibition about women’s sport. Her folio includes - among others - portraits of a surfer, a footballer, a basketball player, and a pole dancer, but the gallery decides to reject one of the portraits.

If you thought they ditched the basketball player, you’re clearly an optimist: photographer Belinda Mason’s shot of pole dancer Zahra Stardust was the one that didn’t make it to the walls of Casula Powerhouse this week.

In a note to Mason, curator Toni Bailey said, “Of course as an art centre we don't want to censor artist's expression but the issue is more complex because we have commissioned the work. It is a very provocative image, which is your intention I know, and we have given it much thought however we can't include it I'm afraid.''

There are two questions at hand here: one, is pole dancing a sport, and two, should the photograph have been included?

The latter, I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, is complicated by the fact that there’s more at play when it comes to Stardust’s portrait’s omission from the exhibition than run of the mill art gallery bureaucracy.

From a purely critical standpoint (though I will willingly admit that I am no art critic), I am inclined to agree with gallery director Kiersten Fishburn when she says that it was “not one of the most compelling images'' submitted by Mason, but I highly doubt that mere artistic merit or lack thereof was the reason the portrait was ditched while others stayed put.

The idea that pole dancing isn’t “real” sport is a handy way for the gallery to reject the piece from the exhibition; that their doing so is informed by vaguely whorephobic notions of “appropriateness” is what makes the whole kerfuffle a little quease-inducing.

The “over-anxious” gallery staff concerned that their funding might be in question were they to offend gallery-goers (wait, isn’t this an art gallery?), and noting that “the intention of the photograph is to suggest that the subject is empowered” (because omg how could any sex worker be truly empowered?) seem to be drawing upon the bogus belief that sex work is in itself offensive, and that all sex workers are fallen women. If you don’t believe me, just wait for the inevitable comments to roll in under this piece.

But let’s put that to the side: let’s say the gallery truly only removed the piece because they didn’t think pole dancing is a real sport. It’s a given that when you say “pole dancing”, many people think of a bored woman twirling half-heartedly around a pole in a darkened strip club, and yes, in some cases that is passed off as a form of pole dance.

That is like looking at a 60-year-old going for a brisk walk around the park and saying that the 100m sprint isn’t a real sport: you can’t make a crack generalisation just because once you saw someone who wasn’t very good at it.

Take a look at Stardust pole-dancing (safe for work) while on the campaign trail for the Australian Sex Party back in ‘09, or at 2012 US Pole Dance champion Michelle Stanek’s winning routine (again, SFW), or - if you need to see a bloke do it to believe it can be a sport - the wondrous Matty Shields’ Australia’s Got Talent audition. Now, go ahead and tell me that what you are witnessing is something “offensive” or “disempowering”. No, what it is is a display of exceptional athletic ability and strength. If you took away the pole and instead included a beam or a ribbon, it would be considered gymnastics and would be undertaken at an Olympic level.

There is a snootiness that surrounds competitive pole dancing, in which some performers tie themselves up in knots to assure the viewer that it’s “not slutty”, or “not stripping”; in many ways it’s similar to the urgency with which some burlesque performers distance themselves from “nasty strippers”, and is just another regrettable example of internalised misogyny and whorephobia.

Yes, these days there are aspects of pole dance that have been incorporated from gymnastic apparatus such as the Chinese pole, but to dismiss the trailblazing done by exotic dancers and strippers in the ‘80s and ‘90s simply because they did it for money or in a strip club is witless to say the least. (Indeed, some of the most mind-boggling athleticism I have seen when it comes to pole dancing was, in fact, within the confines of the strip club.)

Regardless of one’s personal feelings about pole dance’s beginnings, it is surely obstinate to watch those at the top of their game and refuse to acknowledge their sporting prowess.

And to those who, even after viewing the evidence to the contrary, are still so keen to assure people that pole dancing isn’t a sport: you try it sometime, champ. 

78 comments

  • What makes a sport a "sport"? Is golf a sport? Pole dancing may only need a simple name change away from dancing to convince naysayers of its inherent physical demands, technique and skill required. Would figure skating have the same respect if it was called ice dancing? I would invite anyone to go along to a pole dancing class and try even the most basic routine. The experience would open a few eyes.

    Commenter
    eyeswideopen
    Location
    earth
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 8:36AM
    • I'm more annoyed by the fact an art curator was censuring "art" by rejecting the photo of the pole dancing competitor.

      Commenter
      Carstendog
      Location
      Here
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 11:38AM
    • Certainly Pole Dancing require great athleticism. It requires great skill.
      And as you say objectively, what is a sport? It's completely subjective. Where do you draw the line between a sport and other activities? Is chess a sport? Or a game? Darts? Even golf, there's not a huge amount of athletic prowess involved, certainly less than it takes to pole dance.

      But here's where it gets trickier. If pole dancing is a sport, is ballet? Is any kind of dancing a sport? Or art? Or what?
      And even trickier (and something that can't be ignored) is that pole dancing, at it's core, was and is sexual. It comes from strip clubs. It is a form of stylized eroticism. For many decades that's exclusively what it was. It is only recently that it has been seen as anything other than a way to arouse men for money.
      So is it still a sport? And if it is, because it requires skill and athleticism and is good exercise, does that mean sex is a sport? Because (good) sex requires all those things.

      It's a funny but very tricky question to answer.

      But you know what, if people want to pole dance as a sport, and they want it to be acknowledged as a sport, well I guess, why not. Go for it. I certainly won't mind that women love pole dancing.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 2:23PM
  • I have seen first hand the dedication and effort required to succeed as an elite pole dancer. These athletic artists monitor their diet, train for hours every day, compete at competitions and risk injury in their pursuit to accomplish new pole moves or invent new ones to 'push the envelope'. For people who still stick with the tired line that 'pole dancing is what strippers do', it is not even close to what goes on in a strip club (chalk and cheese to even make a comparison - and I enjoy strip clubs for entirely different reasons!). Get out of the strip joints and visit a 'pole studio' to see the real deal - the sport that is Pole Dancing.

    Commenter
    PDisaSport
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 9:03AM
    • Is pole dancing a sport? Since as far as I know, ballet, contemporary, burlesque, hip hop, circus acts etc are not considered sports, but simply forms of dancing, why on earth would pole dancing fall into a different category? I know there are dancing elements that cross over into some sports (gymnastics, iceskating), but it at its essence, it is not sport. Besides I'm not sure that the existence of male ballet and hip hop dancers has ever prompted such a question to be asked about those dance forms.

      I'll reserved judgement on other motives that may have influenced the decision to remove the pole-dancing picture, but to me the fact that pole dancing is not a sport alone would have been a reasonable argument.

      Commenter
      Lily
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:11AM
      • I completely agree. There are plenty of examples of activities that are physically gruelling - indeed much more so than any traditional sport or dance-form, which don't rate as a sport. The argument that pole dancing should be a sport simply because it is physical is a joke.

        And as Lily says, there are many other dance forms that are not considered sports - and rightly so, because the appreciation is inherent in their form rather than in a competitive element. This argument is simply trying to legitimise and justify the move of pole dancing out of strip clubs - it doesn't have the beauty or appeal of other dance forms, but neither is it a sport.

        Commenter
        matttan
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 16, 2013, 1:05PM
      • Having done gymnastics, ballet and pole dancing, I would say that pole has more in common with gymnastics which is considered a sport. In the context of an art exhibition I don't see why it can't be classified as a sport, not suggesting it is going to become an Olympic event but there are plenty of legitimate sports which aren't and are not considered lesser because of it.

        Commenter
        andyjay
        Location
        Docklands
        Date and time
        January 16, 2013, 2:14PM
      • Did you see Strictly Ballroom? People dancing with numbers on their backs, judges and competition - looks like sport to me.

        Commenter
        JohnA
        Date and time
        January 16, 2013, 3:24PM
      • Is people can consider Darts a sport then I think we can safely assume competitive Pole Dancing a sport!

        Commenter
        Carstendog
        Location
        Here
        Date and time
        January 16, 2013, 5:55PM
    • What about the original Olympics, didn't they include nude wrestling?

      Commenter
      Trashman
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 9:12AM

      More comments

      Comments are now closed