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.