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Pole Dancing Is the Hot Class at UBC

Or is that 'pole fitness'?

Jessalynn Keller 13 Jan
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Eight tall brass poles dot the activities room on the second floor of the Student Union Building on the University of British Columbia campus. It's not a standard university classroom. But this isn't a standard university class. This is where students take Pole Dancing 101 - where spinning, dancing and hip swaying are the main curriculum.

Sure, the pole dancing fitness craze has been raging in North American cities for several years now. In Vancouver, enthusiasts can take classes at local gyms, specialized "studios" like Aradia Fitness, or at nightclubs like Skybar. But UBC is the first and only North American university to offer students an opportunity to learn the art of the pole. The fitness trend, which is promoted as "a new, fun way to get in shape and enjoy a new dancing experience," has drawn an equally large share of fans and critics.

The classes are offered through the UBC student union's minischool program, where students pay a small fee to take a six-week, non-credit extracurricular course. The pole dance program edged out other well-established minischool classes such as yoga, guitar and photography to be the most sought after minischool class on campus.

"The pole dance classes are the most popular program we have," confirms Letlotlo Coco Lefoka, minischool coordinator. "Last term, both of the beginner classes filled up within two or three days." The classes are offered again this term, starting in a few weeks, and are expected to be just as popular.


But young, educated women's interests in pole dancing don't come without controversy. Strippers began using the pole as an exotic dance prop in strip clubs during the 1970s. Because of this connotation, many people view pole dancing as a form of entertainment that is degrading to women. Offering pole dance classes on the campus of a large, prestigious Canadian university raises questions about how a new, post-feminist generation of women is seeking empowerment and dealing with shifting ideas about sexuality.

But is it even about sexuality?

"I call it pole fitness now, instead of pole dance," explains Tammy Morris. Morris, a certified fitness instructor, is teaching the pole dance classes at UBC and also operates her own pole dance studio in Vancouver. A former exotic dancer with such credentials as Miss Nude Entertainer of the Year and Miss Nude BC, Morris teaches pole dance using her ten years of experience in the exotic dance industry.

Morris is quick to differentiate between what strippers do and the pole dancing her students practice. "I really want to take it away from the stripper connotation." Her goal, she says, is to help women get in shape, build confidence and have fun.

But Morris also recognizes the inherent sensual aspect of pole dance, even when used for fitness. She enthusiastically describes a young woman who came to her first class shy and self-conscious, but left the last class proud, and full of self-esteem.

"The classes helped build her confidence and self-esteem: not because of knowing that she could swing around a pole or move sexy, but just by becoming in touch with herself and her sensuality as a woman, and realizing that she is beautiful," Morris says.

'Lap dance techniques'

However, on the minischool webpage the "exotic pole dance classes" promise to help students "learn sultry lap dance techniques to impress that certain someone."

So, are these classes really for women, or are they still all about pleasing men?

Dr. Becki Ross, a sociology professor at UBC, has been studying the history of stripping and burlesque in Vancouver for several years.. She says that the new pole dance trend collides and conflicts with mainstream messages about sexuality in general and women's sexuality, in particular.

Ross suggests that pole dancing classes have the potential to expand understandings of female sexuality beyond the "good girl/ bad girl" images that often saturate the media. When a woman who is assumed to be a "good girl" goes to a pole dancing class or sets up a brass pole up in her living room, she is suggesting that her sexuality need not be limited to a simple "good girl/bad girl" understanding. She is challenging norms and subverting mainstream notions of how a woman should act.

'Dream girl'

However, Ross cautions that pole dancing can also reproduce the divides that the "good girl/ bead girl" images are built upon if women do not understand the history of pole dance and continue to stigmatize strippers.

Ross points out the irony in this. "I've seen these pole dancing classes as being advertised to… a certain kind of clientele - an upper-class strata of women - who would usually have nothing positive to say, for the most part, about professional [exotic] dancers who use the pole," Ross says.

She mentions that all of this is happening during a time of increased debate about sexuality and increased options for women's expression of it.

"It is a massive upheaval, and I think that there is very little agreement in general about sexuality anymore," Ross laments. She cites the popularity of S&M or "sadomasochism" seminars, and sex toy parties as indicators of evolving views about sexuality.

Morris also sees changing views about sexuality in society through her pole dance classes. She says that women are opening up and accepting their sexuality more than past generations.

"I think that all along women have been very curious about strippers," Morris comments. She reports that women of all different ages have told her that they have fantasized about being a stripper.

"What woman doesn't want to be the dream girl - the object of the men's fantasy? What woman wouldn't want to play that role?" Morris asks.

Upper body strength

But shouldn't true sexual empowerment be about women being sexual subjects instead of sexual objects?

That is the crux of the argument both for and against the popularity of pole dance classes - are women presenting themselves as sexual subjects or sexual objects when participating in the classes?

In order for pole dancing classes to really be a liberating form of expression, Ross explains that the reasons why women are taking the classes must extend beyond merely wanting to please one's boyfriend.

"For me, if all these women are doing it only to arouse men, then it's not that interesting," Ross explains.

At UBC, the second semester of school has begun and pole dance students are eager to reflect on what they learned in the first term pole dance classes. Most are pleased about their experience.

"It is a great way to develop upper body strength… I feel like I've only touched the surface [of pole dance] and want to learn more," says Stella Lee, a 20-year-old UBC student who tried pole dancing for the first time last semester after hearing about the UBC classes from her sister.

In an email interview, Lee says that the classes were a lot of fun and made her realize that there is more to pole dancing than just looking pretty or sexy on the pole.

Pam Anderson's hobby

Lee says that her family and friends were shocked when they found out she was taking pole dance classes because she is shy and academic. She not only challenged others' ideas about herself and pole dance as an activity, but she challenged her own ideas as well.

"Before taking the classes, I thought pole dancing focused on nudity and would encourage that as female sexuality," Lee comments, "but I ended up becoming more confident in myself and learned that confidence is what's sexy."

Lee thinks that it is positive for universities to offer pole dance classes because it shows an openness and acceptance of new and different ideas.

Morris echoes this idea and says that offering the classes at a prestigious university is a "huge" step in the right direction for the pole dance fitness industry. She has received no complaints about offering the classes at UBC and says that several American schools interested in offering the classes in the future have recently contacted her.

Morris, nonetheless, recognizes the continuing concern that universities have in offering their students the opportunity to take up a hobby favored by Pamela Anderson.

"Students are begging for it, but I think a lot of universities are hesitant," Morris grins, "What university wants to have stripper classes?"

But many students say pole dancing is right at home within the sacred halls of progressive learning. They say it is a trend that sparks debate: and isn't that what a university education is all about?

Jessalynn Keller is a Vancouver writer.  [Tyee]

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