Let’s take a moment to talk about dance, specifically erotic dance. It’s a term that people shy away from in the pole community, for a number of reasons: it links us to strip clubs, it implies that what we are doing is designed to arouse others and nothing more and it’s too sexual. But pole dancing, like most dancing, is inherently erotic.
Judith Lynne Hanna is a cultural anthropologist who focuses the majority of her work on dance. She claims that dance can provide a medium for humans to “identify themselves and to maintain or erase their boundaries.” It’s an interesting definition because it suggests that dance provides an avenue for people to both explore and express who they are and what they desire through movement. When people refer to pole dancing as being empowering for women, I believe that this is partly what they are referring to: the ability to explore, define and redefine their sexuality through movement. Sexuality after all is primarily experienced through the body and dance can be an excellent vehicle for exploring sensation in the body.
Other countries that have a rich history of erotic dance including the Middle East and India. According to Lucinda Jarrett, the belly dance is the oldest erotic dance in the world. It was originally a fertility rite practiced by the Ancient Egyptians in the temples. The dance was an homage to the Egyptian god, Atum-Re. The Ancient Egyptians believed that he brought the world into existence through masturbation. Hinduism holds that a man’s soul is in a constant state of suffering which can only be released through prayer and meditation (Yoga) or through sensual enjoyment where the pleasure of sex frees man from desire (Bhoga). The spiritual guides in the Bhoga practice are beautiful women who teach their followers to cast off the ego and to achieve joy in the total union of the God and Goddess (masculine and feminine) aspects of the Hindu faith. These forms of erotic dance are the precursor to the Western version of the striptease and social dances like the lambada, salsa and the lindy hop.
Social dancing (also known as “the informal arts”) can be distinguished from the “formal arts” because it is not necessarily designed for performance and is based on participation instead of spectacle. Jarrett categorizes erotic dance as somewhere in between the formal and informal arts. She attributes this to the fact that erotic dance relies on creating what she refers to as ‘an intimate distance” between the artist and the spectator. The fantasy being created is a shared fantasy and therefore the boundaries between audience and performer are blurred. This is perhaps what makes this type of dancing so erotically potent. It isn’t simply the movements, or the open sexuality that accompany the movements, but the direct way in which the dancers share their eroticism with their audiences. While social dance can also be overtly sexual, it lacks the performer-audience dynamic that is an integral part of the sexual charge being created in erotic dancing.
Erotic dance in the West began with a British touring company known as the British Blondes. They performed in tights in the 1860’s and the display of leg created a sensationalistic stir that gave birth to a number of spin-off dancing troupes. These ladies traveled throughout the United States as well as England. They also gave birth to particular type of farcical comedy known in England as Burlesque comedy. In England, burlesque still suggests a form of bawdy satire. In the United States, in the second half of the 19th century, burlesque became associated with illicit entertainment and it became difficult for these women to perform and maintain their reputation. At the same time, in Paris, working class balls gave birth to a new dance known as the “quadrille”, or the pre-cursor to the can-can. The quadrille was all improvisation, all kicking limbs and frenetic movements. The thrill was the view of the women’s undergarments as they kicked and sometimes pulled up their skirts. But by far the biggest impact on Western striptease was the import of the Middle Eastern belly dance. First introduced in the United States at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, belly dance drew 25-30 million visitors and a tremendous amount of scandal. Despite the outraged reactions, people continued to return, drawn by the sensuous movements and uncorseted bodies of the dancers. By the 20th century, burlesque in the United States had become synonymous with striptease and the art of sexual display, and the audiences were almost entirely male
Perhaps what is so astonishingly consistent throughout the century and a half that erotic dance has existed in the United States is not how much more the women who perform today have to reveal to their audiences, but how these women are marginalized consistently for the exact same reason, decade after decade. To make the argument that it is how much of the body that is revealed by these dancers or the way in which they reveal it that is offensive is to make the exact same argument that was being made one hundred and fifty years ago when women dancing in tights was considered scandalous. Moreover, it is glaringly apparent that all forms of dance, even the ballet, have sexual components to them. So what is it about erotic dance that we find so deeply offensive and disturbing? Is it possible that what we find offensive and disturbing is the overt display of female sexuality? And is it possible that this fear stems from our disconnection with our own erotic potential? Erotic dance is the perfect mirror for our sex phobia. And is it possible that erotic dance, long viewed by our culture as a job for women who are oppressed, uneducated and have very low self-esteem could actually serve another purpose, namely a vehicle for women to reconnect with their sexual and erotic selves? Certainly women in this industry have been exploited and continue to be. But could this be because rather than celebrating these displays of female sexuality, and appreciating them for their beauty, we choose to shame and denigrate them and the women who offer them to us?