Friday, April 20, 2012

Pole Dance Politics and Empowerment

“Empowerment is not giving people power, people already have plenty of power, in the wealth of their knowledge and motivation, to do their jobs magnificently. We define empowerment as letting this power out.” (Blanchard, K)

Pole dancers love to talk about empowerment. It’s a sexy word that brings up images of ninja goddesses twisting their bodies into impossible shapes while celebrating the raw sensuality and power of their movement. At least, that’s what the word does for me. For others, the words pole dancing and empowerment seem like a joke: what on earth is empowering about dancing around a pole in slutty stilettos? (For an answer to that question, click here.) It’s true that for many women, pole dancing class makes them feel strong, sexy, confident, and yes, empowered. But what happens when the business practices of an industry that prides itself on empowering women are in direct conflict with that particular value?
For example, pole stars who tour the country teaching workshops make their money by teaching at multiple studios in the same city. Studios who demand exclusive rights to certain pole stars when they come to city (without offering additional compensation for the lost revenue) are behaving in a way that is prohibitive to the financial well being of those pole stars, and to the industry overall. This is just one example of how the pole industry shoots itself in the foot.
I spent a long time dancing at a particular studio that I loved – until I found out that they retained the services of a copyright attorney whose sole purpose was to protect the brand of the company by (among other things) actively pursuing former teachers who were perceived to be a threat. One of my good friends, who had been through their teacher training but never taught at the studio, called me to tell me she was being harassed with emails from the studio’s lawyer because of a picture on her yoga website which showed her doing a pose that supposedly “belonged” to the studio curriculum. I was shocked. And I made the decision that I no longer wanted to give my money to a company that spent its time tracking down perceived threats instead of giving its receptionists raises. When attempting to promote my book at my home studio, I was told that it did not represent the brand adequately and there was concern about my references to “the pole dancing movement” rather than to the studio exclusively. My posts were deleted from all of their FB pages and I was defriended. This was extremely ironic given the fact that most of what I wrote about did nothing but promote and support much of this studio’s work, and bring solid psychological underpinning to its curriculum – something no one else at that studio could have done. Nevertheless, it is that studio’s right to carry out their business practices as they see fit. But it gave me pause. How could a studio that preaches female empowerment be so narrow?
Other examples of pole business practices that disempower women include bogus teacher trainings that are designed to make the studio money, rather than provide students with well-prepared, savvy and safe instructors, competitions that fail to adhere to basic safety practices and organizational skills (usually because the organizer is primarily interested in making money) and of course, bullying.
Think there is no such thing as bullying in the pole world? Think again.
A competitor decides on a last minute wardrobe change for comfort reasons and the owner of the competition accuses her of trying to promote another brand at her competition. A studio accuses another studio of stealing a workshop idea and denounces them publicly on Facebook. Upon discovering that a teacher is teaching Pilates at another pole studio, a studio fires its teacher 5 days before the start of a session, leaving the students hanging and pursuing aggressive legal action against that teacher, despite having previously agreed to the arrangement. Students are falsely warned to not compete at a particular competition because the equipment is “unsafe”. A pole dance event agrees to take money from a company for their show in exchange for prominent and exclusive advertising and then does not honor that agreement. A company offers a sponsorship contract to an unwitting pole star that gives them complete control over the athlete through vague legal language and loopholes. The list goes on.
It would seem that there are two different issues in each of these scenarios. The first is how women handle competition and aggression. According to Dr. Erika Holiday, women tend to hurt one another because of feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred in the face of intense competition. Because a woman feels like she has no place to turn, she keeps everyone else in line and hurts them for being deviant or straying from the norm (From Mean Girls, Meaner Women). This topic merits a blog unto itself, so stay tuned for my review of Dr. Holiday’s book, and how it applies to the pole world.
The second issue is what happens when a company preaches female empowerment while its business practices embrace cutthroat, greedy and single-minded tactics. And is it possible to grow a company in a way that is both successful and ethical? For more answers, I turned to Jack Gaffney, President and CEO of Bad Kitty Exoticwear.

CS: Many people refer to pole dancing as a "grass roots movement". How do you think such a movement can co-exist with current corporate businesses as a model for expansion? Are the two mutually exclusive?

JG: Pole is definitely a grass roots movement. I often compare it to snowboarding or skateboarding on many levels, and I have written a few blogs on that topic (Click here to read those blogs). But pole has a major advantage over those two Movements: social media.
There are over 800 million people on Facebook alone, and within 5 minutes a newbie to pole can become completely entrenched into the global community. Technology has connected our planet like it has never been connected before with instant access to just about anything you could want. Social media has played an intricate role in toppling political regimes, organizing such things as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. In the pole world, Bad Kitty has customers in over 50 countries as of today. Prior to having social media at our disposal, that could have taken a decade to achieve. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons pole has seen such explosive growth in such a short time. Not only do we have the ability to watch a live event, but literally within seconds after a performance a video can be uploaded and shared across the planet. This creates a MASSIVE amount of exposure and piques interest to new people every day. As the mainstream sees more people embracing pole, they open up to accepting it and past stereotypes begin to be erased.

In regards to corporate businesses co-existing with local studios as a model of expansion, I believe it can in fact be a mutually beneficial relationship as opposed to mutually exclusive one. However in order for that to happen the corporate entities need to take a Top Down approach and not only understand their customers, but their customer’s business. I subscribe to the theory that a "rising tide lifts all boats". When we entered the pole industry it was much smaller than it is today. We realized that in order for us to be successful, we needed pole to be accepted and successful. And because pole studios are a local business, we needed to come up with creative ways to help studios grow their student base, get exposure locally and focus on their core offering which is, of course lessons.  This is why we sponsor athletes and events - the show must go on if you will. Our customers depend on our sponsorship dollars to put on these events. Every studio owner has similar wants and needs.
For example, our PoleFit line of apparel for was created for the community with the assistance of the community. It is the community’s line as much as it is ours. We beta test new products with pole dancers all over the world and get feedback, then make changes etc.

Doing business this way takes more time, but in the long run we feel we are delivering the best product available to our customers and we are more than willing to be patient and open to feedback. In addition, we made a decision to only allow pole studio owners to purchase at wholesale prices. We have rejected over 200 wholesale accounts this year alone because they are not a "Pole" company. What we did in fact was create an exclusive product for an exclusive community and granted exclusive rights to distribute the product to the community members.  Studio owners can apply this new revenue to keeping prices lower for classes, expanding their studio, marketing, hiring and/or training new instructors etc. By conducting business in this fashion we do not compete with our studios, but rather we enable them to create a secondary revenue stream within their studio and take a role in assisting with the product development.

Moving forward in 2012 we will be launching a suite of new business related technology services to pole studio owners. I cannot get into specifics at this time but I can say that we have spent almost 18 months developing some of these features and the entire offering is designed to increase local awareness, drive traffic into studios and make their jobs a lot easier and more efficient. Everything we have built out thus far has been built in the same manner as PoleFit: through lots of conversations with lots of people and specific solutions built custom for pole studios’ needs.
So to summarize my answer to your question: corporate entities need to be a large part and take a lead in the grass roots movement and become a part of the community which supports their business. They need to give back, be committed, honest and transparent...all things that come from the heart.

CS: Do you think there is a "socially responsible" and "socially irresponsible" way of growing businesses? How does the pole industry fit into these models?

JG: Yes, but not just socially responsible, but overall responsible. We subscribe to "The Golden Rule" which is of course: treat others the way in which you would like to be treated yourself. This is the simplest rule in existence, but one that is rarely followed. The students and fans of pole are in fact the MOST important part of this entire movement. Without students, a studio could not exist, without studios, Pole Stars would have nowhere to travel to, without students and fans there would be no events and our own company would not be as successful. It all comes back to the students and any pole business, whether it’s a studio, a pole manufacturer, an apparel company should be extremely thankful for EVERYONE who chooses do business with them. A company’s main focus should be to keep them happy, safe and wanting more. The easiest way of insuring this is to constantly solicit feedback and ask questions - simple questions like "Are you having fun?" and “What do you like best about our studio/product, what would you change and why?” In many instances, people may make suggestions that are easily implemented and other times not. But in those instances, being open and transparent about decisions is always the best approach. If people are left in the dark, they will form their own opinion and that opinion may be unfounded.

An example from our own business is sizing. In many of our new releases from the PoleFit line, we only launched with sizes small and medium. Shortly after the launch we received a lot of emails of customers who were really upset and accused us of only making products for small people, and assumed we had something against larger women. In fact, this couldn't be further from the truth. The fact is that certain styles "as cut" in small & medium require redesign before they can be "graded" upwards or downwards in size. If we failed to properly grade the garment, it would not function or fit properly thus creating a bad user experience. We had made an assumption that everyone somehow knew this...which was a mistake.  We grade the garment by going to the community, asking for beta testers of certain sizes and sending them product to test and give us feedback. We then take all this data, re-tool the garment and send them back out for more testing. It isn't until we get it right that we will release it, and honestly, some styles just wont work for a 36DD the same way they will for a 32B. In addition, extremely active Polers have muscle where the vast majority of women do not, typically in the lats and shoulders, so we have found that Pole Wear needs much more research & development than most would imagine. The moral of the story is that once we explained this to these folks, most were extremely happy with the answers. In fact most were ecstatic! No one was right or wrong - it is simply that perception can quickly become reality. You may never know the perception of your company until you dig deep, ask questions and give honest answers.

My advice to studio owners is to constantly ask your students questions, have instructors ask questions and really LISTEN to what they say. Don’t get defensive - they are helping you help them. If there is something they want and you can’t provide it, explain why. That would be the most responsible way of growing your business.

CS: In light of the fact that pole dancing prides itself as "empowering women everywhere" are there, in your opinion, business models/practices that should be followed? Avoided?

JG: Yes, in regards to business practices that should be followed, I would refer back to the golden rule: Treat others in the way in which you yourself would like to be treated. Studio owners are empowering women in so many ways: physically, mentally, sexually, socially. But I think some studio owners lose sight of the fact that the "door swings both ways" - meaning the owner/instructors receive a great deal of empowerment in return. Empowerment is like respect: it is a give and take. Owners and instructors are typically leaders by nature and leaders have a responsibility to their followers - the biggest of which is to teach. It is difficult to get an employee, train them, teach them, empower them and then watch them leave and form their own business. One can take 2 views on something like this: The first is to be proud and supportive. After all you have just helped someone go out on their own, a testament to your abilities as a teacher. The other view, and sadly one I have seen too often, is to become angry, upset, feel betrayed, become nervous about losing students etc. But you cannot teach and preach empowerment and then become distressed when your teaching is successful. As we know, every situation is unique, and every story has 3 sides, one side, the other side and the truth. Since this scenario is fairly common my suggestion would be to REALLY empower your students and employees. Have these conversations early on, discover the wants and needs of your employees, what are THEIR goals, and how can you help them achieve them...ALL of them. I would think having a fully trained, completely skilled and fully empowered staff member looking to venture out on their own would be a fantastic way of growing your own business. After all, starting a new business is difficult: there is branding, location, software, scheduling, insurance, etc. The student/teacher role doesn't need to vanish. In fact it can blossom to an even higher level. Collaboration and partnerships are an incredibly effective way of growing a business and 90% of the time it will make both parties more successful than if they had they gone about it on their own.

In regards to what to avoid: I would say the hardest thing to avoid as a business owner is competition - both internal competition and external competition. Here is the TRUTH about competition: It exists, it always has existed and it always will. If you have built something successful others will look to duplicate your success. But at all costs do not ever let competition consume you. If someone wants to copy everything you do, there is not much you can do about it. But remember that if you are being copied, YOU are still the innovator. YOU are still first. When they copy you, it shows that they have a difficult time coming up with original ideas or recruiting good talent. Focus instead on your own business and what you should/could be doing. It is next to impossible to stop someone from copying you, and unless you are prepared for a long, drawn out and expensive court fight it probably isn’t worth the battle -unless it is malicious and blatantly and truly damaging to your company. So allowing these copycats to consume your psyche will only end up hurting you in the long run. It will cause you to lose focus or worse shift your focus to reacting. Be pro-active, innovative, unique, honest, skilled, open to change and transparent. Create a fun environment and you will do just fine. Is it frustrating, but in my experience if someone’s business model is to replicate and rip off someone else’s ideas that business model will usually fail. Those who implement such strategies are typically only interested in PROFIT and MONEY. There is no emotional connection, and rarely is anything done that doesn’t have a profit or exploitive nature to it. Very few people have loyalty to businesses like this. Seth Godin, author of the book Tribes, states that "Leadership comes when your hope and your optimism are matched with a concrete vision of the future and a way to get there." Those that are leaders understand this intuitively and passionately. Those that follow, copy and "rip off" do not. They are not leaders. They are opportunists disguised as leaders and they can only hide behind facade for so long before being exposed.
Finally, sharing ideas and borrowing ideas from other owners is a great way to streamline successes. The scenarios described above are typically very local studios - sometimes within minutes from one another. But if you are in Texas, why not share ideas with other owners in Florida, or New York ? This is the trend we LOVE to see, and this is real empowerment.
CS: Thanks for the insight Jack !

In other words, true empowerment in the business model means creating an environment where creativity, cooperation and compassion are the cornerstones for success.  In other words, an environment where your employees can thrive. So what happens when a company creates an environment where its employees can thrive? Karen Possessky, LCSW, gives us the scoop on the psyche situation. “When you have a company that cultivates an ethical climate good business is a natural byproduct. In organizational ethics, tone is set by the leadership and trickles down to the employees. When employees experience ethical treatment and observe ethical practices, they themselves act ethically, which translates into good treatment of the customers. When that is not cultivated, a sense of helplessness and every man for himself mentality emerges: if management doesn’t care, then why should I care? The system is dysfunctional and the employee is forced to function in a way that is survival based. If the employee doesn’t need to worry about their own survival, they are free to take care of the customer and do their job.”

That sounds like reason enough to follow the Golden Rule if you ask me.

For more information on Bad Kitty go to