As pole dancing becomes an increasingly popular form of exercise and enters mainstream media, two UC Berkeley students discussed their experience as pole artists and the history of the art form.
Kayla Walker, a senior at UC Berkeley, is a pole dancing artist and full-time instructor at Atomic Allure in Oakland and at her own virtual studio, Polymorphous Movement. She began practicing pole after reconnecting with another form of movement she loved: dance.
“I found a Groupon to go to a pole studio and I just took a class and I never stopped — it’s been about three years now that I’ve been dancing,” Walker said. “I never knew that pole would change my life.”
Today, Walker stays busy by teaching six classes a week and dances for several hours on her own when she gets the chance.
Walker said her favorite parts of pole dancing are how grounding it is for her and the strong connections she formed through it.
“One thing that’s always going to be there for me to express myself is the pole. I feel like I can release things that I can’t really say on my own,” Walker said. “I also love the community that it’s brought me.”
UC Berkeley junior Christine Haggin discovered pole dancing during quarantine while searching for outdoor exercising classes.
“I was really motivated to continue because it was harder than any sport I’d ever done before, and still incorporated aspects of sensuality and creativity into the experience,” Haggin said in an email.
Haggin continues to practice in their Berkeley apartment during the pandemic.
Though they used to take lessons or use online instructive videos to learn, Haggin said their favorite part of practicing has become developing freedom in movement.
“Most of what I actually do when I’m practicing pole by myself is blasting a song I feel really connected to and just moving in whatever way feels natural and feels good,” Haggin said in an email.
Both Walker and Haggin said they had noticed some changes in attitude toward pole dancing as it moves towards the cultural “mainstream.”
Walker said she was wary of people forgetting the roots of pole dancing, which was founded by strippers and sex workers.
“There are still people out there that fail to acknowledge that,” Walker said. “A lot of the work that needs to be done, especially as an instructor, is informing those that are just beginning their pole journey that we respect these people in this community, that we are one.”
Walker added there was a significant amount of work to do in terms of preventing internet censorship of sex workers and strippers, especially with much of the sex work industry going online amid the pandemic.
Sex workers’ and strippers’ online pages may be deleted, shadow-banned or restricted, according to Walker and Haggin.
Haggin believes the shift in public opinion on pole dancing does not matter unless we stop the stigma surrounding stripping and sex work.
“Without strippers, especially Black sex workers, modern pole dancing wouldn’t exist,” Haggin said in an email. “As pole is becoming more mainstream, a lot of people who aren’t sex workers (especially white, cis, able-bodied, thin) have this desire to differentiate themselves from strippers or sex workers and describe their practice as “fitness” or “art” as if sex workers don’t embody both athleticism and artistry.”
Haggin further said those who do not care about sex workers’ rights in the pole dancing industry profit off the “historical exploitation” and disenfranchisement of those who created the art and continue to face numerous restrictions while dancing today.
With pole moving into the mainstream, Walker said it is also important for conversations to shift toward recognizing it as a mode of expression.
“There are strippers out there and sex workers out there that love what they do, and they choose to do it,” Walker said. “And they are smart people, and they do have degrees.”
For those looking into pole dancing themselves, both Walker and Haggin emphasized that treating strippers and sex workers with respect should come first and foremost.
When wearing certain pieces of clothing like especially high heels, for example, new dancers should understand their meaning, said Walker.
“When you find a way to express yourself within these boundaries, we also have to be conscious and keep in mind who did this before us,” Walker said.
Haggin urged people to uplift and pay all sex workers for their labor. They also suggested people tip workers online, subscribe to their platforms like OnlyFans and Patreon and contribute to mutual aid funds.
“Pole can be life changing! It can be empowering, healing, and a way to reclaim sexuality and movement,” Haggin said in an email. “If you profit off of pole, redistribute funds … Compensate LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous and other sex workers of color for their time, labor, and talents.”