The forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest. We’ve all heard about it before, we’ve all secretly wondered if we could do it and most of us have probably shied away from trying it because of its very alternative nature. The past two years have seen pole dancing break into the fitness world with celebrities the likes of Angelina Jolie and Teri Hatcher using it to shake up their exercise routines, but for the average person it is still an art form largely associated with exotic dancers.
This is the question on my mind as I walk through the doors of one of Edinburgh’s gentlemen’s clubs. I arrive at the perfect time to witness the galore of pole dancing: a woman in a textbook illustration of the upside-down spread-eagle sliding down a vertical pole with effortless grace. I stand quietly to the side throughout the rest of her routine. Spin after twist after turn, back up the pole, swing upside down, spiral toward the ground and then up again – all of this without touching the floor. Once she is done, she lands lithely on the stage before me and introduces herself as Robyn Wilson. A single-mother of one, 24-year-old Wilson from Musselburgh, East Lothian, started dancing five months ago and has used every free moment at the club to hone her pole dancing skills. It shows. In her presence I finally understand why people would think they didn’t have what it takes to pull off this sport – she has an air about her as she sits nonchalantly opposite me, oozing confidence and not even slightly dizzy. So how does she teach a first-timer the art of pole dancing?
“It’s not so much about the tricks as it is about flow,” she says walking slowly around the stage, hooking one of her legs on the pole and spinning round to land smoothly on her knees “And eye contact, that’s key. No one will believe you are any good unless you convince them you know you are.”
“Last but not least, it is about seduction,” she continues, “You don’t have to do any complicated manoeuvres if you don’t want to; you just have to let the pole complement your body. When I was being trained, I was told to make love to the pole,” She grins. “Sounds strange, but it’s essentially what it’s all about.”
In her line of work, such instructions make sense and it’s no surprise that eye contact, confidence and seduction are expected of exotic dancers. But what is expected of the average student, office-worker or housewife signing up for a pole dancing class? What do they expect? And why did they decide to try it in the first place?
The best way to find out is to mix the traditional with the new and see where it takes us. Wilson agrees to participate in a pole dancing fitness class and luck is on our side as we stumble on a taster session; a whole room filled with fresh students, girls and women alike, in shorts and T-shirts ready for action. Just observing them it is obvious what many of them expected from this class; some are already walking around the poles, covered in layers of dark eye make-up, checking themselves out in the mirrors. Others are shying in through the door, their hands protectively around them as if expecting to be asked to take off their clothes and start thinking of their stage name. Whatever their hesitations, when the class starts everyone is anxious to begin.
Wilson lines up with the rest of them to begin warm-ups and soon the session is in full swing. The instructors start small, teaching them the same moves as had been demonstrated to me earlier. Everybody gets a try and the atmosphere is energetic; people are laughing, encouraging each other and all seem to have a blast. As Wilson attempts to blend in and not outshine the rest of the class, the other girls give some insight to what had brought them to pole dancing.
20-year-old law student from Edinburgh, Marsha Fortune, explains she tried pole dancing a year ago and is now hoping to get back into it. “I’m drawn to pole dancing for many reasons; it’s a fun and relatively quick way to get and keep fit, and it helps to build up your confidence, makes you feel … sexier, I would say.”
Many of the other women share similar views saying that they decided to try it because they are hoping to spice up their love lives, become more comfortable with their bodies, and keep fit. One even admits she joined to get a taste of that power that exotic dancers have over men, “like Demi Moore in that movie Striptease. I watched it a few weeks ago with my friends and we all wanted to try it out.”
So it seems that most of the people in this room had opted for pole dancing specifically because of the origins of this form of dance. But what did Wilson make of the change of scenery?
“It’s much more technical in the class,” she says. “They focus on getting a strong base first, easing your muscles into it, and then build on that. At the club they just showed you a few simple turns and let you fill in the gaps, just as long as you were seductive. Either way, the end result is the same; the more you do it, the more confident you get, and the pole will eventually seem just like an extension of yourself, making you look and feel sexier as you dance. Or even when you’re not dancing, the fact that you know you can do what you can do will make you feel better about yourself.”
And indeed, the end of the class shows a line of flushed faces and toothy smiles make their way out the door. As we wait to join the line, one of the girls says to Wilson, “You are really good, I’m also thinking of working as an exotic dancer, it’s why I’m doing this. Maybe you can teach me some moves one day,” she smiles and walks off.
Wilson seems pleased and I know I am; it’s clear that partly, if not mostly, the popularity of this dance is due to its origins – it has always been the sexy, sultry way of the exotic dancer who commands attention, exudes confidence and seduces with ease. Once only a dance form for the dingy corners of small striptease bars, seen as impermissible practice for anyone but the ladies of the night, pole dancing today is the fruit no longer forbidden but still tastes as sweet.
Words by Marii Stoltsen
Photography by Alicia Warner