By Alex Samuels
It took me two attempts to enter Durham University’s Pole Dance Society class. When I first saw the Tempest Dance Studio in Gilesgate, which was a small room full of poles and girls looking back at me, my boldness fled and I continued smoothly around the corner of the building. It was here that I met a guy sitting on a bench.
“Are you here for kick boxing?” he asked.
“No, I’m here for pole dancing.”
His face hardened.
“Just round there,” he said.
As I enter, I’m greeted with the cries of a tall woman in very short shorts and a vest top – “Woooo I’ve got a boy! I love it when I get boys.”
Sam introduces herself,as the instructor and leader of this taster session. There are around twenty girls attending but I am the only guy. After a warm-up, Sam explains the poles – there are six; some are static, some rotate. All are lightly greased.
The rotating poles are easier to use, because once you jump onto them they spin you round indefinitely. One of the poles is called Bill, “He’s thicker than the others,” Sam adds. There is an easy bawdiness to her approach, but when things gets technical she is professional and encouraging.
As the class progresses, people forget their embarrassment and improve dramatically but I keep accidentally banging my groin into the pole which reduces my confidence somewhat. It can be painful in various ways, the poles often bruise and burn your legs but no one minds particularly because the mixture of physical exertion, skill and bodily expression means that everybody is having a lot of fun.
Therefore, despite high prices: there’s a £25 membership fee and it’s £40 for a two-month course, the society has around one hundred active members. Near the end of the lesson Sam pauses gravely and says she’s going to make us dance.
“If anyone doesn’t feel comfortable doing this, you do not have to do it, this is just for fun.”
It is not clear what she means but we soon find out. ‘Dancing’ is a euphemism for the sexual pole dancing moves: body rolling (Sam: “Basically humping the pole”), bottom wiggling, something called ‘the drop’, followed by the ‘peek-a-boo’ – you drop onto your haunches with the pole behind you and push your knees apart with your hands.
This is the first time we’ve touched on pole dancing’s sleazy side and initially it feels out of place in the well-lit, cheerful dance studio. But once you replace pole dancing’s traditional negative associations – the sex industry, seediness and misery – with those of this fresh, exuberant room, you realise that a change of context can transform pole dancing into an activity of personal enjoyment.
There are mirrors along one wall to help you practice by watching yourself. Pop drifts from the speakers along with the occasional fruity trumpet tune and that seems characteristic of the society’s spirit: hard work goes hand in hand with a raunchiness that’s generally for your benefit alone. Suspicion and hostility towards pole dancing are out of place here, with DUPDS, pole dancing is a form of self-expression open to all – and I think that the society is healthy, friendly, and changing perceptions.
Illustration by Asher Klassen