“They’re incredible”, says the woman sitting next to me in a half-whisper over her shoulder, “They’ve got to be so strong!”. She speaks softly so as not to disturb the choreography of acrobatic feats that have the two of us and a hall full of people glued to our spots.
The performers – although you could call them athletes just the same – execute each move effortlessly. Hours of training lending to twists, turns and stand-still poses performed all whilst suspending their own body-weight a good few metres in the air over a small High School theatre stage in the heart of Newlands, Cape Town, that has surely never seen anything quite like this.
As if their raw physicality wasn’t enough, they exude confidence and grace while doing so.
Some are full-time professionals, others are newcomers, but all of them are part of a relatively new reincarnation of a very well-known activity…pole dancing.
The dancers are part of The Pole Project and The Scar-Lit Box. Both Cape Town based studios, the former established by head instructor and creative force behind the show, Kathy Lee.
At first glance Lee, 34, doesn’t look like the office-job type. Yet, before donning colourful brassieres, form fitting one-pieces and at times high-heels to spin on a pole, the former London lawyer was, by her own words, “very much part of the rat race”.
Based in Gardens, The Pole Project is a product of Lee’s passion running away with her.
“I wanted to share my mad love for this amazing sport, and create a space where I could teach others the passion and spirit of pole dance”, says Lee.
A spirit which has seen quite a few similar spaces pop up in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town with both recreational and competitive ambitions.
“The competitive structure in the country is very well established, with a large number of local competitions happening throughout the year”, she says. “However, many people start off as beginners and work their way up to more advanced levels at their own pace for their own goals”.
Lee attributes this traction to the growing local interest in functional training disciplines such as CrossFit and Calisthenics which emphasise the use of one’s own body weight.
Internationally, however, the sport has been around since the early 2000s, stepping out of obscure channels and growing immensely over the last decade since the establishment of the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF).
Currently, it is still not recognised by SportAccord – the union for both Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations – yet, with the emergence of the World Pole Sport Championships (WPSC) the activity seems to be getting closer to that goal.
The Pole Project, in fact, boasts two WPSC South African representatives who, when they aren’t competing for the studio, help Lee get more people obsessed and enthused in the magic of pole dancing.
The show before us is exactly that, magical. A reimagination of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it’s a story-telling showcase of interpretive pole dance called Alistair in Wonderland given that the protagonist is male; and yes, also a pole dancer.
The blend of colourful characters and audio-visual suggestion in a whimsical and surreal story-line, make it very suitable for the unconventional medium with a few narrative challenges here and there.
The performers don’t have dialogue. Like an operatic ballet, they rely on music and rhythm to convey every second of the tale through precisely timed and often synchronised movement, emphasising just how demanding it is as an art form. Rather than rely on the significance of words, every little step, turn and pivot is needed to keep the audience hooked.
Unlike ballet, however, the attire isn’t quite what you’d see at the opera.
“Yes, the sensual and exotic style of pole dancing is very much present”, admits Lee. “There is the occasional eyebrow lift and a few seconds of silence followed by an apprehensive ‘Oh…’ whenever you tell someone what you do”.
Yes, most of the costumes show a lot of skin and the sexual undertone is present even in something as neutral as a Lewis Carroll novel.
In one part of the show, two dancers with the phrases ‘Eat Me’ and ‘Drink Me’ written across their respective sport bras dance with Alistair in a somewhat provocative manner.
It’s nothing more than a few minutes before the interval, but it’s enough to have people talking outside and snickering like highly impressionable school-boys.
But it’s not really the choice of clothing which is problematic as much as it is people’s conception of the sport’s origin.
The sport’s highly sexualised beginnings – its connection to strippers and seedy nightclubs awfully cliched bachelor parties – have, in fact, been the biggest obstacle for its mainstream advancement both locally and globally.
The IPSF has gone as far as to ban revealing or ‘skimpy’ clothing, as well as certain risqué manoeuvres, during competitions choosing to align the sport more so with gymnastics than with revue bars.
It’s a way to garner sponsors, keep the sport alive and make sure that the performers – especially women – aren’t applauded for their looks, but rather celebrated for their abilities as it should be.
Still, there’s a simple argument to be made against these restrictions.
“What we do is far removed from what happens in strip-clubs!”, exclaims Lee.
Unlike their topless counterparts, modern pole dancers – male and female alike – make a conscience choice of using certain sensual styles to lure audiences in. It’s essentially a bait effect, a prelude that says, “Yeah we look damn good, but check this out”.
The show itself starts with a few audible whistles and some very kitsch cat-calls from the crowd while the dancers, dressed as white rabbits, skip their way onto the stage. It becomes part and parcel of the performance, but it’s only scratching the surface. The dancers neither instigate nor encourage it, it just happens.
And instead of stopping the show or issuing disclaimers beforehand, the troupe uses it.
As the performers up the ante, scene-by-scene getting even more technical, the whistles turn into awe-struck gasps and the cat-calls into thunderous applause. You look past the outfits and really get stuck into how these superwomen and men are moving, all the while reminding yourself that these performers do pole dancing, like you might go running twice a week or play social tennis on the weekend.
As Lee puts it, “At the end of the day, pole dance is not about what your body looks like, but rather what it can achieve”.
Leigh de Jamaer, for instance, has been performing in pole for less than 2 years. Alistair in Wonderland is her first large-scale pole performance, but you wouldn’t guess it watching her move.
“Initially I was drawn to the fitness side of pole”, says de Jamaer. “Pretty soon I completely fell in love with the physical, mental and emotional challenges and conquests”, she adds. “The immense satisfaction in being able to do something that you couldn’t do a few weeks before”.
It’s empowering and it speaks volumes of the what the sport is really about; defiance.
Whether it’s defying gravity, defying the social norm or defying your own limitations, pole dance is a sport that’s definitely breaking some barriers.
Lee explains how seeing that concept grow in her students has rewarded her immensely.
She hopes the sport will grow to greater heights and knows there’s a lot of work to be done to achieve that.
For the moment, at least, she’ll be able to enjoy a captivated audience surely hungry for more.
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