An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex. ~ Aldous Huxley
I'm writing this piece because I think it is important to challenge the thoughts espoused in the new book entitled, Pole Story: Essays on the Power of Erotic Dance by Claire Griffin Sterrett.
Nothing bothers me more than a singled minded, blinders on approach to any endeavor. When Herb Brooks set out to build the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team he blended the Canadian and European schools of hockey together to produce a system custom fitted to a group of college level hockey players. This group of non-professionals took down a Soviet hockey team built around the best hockey players in the Communist bloc that had dominated Olympic ice hockey for nearly two decades. Herb is a legend among hockey coaches.
When George Balanchine brought Russian ballet to the United States he brought with it a vision that embraced his Russian classical ballet training and the free flowing spirits of dancers like Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent, Melissa Hayden, Jerome Robbins, Tanaquil LeClerq, and Jacques d'Amboise. East meets West and we are all richer.
What Claire is really selling is boys against the girls with an extra helping of sex. Many of the points Claire makes in her work are valid. I am someone who grew up in a Catholic family one generation removed from Ellis Island. I can tell you first hand that sexy isn't the first thing you have drilled in your head when a Jesuit priest comes to teach your elementary school catechism class in 1968. Yes, women have been sent mixed messages about their bodes and sexuality for centuries. Pole dancing can be an important self-discovery tool. But is taking your clothes off to purge ones self of centuries of oppression all there is to pole dance? Are women the only victims of sexism?
I don't think so. For one thing stripping did not start in the United States. Hey we all remember Moulin Rouge right? Paris 1889. What about sexual suggestiveness and self-awareness in artistic dance? The following photograph taken by Bert Stern is of Allegra Kent and Edward Villella in the George Balanchine ballet Bugaku.
Notice anything sexual? This is 1963. Not much left to the imagination is there? After seeing the ballet, Arlene Croce founder of Dance Review magazine wrote, "Balanchine seems to have derived his inspiration for the pas de deux from Japanese pornographic prints." However, Allegra Kent saw beyond the school boy giggles of the critics because she danced it, felt it and lived it in that special moment that ANY dancer knows. Allegra wrote in her biography, "In other more abstract ballets, the body is used merely as a supple substance. What does it matter if a crotch becomes an apex of a triangle if the dance is abstract? But in this dance, if it looked sensual it was sensual. Our bodies were used as bodies." How do you think Edward Villella felt with his body exposed to the NYCB audience?
I can't speak for Edward but I can tell you that I feel pretty damn exposed standing at the barre in my tights and dance belt in a class full of women. The lights and mirrors in a ballet studio are as bright or brighter than any pole dance studio I have ever seen. I can also tell you that I feel pretty damn sexy inverted in a jade with the lights low. Am I exposed, vulnerable, and doubting? Sometimes I am. Sometimes I just fly. I feel the music and I just fly. I try to take everyone with me male and female.
I know some of my regular readers probably tire of me quoting Baryshnikov but it was Baryshnikov who said, "Dancers are stripped enough on stage. You don't have to know more about them than they've given you already." Divide and conquer. Guys against the girls. The more we make the dance entirely about female sexuality the more we limit it. Now that I am mending from my hockey injury I am going to go back to learning lifts in my ballet studio. Why do you ask am I learning ballet lifts at 54 years of age? I want to blend the sensuality of the ballet pas de deux with pole dance. Because this dance can be artistic, beautiful, and sexy. It isn't all about sex.
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