Jessica Anderson-Gwin – Female Pacific Pole Champion, 2015. Photo courtesy of Alloy Images and Pole Sport Organization.
THE DEMOCRACY OF POLE – AND HOW THE WEST IS BEING WON BY POLE SPORT ORGANIZATION
We’ve all seen the Facebook fights and social media rampages. The pole industry has been all a-twitter in recent years about whether or not we are fair in our competition judging standards, whether we are professional in our presentation to the outside world, whether we should become an Olympic sport, and on and on… The conversations have been friendly and quizzical at best, fiercely heated at worst. And like a raucous, pimply teenager, and (to mix my metaphors) a Wild West gunslinger of old, we have stumbled along, trying to figure out who we are, and in the process, we’ve become notorious.
The shouting on Facebook notwithstanding, our questions are legitimate: Will we go the way of competitive gymnastics and build a rigid-but-universally-accepted scoring system that rewards superhuman feats? Or will we go the way of art and value above all emotion, uniqueness, and story-telling? Or will it become a forked road, one leading toward sport and the other toward theatre? And will there ever be a United States of Pole – or will we continue to duke it out as warring tribes on some never-ending frontier? It remains to be seen, but least no one can accuse us of a lack of enthusiasm 🙂
Or, in fact, of totalitarianism. One thing we’ve really gotten right in the pole industry is democracy – which can be loosely defined as the free and equal right of everyone to participate in decision-making. I have found no other sport where the athlete or artist is in charge of her destiny in quite the same way. Perhaps because our industry is in its early adolescence, the usual gate-keepers who decide who gets to play in the sandbox – for example, sports federations or casting agents – are not yet in place. As of now, anyone who can climb a pole can create a name for him or herself – and if this person is savvy, can develop a fan base without any of the usual help from agents or managers.
This process has been helped along tremendously by the rise of Pole Sport Organization (PSO) and its expanding roster of regional competitions. While most pole competitions these days DO offer an amateur division, such amateurs are usually very advanced – often as skilled as the pros who compete separately – and this can be daunting to the new pole athlete who would like to test her mettle too. But PSO uniquely offers a wide-range of divisions catering to various skill levels, performance styles, and age levels. This means that even a beginner who is 55 years old can compete. And for those performers who are more artistically or theatrically-inclined, there are divisions for them, too – unique events that privilege story-telling and artistic expression over athletic feats.
The only other place I’ve seen this kind of open-ness is in the competition dance or cheerleading worlds. Dance students or cheerleaders of varying skill levels can compete as soloists or on teams with their studios, high schools, or colleges. But these opportunities evaporate the minute a dancer or cheerleader is no longer a student – usually at the ripe-old age of 22. It’s almost as if they are forcibly shoved out of the nest and expected now to “grow up” and get on with making a living. No more time for the “juvenile” pursuit of competition for you, young lady.
Enter the pole industry. In a few short years, competitions have sprung up around the globe, catering almost uniquely to the adult dancer. And I don’t mean “adult” as in X-rated. I mean grown-up women and men, who more often than not have day jobs and who are “contributing” members of society. Nurses, doctors, and lawyers join students, artists, and yes, strippers, on a pole in competitions around the world. Where else does one see this happen? Perhaps only in the world of competitive body building, some circus festivals, and of course, reality television competitions.
For many pole athletes and artists, competitions have been life-changing. Suddenly, they not only have a fantastic hobby, but it is a FOCUSED one in which they push themselves to heights even they never thought possible. And while competition can certainly be stressful, demoralizing, or even catty, most of the competitors I’ve spoken to say that no matter what, pole competitions have made them better athletes and even better people.
Over the years, I have attended many pole competitions and I have also been a judge, but I have to say that PSO competitions do exhibit a degree of fairness rarely seen. I’ve never a judged a PSO event, so I cannot comment on the scoring system that this organization employs (although you can view sample score sheets here: http://www.polesportorganization.com/rules/), nor have I any idea how it compares with the judging criteria of other competitions. But no matter what – no matter how rigid and transparent a scoring system is – every athlete is going to feel that she has been judged unfairly at some point. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the competition beast! But the advantage to a PSO competition is that all skill levels, ages, and styles are welcome and rewarded. Anyone may enter, and there is no panel of judges pre-selecting the competitors. And for the performer who has a mind to building herself a following on social media platforms – no matter what her skill level – a PSO competition is a good launching pad for this.
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In contemplating what makes a democracy, one must acknowledge that the ability to invent and re-invent oneself is not necessarily fundamental tenet – but it is implied in spirit. The idea of anything being by and for the people suggests that it is they who call the shots – and not someone from on high. And while I suppose a competition judge could be seen as that Person from on High – the one deciding a dancer’s public value – in reality, this has not really been the case. Just as often happens on, say American Idol, where the over-all winner may not become the next star, while his or her 6th-place finishing co-star storms the music charts, pole stars are created every day, not necessarily because of how they place in competition. Rather, it is how they are able to energize their audiences and utilize the opportunities given them.
Thankfully for such artist-athletes, those opportunities are many. And while this democracy called Pole may be in its bumpy adolescent stages – and we are still in our Wild West phase as we dance and duel our way toward something akin to nationhood – anything by and for the people gets my vote every time. And it will be how the West is won.
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For more info on Pole Sport Organization, please visit http://www.polesportorganization.com
The National Championships are this weekend, August 14-16, 2015
Brandon Grimm – Male Pacific Pole Champion, 2015. Photo courtesy of Alloy Images and Pole Sport Organization.