One is the stuff of little girls’ dreams. The other, forbidden fruit. One whispers of the sylph, the swan, the dying innocent. The other, the stripper, the slut, the vibrant temptress who never dies – especially not in the minds and groins of men…
Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I dreamed of satin slippers and eventually danced in them. Later, I was a good university student where any card-carrying feminist – myself included – learned that the ballet shoe AND the stripper shoe were classic symbols of female subjugation. One was a male fantasy of female other-worldliness and weakness. The other, a sexual construct by men, for men, and created to elicit the most base of pleasures.
Now, fast-forward some years. I’m a woman with a career – a thriving costume business, a hard rock/metal album, and, more than Virginia Woolf’s prescription for a “room of one’s own,” I have a whole place! I might even be the poster child for the modern woman who does what she wants, when she wants, and needs not one penny from a man.
AND I dance on a pole. AND I wear stripper heels. Proudly. My 8” platforms sit in my dance bag, next to my satin pointe shoes. And never once do I feel like a disempowered male fantasy. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because even as a baby pole dancer taking her very class, I saw the pole and these shoes as a path to my liberation – a way to discover my own physical strength and sexuality at the same time.
So I beg the question: in an age when women have taken pole dancing back and are doing it for themselves, can we really see the stripper shoe in the same way we once did? Furthermore, can we not compare it more favorably to the pointe shoe – which despite some feminist objections – still elicits praise and respect from most communities? Are not both tools of athleticism and art? Not to mention female strength and prowess?
In fact, let’s compare these two shoes. First the similarities: Both are, for the most part, uniquely worn by women. Both test one’s balance and require skill to manipulate. And both are said to enhance – or create – a certain feminine mystique.
And now the differences: Pointe shoes can cause damage to the foot, resulting in bloody toes, bunions, and other maladies. Pointe shoes require extensive training and mirco-manipulation of the muscles of the foot for stamina and balance; stripper heels, not so much. Pointe shoes were born in the 19th century, while stripper shoes are a late 20th century invention. Pointe shoes and the ballerinas who wear them are considered artists. Stripper heels and the painted ladies that spin and saunter in them, are “sluts.”
But could it be that the symbol of the stripper shoe has no more inherent meaning than any company logo – the Apple apple, for instance, or the Nike swirl? Both of these companies have worked hard to make us connect the iconography with the brand, but separated, each is truly an orphan, with no known heritage to speak of. So why do we imbue a simple, platform shoe with so much fascination and disgust?
I believe it is because we are uncomfortable with women who display overt sexuality. Whether as women, we are threatened by the “man-stealers” who wear these shoes, or we are simply uncomfortable with our own sexual nature; whether as men, we are fascinated by and yet disrespect the object of our desire because we feel more powerful that way… Whatever the reason to hate or disrespect, the shoe itself is neither the alpha nor omega of it. Rather, it is a symbol that only carries as much meaning as we assign to it – and only ever represents an unexamined part of ourselves.
Now, for many pole dancers reading this, I sound like a lunatic. We don’t wear stripper heels to make some sort of point about our sexuality! It’s not a rebellion or social statement. We wear stripper heels because they make our legs look AWESOME, and they grip the pole like a beast. Plus, who doesn’t want to be a male fantasy from time to time – and isn’t it fun to flirt with the underworld? But whether are conscious of it or not, our shoe and our sport do ask us to walk the razor’s edge of respectability.
Indeed, we must admit than when we step out of our cozy pole dance world, we may find that others react less favorably to our cherished shoe and attire. WE – not they – have assigned different, positive values to the stripper shoe because after all, many of us started our training with little or no upper body strength, and now look at us! For us, the stripper shoe was a path to liberation – not the opposite.
I wonder if ballerinas can say the same. As much as I love ballet, and I have been its devoted practitioner for years, the pointe shoe is not – or is no longer – as loaded a symbol, and therefore it is neither something to overcome, nor necessarily a vehicle for deep personal exploration. Not because pointe shoes aren’t a beast to master, and not because ballerinas are not skilled beyond the layperson’s ability to comprehend. Rather, it is because ballerinas have not been asked to take on a beast that dare not be named – one that I would argue lives inside all of us – the Painted Lady who, until just recently, walked the world alone and in disgrace. Today, we are legion – whether we are or have been an exotic dancer, or whether we simply study the pole for art and sport. Today, Independent Women and Painted Ladies can be one, liberated under one shoe – one rogue, but cherished, symbol of ill-repute.
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For another wonderful point of view, see Nina Reed’s comparison between pole dancers and body builders and how the world reacts differently here.
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Follow @kellymaglia on Spotify and find my debut EP “Just Enough Rough” on iTunes !