When most people think of pole dancing, the terms “athleticism” and “fitness” might not come to mind first. Instead, it’s mostly associated with strip clubs and titillation.
But pole dance — both inside and outside the strip club — takes dedication and years of practice, and it’s beginning to get the respect it deserves as an art form.
Last week, Alexander Wang hired professional pole dancers to entertain the revelers at his New York Fashion Week after-party. And thanks to posts on social media documenting the dancers’ incredible talent, people are buzzing about these talented women.
We caught up with one of them, Zoe Kantor, to find out more about what it’s like to pole dance for a living.
Kantor stumbled into pole dancing almost by accident. As a lifelong student of more traditional forms of dance, she had always been interested in it, especially after she saw a YouTube video featuring champion pole dancer Felix Cane. In fact, she and her roommates at UMass Amherst once bought a pole, but never got around to installing it in their home.
Then, after college, Kantor was teaching English in South Korea. She was looking for a place to take traditional dance classes like the ones she’d grown up with: modern, jazz, ballet.
The only issue was that she couldn’t find a studio with a schedule she could understand. They were all written in Korean — except for a pole dancing studio.
After working her way through Body & Pole’s six levels of classes, she was able to become a full-fledged teacher.
Now she makes a living through a combination of personal training, teaching pole dancing classes at Body & Pole Studio in New York City, and pole dancing gigs like the Alexander Wang party.
One of the biggest draws in pole dancing is the fact that the moves and skill levels are so regimented, she said. You can really tell when you’re getting better at pole because you’ll pick up more moves and go up a level in class.
This is different from more traditional forms of dance, where skill is judged more subjectively.
One of the biggest misconceptions about pole dancing is that it’s a single style of dance, Kantor tells us. But in fact, the pole is just an apparatus — you can adapt any style of dancing to fit the pole.
“You can do hyper-sexual dancing,” she said. “You could do flips or tricks, flamenco dancing, belly dancing — anything people would do in regular styles of dance.”
The pole community is growing, but it’s still somewhat hidden from the mainstream — probably because people associate it with adult forms of entertainment.
“It’s an adult community that’s a little bit subversive,” she said. “It’s sometimes not really comfortable when I tell people what I do. I wish people had an open mind. Because when I show people what I do, their minds are blown. People don’t have a visual of what non-stripping pole-dancing looks like. It’s impossible not to appreciate the athleticism.”
Still, Kantor doesn’t mind the art form’s association with stripping.
“What’s wrong with strippers?” she said. “I’m not one, but I know people that choose to be, and I feel that that’s something [where] people shouldn’t be judgmental.”
While stripping is seen as something that’s performed for the male eye, Kantor points out that pole dancing on its own can actually strengthen a dancer’s body image.
Pole dancers, she said, end up appreciating their bodies’ strength and power and worrying less about the way they look.
And anyway, Kantor likes that the community is “a little bit hidden.”
As soon as people start seeing it as a mainstream dance form and children start trying it out, they will probably eclipse the adults like Kantor and her friends, she pointed out. And in Europe, she added, kids are already getting into it.
The pole-dancing community is tight-knit, Kantor said, and they act like a family. On Kantor’s Instagram account, you can see other pole dancers and Kantor herself testing out their moves at playgrounds. They attend competitions and events and are accepting of plenty of experimental styles of pole dance.
So what does it feel like to pole dance at a high level, the way Kantor does?
“Partially pain,” she said with a laugh. “There’s definitely a large element of pain in pole — which I’ve found to be kind of empowering. People when they start are like, ‘Wow, this really hurts a lot.’ But you work through it.”
This was especially true of the recent Alexander Wang event. At that party, the pole dancers were tasked with dancing for 15 minutes, then resting for 15 minutes, for four hours straight. Usually, a pole dancer will only dance for about four minutes at a time — or the length of whatever song he or she has selected as accompaniment. So 15 minutes is pretty lengthy.
But Kantor and her friends did get to walk away with the custom Alexander Wang outfits they wore that night, she said.
Anyone can try to start pole dancing, Kantor said. Even if they aren’t in great shape, if they get hooked, they will shape up pretty quickly thanks to the physically demanding nature of the moves. She often sees people getting hooked on the pole. They start out with one class, and before they know it, they’re heading to Body & Pole four times a week.
Right now, a pole dancer at Kantor’s level will probably get a gig every other month or so, but she and her peers are hoping that the publicity that came with the Wang party will inspire people to hire pole dancers more often for their events.
After about five years of pole training, Kantor is now at an advanced level. But she still remembers what it was like to see that first Felix Cane video in college.
“I remember seeing and thinking it was so crazy,” she said. “How could anyone do that? She was levitating, flying all over the place, it didn’t make any sense.”
And now, Kantor is the one whose videos on YouTube and Instagram are inspiring the same sense of wonder for the uninitiated.