Last week, six members of Gizmodo, Kotaku and Lifehacker Australia attended a unisex pole dancing class. (It was a hump day and we were bored.) There was an even mix of males and females with varying degrees of pole-dancing experience. Needless to say, most of the men were completely out of their element — and that was before they started straddling poles. Here's everything the unusual experience taught one bloke. (Chief takeaway: Male pole dancing is hard.)
"And then when you spin, flick your hair like this."
Only one problem. I don't have hair. At least not the kind you can 'flick'.
Meet Chilli. Chilli is a pole dancing instructor. I suspect Chilli is not her real name.
Chilli is limber. Chilli is flexible. 10 minutes previously Chilli was stretching during her warm-up. Chilli was doing things I wasn't sure human limbs were capable of doing.
That was 10 minutes ago.
As of this moment, this second, Chilli's legs are wrapped around a vertical pole. She is spinning. Not too fast, not too slow. I would describe the pace at which she is spinning as 'clinically seductive'. She is dancing. It's amazing. It's also a strange contradiction. Chilli is in control of every motion her body is making, but she moves like she's possessed. Her strength registers, but every movement is effortless.
It's impressive. Incredibly impressive.
Two metres to Chilli's right — the pale lump of flesh in ill-fitting shorts and a scabby t-shirt — that's me. In the movie that is Chilli's life I am 'Male Pole-Dancing Student #4'.
I am the anti-Chilli.
My name is Mark. I am a man. I am a generic man. I am not unique. I am not flamboyant.
I don't have a stage name but if I did it would not be 'Chilli'. It would be 'Broccoli' or 'Cauliflower'. I am not spicy. I am a functional — albeit nutritional — vegetable. You might blend me into a nice homemade soup.
I am not flexible. I'm not sure what the opposite of 'limber' is — but if that word exists it exists purely to describe the movements I am currently trying to make, right now, on this pole.
I am a man. I am very white. I am married with two children. I live in a suburb. I would describe myself as heterosexual. I cook sausages on BBQs. Sometimes I dance at weddings. I watch sport. I often arrive at the office and find myself saying things like, "how about them Sharks, ay? Sharks are gonna win the Grand Final this year."
But there are men who pole dance. Those men exist upon every possible spectrum. I am not that man. Before I take this pole dancing class Chilli explains, there are stereotypes about pole dancing. First: it's for women. That's fine, there's an element of truth there. There are more women than men pole dancing. The second is those men — if they pole dance — are gay. That's not true. There was a huge pole dancing competition just a couple of months ago. Straight men competed. Gay men competed. It was no big deal. Again: every possible spectrum.
So there's really no reason why I'm finding it so difficult to um… arch my back inwards and stick my chest out to accentuate the curvature of my arse cheeks. No reason why I should struggle when the instructor suggest that I 'pout'.
No reason except three decades of crushing, oppressive male gender expectations. No reason asides from the fact these stereotypes have been internalised, hard-wired and encoded into my brain to the point where it affects the way I walk, talk and exist in this universe. Nope, no big deal. Nothing to see here folks.
It's funny. I consider myself liberal. When I mentioned this pole dancing class to my Dad he told me (jokingly) to, "have a word with myself". I didn't feel the need. I felt 100% comfortable with the idea of walking into a female dominated space and taking part in an activity that some would describe as 'feminine'. A large part of me (the self-indulgent, patronising part) enjoyed the idea of trying to subvert those expectations in my own clumsy way.
High-falutin objectives for the man who was now finding it extremely difficult, in the heat of the moment, to throw his hair back and pout.
Let me just say this one thing: pole dancing is hard.
Not physically hard; hard on the goddamn brain. I consider myself fit and healthy. I'm able to hold my own body weight fairly easy. None of the movements Chilli asked me to perform during the my one hour lesson were beyond me in terms of the physical. But mentally? The performance aspect? That represented the real challenge.
"We call this 'stripper legs'," explains Chilli. She strikes a pose. I recognise it — from magazines, from music videos, maybe even from the handful of times I've visited a strip club on buck's nights. But I can barely replicate it.
The movement increases in its complexity. Chilli rotates her hips. It's not a simple 360 rotation. I could just about handle that, but no. At some point Chilli shouts out that the movement is more like a 'figure-of-eight'. By the time I've almost figured it out, we're asked to reverse it.
"Reverse," I think, furrowing my brows. "Whut?"
That's when I freeze.
That's the moment where my brain frazzles and pops like a broken robot.
You may as well have asked me perform a triple back-flip with pike. I search the memory banks for the movements required of me. It's a 'file not found' situation. I can't conceive of the movement. I can't even imagine it. I'm watching Chilli's perfect hip swivel but my own joints are locked in place, locked in confusion. It's mentally exhausting to even think about — not because the movement is demanding, but because it's asking my body to move in a way it's never moved before.
Where do I even start?
This happens multiple times.
It happens when I'm supposed to slide along the floor, raise my hips and slither upwards instead of standing like a normal person.
It happens when I have to squat, legs spread apart and slowly arch back up butt first.
I literally don't know how to make those movements.
And it's round about this time — between poking out my non-existent breasts and standing up using my arse — that I have my real epiphany. Whether we're male, female or otherwise, so much of how we move, act and present is learned or impressed upon us from a young age — to the point where certain movements feel alien.
In its purest form pole dancing is a stylised version of what it means for a woman to be sexy in the 21st century. It's a cultural mish-mash. A mating call in the form of dance. It's a beautiful thing and it empowers just about every person who walks through the doors of Bobbi's Pole Studio.
But I've never been asked to move like this. It's never been expected of me. And now, in this space, in this situation, I'm in the process of developing a real admiration — not just for Chilli and her flexibility and her strength or skill — but for all women. Women as a whole.
I guess this is what it feels like to walk a mile in her shoes.
Or — in this case — high heels*.
*disclaimer: I didn't actually wear high heels. I'm sorry.
Thanks to Bobbi's Pole Studio and Chilli in particular for being such a patient instructor!