.Reclaiming the Pole

Tell somebody that you do pole dancing and it’s quite possible you’ll get an arched-eyebrow or a sidelong glance. It’s a type of dance that brings to mind underlit parlours, loud music, and the smells of dollar bills, sweat and whiskey. Jody Ryker’s “Pole Diversity” show—opening at Aerial Arts Santa Cruz on Friday, March 13—seeks to challenge the common perception that pole dancing means working in a strip club.

It’s a choreographed dance show—just 14-feet off the ground—complete with floor routines, dance elements, and some chair work. Most of the performers choreographed their own individual sets, but for the ensemble piece, Ryker picked the song “Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson.

“I thought it would be a very dramatic intro, because to me that song means misunderstood people, and I feel like as pole dancers we are very misunderstood,” Ryker says.

For instance, pole dancers don’t wear booty shorts and bustiers only for the look—showing so much skin is actually a necessity.

“It’s just your skin on metal. A lot of people probably don’t know this but you actually can’t wear a lot of clothes on a metal pole because your skin is what sticks to the pole,” explains Ryker. “You pull your skin up on it and that’s what is holding you, so the more skin you have exposed the safer you are.”

To Ryker, pole dancing is a show of acrobatics and strength; without those components you won’t get very far. Needless to say, beginners to the sport get a lot of skin burns—a metal pole is not very forgiving—and developing solid upper body strength is critical because “just climbing on the pole is exhausting,” says Ryker.

Ryker, who teaches pole dancing at Aerial Arts when she’s not busy pursuing a Ph.D. in math at UCSC, says she was on the track to bodybuilding when she started on the pole. But body building was too focused on looks and not enough on strength, she says.

Pole dancing actually began as an acrobatic sport—far away from the raunch and paunch of  strip clubs. In fact, according to the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association, it has roots in the traditional Indian Mallakhamb sport in which athletes (generally male) perform on a vertical wooden pole. Circus acts have also long featured a version of pole dance using a rubber-coated pole, or “Chinese Pole,” which dates back to the 12th century.

Pole dancing didn’t become enmeshed with “exotic dancing” until around 1968, when Fawnia Dietrich brought it to Oregon (of all places), and taught the first class. There’s even been an increasing push to include pole dancing as an Olympic sport, as it requires just as much gymnastic agility, balance and flexibility as other acrobatic sports.

“Pole Diversity” will feature dancers on the pole doing everything from daring drops to gravity-defying “Iron X’s”—where the performer holds himself or herself out from the pole, parallel to the ground in the shape of an “X.” It’s an acrobatic show, not an erotic one, says Ryker.

And she’s adamant—“Pole Diversity” is meant to bring in the wider community and change their minds about the sport.

“So many people ask if kids can come—yeah, of course, it’s like any other kind of athletic show,” says Ryker. “Most of us go to the studio but we have something else in our lives—like I’m a math student and it’s like, do I say that I pole dance? Is that going to make people not respect me? It’d be nice if we didn’t have to even think about that.”

‘Pole Diversity’ is at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 13 and Friday, March 14, at Aerial Arts Santa Cruz, 2801 Mission Street Extension, Santa Cruz. Tickets at polediversity.brownpapertickets.com, $10-$15. PHOTO:Jody Ryker of Aerial Arts Santa Cruz gets acrobatic on the pole at the Pacific Regional Competition in Los Angeles, where she placed second in the Dramatic Level 4 Division.  ALLOY IMAGES.


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