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Why Pole Dancers Make Great Leaders

Long before The Global Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF) qualified pole dancing as a sport, I knew that I was on to something special. In the seven years of training in the sport, then teaching and coaching young women, my suspicions that pole dancing nurtured a particular kind of leader have been confirmed.  The young women (and occasional man) I have been blessed to know and train in my studio have demonstrated qualities often recognized in great leaders.   Once a pole dancer gets past the beginner level of pole dance, where they break down the taboos associated with Pole Dancing’s history in strip clubs, they become passionate, risk-taking, quick-thinking, creative, broad-minded, goal-oriented, confident, and focused individuals.  And it begins with that first spin around the pole. 

Pole Dancers are Risk Takers

All you need to do is watch someone like world champ, Rafaela Montanaro to know that Pole Dancers take tremendous risks.  You see them flipping their bodies upside down by little more than a nimble wrist at heights ranging from 10-30 feet without a safety net.  But long before a pole dancer does her first Drama or Jade Drop, Death Lay, or Fonji, she has ante’d up the social acceptability that keeps most people trapped in complacency.  Because of the risqué nature of pole dancing’s recent history, many professional women have taken chances with advancement in their careers in order to pursue an activity that challenges them.  One would do well to question why the pole studio is where they go to be challenged like that, but that’s whole article in itself.  The risk of losing their credibility is real, despite the fact that what draws them to the activity is precisely what would render their contributions key to an organization’s success.  Many women who are open about pole dancing have to endure: at least; sexist comments, derisive jokes, accusations of objectifying women, or, worse; verbal and sexual assault, by men and women whose understanding of pole dancing is limited to their experience in clubs or on TV.

Meanwhile, organizations are clamoring for more of the pioneers described in Anne Kreamer's book, Risk/Reward, while heeding advice from Seth Godin who cautions that “Playing it safe and not taking risk is probably the most dangerous thing you could do in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive environment.”  Without risk-takers companies stagnate because the problem at the core of risk taking is fear; Ayesha variationfear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking like a fool, fear of seeming ignorant, fear of seeming too aggressive. Taking risk means confronting the fears/challenges and having the courage to move forward.   

By the time they’ve made up their minds to take a pole dance class, women have confronted their fears of being judged, criticized, or assaulted.  They have refused to identify as victims, and made up their minds to move forward. By the time they’ve mastered their first drop, pole dancers have confronted their fear of heights, their fear of letting go, and their fear of pain to learn that some of the most exciting innovations happened because someone turned failure into success.  When you realize that what you most feared didn't kill you, you start to take more and more risks in life as well as sport.  By the time they participate in a pole dance/sport competition, pole dancers learn that reward comes in direct proportion to the amount of risk they are willing to take.

Pole Dancers are Passionate Visionaries

Once they’ve overcome the pain of catching the hard surface of the pole on the shin and felt the exhilaration of letting go followed by the thrill of avoiding the crash, pole dancers get hooked.  They become obsessed with mastering the next terrifying move, or touching the back of their knees with their foreheads, or pressing into a handstand from a seated center split.  They work harder and longer, sometimes years, to achieve extremely challenging milestones.  The most common phrase in a pole class after “point your toes” is, “do it again!”  No matter how hard their day might have been at work, no matter how stressful their commute, no matter how tired or sore they might be from the last class, or how frustrated they might be at the attainment of the next move, these ladies show up, pay attention, dry their tears and do it again and again and again until they get it.  You really cannot call these women complacent!

In a competitive environment, passion is long-term.  Passion is constant.  When a person is passionate about what they do, they consistently look for better ways to improve themselves, their role, and the business at hand.  The woman who calls her bruises “pole kisses” with pride is not going to shy away from a difficult task.  She will embrace her challenges.  And what organization would not benefit from people who are willing to work longer and endure the hardships in order to achieve results? 

To lead successfully, the two most important qualities a leader should have are passion married with vision.  A pole dancer’s passion stems from her vision.  She’s seen what others have done and it’s inspired her.  She’s seen herself doing that very thing and will not let herself stop until she’s turned that vision into a reality.  And she shares that vision with anyone within earshot.  When she does, others jaws will drop, they will look at her differently, they will question their own misconceptions, and, if they have the capacity to overcome their fears, they will follow her to her next pole class or wherever she asks them to go.  At the very least, they will begin their own journey towards self-realization. 

Vision married with passion is inspirational.  Anyone who has listened to a leader trying to cast a vision for a cause for which she is passionate cannot help but get caught up in making that dream a reality.  The women who have graced my studio have this passion about everything they do.  They swap stories of work, argue politics, advise each other on how to deal with gender bias, mansplaining, and pay inequality while they breathe into a hamstring painfully stretched over a block.  Anyone who dismisses these motivational forces of nature because of the way pole dance is portrayed on television is living in the past and does a disservice to us all!

Pole Dancers are quick-thinking, creative, & broad-minded

Falling Angel in GloucesterWatching a young woman’s beautiful face accelerating towards the floor from 12-foot-high ceilings is not for the faint of heart!  I have had my gut in my throat more than once training these adventurous women.  A student of mine once climbed to the top for a leg and torso switch combo, and, like I once did during a performance, forgot one critical contact point during the transition.  She lost her grip.  Diving face-first towards the hard laminate she discovered the Falling Angel.  In the seconds between the ceiling and the floor, confronted by the bone-crushing, neck-snapping hard laminate below, she relied on a combination of instincts and training drills to find her leg grip and slam on the breaks - just in time to slap the floor with her hand.  It became for her, as it did for me, a favorite move from that day forward!

I was not there when these spins and drops were discovered, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar that, like Penicillin, Post-it notes, and Pacemakers, they were stumbled upon (literally) by mistake when a former pole dancer had to think quick to keep from falling.   Business leaders like Julian Birkinshaw, author of “Fast/Forward – Make Your Company Fit For the Future” warn us against analysis paralysis, and, this is something I’ve seen and experienced first-hand in my pole dance studio.  All my students get a foundation of technique, muscle-memory training drills, and explanation.  They also get a basic assessment of the risk, “If you don't do this right, you will fall.”  The ones who spend more time on the risk assessment do not move forward as quickly as the ones who focus on the skills they have already mastered while relying on their instincts.  These are transferable skills.

The best pole dancers also learn to develop a broad range of thinking.   Conceptually they have to work within a linear framework.  They have to master a vertical pole, they have to define the goal and follow the training plan to develop the skills for the next goal.  They often set aggressive timelines and measure their progress with videos.  In addition to the linear framework, pole dancers also work with the space around the pole.  They have to play with centrifugal and gravitational forces, geometry and physics in order to find that place where as Pole Champion and Flow creator, Marlo Fisken describes, you find that connection and awareness that makes you more aware of where you are, where you are going, and the most efficient way to get there.  They dance freestyle, sometimes with their eyes closed, other times with patterns, space, tempo, range of motion, phrasing, levels, or different props to get ideas.  They record these ideas and replay their recordings to respond to the information.  In other words, pole dancers are both disciplined and creative.  They are linear and circular thinkers.

Stop Making Fun, Call Them Out, and Get Ready

Pole Dancing is not the only sport that develops leaders, but the ostracization of pole dancers from the mainstream is unfair.  The lack of recognition of pole dancing as a sport has kept it recreational, forcing young women to pay out-of-pocket for training, performance and competition.  After her first competition a young woman wrote to me, “I had to give a presentation at work today.  Normally, I would be terrified, but, after fighting my nerves for competition, I put it all in perspective.  Giving a talk to senior management on my project was nothing by comparison!” 

Recognizing pole dance as a sport takes this activity one step closer to getting sponsorships and Allegra by Saminstitutional acceptability so that young women (and men) can develop the skills that will lead them and the organizations that employ them to succeed in a competitive environment.  The media’s insistence on treating this activity as something shameful, disrespectful, degrading or sexist are merely contributing to the narrative that has kept women from developing their fullest potential in life and business. 

To the women who argue that pole dancing is sexist by citing Ryan Gossling’s character in Crazy Stupid Love when he says, “The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise” are subjugating themselves to the idea that the activities of women have a causal effect on the uncontrollable actions of men.  Perhaps there is a measure of internalization of sexist mores in the activity, but that is all the more reason to provide young women a safe haven in which to play out and examine the way they have internalized sexist messages.  Without the pressure of the objectifying males, they can play with their bodies and take back the activity for their own growth and gratification.  Boyfriends and spouses of pole dancers do, initially, get excited at the thought of their wife or girlfriend taking up pole dancing for exercise - until she actually does. It is then he realizes that, far from trying to please him, she is doing it for herself.  
Sorry, the fashion industry, which has turned women into clothes hangers, has objectified women more than pole dancing has.  Rather than the activity, it is in male owned and operated spectator arenas like strip clubs and the LFL, where the spectating men insist a woman's value lies in her ability to titillate them.  They are the ones who objectify women.  Women are not objectified in spectator events owned and operated by women.  Objectification is a method of one-upmanship necessary to sustain a White Male System.  What a woman does, wears, or says will make no difference when she has been designated to the position of "other". 

As Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan and countless others have recently taught us, it’s time to stop acting as if sexual assault, violence and objectification are passive, inevitable outcomes of women’s behavior.  It’s time to hold men and the media accountable for the way they objectify women by continually portraying them in archetypes defined by an outdated, sexist culture.  And it’s time to reconsider the potential of the women who, faced with the pressure of judgement, assault, discrimination and violence, have disrupted our thinking of sports and leadership to bring pole dance out of the strip clubs and into the mainstream.  It's the twenty-first century.  It's time to prepare for a future that is approaching faster than we can blink an eye.  Let’s start supporting our future leaders!