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Heather Borowiec

Pole Dancing and Body Image: using dance to improve self esteem

Pole Dancing and Body Image: Using dance to improve self-esteem Abstract Pole dancing has become a popular form of exercise for women. Most major cities have at least one studio that teaches pole dancing. Instructors are certified fitness trainers and teach multiple classes per week. Students range in age from teenagers to older women and classes are mixed ages. A form of sisterhood is developed in these classes and students are supportive and encouraging to one another. This bond usually extends outside of the studio. Inside the studio this level of acceptance seems to increase the student’s self-esteem. Positive changes to a person’s self-esteem can be far reaching in their lives. This paper will explore if pole dancing is having a positive change on women’s lives outside of the exercise classroom. Introduction Modern day pole dancing has evolved over centuries and can now be found in Vegas style shows such as Cirque du Soleil and exercise studios as well as international competitions.

Pole dancing started in China and India. In China acrobats would use a pole to perform such tricks as climbing, holding poses and hanging straight out at a 90 degree angle. (\”International Pole Dance Fitness Association,\” 2014) This trick is still practiced today and is called a flag pose. In India pole dancing dates back 800 years and was called Pole Malakhamb. Performers would perform flips onto the pole and do tricks on the pole to develop strength, speed and reflexes. (\”International Pole Dance Fitness Association,\” 2014) Modern day pole dancing has been influenced by circus performers, belly dancing, exotic dancing, and Latin dancing. In 1994 the first pole fitness training classes were started to teach non-performers pole dancing as a form of exercise. (\”International Pole Dance Fitness Association,\” 2014) The trend has continued and most cities have one or more studios that specialize in pole dancing. Classes range from beginner to masters level and are mostly for ages 18 and up. In Lubbock, Texas there are two studios: Kristease and Art Fit.

In San Antonio there is one: Soft Sensuous Moves, the studio has been opened for nine years and had over 9,000 students in that time. (R. Mulholland, personal communication, April 10, 2014) Literature Review While there are no studies examining the correlation between pole dancing and positive self-esteem there are blogs on the subject and studies related to modern dance. One such study is “Sequins, Sass, and Sisterhood: An Exploration of Older Women’s Belly Dancing”. (Moe, 2014) Because belly dancing has a similar history and stigma in Western culture some of the study’s findings can be related to pole dancing. Belly dancing has a history stemming from the Middle East and Central Asia. An association has developed over the years that belly dancing is a provocative dance used for seduction. (Moe, 2014) Women over 50 were surveyed to find 1) What attracted them to belly dancing 2) What their experiences were with belly dancing 3) How do these experiences change the social expectations about older women and physical recreation. The participants were predominately from the Midwest, Caucasian, and mothers, with mixed marital status that had been dancing for an average of 15 years. She found that women appreciated belly dancing for physical reasons such as mobility.

The dance is low impact with fluid movements. As women age flexibility and strength decrease. Students also found that the physical exertion specially associated with belly dancing “kept them young.” (Moe, 2014, p. 47) Because the dance is outside of their original comfort zone this made them feel stronger emotionally also. With the physical movement the students found an increased mental and emotional well-being. (Moe, 2014) The dance itself becomes a source of empowerment. Some performances are in public which requires a large amount of self -confidence. One student described how in belly dancing she finds “greater pleasure and ease in other aspects of her life.” (Moe, 2014, p. 49) Belly dancing requires a certain posture that one of the students described poetically “when the teacher ask you to roll your shoulders down and back and lift your chest you cannot be in that posture and feel bad.

There is a magic in it.” (Moe, 2014, p. 50) Performing requires elaborate costumes and makeup which allow some women to take on another persona. A student described how her sense of security and her ability to stand up for herself all come from belly dancing. (Moe, 2014, p. 50) Moe (2014) also found the students felt a sense of social connection in their groups. The students talked about looking forward to the weekly class. And an openness they felt from being permitted to explore their creativity and belly dancing without the fear of being judged.

One student described the class as a place where “women of all ages come together to dance together and celebrate each other.” (Moe, 2014, p. 54) Students talked about how they get dressed and put on makeup to go to class. The class becomes to these women a “refuge from so many aspects of life as a female.” (Moe, 2014, p. 55) The last benefit Moe (2014) found from the interviews is the healing function belly dancing served to some of the women that had experienced abuse in the past.

One student described how she disassociated from her body and was numb after she experienced abuse. (Moe, 2014, p. 59) Belly dancing, because of its sensual nature, requires the students to connect the movements to their feelings. This effect has helped these students have a safe environment to come to terms with their bodies. (Moe, 2014) Another study focused on the body image of modern dancers. Langdon and Petracca (2010) found that for the novice dancing builds a sense of body empowerment.

The study used past research of ballet dancers for comparison. Modern dance tends to focus on strength more than aesthetics and thinness is not as mandatory. The study surveyed 77 women ages 18-55. Some of the findings are not relevant to this paper’s research topic. However, the study did find a positive correlation with an increase in body image among modern dancers. (Langdon & Petracca, 2010) Another study by Swami and Tovee (2009) compared street dancers to non-dancers and asked questions about body image and weight preoccupation. They surveyed 83 women street dancers and 85 non-dancers in London. They found that both groups were equally preoccupied with their weight but the dancers had a significantly higher body appreciation. The dancers seem to be more accepting and respectful of their bodies.

The writers theorized that because street dancing is social in nature, highly energetic and lends itself to artistic expression the dancers viewed their bodies as more functional in nature. Swami and Tovee (2009) acknowledged that different dance styles have different effects on body image. (Swami & Tovee, 2009) Self-Esteem Self-esteem starts at an early age at home. It can be influenced by many factors over the years but typically around adolescence a shift occurs from looking to parents for praise to looking to peers. (Branden, 1994) Adolescence is a time that is often associated with low self-esteem. Seven out of ten girls feel they are not good enough in some way. “A girl’s self-esteem is more strongly related to how she views her own body shape and body weight, than how much she actually weighs.”

As a person grows older they tend to need feedback less and use their internal values to judge themselves. (Branden, 1994) The level of an adult’s self-esteem can rise and fall depending on life challenges. Being laid-off will negatively affect self-esteem and learning and mastering a new challenge will positively affect self-esteem. (Branden, 1994) Pole Dancing Classes Pole dancing classes are usually held in a dance studio specifically designed for women, although some studios allow men in private classes. Carla Wetzel is a certified fitness instructor and pole dancing teacher at Soft Sensuous Moves in San Antonio. She stated that class sizes are usually small groups of 4 – 10. The room needs adequate space to allow for students to spin and not hit one another or the walls and student’s need to be spotted and observed to maintain safety.

This ends up working well because the size of the class fosters personal interaction. (C. Wetzel, personal communication, April 10, 2014) The classes are divided into skill levels, studios categorize differently but there is always some form of a beginner, intermediate and advanced groups. Most studios also have additional classes for specific skills such as spinning poles or aerial tricks. Classes tend to stay together as they advance in levels and skills. This is usually because a day and time works for a student, but as bonding increases students will make arrangements to stay in their class even when it is no longer convenient. (C. Wetzel, personal communication, April 10, 2014) This trait is documented in studies on group activity. Groups that stay together for longer periods tend to foster social cohesion and emotional bonding. (Cuseo, 2014) Pole dancing classes are usually one hour long with new skills taught every week. Due to the high cost of maintaining a studio, employing qualified instructors, and small class sizes pole dancing can be expensive. Depending on location prices vary from $20–$50 per class. As a student continues in levels they usually buy a pole for home use to practice their skills.

This is also an expensive purchase, usually around $300. In addition costumes and shoes are needed if a student performs. (C. Wetzel, personal communication, April 10, 2014) The cost can be prohibitive for many people. One studio in Austin has a scholarship program to help with cost. ( Most studios also provide an outlet for performing. Sometimes that is within the class, such as solo dances at the end of a level. Other studios have student showcases or performance groups that go to social events. There are now state and national competitions for pole dancing and even a push by the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association to get pole dancing into the Olympics. (\”International Pole Dance Fitness Association,\” 2014) Soft Sensuous Moves is a pole dancing and aerial arts studio in San Antonio, Texas. The owner, Rene Mulholland, started the studio 9 years ago in her home. As pole dancing became more popular she moved into a studio space located on the north side of San Antonio. There are now 10 instructors and the studio is open seven days a week. There have been over 9,000 students, ranging in age from 18 to 83 years old, since the studio first opened. (R. Mulholland, personal communication, April 10, 2014) Students In a recent class, of 6 students, an informal survey was taken. The questions asked were the following: 1) What makes you keep taking classes 2) Do you feel classes have improved your self-esteem 3) If so, has that affected your personal or professional life? All the students surveyed have been taking classes for over 6 months. Students had different reasons for continuing to take classes.

They all felt that the classes were making them physically stronger and they enjoy the dancing. Some students felt a connection to their group. One student, talked about how she had a schedule conflict but had continued classes and made up sessions so that she did not have to change classes and be with another group. All students felt they had made friends at the studio and that was important to them. They all agreed that classes had improved their self-esteem. One student discussed how she has always embarrassed by her body. In class her class, she is learning advanced hanging tricks that require skin contact points. Students are encouraged to wear sports bras and tight shorts only. This student said that she would have never thought she could feel comfortable showing her body in front of other people. She has participated in the student showcases at the studio and danced for over 100 people in the same kind of outfit. She said those experiences are making her feel more comfortable in her personal relationship also.

Another student said that she had a similar experience and that the confidence she has gained helped her speak up for herself at work. All the students agreed that is was also how supportive their classmates were towards them that contributes to their improved self-esteem. One student called it a judgment free space and described how she feels comfortable being herself there. She went on to say that when she comes in the door of the studio she feels like she is home. The students stated they feel the studio is a community of women that have similar interest and goals as them. Online blogs reflect these experiences. One such blog is called Feminspire. The author wrote an article about pole dancing classes explaining why women take the classes. The primary reason is for fitness. The classes are a full body strength training session but it is also the other women that make students come back. “It’s women supporting each other and giving each other the chance to feel their best and to regain and broaden their confidence.” (Slavin, 2014) Another blog talks about body image and pole dancing. The author states even though she hated her stomach she needed to show that skin in order to perform a certain pole move.

Her desire to learn the move was stronger than her desire to hide what she felt were her flaws. By letting go of that insecurity she felt stronger. She discusses other tips for improving self-image while learning pole dancing. ( Instructors The instructors at Soft Sensuous Moves are all certified fitness instructors. Their experiences vary but most have successful careers and teach pole dancing for fun and exercise for themselves. Several of the instructors are over 40 years old. One instructor has been at the studio since it opened. Several have been employed at the studio for over five years. An informal survey was posed to the instructors, the questions asked were: 1) Why do you keep teaching pole dancing 2) Have you seen changes in students’ self-esteem 3) Do you think you are helping students improve their self-esteem? The instructors had varied reasons for continuing to teach but a central reason was because they felt it was fun and low stress compared to their regular lives.

One instructor said she felt it was an escape from her daily life. All the instructors had stories about seeing students gain confidence. One instructor said a student told her that she had changed her life. These stories from students motivated the instructors to keep teaching but also changed how they teach. The instructors talked about how it is not just about teaching the dance moves but about encouraging and supporting the students. The instructors felt that the direction of the studio, moving the students towards performing in public, is having a positive effect of the student’s self-esteem. The instructors work with the students for performances and competitions. To compete is to be judged and no instructor wanted to push a student she felt wasn’t ready. All the instructors had stories of students discussing difficult personal situations. One instructor said she felt like a counselor at times. Another said that the studio is one place where she felt she is helping and she knows she is good at what she is doing.

The instructors agreed that teaching the classes has improved their self-esteem as well. Conclusion Self-image evolves over a lifetime and certain events in a person’s life can improve or harm self-esteem. In our country self–esteem is usually based one six components. “One\’s inherited endowments, including intelligence, physical characteristics, and natural abilities. Feeling likable and lovable. Being a unique human being, of value, and worthy of respect. Feeling in control or responsible for one\’s life. Moral virtue or integrity. And what one has achieved–one\’s skills, possessions, and successes.” (Branden, 1994) Pole dancing seems to be having an effect on students’ self-esteem because it aims at many of these components. It is improving a student’s physical characteristics by making them stronger.

It also works with their natural abilities, such as flexibility or a personal style of movement. It helps students feel likable being in a supportive environment of people that are encouraging them to be successful. Individual style is important to the dance and students are encouraged to use their own ideas and songs in a dance. This helps to make the students feel unique. It helps students to feel in control because in that hour of class they are in charge of how much they push themselves. Every new move is viewed as a success and each level at Soft Sensuous moves has a graduation. (C. Wetzel, personal communication, April 10, 2014) Students feel a sense of accomplishment moving to the next level.

All these experiences combined seem to be helping the students feel more confident in class and that is extending into their personal lives. In reviewing the literature this experience also seems to be found in other genres of dancing including modern dancing and belly dancing. One of the belly dancing students stated “to have access to a community of women within a space that is positive and supportive is unique in itself.” (Moe, 2014, p. 50) Women benefit from finding that sisterhood of other women that encourage them. And one place that can be found is in pole dancing classes. References Branden, N. (1994). Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Retrieved from Cuseo, J. (). Guidelines for group work. . Retrieved April 10, 2014 from…/FYEX-101_guidelines-studen.. History of Pole. (2014). Retrieved from Langdon, S., & Petracca, G. (2010, June). Tiny dancer: Body image and dancer identity in female modern dancers. Body Image, (7), 360-363. Retrieved from Moe, A. (2014, January ). Sequins, Sass, and Sisterhood: An Exploration of Older Women’s Belly Dancing. Journal of Women and Aging, 26(1), 39-65. Slavin, L. (2014). Pole Dancing: Empowerment and Exercise? Retrieved from Swami, V., & Tovee, M. (2009, July). A comparison of actual-ideal weight discrepancy, body appreciation and media influence between street-dancers and non-street dancers. 6, 304-307. Retrieved from

Your bio : Heather Borowiec has been teaching pole dancing and taking classes since 2008. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and is a single mom to a beautiful 3 year old little boy Max. She is currently getting her Masters Degree in Nursing. For a class project she researched pole dancing and the effects on self-esteem. She personally feels that pole dancing has tremendously improved her self esteem and she hopes to continue teaching and learning.