When it comes to the growing popularity of pole dancing in Northern Ireland, it’s probably best to leave your preconceptions at the door.
Images of scantily clad babes in some seedy strip joint is, according to those involved, about as far from the truth as Demi Moore’s portrayal in Striptease was from your average sex worker.
Primarily, the activity has been taken up as a sport — enthusiasts say it’s a brilliant way of toning up that has more in common with dance, gymnastics and athletics than anything you might see in a lap-dancing club.
Like belly dancing before it, pole dancing still has some image problems to work through, but in other parts of the world, most notably Australia, going to a pole class is as normal as taking up aerobics.
Certainly, classes are booming here — there are now dedicated studios in Belfast, Londonderry, Omagh and Banbridge, and many gyms offer sessions.
Eilionior Fegan (31) was the woman who first introduced the art of the pole to Ulster, back in 2005. Like many converts, she became hooked while travelling in Australia and “just had to share it with the women back home”.
As the founder of Polercise, Eilionior has trained a new generation of instructors and counts many international competitors among her students.
Why does she thinking it’s catching on? “It’s such a fun way to keep fit. It gives you an overall body workout, using parts of your body that you didn't know even you had.
“It also gives you a confidence within yourself that’s hard to explain.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but you have to try these things at least once before you jump to any conclusion,” she added.
The All-Ireland Pole Dance Competition took place Friday 3rd June at the Precious nightclub in the Odyssey in Belfast and — for the first time —was open to male competitors (although men and women compete in separate categories).
We spoke to some of the competitors hoping to scale new heights ...
‘I genuinely believe it’s empowering for women’
Jo Robinson (31) is the reigning Irish champion and No 2 in Britain. She lives in Larne with her children, Nikita (11), Sacha (10) and Kaden (7). She says:
I went through a terrible divorce a few years ago and my confidence was at an all-time low. I was anorexic, I had no friends. I tried counselling, I tried everything, but the one thing that turned things around for me was pole dancing.
It sounds crazy, but that’s the truth. There is something about pole dancing that really builds your confidence. I made great friends through it, and now my class is like my second family.
It’s a really safe environment for women. The classes I attend are women-only and I think that’s part of their popularity. Any man who might have fantasies of what we get up to would be horrified – we sit around in our jogging bottoms and chat!
I am a part-time carer and a part-time housewife, but in my spare time I volunteer for Women’s Aid and Pride. I have even performed on my pole for fund-raisers for the Rape Crisis Centre. People might think that’s a contradiction in terms, but I don’t, as I genuinely believe pole dancing is empowering for women. You can’t really judge unless you’ve come along to a class and experienced it yourself.
My children have seen me perform numerous times. They love to get up on the pole themselves. They’re brilliant at it; kids have no fear. I’ve a pole at home, and my wee boy, Kaden, loves to sit up at the top.
The seedy image is just a passing phase. That comes from the 1980s when there were lots of strip clubs. In actual fact, pole dancing has its roots way further back, in the circus. I love that association. It’s so romantic.
I suppose I am quite sporty — I do Pilates, and go to the gym. I’ve done ‘boxercise’ and I go out cycling loads with my kids — but I really do think pole dancing is special. There’s something about the way it builds your confidence and focuses your mind. It has made me more open-minded.
When I’m up on my pole, I feel so peaceful and calm.
Sensuality is part of it, but it’s not overt, it’s subtle’
Katherine White (28) is a pole dancing instructor and came third in last year’s Irish |Championships. She works as a sales and advertising executive for Google in Dublin. She says:
“I’m originally from Perth in Australia so it was a shock for me to come to Ireland and realise that pole dancing had this sleazy image.
It’s not like that at all in Australia, it’s totally mainstream, but even in the three years I’ve been in Ireland, attitudes have changed a lot. A lot more studios have opened and people don’t think it’s such a big deal now. Having said that, guys do sometimes react to me like they’re quite intimidated when I tell them I do competitive pole dancing.
Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable teaching men as their bodies are so different — it would be like a bird teaching a fish how to swim.
I’ve seen some incredible male pole dancers, but the emphasis tends to be different. With guys it tends to be about strength, with women it’s often more about dance and beauty.
It’s such a step forward to have men in this year’s competition. I’m all for men pole dancing, I just think it’s good to keep women and men separate, as the dynamic would totally change in a class if it was mixed-gender. There is probably still a bit of a stigma for men when it comes to the pole, but having said that, one time I invited a group of guys from my boxing class back to my apartment, and I couldn’t get them off my pole. They were so competitive.
For me, pole dancing is primarily a form of dance, although for another person it might be about fitness or, for someone else, about agility and flexibility. It’s so adaptable. Pole dancing gets a lot of my time — I train up to five days a week and teach three evenings a week. That’s on top of a full-time job. No wonder I don’t have time for a boyfriend.
I like to perform in my bare feet with some sort of dance costume. Sometimes people will harness the sensual energy of dance, and that’s all part of the absolute self-assurance in your own body. For me, it’s mostly about the form, the lines, the beauty, the strength of the human body. Sensuality is part of that, but it’s not overt, it’s more subtle.”
‘I don’t see why any man wouldn’t give it a real go’
Nicky Walsh loves pole dancing Nicky Walsh (21) is a hairdresser who lives in Belfast with his partner, Jonathan. He has been pole dancing for a year, and tonight will be his first competition. He says:
I used to be a real gym bunny but I was getting bored when a friend told me about a pole dancing |studio. I thought I would give it a go and ended up completely |addicted! It’s like you’re defying gravity — it’s like flying!
The class I went to was male and female, and I had no problem with that. It might have been harder for the women, as men have a natural advantage in terms of their strength. Then again, women tend to be more flexible ... although I am almost able to do the splits now.
My mates all think it’s a total laugh. I have a pole in the house and they love to have a go. I don’t think the fact that I’m gay has much to do with me taking up pole dancing; I don’t see why any man wouldn’t give it a go. I’m |trying to get my brother to take it up, and he’s straight.
The association with strip clubs is really missing the point. I do it much more for the fitness side of things. Okay, you might do some sexy moves here and there, but you might do that also if you were dancing in a nightclub and a sexy song came on. It all depends on the context, doesn’t it'?
As for showing as much skin as possible, there’s a very good reason for that. You need to have plenty of skin exposed for holding on to the pole.
I’m really nervous about tonight, but excited too. There’s such a rush when you’re up there and the music’s pumping and all those endorphins are flying round your body. I would love to compete at an international level, I’m a very competitive person, so I’m definitely hoping for success tonight.