Male Gaze Anyone?
[TMI warning for family: I talk about a pole dance class and enjoying/experiencing my sexuality through dance. You may or may not want to hear about this.]
I love the art of pole dance. Vertical dance. Vertical gymnastics. Whatever you want to call it. I love the flexibility of the dancers, the incredible way they can hold their entire bodies off the ground by wrapping one arm or a leg around a pole and look like they’re flying. My ex, not too long after we broke up, got into pole dance, and performed at a few clubs for awhile. She had a pole installed in her house, and once we started being friendly again, she had me over and taught me some basic spins and showed me some videos of competition-level dancers. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to try it myself.
But I couldn’t. First it was a problem of money, then of finding a place nearby, then a problem of time, and always an undercurrent of body-issues. Last night, a blog I read linked to a video of a woman of size performing some very cool pole tricks, and it started the longing up all over again. So I did some research, found a studio that offered introductory one-off classes, checked the schedule, saw that there was one tonight, and this morning I called and reserved my spot. So tonight, less than 24 hours after deciding I’d like to try, I walked into a brand-new just-opened pole/erotic dance studio in Walnut Creek along with a trio of women (sisters or friends or something) for an Introduction to Sensual/Pole Dance class.
I was, as I had fully expected, the largest woman there. The other three students and the teacher were all at least four inches shorter than me, and I had easily 50-100 lbs on them all. It was a heavy-duty test of FA’s effect on me and my own self-esteem. Thankfully, I passed with flying colors. ^_^ In a pair of borrowed stripper stilettos (the studio loans shoes to students for the intro class), I strutted across in front of the mirror, and even to my own usually-critical eyes, I looked fucking hot. Neither hotter for my curves, nor less hot for being fat, than the other women, I just looked *good*. It helped that the instructor asked, as we were setting up mats for some warm-ups, if I had danced before, because “You just have that posture and way of moving of someone who’s done dance before.” It was a nice little ego-boost. I explained that I’ve taken belly dance, ballroom dance, and modern dance before. I also explained that my ex was an exotic dancer and had taught me some simple moves, although it was a long time ago. She blinked a little at the clear connotation that I’d dated a woman before, but to her credit, didn’t treat me any differently.
We did warmups, and some floor moves, and when it came time to try a basic spin on the pole, she said to me something like “I guess you already know how to do this, you said your roommate taught you, right?” Um, no. No, I never mentioned a roommate. It was as if she had mentally edited my previous comments into a framework she was more comfortable with, where two women would only live together as roommates (although my ex and I never lived together, but what the hey). So I corrected her. “No, my ex did.” The blink again, and a slight stutter to her cheery small-talk, and she said “Oh, that’s right” and moved on to a different subject. Do not disappear my relationship just because it makes you uncomfortable, dammit. Do not turn lovers and a beautiful relationship into “roommates” because you don’t want to acknowledge that not every woman coming into your class is going to take the dance you teach her home to a boyfriend or husband. (The irony, of course, is that insomuch as I take *anything* home to perform intimately [since that wasn’t my intent in taking the class, I don’t really “take it home” at all], at the moment, I would be taking it home to show my male partner.)
The class moved on, I enjoyed playing on the pole, and then the instructor was working us through putting everything together into a mini-routine. She gestured to one end of the studio: “Pretend there’s an audience over there. Your boyfriend or husband or whoever. Now, face this way…” and gave us this mini-routine, enlivening it by encouraging us to play to our imaginary male audience. “Swing your hips at him…look back over your shoulder at him…”
The studio is emphasized as a women-only space. I kept wondering, what is the point of a women-only space, if you deliberately invoke the male gaze anyway? So it’s a group of women, yay. But we’re supposed to pretend men are watching anyway. We couldn’t possibly be dancing for the enjoyment of a female partner. We couldn’t possibly be dancing simply for our own enjoyment, to feel the glory of our own body moving in sensual, beautiful ways. We couldn’t possibly just want to dance, express whatever emotions we have, learn this dance form because it’s just fucking cool. No, we are now and always performing for a male audience, displaying ourselves sexually for his enjoyment.
I realize that pole dance originates from a performance dedicated to titillating men. I get that. But if you’re going to go to the effort of having a women-only space to learn and enjoy this dance form in, why would you still insist on making it about performing for men?
I think it’s because, in this culture, women are not taught to enjoy our sexuality for and by and with ourselves. We are taught to see ourselves sexually, and even just sensually, through the lens of a man enjoying us. It’s as if, without the mirror of a man, or at the very least *a partner* to reflect our sexuality back to us, it doesn’t really exist.
Well, fuck that. I can sashay around the pole, swing my hips and admire their sway, without anyone but me seeing it. I don’t have to pretend my man is watching in order to love the sensual way my body can move. I can twirl around the pole, off the ground, hair flying out behind me, and take gleeful pleasure in the simple sensation of it, without an audience to witness. I am a beautiful, sexual, and sensual being, and I don’t need to have a man’s eyes to appreciate it.
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