Pole Dancing, Empowerment and Embodiment
Holland, Dr Samantha
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
About half way through reading Holland's book Pole Dancing: Empowerment and Embodiment I found myself trawling the internet looking for Pole Dancing classes locally and trying very hard to convince myself that this was in the interests of research. Holland's testimony and that of her participants, is so convinced of the 'empowering' benefits of pole dancing classes that I would defy the reader not to feel at least a twitch of sympathetic curiosity along the lines of 'what could it do for me?' The image of a woman gyrating around, and on, a pole has traditionally been associated with lap dancing clubs but in recent years, amongst some controversy from those who see it as located on the fringes of the sex industry, pole dancing classes have grown in popularity as a form of gendered exercise. Holland's book makes a distinction between 'strippery' pole classes and 'exercise' based classes and the tension between these is a theme of her text. The 'strippery'ness is most clearly embodied in her discussion of the vertiginous shoes that some participants choose to wear and which are illustrated on the cover as well as in her description of the first class she attends in the back room of a pub. Two specific testimonies struck me here, one woman who described the performative aspect of wearing the shoes, the sexualised fantasy they enabled her to enter into: 'it makes it more of a theme, a separate world' (p88) and Holland's description of women anxiously twitching the curtain that shields their pole class from being gazed at by the boozing, football-watching men in the front of the pub. The material and symbolic referents of the high heeled shoe, the awkwardly inefficient curtain and the pinkness of the pole studio may be overly familiar but are somewhat de-emphasised here, while her description of the dancers prioritises pole dancing's emphasis on the vertical lines of the female body, rather ignoring the semantic density in the verticality of the pole itself! For me it is at these points where her description of the pole dancing classes most clearly intersects with the hegemonic, sexual performance of the lap dancer, a relationship which Holland is careful to acknowledge but vigorous in dispelling.
Holland utilises perspectives around embodiment, femininity, feminism and gendered leisure to explore her subject, her exploration of the regimes inscribed on and the tensions and limitations involved in, women's ability to enjoy their own physicality is apposite and interesting. While Holland does discuss the categories of ethnicity and age, class is absent in terms of the part it might play in women's participation in pole exercise. The key term here is 'empowerment', a discourse that is ubiquitous in the context of third wave feminism. It is used, popularly, to endorse a raft of other related practices: women's enjoyment of and participation in neo-burlesque, the wearing of corsets, the buying of designer vibrators, even appearing on page three of a tabloid. As Holland suggests, all of these things have been condemned by feminists on various fronts, as individualistically agentic rather than collectively and actively political, as evidence of false consciousness and obviously, as playing into a hegemonic regime. However, what is ultimately so engaging about Holland's book is her refusal to ignore the varied testimonies of her participants and her attention to and regard for her feminist methodology. For example she highlights that women repeatedly characterise 'pole' as empowering, self actualising, confidence building, they say their body image is improved, their strength has grown and they have regained a sense of their own sexuality. While fully understanding that this is a 'minefield', Holland's plea is 'Isn't that what feminism would want?' (p99)
Pole Dancing, Empowerment and Embodiment is accessibly and appealingly written, it is clear that Holland's writing style, and she acknowledges this, is in keeping with her methodology and emblematic of her desire not to alienate the non academic but interested reader and indeed the women who she has worked with so closely in generating her research. Holland's work offers a fresh perspective and much needed empirical contribution to current debates around the sexualisation of culture. I found her text a highly nuanced, personal and reflective account of her investigation, one that does not skirt the problematic materialisation of the sexualised display involved in 'pole' but that simultaneously refuses to dismiss the evidence of many women that it is indeed, 'empowering', while contesting recent popular criticism of such practices as materialising and perpetuating an old oppression simply by disguising it as a new means to self fulfilment.