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Gripped: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao 0:03

One of the most formative conversations I had in the early days of Embodied was with Anna Sale, the host of the beloved podcast Death, Sex & Money. We were talking about the art of hosting a show about intimacy and the taboo, and she gave me one big piece of advice, make yourself vulnerable and bring that vulnerability into the conversation.

In the past three years, that vulnerability has taken many different forms. But this week, thanks to the gentle nudging of a producer, it meant showing up for a 90 minute private pole dancing class.

I will tell you that watching myself in the mirror while trying to body roll on a pole was quite humbling. I learned quickly that even the moves that look simple require a precise combination of strength and coordination that had me pretzeled around the pole, relying on the instructor to remind me which calf was my left one, and which was my right. But all of that aside, my biggest takeaway from his experience was that there is something particularly enchanting about this type of movement that got me so quickly out of my head and into my body in a way I haven't experienced in a long time.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Celia Ford 1:32

The first ever time that I tried pole dancing was actually my first week of college. My university had a whole dancing team and auditioned on a whim and I was terrible.

Poundcake 1:49

I first started pole dancing like a lot of people start. I went to a bachelorette party and when I left there, my arms felt like noodles. I just immediately developed a newfound respect for strippers and pole dancers and everyone in the profession.

Cris Rivers 2:07

My name is Cris Rivers, and I am a professional pole dancer. And I started in the strip club in order to help me pay for college. I love to the size of my muscles returning. I love just how it made me feel. It made me feel empowered, made me feel stronger, made me feel sexier.

Starr Stauffer Wise 2:31

My name is Starr Wise. My stage name is Star Babe. I took my first pole class at the age of 72 and a half. I was totally amazed at what I could do.

Celia Ford 2:45

It was exactly what I wanted. I felt like I could see how I'd become powerful. I was still very bad. But it was so fun. I really loved it.

Poundcake 2:56

And it was pretty much all history from there.

Starr Stauffer Wise 3:01

I was addicted at my first class.

Cris Rivers 3:07

The pole does not discriminate. Which is pretty cool.

Anita Rao 3:15

I have watched as interest in pole dancing has exploded in the past decade. But pole as an activity you can sign up for at your local fitness studio is a relatively new phenomenon. The roots of pole dancing are planted firmly in sex work.

Nats Honey 3:31

I think that what's happening today came from strip clubs. And strip clubs came from burlesque and just have an audience in front of you having distance between you and the audience member and then also revealing clothing.

Anita Rao 3:47

That is Nats Honey. She's a veteran stripper who has been in the industry for more than two decades. She initially worked for an escort service before finding her passion for the pole in the early 2000s.

Nats Honey 4:00

It was a natural sway. I just came out of college and I was a cheerleader in college. I've always felt free from music in terms of, like, movement. So it came natural to me. And then in terms of honing in on my style, that just came with practice and also the willingness and desire to want to do it.

Anita Rao 4:22

One thing that you will learn quickly from talking to strippers like Nats is that the pole dancing communities that have emerged in the fitness, sport, and online spaces have frequently not given sex workers their flowers.

There are a lot of folks who are in fact determined to distance pole from sex work. Here's a quick sampling of how journalists have played into this narrative. There was a Guardian article with this subhead; "Given its seedy history, can the pole ever escape its stigma to become an Olympic sport?" Or a New York Times piece that describes pole as quote; "Having largely shed its strip club only reputation."

The history of pole is also pretty contested. You'll find sources pointing to acrobatic cultural practices from China and India, as well as those who say pole dancing emerged from 18th and 19th century circus performers. Nats says that while these phenomena may have contributed to the entertainment form, focusing on them obscures the contributions of burlesque and sex work.

A lot of these tensions in the pole community came to a head in the mid 2010s when people started posting videos on Instagram and Twitter with a hashtag, "Not a stripper." This was how Nats felt in that moment.

Nats Honey 5:36

Okay, so let's — let's go back to the fact of pole competitions themselves. One of the competitions that was around the longest I sponsored for, I think, eight or nine years, we were putting on competitions. All of us, all of us were strippers. And we put forth competitions in which were individuals who were not necessarily strippers but had a love for pole dance were able to compete and enjoy.

So when the hashtag starts, "not a stripper," it definitely comes across like they were trying to create distance between those that started the foundation and provided a platform for individuals to partake in. They wanted to create space between that in themselves. And that was — for me, it was hurtful. And it actually caused me to withdraw from the entire industry and only focus on my inner circle and how we could just continue to evolve as the dancers that we are and the artists that we are honestly.

Anita Rao 6:47

So there was this split and this divide that was happening, how do you articulate the difference between folks who were — who are trying to appreciate the culture of pole and its origins and folks who are appropriating what's going on?

Nats Honey 7:04

I think it's whether or not you have respect for the job in which where the movement comes from, you know, do you belittle strippers? Do you belittle their actions, the culture, their style, their upbringing? Are you placing them beneath you? If so, you're appropriating the culture. If you are elevating them, if you are saying that they are a source of inspiration, nobody moves like them, my favorite dancer is this stripper or anything like that I feel like you're supporting. And we need more support, not appropriation.

Anita Rao 7:51

There are fitness pole studios out there, however, who are doing the work to pay homage to the sex workers who paved the way for pole artistry. There's a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina that's co-owned by someone who works in the adult entertainment industry. And every Tuesday they have a stripper only practice session. A studio in Boston is owned by a former stripper named Stacy, and one in New York City regularly hires strippers to teach classes. And this is far from an exhaustive list.

Paige Gabert co-owns a studio in Grand Rapids, Michigan called Midwest Movement Collective. She and her business partner opened the doors in 2022. And are trying to build relationships with folks in the sex work community, while also creating open accessible spaces for people in diverse bodies to experience this type of movement.

Paige Gabert 8:42

Yeah, so I actually started taking pole dance classes at a local studio in Grand Rapids. And I found that studio by browsing groupon one day. I was really just looking for something fun to do outside of my house. I was working a lot and also a single mom. So I found this groupon and just decided to take the class. Honestly, when I started I was not good. I felt very uncoordinated, had a lot of hard time with some of the like basic beginner moves that a lot of people in the class were getting a little bit more easily than I was.

And so I struggled for a while. I would say, after I started taking my first class I decided to take a couple of others. And I think that is when I started figuring out the different ways that you could move your body and do these moves. There wasn't like a singular way to do it. And it really took just working with other instructors and trying different things to get comfortable with that.

Anita Rao 9:36

So you immersed yourself pretty quickly. You fell in love and a couple of years in you decided to open up a collective with another woman that you'd gotten to know. Why did you want to create a new space? What did you see missing in the spaces you'd been a part of?

Paige Gabert 9:54

In early 2020 there was a big falling out with the local studio that we were going to. And us and dozens of others, including instructors, and folks that worked at the studio, were kind of displaced. And really, there was a need for a studio that was inclusive to folks of all gender, folks of all abilities, and identities. And when Hannah and I, my business partner, got together we just kind of brainstormed, like, the things that were missing in the culture of Grand Rapids currently with pole dancing. So that kind of, like, inspired the start of opening up our own studio and kind of going that direction to make it what it needed to be.

Anita Rao 10:33

I would love to hear your take as a business owner about kind of acknowledging the history of pole and the communities that it originated in, as we were talking about with Nats Honey. I know that I've seen that some group fitness spaces have kind of opened exclusive times in studio just for strippers or give strippers discount or hire strippers to teach classes. How are you working, or I guess paying tribute to the origins of pole in your business?

Paige Gabert 11:00

Yeah, so opening the studio, we know that we wanted to include a variety of people, including sex workers and folks that kind of created this space for us. It was really important to reach out to folks when we were hiring. Because we wanted to, especially with our pole instructors, we wanted to offer folks that work at strip clubs the space to also teach what they know and what they enjoyed doing. It was really important to bring that in and also teach kind of everyone who came to the studio the different ways of pole, and making sure that we have folks in the studio that represent the dance culture that we are bringing to Grand Rapids is really important.

Anita Rao 11:47

In addition to developing her own technique and teaching classes, Paige has also competed in several pole sport competitions, meeting people from all over the world who are practicing the craft in different categories and levels. Nats Honey has stepped away from the competitive pole space, and now puts a lot of her time into mentoring other pole artists. She used to teach exclusively to folks inside the sex work community. But recently, she decided to open up her classes to the public.

Nats Honey 12:22

It's very different. I'm still very much open in terms of you have to come with a humble approach of that you're learning from a professional dancer. You have to coming to my class wanting to have access to that exotic nature. You have to wear heels. If it's the first class and you've never been on the pole, I do not require you to wear heels. Second class, yes.

Anita Rao 12:53

[Laughs] Okay.

Nats Honey 12:53

Heels are a requirement. It's just, It's you know, I cannot not have you wear heels. I enjoy it. And mainly because I want to share my love of pole with the world at this point. But I have caution in teaching or instructing, and then that individual not upholding in a high regard the occupation of being a stripper. That's something that that that matters to me.

Anita Rao 13:25

Yeah, and I can understand that sensitivity given the history and given how pull has been appropriated by various communities. I want to talk about the bodily aspect, the embodied aspects of pole. And Paige, I think an interesting angle of this for you is that your relationship with pole has informed other aspects of your life in a lot of ways. Through your career as professional photographer in particular. I would love to talk about how pole inspired you to start being more sensual in your approach to your photography.

Paige Gabert 14:02

When I first started pole dancing, I was focusing a lot on the way that your body moves and kind of gets comfortable with or without a pole really. And that really translated into working with others, especially in boudoir and pole photography itself.

Before I was taking pole dance classes, I would say that I felt somewhat uncomfortable trying to instruct someone on how to move their body and how to just feel more comfortable in front of the camera, or just in front of someone else in general because a lot of people don't.

So really pole dancing really improved my boudoir photography and also just the way that I instruct people in general. To just feel more comfortable and to just kind of like enjoy the the way that your body is. It just really translated into feeling more comfortable myself in that and also being able to help more people feel better about themselves too.

Anita Rao 14:56

There is a lot of watching yourself and having to pay close attention in order to develop some of the technique and the style and the moves. Nats, how have your feelings about your physical body evolved through this process of learning pole, perfecting your technique, and then teaching others?

Nats Honey 15:16

Well, let's just start with the injuries of torn rotator cuff, had to work through that. I've ruptured my spine. Last year, I injured my knee. Physically, it is extremely difficult and hard. And as you progress, you either figure out a way to work around your injury so that you can still strengthen other areas, and then come back to the area that is weak and strengthen that as well. Or you just completely stopped going, and that's not an option for me. So physically, it's very hard. But I have the ambition and determination to just keep going.

Anita Rao 16:02

So you mentioned earlier that you — you are still teaching pole, but you have moved away from strip clubs that happened in large part because of AB5, which was the California law that went into effect in the early 2020 that reclassified contract workers and employees and had a lot of implications for dancers working in strip clubs. Can you talk about what it's been like to leave that space that was once so formative for you?

Nats Honey 16:27

Heartbreaking? Yeah. It's been heartbreaking. I know some people look at the job like it's a temporary thing. I've never looked at it like that. I've always felt like I was going to dance until the wheels came off. Inside of the club outside of the club, I always felt that way. And when AB5 five happened, and I felt like I was being pushed out of the clubs.

It was hurtful, challenging, it still — it still is all of those things, quite honestly. I would love to go inside of a club and mingle with the clientele, chit chat with the dancers in the dressing room, you know, talk crap with the managers, enjoy time with the DJ, I've missed all those things. But I can't go right now based on how the industry is taken advantage of the dancers, I just can't do it.

Anita Rao 17:27

There is so much about the community aspect of pole I know that is significant to folks who conduit from whatever —whatever source whatever purpose. You've been talking about the community within strip clubs, Paige, you were talking about the community within competitions and within classes. I am curious about how you all you're both also mothers and I'm curious about how you all have kind of integrated your relationship to pull communities and pull as an art form into your mothering and how you share this with your kids. Paige, I'll start with you.

Paige Gabert 18:06

So I have an 11 year old. Her name is Meredith and she has been around pole dance since she was, gosh, probably four or five to where she would accompany me to practices when I was practicing for competition. She's been to competitions with me. And now as kind of, like, her tween ages, she joins me at the studio on the weekdays when I'm there in front desk, and then sometimes she kind of just hangs out there when I'm in class. So I tried to be really open with her about it. She really enjoys it herself. She goes into the studio and plays around on the poles and the other apparatuses that we have, and it's just been a really good place for her.

She — I can tell that she feels a little bit more comfortable in who she is. And especially she she really enjoys it when she gets an opportunity to dance. So it's been a really positive thing in our lives together. And it's also been something we've been able to share which is really cool.

Anita Rao 18:58

That's awesome, I love that. Nats, how about you? How was it informed your approach to motherhood and your your kid in particular?

Nats Honey 19:06

It's kind of different for me seeing as though that I was on this road before I became a mother. So I had to ask myself, do I pivot? Or do I still stay true to my purpose? Even though I'm going to be a mother and this individual will be looking at me and asking me questions. I'm staying true to my purpose. My son, who is 10 years old, has been with me every step of the way. I've had him on the pole when he was a baby and I'm doing a routine and he's in my arms.

Anita Rao 19:40

Aw. [Laughs]

Nats Honey 19:41

I — you know, he's been that he gets on the pole. If I have a pole at the house he surely on it. I have videos on social media of him being in front of me while I'm folding isn't in the back and he's rapping over an Eminem track in the front of me. He — I attended strippers United meetings with me at the very beginning. He is very much aware of who his mother is, what I represent, and the changes I aim to make.

And I believe he fully supports me, even if society is telling him that my occupation does not matter, what I'm doing does not matter, and I am at the bottom of the barrel. He knows that it's different. And I think that's because I've brought him in so close to the fold. If you're around me, whether you're my child, my little sister, friend's child, you're with me, and you're there, dancing, celebrating all of the art that comes with it.

Penny Wang 21:02

Hi, my name is Penny Wang, I have been poling since late 2015. So approximately about eight years give or take. I really do think the community is a big aspect of pull for me. I think without some of the people that I have worked with, I don't think I would have like gotten the split in my mid 20s, or attempted some of those moves that I've always seen people do and admired.

Erin Miller 21:37

Most of my closest friends now are all from the studio. It's just the most inclusive community, I think, that I've ever been a part of. And now I get to be a part of that as an instructor, you know, taking students that have never identified themselves as athletes, or artists, and just helping to facilitate that transformation for them, or just, you know, be there when they need somebody.

Moni Chow 22:11

I just feel like the culture of the pole community, the aerial community, is very accepting and supportive. It's such a safe community to make mistakes if I need to have a safe community to try something new. And I've built so many meaningful relationships is unique.

Nicole Tay 22:32

Hello, hello, my name is Nicole Tay. And I have been doing pole dancing for just under one year now. Pole Dancing really opened my eyes to how diverse our community is, and it's incredible to see so much diversity translating into so much diversity of poling. I can really see the many different ways in which people make it their own. And in my case, using pole as a way to explore my gender identity, and to be more comfortable with my own femininity, and sensuality.

Anita Rao 23:12

That last voice you heard was Nicole Tay, a non binary pole dancer who took up the art form as a way to expand their gender expression. Many queer and trans folks come to pole after they've come to terms with their gender identity. But for college students Celeste Ziehl, that timeline was different. They were introduced to pole dancing through a friend they met on Instagram before they came out as genderqueer and non binary. They decided to try it, and initially it made them feel very connected to their body.

Celeste Ziehl 23:43

For me, just with, you know, the experiences that I had growing up being very shy, being very quiet and reserved, kind of staying invisible. You know, I really didn't, I guess have a proclivity for sports, for dance, for art. And, you know, in a lot of ways that also just made me very uncomfortable existing in my body generally, as a young kid.

So when I discovered pole, I remember the very first introductory class was very challenging for me. I was very reserved and hesitant about being in a space where I was being asked to move in these very different ways than I had, you know, really done before. In front of other people in front of an instructor who, you know, does this as their career. And it wasn't until I kind of stopped and reflected and, and really thought like, "Oh, maybe I'm the only one who's really having an issue with — with how I'm, you know, wondering what other people are thinking, wondering if I'm doing this certain movement right."

So I really, in that moment, recognize that a lot of what was bothering me was myself. So I sort of told myself, "Well, what if we just pretended that we no one really cared," you know, which, you know, kind of reflected the reality because no one else was really worrying about anybody else. They were also probably worrying about how they were doing in the class. So it wasn't until that moment that then I was really able to just be present with myself in that space and in that movement, and that, for me, was the very first time that I really felt present and in my body.

Anita Rao 25:28

So a few years into this journey with pole, you start to experience a big shift in your gender identity. And this, in turn really shifted your relationship with pole. It went from being a space in which you felt the most in your body to something that caused a lot of gender dysphoria. Talk to me about that time and what questions were emerging for you.

Celeste Ziehl 25:53

So for a while I had to stop. I felt very upset that I felt that I couldn't pole dance anymore. And not only was it just a, "Oh, I don't feel comfortable going to classes anymore." Even doing the moves and dancing with my pole in my own room was very uncomfortable because I had all those internalized, you know, social dialogues and scripts about pole dancing about what it means to be a woman and all of that. So it was very pervasive and, you know, made things very difficult for me at the time.

Anita Rao 26:28

You did know other gender queer pole dancers, but many of them had picked up pole after coming to terms with their gender identity. So how did that timing of your experience really create some distinct challenges from what you were hearing from other folks in the genderqueer community?

Celeste Ziehl 26:46

Based on what I was hearing from a couple of people that I had known, was just trying to pioneer a place for themselves in the pole communities. For them, it was very much about sort of entering this world for the very first time. Whereas for me, I had already been introduced to that world, really loved everything that it was about, and then suddenly, things didn't feel quite that way.

So, you know, it made me feel bad for having this experience. I felt like, "Oh, if I was so happy, then why can't I still be happy?" I did blame myself a lot. But, for me, it was about revisiting, you know, these various concepts, dance moves, attire, just, you know, things like that within pole and sort of asking myself if I still felt, you know, a sense of happiness or euphoria with whatever that particular aspect was. And if I wasn't, what could I kind of shift in order to make myself feel better.

So, you know, I had to make adjustments, like I would wear sports bras, instead of just, like, standard kind of lingerie type bras. I would wear binders, oftentimes. And then I know for shoes very interestingly, like, the sandal type of the pole shoes made me very dysphoric for whatever reason. So then just switching to boots kind of just helped make things better, but also helps you grip the pole. So it's like, "Oh, there's a win."

Anita Rao 28:27

There were a lot of like, specific messaging, or ways that things were messaged in classes that started to stand out to you as you were undergoing this gender transition. Talk to me about what you were hearing in those spaces, and some of the ways that you tried to push back against that when you facilitated your own pole spaces later when you were at college.

Celeste Ziehl 28:50

I think one of the big things with pole and particularly at the studio that I was at, it was very centered around female empowerment. So there was a lot of language like "ladies." I know that they had some, like, merch available like tank tops, shorts, things like that, you know, that felt very gendered when you look at them, like, you know, kind of hot pink cursive, you know, kind of really flourishy. Yeah, that was kind of just the environment. It wasn't anything that was, you know, trying to be overly toxic or exclusionary in any way. It just, you know, they were trying to make it a space for women to be around women, where they could all feel empowered without, you know, having to worry about, like, the boys or the men, you know, being around.

Anita Rao 29:40

What are some of the shifts that you have seen and would like to see in the pole community that you think would make things more supportive for gender queer folks, and especially for folks who are using pole as a way to be connected to their bodies while undergoing some kind of transition in their gender identity?

Celeste Ziehl 30:00

I think something that's been really helpful is just having spaces that are created for queer people and specifically gender queer people. So even just having, you know, at a studio, like a gender queer night, you know, for people who are gender queer to be in a space with other people who are like them and have a similar experience, I, you know, definitely see as being very helpful. I think having more gender diverse instructors would also be, you know, really great to see. And I think being more conscious of, you know, how the world is changing, and how a lot of things need to catch up to all of these changes, is also a good outlook to have in terms of, you know, seeing how pole will then start needing to reflect you know, the people who practice it.

Anita Rao 30:53

I'd love to hear about where you are in your journey now. I mean, we've — we've kind of marked these moments of your evolution with pole and I'm curious about when you're when you're dancing now. Are there moments of gender euphoria? What is the relationship between your gender identity and your experience of pole?

Celeste Ziehl 31:14

As of right now, I haven't been able to connect with pole, like, the pole, you know, aspect of the pole dancing in a bit. I do have a pole on campus, I just don't really have the space to set it up currently. But when I'm doing, you know, other things like floor work and chair work and things like that, they can be very gender euphoric depending on what I'm wearing, or the music that I'm listening to. You know, it really is something that you can tailor to yourself, which I think is really beautiful about pole, you know, you can really make it yours and put your sort of signature on it.

Anita Rao 32:01

After my one 90 minute pole session, I certainly do not have a signature style other than clinging to the pool with a death grip so that I don't fall. You can see some photos of that on our Instagram feed. But I do think that I'm going to go back and the whole Embodied team has even been talking about a group field trip to a pole studio. Whenever we make that happen, we will be giving thanks to all the strippers, dancers, and folks pushing for inclusivity who came before us.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina public radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast consider a contribution at now.

You can find out more about all of the guests we talked to today in the show notes of this episode. A special thanks to Poundcake, Starr Wise, Moni Chow, Penny Wang, Celia, Chris Rivers, Aaron and Nicole Tay for contributing to this week's show. And a very big thank you to Jeanine at Aradia Fitness Triangle in Cary, who guided me through my first pole experience.

This episode was produced by Paige Miranda and edited by Kaia Finldlay. Gabriela Glueck also produces for our show. Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Amanda Magnus is a regular editor. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

Thank you so much for listening to Embodied and if you liked the show, please spread the word in your own networks. Word of mouth recommendations are the best way to support our podcast. We so appreciate your support.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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