Tufts Takes the Pole: Introducing the Tufts Pole Dance Collective
ART BY ZED VAN DER LINDEN
Sturdy, eye-catching, and impressively versatile in its uses, poles have been utilized across cultures to intrigue rapt audiences and demonstrate feats of strength and agility. During the Song Dynasty of ancient China, male Chinese pole athletes performed acrobatic routines on tall rubber structures, suspending their bodies in the air while holding elaborate positions. From India comes Mallakhamb, or literally “wrestler pole,” a training technique involving gymnastics and a pole to build dexterity and strength for wrestling competitions.
The alluring, languid dance performed on a pole that is immediately invoked when one thinks of “pole dance” did not, however, emerge in the United States until the 20th century. When the Prohibition Era criminalized the sale and consumption of alcohol, racier bar attractions, like burlesque dance and stripteases, found secret audiences in speakeasies. Today, a showcase of strength, agility, dancing technique, and artistic sensuality converge in modern pole, a dance form and sport that commands both its erotic history and athletic character. At Tufts, the Tufts Pole Dance Collective has been fostering a space for students to explore pole dance in all its forms, inviting students to learn and develop their skill. For the PDC, pole is the medium, and body liberation is the resounding message.
The PDC was formed in Fall 2022 by juniors Gabby Fischberg and Alice Zhou, who fell in love with pole dance after taking classes at Fly Together Fitness, a pole dance studio in Somerville. “We did [classes] all through freshman year, and then sophomore year, we were like—we should start a club. Maybe we can get funding from Tufts, maybe we can get more people interested,” Fischberg said. “It’s sort of grown from there.”
Now, a year later, the club partners with Fly Together Fitness to host Tufts students and provide them with introductory pole lessons at a discounted price at the local studio. On campus, Fischberg, Zhou, and other PDC e-board members lead classes that do not require a pole. These include low-flow, characterized by sensual movements at the base of a pole, and heels classes, where pole dancers elevate their performance with high-heeled shoes. These two classes belong to a larger subset of three major styles of pole dance: exotic pole, artistic pole, and pole fitness. Exotic pole is distinguished by its emphasis on sensual movement and “a lot of stripper influences,” according to Fischberg, while artistic pole is marked by lyrical movements similar to contemporary dance. “Then there’s pole fitness, which emphasizes the strength part of pole. It’s lots of calisthenics, like human flagpole type stuff,” Fischberg said.
Alongside celebrating the diversity of pole and the various paths dancers can take within the form, many pole dancers make it a priority to recognize the origins of pole in sex work—and the stigmatization it has received from people outside and within the pole community as a result. Modern pole dance is a part of the lineage of sensual dance that started with “Hoochie Coochie” performances, famously showcased at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a celebration of 400 years of American history. In these Hoochie Coochie shows, which originated as carnival attractions before being incorporated into bar entertainment rosters, dancers performed sensual movements, incorporating belly dancing and gyration, in traveling acts across America. The erotic elements of vaudeville shows—which incorporated burlesque performance, comedy, song, and dance—also laid the groundwork for pole dance following the Prohibition Era. Partly as a safety measure to provide dancers with stability as they performed stripteases and other erotic dance in speakeasies, the pole became a staple of Prohibition Era bars and set the momentum for the birth of strip clubs in the 1950s.
By the 1980s and 1990s, pole dance became a fixture of strip clubs around the world and simultaneously began a transition from its origins in sex work into the mainstream. Canadian dancer Fawnia Mondey brought pole out of the strip club when she began hosting instructive classes in the late 1990s. Soon after, the popularity of pole exploded and expanded into the fitness world. Several pole fitness studios, including one led by Mondey herself, opened in Canada and the United States. In 2009, the International Pole Sports Federation was founded, and began working towards the first World Pole Sports Championship, which eventually took place in 2012.
As a dynamic dance form, nightlife crowd pleaser, and budding sports community, pole has installed itself in North American culture. The popularity of pole fitness, however, also reflects a desire to purge pole of its background in erotic dance. In an article for Glorious Sports, writer Kate Baskerville discusses the tendency within and outside of the pole community to avoid the erotic origins of pole in speakeasies and strip clubs.
Instead, some favor focusing on the ancient roots of athletic pole to deflect from the sex negativity that stigmatizes pole and reflects a broader outlook that views sex and sexuality as “inherently seedy or shameful.”
“A lot of modern polers will cite [athletic] influences to sort of distance themselves from the sex work industry and from strippers,” Fischberg said. For members of the PDC, it’s important to not only name this historic connection and the current stigma, but actively work against it in class sessions.
“We shouldn’t be ignorant of the fact that sex workers and strippers paved the way for pole to become a sport and [exist] where it is right now,” said junior Hibi Carrillo, e-board member and graphic designer for the PDC. The group is currently planning a workshop discussing pole history, bias, and stigma.
In fact, the attempts to shirk pole’s legacy in sensual performance erase some of the essential elements that draw people to pole dance. “I think that’s what makes pole so unique, in the sense of… people want[ing] to explore that area of their bodies,” Carrillo said. The PDC is a “positive sex work environment” and a “positive sexual liberation environment,” Carrillo said.
As the history and culture surrounding pole has progressed, it’s become “less for the male gaze, but more so for women and everyone—it became [for] all ages, all genders, more inclusive of everyone,” Carrillo explained. In fact, the International Pole Sports Federation has included a youth category in the global competition since 2013. The dance form/sport also provides an efficient way to intertwine both creative expression and exercise. “It’s a great combination of strength and dance, and flexibility, body weight, strength,” Fischberg said. “I didn’t realize there [was] a perfect way to combine it all.”
For students picking up pole through the PDC, the community that exists within the club makes the experience feel safer and more conducive to learning. “We take the Green Line together to Magoun Square, where the instructor will greet us [at Fly Together Fitness],” said senior Saffiyah Coker, who started pole classes while abroad in London and continued when she returned to Medford.
“We’re all doing warm-ups together, and then it’s about two people per pole… It’s just a really nice environment because people are clapping for each other, cheering each other on being like, ‘hey, I actually don’t know how to do this, how did you do this?” Coker said. “It’s really nice and inclusive.” The PDC’s attendees include students across class years, ethnic backgrounds, and gender identities, a diversity that is reflected by the e-board and contributes to the inclusivity of the space. Fischberg says queer people are well-represented in the club’s membership, as well as “people interested in body liberation.”
“I think maybe people feel more comfortable coming because they see an e-board, or just a group, that reflects [that you] don’t have to look one way to do this, as opposed to other spaces,” Coker said.
Part of the appeal of pole for students involved in the PDC is the pleasure of acquiring a new esoteric skill. Popularized in media like P-Valley, an NAACP Image Award-winning play-turned-TV show that narrates the lives of strippers in a club in Mississippi, #striptok, and famous X threads alike, pole dance is increasingly valorized for its technical features and expression of creativity and sexual/body liberation. “It’s so beautiful and mesmerizing, I think, as an art form, and I think it’s empowering in a very particular way,” Fischberg said. “You get taught a couple spins, and [you’re] like, wow, I’m literally pole dancing right now. It’s such a good feeling to be able to use your body in a way that’s very practical. There are very tangible results.”
At the same time, many dancers have come forward to draw attention to the fact that the glamorization of stripper culture—including pole dance—on social media does not always address the cultures of sexual harassment or racialized and violent aspects of sex work and pole. For many, it is a privilege to participate in pole as a workout for fun rather than as a means of survival.
The PDC is committed to creating a safe space for students doing pole. “We work to make pole more accessible for everyone no matter your gender, sexual orientation, race,” Carrillo said. “We want to be inclusive of everyone [and] push pole as more of a sport and for body liberation.”
Coker echoed these sentiments. “I feel like the Tufts Pole [Dance] Collective brings something different [to campus]. I really appreciate the fact that they’re making pole more accessible by slightly reducing the cost and lowering those barriers to entry and framing it as this really awesome workout that you can do that [simultaneously] builds confidence.”
Making pole financially accessible for Tufts students is a central goal of the PDC, which includes getting funding for poles on campus. After establishing a full e-board for the Fall 2023 semester, the club is currently embarking on the process of getting TCU recognition that will put them on the path to this goal. After having met informally for a couple of semesters, interest in the club is at an all-time high. “At the club fair, we got over 100 signups, which was really cool because we’re not even a recognized club,” Fischberg said. In the meantime, interested students can continue to expand their skill set on campus through attending open-calls and pole-related classes led by PDC e-board and other Tufts community members, like ankle flexibility class led by sophomore Drew Nelson.“I look forward to attending other people’s pop-up workshops,” Coker said.
With a boba sale set to take place in mid-November to raise funds for the continued discounting and potentially full coverage of pole classes held at Fly Together Fitness, the future of pole dance at Tufts University is bright.
“One of my favorite things about pole club is… the community we’re building and people getting to know each other through pole, and I’m getting to know new people through Pole,” said Fischberg. “Building this whole community has been awesome. It’s really fulfilling and satisfying to be able to see this grow into something.”