By Sara Connors
Vicky Dempsey’s living room is like most others. There are photos of family and friends on the wall, a black futon with fluffy black and white pillows, as well as a big screen television equipped with numerous gaming systems. There is a large window with cream coloured curtains. The cage of her pet rabbit, Rizzo, sits in the corner.
However, there is something in the middle of Dempsey’s living room that wouldn’t be found in most: a steel pole that runs from the floor to the ceiling.
That’s because Dempsey is an acrobatic pole dancer.
What is acrobatic pole dancing?
Acrobatic pole dancing is the incorporation of physical tricks and dance numbers performed on a vertical steel pole. Acrobatic pole dancing gets its name from its use of gymnastics and dance moves like those used in ballet, hip hop and jazz.
“It’s a great party attraction,” Dempsey says about the pole. “I got it a few years ago when I got more serious into pole dancing, and now when people come over they always run on and try.”
Dempsey, 25, has a background in hip hop, lyrical and jazz dance, and was looking for another dance class to join in 2009. With few classes available at the time, she signed up for a beginners level pole dancing class with a friend at Studio In Essence on Barrington Street.
Dempsey didn’t consider pole dancing as a serious form of dance and associated it with stripping.
“We joined as a joke. But then I really liked it. I liked that it was different, and it gave you a workout regular dance doesn’t. We didn’t do anything [strenuous] during the first class, and the next day I was so sore I couldn’t move. It used a lot of muscles I didn’t know I had.”
Dempsey works as a waitress at Smitty’s Restaurant while earning her master’s degree in child and youth studies from Mount Saint Vincent University.
She has now been pole dancing for five years and has competed in several competitions.
Dempsey prefers competing with a partner rather than by herself because “having that trust with someone you’re dancing with is kind of like a comfort thing.”
She participated in the Atlantic Pole Fitness Championship which has been held at Casino Nova Scotia every summer for the last two years. She competed in the doubles division, where two dancers perform a highly synchronized dance on two separate poles, then dance together on one pole. In 2012 she placed third, and in 2013 she came second.
Winners of the championship go on to compete in nationals, and move upwards to the internationals in London. The International Pole Championship’s website states that successful participants can win coveted titles and monetary prizes.
Dempsey does not know if she will be competing this year because of her demanding school schedule, but hopes to place first if she does.
She’s also performed at fundraisers, music festivals and dance clubs across Nova Scotia in order to promote Studio In Essence and bring attention to the pole dancing community.
Pole dancing basics
Pole dancing classes last one hour. Dempsey says Studio In Essence has no set rules regarding the length of performances; however, judges recommend they be at least three and a half minutes long but no longer than six minutes.
Special clothing is not required for pole dancing, although dancers prefer to wear shorts and tank tops for comfort. Dempsey says bare arms and legs are ideal as it allows for better grip of the pole.
Studio In Essence provides gloves for dancers that help them grip the pole without hurting their hands but Dempsey prefers not to wear them in order to develop as much hand grip as she can. To strengthen her hands, she uses hand grip aids such as hand deodorants and waxes.
The good and the bad
There are numerous physical benefits of pole dancing. An hour long session can burn upwards of 250 calories, build tone, increase muscle strength and relieve stress. “It’s [also] a fun way to work out,” says Dempsey.
“I got to know my body better muscle wise. I can notice little changes, like [before] I could never do a pushup in my life. Now I can even do pull ups on the pole. I’m more conscious of being active now, and I set goals for myself now that I wouldn’t have before.”
However, she does say pole dancing has its drawbacks.
“Bruises are common. Whenever you try a new move, you’re going to bruise. It can also tear your skin. It feels like little rubber bands that are constantly being flung at you.”
A more serious concern for pole dancers is falling. Dempsey witnessed another dancer hit her chin after falling upside down, and another fractured her foot.
Despite this, Dempsey says pole dancing is safe as long as proper precautions are taken.
Pole dancers always train with a spotter, says Dempsey. While a dancer learns a new move, the spotter, who is a fellow dancer, will hold their position until they are strong enough to hold it themselves. Dempsey says this prevents the dancer from falling and risking injury.
As for dating, Dempsey says her hobby tends to be a disadvantage as men usually think of it as sexual, not as an athletic sport.
“I sometimes restrain myself from telling guys, although it’s something I’m proud of. I hate having to explain afterwards.”
It’s not about sex
Another drawback of pole dancing is that many people assume dancers perform in risqué outfits in order to make money. Unlike strippers, acrobatic pole dancers do not make money from dancing, nor do they wear intentionally provocative outfits.
Dempsey says there’s a major difference between acrobatic pole dancing and stripping.
“I think it’s sensual versus graceful,” says Dempsey. People with a ballet background make it [pole dancing] look beautiful. But I think with stripping there’s a different goal in mind and what they’re trying to get across. If there’s a sensual [pole] dance it’s more competent to the song, there’s a story in our dance rather than just a performance,” she says.
Although acrobatic pole dancing has gained popularity in the last few years, it has not stopped Dempsey from being labelled as a stripper by those she knows or grew up with.
“They say ‘Oh, that’s how you’ll pay tuition, or that’s your backup plan.’ I just don’t think they understand, and I actually like to show them and then ask them to do it. When they see the acrobatic tricks it’s not what they expect at all,” she says.
“I think there will always be strippers and that’s fine and I have a lot of respect for what they do, it’s not easy. I just think people should separate the two.”
Dempsey hopes to work with children in the future, and she says she’s worried pole dancing could harm her professional reputation due to its negative associations.
Despite her concerns, she says the activity is a personal hobby that she does for herself.
“Everyone has a personal life. It would not affect how I conduct myself at work in any negative way. I hope that people would understand that and be respectful.”
According to WorldPoleDance.com, attitudes are changing regarding pole dancing. Thanks to fitness classes as well as amateur and professional competitions held in several countries, pole dancing is no longer primarily seen as a form of eroticism. Enthusiasts, like Dempsey, consider it an art form.
Dempsey says she’s excited about the recent shift in attitudes towards pole dancing.
“When I originally started it hadn’t been heard of much, but now people are like ‘Oh, you must have a lot of strength.”
In the future, Dempsey hopes to see acrobatic pole dancing as a serious sport. She recently signed a petition that she hopes will put acrobatic pole dancing in the Olympics.
She also hopes more men become involved in the sport, but thinks it may take some time.
“Guys have a hard time just being in dance in general,” she says.
Dempsey says she aspires to become better at pole dancing, although she finds it harder to visit Studio In Essence with her demanding school schedule. She used to dance at least twice a week, but due to school and work, she only visits once.
“I kinda struggle between that [pole dancing] and school and what’s more important. But it’s [pole dancing] always something I want to be doing,” she says.
“I’ll always be a pole dancer, no matter what.”