by Ally Cat aka Alessandra Izzo
Last weekend at Pole Art Worlds in Italy, the audience witnessed an act that can only be described as shameful. An Italian performer appeared on stage in blackface in a Sister Act themed piece. Furthermore, this act then went on to receive a title in the competition.
Without doubt, this situation has been met with public outcry. POSA, the organisation responsible for this event has issued an apology and made assurances that this will not be allowed to happen again through checks and balances that include costume approval no less than two weeks ahead of future competitions.
Many are not satisfied with the apology issued by POSA, not least of all because it ended on a note defending the performer involved. It also apologised to the broader community but failed to direct this apology to the POC (people of colour) who have been directly affected and offended.
The performer in question issued a statement on her social media with a blatantly sarcastic tone, which effectively amounted to a “sorry, not sorry”.
Unfortunately this tone deaf response by the performer and echoed by POSA is a reflection of cultural norms and (lack of) understanding surrounding cultural sensitivity in Italy itself.
I am of Italian heritage with both my father and brother still living there, and I put the question to them of whether the general Italian population would perceive blackface as offensive. They both replied in the negative – stating that it would come down to context but ultimately is not seen as inherently wrong.
I believe most of the Australian population now understands how offensive blackface is (if you don’t, have a read of this), however it was as recently as 2009 that a blackface minstrel act satirising the Jackson 5 was allowed on national television (Hey Hey It’s Saturday – Red Faces), memorably being called out by Harry Connick Jnr.
This historical moment could be seen as the turning point for our own national understanding of the issue – and these days we do see public outcry when people don blackface to imitate their favourite sporting stars or dress their child for book week. Seemingly the majority of the country understands why blackface should never be used, under any circumstance.
From my experience, having lived in Italy at various times during my life, cultural beliefs there are very insular, and extremely slow to change. Casual racism is rife, and there is a huge segregation between whites and POC.
Many are saying that these performers should have known better, they have access to the internet and they should have done their research – and in an ideal world I would agree. But if we are to ensure this problem never happens again in the pole community (as it shames all of us, not to mention causing untold pain to many of our members), we need to work on the assumption that cultural awareness in different countries isn’t always going to reflect a western understanding.
The performer has since issued a lengthy discourse about the situation, more or less explaining what my family said, and calling for tolerance from the international community. While I make no excuses for her, I do believe that educating someone with cultural ignorance where their intention was genuinely meant in a positive way requires a somewhat different approach to when someone deliberately has set out to ridicule and offend. Baying for blood will tend to have the opposite effect, where that person will instantly put their defenses up.
While I agree there is no excuse for this, I also don’t see it as the responsibility of POC to do the heavy lifting here. The white community should absolutely be up in arms about this and making sure it sure as hell never happens again.
I would call for all international organisations representing pole and putting pole acts on stage to formulate a policy preventing performance themes or costumes on stage that are broadly understood to cause offense to members of our community.
POSA is an international organisation, and if an organisation claims to represent the international community they should require input from multiple countries, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations and genders. There is no indication on the POSA website of who heads up this organisation, and for this disgraceful situation to occur we should be demanding transparency on who exactly should be held responsible.
While many are saying the judges and other prominent industry figures need to be calling this out, in my experience pole artists are often afraid to undermine future work opportunities based on speaking out against current or future employers. In an industry flooded with artists and with limited amount of work, yes it is disappointing but I think this type of blaming is misdirected.
Ultimately, this is somebody’s fault – and there needs to be repercussions. People are angry, and they don’t know where to direct their anger. In my mind, the responsibility falls squarely on the event organisers.
Not only should the performers in question be stripped of their title as an act of contrition, but we need assurances that as a body representing pole dance on the international stage, POSA understands exactly what went wrong in allowing this to occur. We need them to guarantee that none of their associated national federations will be able to make a mistake like this in future – regardless of any cultural ignorance that exists within those countries.
The buck has to stop with POSA. And if they don’t show some sensitivity to the gravity of this situation and make very real and public steps to prevent it from ever happening again, the international pole community has every right to call for a large scale boycott of all POSA related events.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ally is a restless entrepreneur and passionate creative with a Piscean idealism and an aversion to authority. Having practiced as a Naturopath and Massage Therapist for 6 years, she abandoned clinic work in 2014 to spend more time doing what she loved most: working with her pole family at Bottoms Up! where she has taught since 2009, and instructing 80’s dance fitness under her own creation RAD Fitness.
It didn’t take long before her creative juices led her to conjure up Pandemonium Events, and under this brand she has produced and co-ordinated ten pole, aerial and variety performance nights.
Besides teaching and producing, Ally loves being on stage. She competed in the Victorian Pole Championships in 2013 and then again in 2015 where she won the VPC Amateur division and went on to compete in the national finals. She also joined APDM Editor Jane Blair and their Bottoms Up! family in a Rocky Horror group performance at Encore! 2016 (nominated as a finalist for Best Group Performance at the Victorian Aerial Awards 2016) and competed in the Pro Comedy division of Pole Theatre in 2016 and 2017. She was also honoured to be awarded the 2016 Trailblazer of the Year award at the Victorian Aerial Awards.
Having toyed with the idea of starting a pole magazine herself in 2011, Ally watched the growth of Australian Pole Dancers Magazine with much interest, contributing articles to the publication before formally becoming a partner in November 2015. She loves being part of APDM as she feels it is something that the entire pole community can use as a means of connecting with one another, learning from one another and growing together.