By Alessandra Izzo aka Ally Cat
Back when I did my first pole course in 2004, it was still the Wild West era of pole dance. There were almost no pole studios in Melbourne, just Pole Divas and Polestars. Polestars wasn’t a studio as such, it employed instructors to go into multi-purpose venues (usually function rooms above bars), put poles up, teach, and take them down again. Instructors did a short “training course” on the syllabus, and pretty much learned on the job.
Fast forward a few years to 2008 and I was offered my first pole teaching job out in a now-defunct studio in Bayswater. The owners knew absolutely nothing about pole, or me, they just recognised that I could do quite advanced tricks for that time. They presented me with a Pole Princess beginners’ syllabus (which was hard to decipher, since I had come from a different learning stream and the names meant almost nothing to me). Basically, I just muddled my way through, and learned on the job.
Fortunately during my time there we had no major incidents or injuries, except my own – a bicep tendon tear which I persisted in teaching on because I knew literally nothing about taking care of injuries. This became so bad that I was forced to take six months off pole to let it heal. Almost ten years later with the 20/20 vision of hindsight I can say two things with great certainty: I was thrown into that job with absolutely no understanding of how to keep my students (or myself) safe; and my teaching techniques left A LOT to be desired!
Over time our industry has progressed, and I have become far more educated around teaching techniques, and student safety. I have also (probably naively) assumed that our safety and teaching standards industry-wide have lifted uniformly. Don’t get me wrong, this assumption has in part come from direct experience of that. However, my bubble recently burst when I was told some troubling information, namely that an aerial hoop had fallen down in a pole studio somewhere with a student on it.
This opened a floodgate for discussions, and to my horror I’ve discovered that a troubling number of studios have aerial apparatus installed by people without proper qualifications. And that major incidents requiring an ambulance, injuries like concussion, and narrow escapes are not just faerie tales, but an ever-present reality in the pole community. And here is the really scary part – these incidents are often due to negligence on the part of the studio, or the instructors.
This lead to a cascade of realisations, namely that, some pole studios must still be operating like its 2004. The most concerning part of that is, back in 2004 the hardest tricks we knew were leg hangs and butterflies (and a handful of other equivalent level moves). As pole dancing has progressed and gotten to extreme levels of difficulty, the potential danger for injury has exponentially increased. But has our regard for safety?
Ultimately I trust that most studios will be rigging their poles and apparatus correctly. Most studios will require students to use appropriate mats when learning something potentially dangerous. But from what I’ve heard, this does not extend to ALL studios. That’s where I believe having some kind of industry standards should come into play. At this point in time though, the onus comes down to the student to ask the right questions.
Aside from the safety of the equipment, we also need to examine safety in teaching techniques. Realistically we are learning the equivalent of a circus art. There are moves that, when done correctly, may still cause injury. Yet, injury seems to be a topic rarely discussed in the community. How many polers do you know have suffered injuries – either acute or chronic – from pole dancing? I can tell you the number of elite level polers I know who have NOT suffered some type of pole-related injury is microscopic.
Sooner or later the wear and tear of pole – like many sports – catches up with us. However, I strongly feel that by standardising and improving teaching practices we can vastly reduce our casualty numbers.
I know for certain that the study I have done (including a degree in health sciences, a certificate in fitness, and various types of dance/aerial teacher trainings) as well as almost ten years on the job has given me a solid foundation in recognising the physical limitations of a student and teaching a move safely. But I am sure there are teachers out there who may know lots of hard tricks, yet have no idea about keeping a student safe while teaching them (I used to be one of them!).
We all want to believe our teachers know what’s best for us – but to be honest, maybe they don’t. I recently saw a performance by a girl who had put a move into her routine that she was clearly not strong enough to do. Ultimately she fell out of it, but she had obviously been “training” it many times over with absolutely no core control and appalling technique. I was shocked that her teacher would give her that move when she had no understanding of how to properly execute it safely – and it seemingly hadn’t been taught very well either if I’m to be brutally honest.
As a pole student you are putting your physical health in the hands of your instructors. Have you questioned their qualifications? Are you confident they are not putting you in danger? Are you blindly trusting because they seem to be very capable, or worse still, are you not asking for fear of seeming impolite? If this is the case, I’m sure you aren’t alone.
I have done workshops with extremely high profile international artists who have seemingly no regard for safety, and do not offer commentary on how to avoid injury while learning a move. Don’t be hypnotised by celebrity status when looking for a good teacher or studio. I know firsthand that some of the industry giants are also outstanding teachers. But ask the questions, don’t be shy! It’s your body, and pole injuries could change the course of your entire life. As for the industry as a whole, safety should be our primary concern. Is it time we called for a nation-wide safety review of our pole studios?
Studio owners, I ask you the following questions:
- Are you hiring inexperienced teachers or training up students to teach because you can’t find anyone else to take your classes?
- Do you provide comprehensive safety training at your studio?
- How do you ensure that your teachers are not putting any of your students at risk?
And students, I give you these questions as a suggested means of vetting safety standards at any studio you might be considering joining:
- Were your poles/aerial apparatus installed by a qualified rigger?
- Do you have purpose built pole/aerial safety mats?
- What teaching qualifications do your instructors hold?
Don’t be afraid of making people uncomfortable, or being the “difficult” student. Even if you’ve been going to your studio for years, it’s not too late to question the safety of the apparatus for your own peace of mind. Because until we are regulated by an industry body, these details could make or break your pole career, literally.