by Alessandra Izzo aka Ally Cat
If you’ve been around the competition block a few times, you’ll know what this is like. The awful truth is, it’s a high probability when you are a regular competitor that sooner or later you will do a run of your carefully prepared routine that makes you want to hide yourself in a cave of shame and never resurface.
In the performing arts arena, be it dance, circus, even burlesque, most people who train a routine as hard as we do for competitions are able to perform their piece multiple times. There are a broad range of performance opportunities – whether they be at fringe festivals, variety nights, or a show season. People who create a performance generally invest their time and money, in order to get a return on their investment that is somewhat commensurate to their preparation efforts. It’s true in the arts, the pay is often a pittance, but at least there will be some kind of remuneration.
In the competitive pole scene it’s almost guaranteed there will be no financial reward. The only measurable return can be through advancing your profile which might lead to well paying teaching gigs. Or perhaps some free training gear from an apparel label who wants to sponsor you. It’s commendable that some competitions are now offering cash prizes. However, ultimately every pole competitor knows deep down there is a very high chance that all their time and money spent will earn them nothing but a video (and even then, only if the competition organiser is considerate enough to organise it).
For this reason, fucking up your comp routine can feel like the end of the world. You’ve trained literally months. You’ve spent countless extra hours listening to your music, conceptualising, paying a trainer, paying for a costume. If I added up the dollars I spent on costume, travel and accommodation I spent just to get to Pole Theatre Sydney last year, it was at least $1500. All that because I wanted to bring an idea to life. I’m certain I’m not alone in this type of spending for competitions – and it still astounds me that we do it for a single run of a routine!
My Pole Theatre run was certainly not my best run. However, I have definitely experienced a competition run the stuff nightmares are made of. It was back in around 2009 on a dodgy free-standing pole at Sexpo Melbourne. I had trained my routine for a couple of months, run it a million times on my home pole and felt super prepared on the day. I never used grip and my home pole was always fairly slippery so I thought I wouldn’t need it. We didn’t get a tech run, and I’m not even sure if the pole was cleaned properly – it certainly was far less rigorous back in those days.
Well, the bottom line is I almost fell off the pole during my first spin, could barely climb the damn thing, slid almost to the floor in a knee hold (to this day I’m confused as to how!) and couldn’t for the life of me stick my yogini (something I’d never missed, ever). It was the stuff of nightmares. Especially since one of my biggest pole idols was judging, and I had students in the audience. I was mortified. Honestly, it was so emotionally damaging for me it must have taken years before I could even talk about it. Needless to say these days I obsessively grip before any performance!
From a performer’s perspective, I believe one of the biggest problems with competitions is that they don’t allow a piece to organically develop and flourish like it might if it were being performed multiple times. I’m lucky enough to have a history of performing multiple shows dozens of times each. I know for a fact this process establishes a “relationship” between yourself and the routine. It allows you to be present while performing, have fun with it, change things so you find what works best. It develops your performance in a way only multiple runs can. In my experience, the first run of something is absolutely never going to be the best run.
We all know that stepping on stage is a completely different experience to busting out a practice run in the studio. Often, it’s a total blur because you are just powering through it rather than sitting inside it and enjoying the moment. And as an observer of countless hours of watching competition pieces, the audience will not connect as deeply with the performers who aren’t sitting inside their routines.
However I also believe a big part of this problem is because we put so much pressure on ourselves for that one run. A moment lasting under five minutes holds such a vast amount of importance. So, when this doesn’t go absolutely perfectly (and let’s face it, that’s almost always!) we beat ourselves up over it. Even when it does go well, so many polers experience the post-comp blues. It’s like we are mourning the death of our piece.
So what can we do about this?
As an individual, you need to be kind and loving to yourself. Remind yourself that you did your best on the night. Sometimes circumstances don’t converge to help you channel your best performance, and that is ok. It happens to everyone. I’ve been watching the pro’s compete since way before they were pro’s and I can tell you, I’ve seen some pretty momentous fuck ups from some of your biggest idols. If they can move on from it, so can you!
As a community I have a bigger dream for us. One that I’ve tried to contribute to myself, and I put out this call in the hope that more of you will too. We desperately need more performance opportunities outside of competition. It might feel like a thankless task, but if you create a platform for polers to get on stage without having to think about competition criteria, and bring an audience that are equally supportive of all who step on stage, you are helping lay the foundations for pole to be enjoyed by the wider community as the art form it truly is – in whatever style you choose to showcase.
Competitions certainly push artists to the limit, which keep us striving to new heights. They bring many opportunities to performers and pole businesses alike. But they should not be the only opportunity outside of in-house showcases for polers to step on stage.
Who’s with me?