by Alessandra Izzo aka Ally Cat
I think it’s time we all had a chat about the emotional, physical and financial minefield that is the pole dancing competition circuit. Back in the dark ages of pole (circa 2010), many of these issues didn’t really exist due to the limited number of competitions being run at the time.
As the years have gone on, the competition scene has exploded. This has created a richer array of opportunities for many polers, and as I’ve previously discussed has brought with it associated issues for all event organisers. But it has also generated some pretty important issues that specifically relate to competitors, which is what I would like to chat further about.
Not all competitions are created equal. Especially if you are new to the competitive circuit, you might be surprised to learn how wildly varied the standard is. In fact, there is no standard between competition organisers. This is because our competitions are not run by massive juggernaut organisations with standardised policies and procedures. They are each run by predominantly one or two people, with a handful of helpers. The only thing they truly have in common now (in Australia, at least) is our national eligibility criteria.
While the competition circuit is something that provides incredible opportunities for pole dancers, I believe it’s also important to shine a light on certain things that are liable to make competing a “not so great” experience, in the interest of managing expectations and keeping it real.
Images and Video Expectations
You may not know this, but there is no guarantee that a competition will release a video of your routine, or even organise a videographer for the event so that you can purchase a professionally shot video of your routine. If you don’t ask in advance, you might be stuck scrambling to find a friend on the day who can record it on their phone for you.
You might also have to pay a surcharge if you want your images (which we mostly assume will be provided on social media, but for smaller competitions it’s worth checking that there will even be a photographer there) – and it’s not guaranteed the images on the night are going to be taken by a high calibre photographer such as Brad Edwards or Emma Salmon (or the dream outcome – both of them). Even if a competition has provided video and been shot by Brad one year, there is no guarantee that the following year it will offer the same.
Photographers who lack experience shooting pole comps are unlikely to get great images while they cut their teeth on their first few events learning how to shoot pole. Plus some venues are way harder to shoot in due to poor lighting provisions. Shooting pole is an art, in and of itself. Thus, if one of the primary reasons you are doing a comp is for the images and video you’ll receive, you had better make enquiries to avoid a rude shock if nothing is provided.
While in our heads we will all be stepping on stage at the Enmore, the majority of competitions will be run at much smaller venues. Your organiser should give you stage dimensions, but you might find on the day the performance area is actually different to the dimensions you were rehearsing with ahead of time. The pole heights might be different (practicing on a 3.6m then being provided with a 3.2m is no laughing matter, especially when touching the truss can mean disqualification), or spacing between the poles could be different, or there may be an obstruction you weren’t told about.
This is par for the course when performing, but as an amateur performer you might not be ready for this kind of last minute adjustment. While you can’t rehearse your routine for every possible outcome, make sure you are emotionally prepared for things to turn out differently to what you were told. Remember, any misinformation will affect every single performer, so you are all equally disadvantaged. The best way you can deal with it is to take it in your stride, don’t let it undo your mental preparations.
Another very common reason for competing is to improve as a performer. Getting stage experience truly is invaluable, and in a competition you are provided with a panel of professionals glued to your every move.
In actual fact, the running of a competition is so quick that writing down meaningful feedback is often too difficult. Sometimes a judge might be merciless in their criticism. Sometimes they might appear to be unfair in their scoring (remember, you don’t know what they gave everyone else – they may just be a very tough scorer).
Asking for your feedback requires emotional fortitude. You need to be prepared to take it with a grain of salt. Talk it through with your coach, or your studio owner, to help soften the blow. The critique happens so quickly it might come out unintentionally harsh, but judges never have the luxury of time so written feedback must be blurted out with no filter. This means it will lack the nuance of a measured discussion, and may even omit some more positive things they would like to say.
Also, knowing your place in the overall results is an emotional minefield. I don’t like knowing myself, and you don’t have to ask. I find it very difficult to prevent negative self-criticism when I’m given a specific overall number. Or feel that sense of injustice when I don’t agree with the judges. And believe me you are unlikely to agree with them, nobody ever does!
Ultimately we have to trust the judging process no matter how much you might disagree with the results, but be very mindful when asking for your feedback. Also be aware that while you may ask, some organisers won’t give it to you. Again, buyer beware.
Some organisers are a breeze to deal with, some are extremely difficult. Some may literally change the rules on you without warning (yes, this happens).
Don’t ever make assumptions when it comes to competition – unless you personally know the organiser or have heard multiple glowing reports about it from a variety of sources. My strong advice is to ask as many people as you can what their experiences were for any competition you are entering – or keep your expectations low.
I know of high profile competitions where props that had been approved one month in advance got denied on the day (this actually happened to me personally, but I know I’m not the only one). I know of comps where performers have not been allowed inside the venue until twenty minutes before their tech run – leaving many forced to warm up and get into costumes literally outside in the middle of winter.
I know of comps where a submission video of an intended routine got accepted, then, on the day of the comp, the competitors were told that if they performed the routine as it appeared in their submission video they would be disqualified (due to an ambiguously written rule). Thus they were forced to either change their routine on the fly or not be in the running for a prize.
Some organisers will be highly communicative and extremely well organised. Others may not tell you your tech run time or actual run time until literally the day before the event. Some may be downright rude on the day, where others will be the kindest and most considerate hosts you’ll ever meet.
Some organisers will work with you to ensure the best possible lighting/production outcomes for your show. Others will wait two weeks after you submit your music before telling you that you can’t use that track.
If you’ve had a bad experience which turned you off competing altogether, you might want to consider entering a comp run by a different organiser who you’ve heard good things about. Unfortunately I’ve seen polers completely lose their love for pole as a result of a series of unnecessarily stressful competition experiences.
Is The Payoff Greater Than The Expense?
You might hear of people breezing through a comp with only three days prep time. You also hear of people winning 30 million dollars. Don’t expect this to be you.
Competitions require three to four months solid prep time. They require many hours of training, often forced into late nights or early mornings. They require lots of money – on submissions, costumes, coaching sessions, studio hire, missed work, flights and accommodation. They require sacrificing time with your friends and partner, abandoning events and Sunday sessions, avoiding nights out drinking, monitoring your food intake. They come with higher risk of injury.
The more “laid back” or smaller a competition is the less all of the above will apply. But once you start getting into the higher profile competitions, you better believe these things will seriously affect your life. This is why I am quite content doing just one competition per year, maybe two if I’m feeling crazy.
All these issues can take the fun out of a competition, and they often do. While not many people discuss how difficult their comp journey was, or brush it off because it was “worth it”, don’t underestimate the hard work and dedication required. You need to take a pole competition seriously. If you do not, you shouldn’t be doing it. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it – just go into it with your eyes open.
Just because there are a thousand competition opportunities out there doesn’t mean you have to do any of them to be a “legitimate” pole dancer. And if you apply for ten comps and get into six of them, really think hard about what impact that’s going to have on your life, your mental and physical health, and your bank balance.
Every competition organiser will be motivated by a different reason, and their priorities will never be the same as another organiser. Fortunately, most comp organisers in Australia are primarily trying to create opportunities for performance, creativity, or to just put on a damn good pole show. However, there are a very small minority who may think they are “doing you a favour” by giving you the platform to compete on. This means you might find yourself in their comps feeling like you are not valued, just a number, and a mechanism to drive ticket sales.
Be very clear on what it is you want to get out of a competition, and seek advice on which competition/s might be able to provide this for you, or risk what could be an upsetting or even distressing experience. When you put your heart and soul into a routine that is likely to be run in front of an audience just once, these are very important considerations.
Mostly, your studio owner/s, teachers, or competitors at your studio will be the best place to start. However, the pole community is filled with wonderful humans who are happy to help out a fellow poler. You’ll probably find that you can seek advice from many of the high profile polers around who have done almost every comp there is to do, or know enough about it to give you some candid insight.
But start those discussions now, because it’s going to be 2018 comp season before we know it!