Nowadays, many people commonly associate pole dancing with strip clubs, but I wonder how many people know the true history of pole dancing. After I saw how perturbed some people were over Shakira and J.Lo's Super Bowl Halftime Show, I thought it worthwhile to share a few historical and cultural insights about this form of dance and sport.
First of all, I had to re-watch the halftime show a few times to try to see what everyone got their panties in a bunch over, because my family and I watched it together and we were all in awe of both Shakira and J.Lo. I've got some serious new fitness inspiration and goals once I pop this baby out of me.
For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to stick to the pole dancing aspect. But I have to say, the negative reactions are very telling of the fact that 1) Americans still tolerate violence over sensuality and sexuality, and 2) the innate racism in our country that many don't even recognize within themselves is dangerous. Some will say there are those of us who turn everything into a race issue. However, when you look at this situation, if you're okay with NFL cheerleaders, or cheerleaders in general, gyrating on the field and kicking up their legs in tiny skirts and tops but you're not okay with choreography influenced by belly dance, Afro-Caribbean styles of dance, and Latin dances, there is racism rooted in your reaction. And sexism, too, for that matter. I mean, if it were Elvis on that stage, I'm sure the reaction would be different. Unless we've suddenly time traveled to the '50's and I didn't realize it.
Like I said though, I want to focus on pole dancing here, because when I first looked into its history a couple years ago, I found the evolution of the art and sport very interesting.
Where did pole dancing originate?
Pole dancing originated in India in the 12th century. That's right. This is an ancient art and sport. Mallakhamb was a traditional Indian sport that involved men performing acrobatic and yoga-inspired tricks on wooden poles. This is the oldest recorded form of performance on poles. Then there is also a form of Chinese pole performance, which involves two poles up to twenty feet high, and involves climbing the poles, leaping between the two poles, and inversions on the pole. Both types of pole performance include tricks that you'd see today in a pole dancing fitness class.
It wasn't until the late 19th century that pole dancing entered the US in traveling shows. People came to these shows to experience "exotic" dances from around the world including dances such as belly dancing and other dances from the Middle East and Asia. At the time, many of the dancers in these shows were Ghawazi dancers from Egypt. In the 1920's, the dancers were used to entice customers in by dancing sexually and gyrating on the tent poles (I call that exploitation of the dancers). As a result of the sexual nature of the dance movements, pole dancing and burlesque shows were eventually and often combined. This made their progression together from the circus tent to bars and clubs a natural one.
It wasn't until the 1980's and 1990's that pole dancing became largely associated with strip clubs. However, more athleticism and acrobatics was also added to the performances and nowadays you can take pole dancing fitness classes in many cities around the world. There are even competitions and some are trying to get it recognized as an Olympic Sport. I have a friend who competes in pole dancing competitions teach me some basics and let me tell you, it is no joke. Just trying to do some basic tucks while gripping the pole with one hand left my arm sore for days.
Let's breakdown J.Lo's pole dancing part of the performance.
When J.Lo first appeared on the stage, she was standing on top of the Empire State Building looking like King Kong, or Queen Kong. It was a power statement. She was standing on top of the world, and in an interview on The Jimmy Fallon Show, she even stated that she wanted her entrance to symbolize women being on top of the world. I love that. When I heard that, I loved her entrance even more.
Then when we get to the actual pole dancing portion of the performance, it's clear she was going to perform "Waiting for Tonight." If you remember the music video for that song you'll remember the green lasers and club atmosphere. So, I expected to see some stunts here. And this is when the poles were brought out.
First, J.Lo climbs up the pole in a way that reminded me of my brother and I climbing playground poles as kids. Okay, maybe not that effortlessly and gracefully. Then she reaches the top, spreads her arms out and spins around the pole with arms stretched open, which I still find really cool. This is followed by the coolest part when she slides down the pole a tad and somehow goes full horizontal on the pole, just gripping it with her legs. The moment is brief, but all I could think of was how incredibly strong her body is and if I wasn't eight months pregnant I'd be hitting the gym hard right now. This whole time I'm getting mad Cirque du Soleil vibes, and zero stripper vibes.
As she sits up on the pole she is propped up by other dancers, and sure she spins around a little on it while singing and staying in that sitting position. This just reinforces how strong her arms and abs are, because mind you, she's doing this one-handed with a mic in her other hand. But again, there's nothing overtly sexual here.
Okay, and then there is a leg lift that maybe was too much for some people; but need I point out the cheerleaders again? Then there's more spinning around the pole, which to me just looks like a lot of fun. And when the digital screen on the floor falls away into a cool waterfall image, she's standing on the shoulders of her dancers, still holding on to the pole with one hand. As she lowers herself into a squat position, it is a major crotch shot, so okay, maybe some people got uncomfortable there. But I blame the camera angle, and also let me once more point out this comparison:
Finally, J.Lo does some cool one-legged spin down the pole to get off of it before we pan over to J. Balvin. It's at this time that I notice for the first time the other dancers doing acrobatics on poles as well.
While some people watched this halftime show and saw Studio 54, I saw Cirque du Soleil. I mean, yes, the pole acrobatics was obviously a nod to Hustlers, but I think of it this way. It's kind of like finding an excuse to wear my wedding dress more than once, which I did by having multiple weddings (thank you, global family). If I worked my butt off for several months to do things that show off the strength of my body, I too, might try to find an excuse to show off these skills again. And she didn't put on stripper heels. She was more clothed than cheerleaders normally are. And keep in mind, when you are doing intense acrobatics on a pole, you can't have a bunch of loose clothing hanging off of you, because you're using your body to grip the pole. J.Lo's role in Hustlers was highly acclaimed, and she's proud of that. Her message has always been that of empowering women, and she's also an incredible mother. I personally have a lot to thank her for, because while I still struggled with body image issues growing up, she made it easier for me to learn to and want to love my body.
So, I understand if Shakira's hips and J.Lo's superhuman strength is not for everyone, but I hope that by understanding some of the cultural and historical influences of things that are different to us and maybe even strange to some of us, we can respectfully agree to disagree without getting mean. Reading some of the negative responses to the halftime show showed us bigger issues we're facing.