Ever since I saw Jacqueline Fernandez enthusiastically take to pole dancing on Instagram, I have been intrigued by the possibility of, maybe, just maybe, trying it out myself. When Jackie started putting out her histrionics with the pole, it, sort of, felt real, you know? You watch pole dancers in cinema and wonder “but they have been training all their lives as dancers, of course they will be able to do it”. You see strippers live in Amsterdam or Vegas and think “well she isn’t putting in as much effort as she should, but poor thing, this is a rough life”. Then you see somebody putting in the effort, and doing a smashing job of it, and realise that “everybody can do it if they just put in the hard work”. JLo did it in Hustlers, at her age, and you just want to hide under a rock and cry in shame.
I have been tracking a bunch of pole fitness classes in Mumbai for a few years now, and nobody offered classes for men. I don’t know why. While I don’t see the need to desexualise the dance form (we don’t desexualise Salsa or Bachata, now, do we?), we need to definitely deshame it. So, when one of my writers enthusiastically pitched a story on Arifa Bhinderwala (she’s on Instagram as aarifa.pole.burnt), I asked him to take it a step ahead.
“Ask her to host a class for the men of MW.” “Errr…excuse me?” “Yeah. She is going to teach us how to pole.” “Umm…okay.” Bhinderwala agreed. Thankfully. We landed up at this lovely studio space — called The Space — and what followed was a two-hour sesh of getting our asses handed to us. Bhinderwala looked like a weightless and ultra-graceful nymph amidst a bunch of bumbling, uncoordinated buffoons, who seemed to have been introduced to their limbs for the very first time. We scraped, chafed, crashed, fell, groaned, screamed, and winced. It was a fun class.
On a technical level, pole dancing requires you to come in with substantial upper body strength, and helps build your core and lumbar support. It is extremely effective in strength building, balance, coordination, and left brain functions. Pole is not easy at all. But when you start looking at pole dancing from a socio-sexual and gender dynamic perspective, it leads to a very complex conversation. While pole’s roots are in mallakhamb (India), Chinese pole acrobatics, and ghawazi (Egypt), it was the usual “eroticisation of the East” by gentlemen’s clubs in the West, in the early 1900s, that turned it into a sensual form of visual entertainment for men. It was soon incorporated as an act in stripping performances, and became something for men to enjoy. So, however difficult and beneficial it might be, pole bears the weight of historically being a form of entertainment, and something that women practice for men. Hence, globally, pole dancers and fitness instructors have been battling mental blocks and casual toxic masculinity before they can hone — and explore — the craft.
My resolution for this year has been to try out new things. It is not a particularly groundbreaking resolution, but I have been having a lot of fun sticking to it. So, when Bhinderwala graciously asked me to join her beginner’s course, I obviously said yes. While my team — most of them identify as heterosexual — had come out of that first session as invigorated as me, this is a list of things men told me when I shared my enthusiasm for pole dancing with them: “You want to become a stripper?” “I’m sorry, I am straight, so I won’t do that shit.” “Stick to the gym, bro. Lift weights. All this frou-frou shit is for them yoga bitches.” “You don’t need to know pole to strip.” “Haha! Men don’t need to do that.” “They teach you that shit? I thought only hookers know how to pole dance!” “Again, tell me why you want to be a stripper suddenly?”
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting this amount of unnecessary bullshit to come my way, and I realised that it would be easier to ignore than navigate it. Straight men have an almost rabid curiosity for the stripper pole. It is an experience to be ticked off bucket lists, I guess. Like what “going to Bangkok with guy friends” is for middle-class Indian men. Most straight guys have a “that time I went to the strip club” anecdote, and those who don’t, curiously wait for it to happen to them. It is an obvious power trip, right? The thought that “a woman will undress for me, for my pleasure, on my command” is a bonerinducing power dynamic that men would love to indulge in. Along with that, “I am allowed to misbehave, cat-call, wolf-whistle, make it rain, have her give me a lap dance when I tell her to” are glorious add-ons. So, does that mean that men have not evolved beyond the Neanderthal? That they need a “safe space” to objectify women because society does not allow certain behaviour that they would, otherwise, regularly and unrestrictingly indulge in? Is that why the “cool chick” is the one who is morally ambiguous and is sexually experimental? Do men love “bad girls” because, at the end of the day, “bad behaviour” is all they want to reduce women to?
And is that why, when women turn something like pole dancing into a self-love and self-care exercise, men cannot handle it, because all this time they thought this sensual performative art was for their consumption only? And because men assumed that this was something only for their consumption, they cannot grapple with the option of participating in it? Evidently, a simple pole dancing class raised a bunch of uncomfortable questions related to gender dynamics.
When I walked into my first class with Bhinderwala, I felt like I had been allowed into the inner sanctum of a goddess coven. I picked a pole at the back of the class, to have as much of a fly-onthe-wall perspective as possible. I was the only man in the batch. I saw women of various age, shapes, and sizes, uninhibitedly shed clothes and stretch in basic underwear, readying themselves for the class. I smiled. It was a safe space for them too, a space where they didn’t feel judged or “looked at”, because, I feel, women are most bothered by the male gaze. If you removed standards of accomplishment and beauty that exist in our society, all established by men, you realise that women are not judgemental of women, because they know the challenges and journeys of the gender. Which is why the “male gaze”doesn’t have a positive connotation, and why a “female gaze” doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t need to. I saw women help each other out. I saw them help me out too. They complimented each other, encouraged each other. When Bhinderwala helped me do my first climb, she slammed her body against my knee, aiding my grip, and casually said “don’t worry, I got you, I am strong” to boost my confidence. She is an excellent teacher, skilled at her art, but also knows exactly how to encourage you without being oppressive or demanding. She builds that safe space for everyone to feel strong, beautiful, confident, and sexy. I felt all of those things without even knowing that I needed that self-love boost.
I step out of every class exhilarated, never tired. But always bruised. My bones ache. The next morning I feel like my legs will fall off. My back feels like Jell-O. That’s when I sense my privilege, and send out a prayer for all those hard working women out there who do this for male entertainment. The men they perform for will never have a hundredth of the strength they have to muster every day — on or off the pole.