Exploring the intersection of poetry and pole dancing.
My mother enrolled me in dance classes before I started kindergarten. What began with me looking for any excuse to wear a tutu turned into a love of storytelling through movement as I danced my way toward puberty. Then, in seventh grade, I tried out for the school dance team. I was rejected when the other girls in my audition group failed to memorize the choreography.
As everyone around me slowed to a stop, I felt embarrassed to be the only one continuing to dance and eventually gave up, too. My mother was furious, knowing that I could’ve kept going but chose not to. When I didn’t make the team, I was instead enrolled in a creative-writing class — my second choice as an artistic elective — and stopped taking dance altogether.
Flash-forward 14 years: I graduated from the University of Baltimore with an MFA in poetry. By the time I walked across the stage to receive my degree, I’d mostly forgotten about my former passion for dance. A few months after graduating, I noticed that the time I was accustomed to spending on school was now filled with work, household chores, or worse, the nagging feeling that I should be writing. Professors warned us that, after graduation, many students struggle to keep writing. I thought I’d be the exception, but anytime I opened an empty Word document, I found myself at an impasse, yearning for a creative outlet but suddenly finding myself without one.
One look in the mirror told me ballet was no longer an option. My body was a lot curvier at 26 than at 12, and the thought of wearing a tutu no longer appealed to me. Dancing, though, did — especially after an amateur attempt at pole dancing during my bachelorette party a few months earlier. Between all the champagne and giggling, I didn’t do much more than walk around the pole, but it was thrilling to imagine doing more.
Because of this (along with a raging desire to do something creatively challenging), I stayed up late one night researching the history of pole dancing and soon signed up for my first class at a nearby studio.
While multiple cultures have pole-dancing practices and traditions, America’s stems from late-18th-century sideshow performers who utilized the circus tent’s center pole to climb, spin, and do tricks. The performances were advertised as “hoochie coochie” dances because the performers often wore short skirts and exposed their midriffs. These provocative dances bled into the nightclub and bar scene as the country inched, year-by-year, closer to a sexual revolution. Sex workers began harnessing their pole-dancing skills, incorporating ever more complex choreography into their routines.
In the 1980s and 1990s, pole dancing grew in popularity as both a fitness option and an artform thanks to pioneers like Fawnia Mondey and Sheila Kelley, who opened studios where professionals and novices alike could learn different pole-dancing techniques. There are various styles of pole dancing, including traditional, contemporary, acrobatic, exotic, and lyrical, all culminating in visually captivating, emotionally evocative performances. Today, pole dancing is recognized not only for its beauty but for its inclusive, empowering environment that encourages dancers of all ages and body types to participate.
During my first class, I stood awkwardly next to my pole, unsure of where or how to touch it. When I finally did, it was cold against my already sweating palms. As the instructor demonstrated three beginner-friendly spins, I looked around at a roomful of women about my age, all of them as wary as I was. Despite our initial fear, by the end of class, everyone had correctly performed at least one spin. But even though we were practicing the same spins, I noticed how different we all looked — the way each of us moved our bodies told stories ranging from desire to despair, from wanting to having. Some dancers embraced the pole; others worked around it.
I looked at myself in the mirror and studied the way my body translated those same movements, wondering what story it hoped to tell.
I thought I’d enjoy pole dancing because it’s the opposite of poetry — no words involved. Rather than staring down at a blank page, I gazed up at the studio ceiling, the chrome pole leading me there. Yet I soon learned they have a lot in common. Like writing poetry, it takes courage to pole dance. You must be brave enough to try something most people wouldn’t. Just as poets utilize their arsenal of figurative language to craft narratives, pole dancers use different tricks and transitions to fit a particular song and tell a particular story. At the beginning of each dance, my body stands poised like a pen over paper, preparing to say something not yet written.
Luckily, poetry eventually returned to me, too, like it usually does when I stop taking myself so seriously and remember to have fun. While pole dancing isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, it gives me the same kind of adrenaline rush — right down to my heart pounding in my ears — that I get from reading my poems in front of an audience. If I’ve learned a new move, it boosts my mood all day, just like when I finally figure out the right ending for a poem I’ve worked on for months. When I watch myself on video successfully completing a combination up and down the pole, I’m as proud as when a poem of mine is accepted for publication.
These feelings — the pride, the thrill — may be few and far between in the land of poetry, but they’re always within reach at the studio. Ultimately, pole dancing, like poetry, is an art, and art transcends both language and movement. When I’m at an impasse with reality, I look to it and always feel moved.
[Editor’s note: Micaela Williams guest wrote this month’s “Nerd Volta” at the invitation of columnist Steven Leyva.]
Micaela Williams is a poet, pole dancer, and person. She graduated with an MFA in poetry from the University of Baltimore. Her chapbook, Cut the Lights, was published in 2021. You can follow her online at @micaela_poetry.