There are a good few dichotomies in the humanities, but one of the biggest is the difference (or antagonism) between high art and low art.
It’s a ripe start for when you want to discuss the politics of taste and social mores because you can’t deny that people will react quite differently to seeing Swan Lake and watching a Jakarta prostitute using a cold metal pole to gracefully rub that heat rash.
It was James Beard awardee vs. Food Network resident redneck. Fine dining vs. mass-market grub. Truffles vs. fried lasagna noodles. (The New Yorker contends this bit, saying it was actually fried wonton wrappers.)
The same dichotomy applies to a poledancing tournament I attended recently in Sheung Wan, hosted by Pole Paradise Studio. It was my strange idea of the perfect date night.
There were little no more than a dozen contestants for pole dancing, hoop and aerial silk categories, and the demographic was dominated by Japanese contenders. Others came from Russia, Canada, Australia, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Seeing them lined up before us at the start of the event, in full make-up and colorful costumes of spandex and sequins, you immediately recognize the ones who are bound to give you a high-art performance and a low-art one (seven-inch magenta spike heels or what seems to be black electrical tape criss-crossing up some legs).
I was a little bit surprised that the Sheung Wan Civic Centre wasn’t packed (half the venue was empty), but at least it made for an intimate show.
In my mind, the performances could be neatly categorized into: “This Is Why Poledancing Should Be a Sport” and “This Is Why It Will Never Be Declared a Sport.” Note that it only wants recognition from the International Olympic Committee, and is not necessarily demanding that the Olympics start turning those pole vaults vertical.
The “high-art” performances were quite pretty, making use of delicate music and soft movements, which meant that even as the girls were scantily clad, their thongs weren’t of the variety that required the slip of a five-dollar bill. They were giving what you would definitely call aerial ballet.
And as a treat for those who like girls dancing on less threatening (read: flaccid and pliant) phallic shapes, the silk performances were equally high-art — and were a lot more dramatic (See video below). Some of the contestants’ backgrounds were impressive: Cirque du Soleil performers, graduates of circus school (yes, it exists), and in the case of the Philippine contestant (who was representing Canada), a stint performing at the 2010 Winter Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies.
And then you have the sexually aggressive performances, the ones where the men in the crowd have to clutch their girlfriends or wives a little bit tighter, implicitly saying, “I can’t tear my eyes off her beautiful round ass, but that doesn’t mean I love you any less.”
The home favorite, an Australian dancer named Hazel who grew up in Hong Kong, whom I failed to record on video, gave a fun performance in a tight pink bikini, what looked like a fake tan and impossibly high neon platforms. It was so lively, you could imagine her dancing at a gentleman’s club with a disco ball overhead.
The most strikingly “low-art” performance for me, though, was by a Taiwanese pole dance instructor named Bora, who says “she has no relevant experiences in dance or gymnastic training” but just has the passion for it. And her lack of a dance background showed as she basically invited all, including my date, to undress her with their eyes.
As she made the air a little bit warmer, showing her sheer athleticism by writhing on the floor in tight black panties to Danzig’s “She Rides,” I thought, this is the kind of seedy reputation that would dash any hopes of poledancing becoming a full-fledged sport.
Which is sad because when you think about it, after seeing so many Jakarta (or even Hong Kong) bar girls do half-hearted, sophomoric attempts at dancing on a pole, it does take skill and discipline to poledance, no matter if you look sexy or classy.
Conversely, should we blame gender inequality and the male gaze for dismissing girls gyrating on a pole as sexual objects, unworthy of being called sportswomen?
I doubt if Issey, the lone male poledancer who joined the competition that night, felt himself being raped by about 50 pairs of eyes. Nor, I bet, did the muscly guy who would wipe down the pole between sets.
But so long as there’s that vaudeville component, the electrical tape and hooker heels, that crotch-pumping and revealing clothing that mass entertainment sells so well, I think poledancing — for all its art and beauty — might be left writhing on the floor.