Pole Storytelling: Attaching Meaning to Movement

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Moment from my 2015 US Nationals routine captured by Alloy Images.

It seems pole performances have been getting more and more theatrical over the years. Purely athletic and technical routines still exist. But even in national competitions, dancers are almost expected to incorporate characters, props and costumes in addition to intricate tricks.

I love this storytelling aspect of pole dancing. But there are unfortunately so many ways it can go wrong. At times, the story can detract from the movement quality. How many times have you seen a performer become so immersed in their character that they fall out of tricks, don’t complete lines or have sloppy transitions? On the other hand, and perhaps more common, movement can disconnect the dancer from the story altogether. They can be 100% engaged when off the pole, but as soon as they take their movement into the air they shift to robotic trick-mode.

I took a storytelling workshop several months ago and an interesting discussion arose among the group. Almost everyone in the room felt it was all too common for pole dancers to feel this pressure to continuously create new routines. Yet even with each new routine, new song and new costume ensemble so many dancers still tell the same story. I have been guilty of this. It’s the same routine with a different song. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that if something works for you, then you should take as much advantage of it as you can. But there is a difference between sticking your best tricks in every routine because you know they look good and really exploring quality of movement that feels good on your body while also effectively expressing your message.

I was recently accepted to Pole Theatre USA (gulp) for the Professional Drama category. I am also teaching my Pole Storytelling workshop in Tübingen, Germany this weekend. I have been thinking a lot about palpable storytelling lately, how to get a message across and how to help others do the same. I think one of the most intense human urges beyond basic instinct for survival is a desire to feel connected, heard and understood. Pole dancing can be a powerful means of expression. The possibilities for exploration on the apparatus are endless.

Below are some tips I have found to be useful over the years to connect meaning to movement, helping me best communicate my message to an audience. I do want to note, I don’t think these guidelines should be applied towards most competitive routines. This article is more geared towards using pole as a form of artistic expression. I have included photos and memories of performers who inspire me with their dedication and ability to captivate on stage.

Simplify your movement.
Everyone has different strategies when it comes to building a routine. A lot of people I know like to build pieces up around their most advanced and impressive tricks. When I first start creating the outline for a theatrical routine, I initially put advanced technique aside. I focus more on building simple movement to match the story. It is much easier to advance the difficulty level after the mood and energy of the piece have been set. I have even discovered new shapes and transitions through this process. Of course you can always modify advanced tricks to fit the energy of the piece too. But getting the message across is more important than performing the hardest tricks.

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Marcy Richardson exploring a shape with unique flair. Photo by Mark Shelby Perry

Explore familiar tricks in depth.
Building on the previous point, I like to explore positions that are very familiar to me. For example, I will start in a seated position on spin pole and make slight alterations in hand placement or contact points or even the angle of my head. I try to move as slowly as possible to sense my body’s reaction. Following the path of least resistance usually leads to shapes that feel good in my body. And when it feels natural, it usually looks good.

If you can’t do the move in character take it out.
If you can’t fully commit to your character when performing a trick, then I’m sorry but you need to take it out. No matter how great you think it looks, that expression of overexertion is distracting. It pulls the audience away from the magic of the moment. Think of your favorite pole routine. I’m sure a huge factor in your enjoyment of it beyond technique was the ease in which the performer executed their tricks. Michelle Stanek performed a simple and short routine for her USPDF compulsory round. The quality of her movement was so honest and engaging though, it locked the audience into her. It’s often the “how” not the “what” that counts.

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Michelle Stanek executing stellar stage presence in her famous 2012 USPDF routine.

Understand your character, theme or story on a deep level.
In addition to the “how” I also think the “why” is an important element that can have a tendency to be lost in pole performances. Why execute this particular trick, at this place, at this time in the routine? Consider these questions as you decide what moves to put in. Watching freestyle videos can help you decide this. So can visualizing movement in your head. Allow it to happen organically. Then contemplate the “why” with the directions you have decided to take. If it’s not adding to your message then it’s distracting from it.

Know your music.
Your chosen music should add to the telling of your story. What comes first: the music or the story? Sometimes it’s one and sometimes the other. This is almost a whole separate topic. You should know every note, lyric, transition, accent, crescendo and decrescendo in your music. This will help guide what moves you choose to put in your routine but also the quality in which you execute them.

Do I believe you?
This is a great question I always ask myself from the perspective of the audience. And perhaps even greater, do I believe myself? If you don’t believe your story how can you expect your audience to? It may be raw and personal or you may be portraying a character with no relation to you whatsoever. Each should be executed with solid intention. Keep in mind, bigger isn’t always better. You can express the most intense emotions in an incredibly subtle way and it can often be more powerful than overly dramatic actions. Whatever direction you choose to take, fully commit. If you’re going to go big, really believe it. And also be prepared for some people in the audience not to be ready to go to that level with you.

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Holly Harlow performing a spatchcock with serious personality, staying 100% in character. Photo by Alloy Images.

Be Yourself
No one possesses your body and your experiences but you. Use this to your advantage. What can you bring to the table that no one else can? There is no one way to do a routine right. Different people can take the same song, or moves or concept and have completely different interpretations that all work perfectly. Embrace your body’s strengths as well as limitations. Draw from personal experiences, even when portraying a character. Your audience will connect with your honesty.

Go with the flow. 
When it comes time to put all these elements together, let the routine unfold as it will and make every attempt to stay as present as possible no matter what happens. This is often the hardest part of the entire process for me. What we do is so physical. There are so many variables at play and we prepare for so long for just a few minutes on stage. The pressure for perfection can be intense. My foot slipped off the pole in a PSO routine one year. In my mind, it was a travesty that ruined the entire routine. I reluctantly kept dancing, but I was just going through the motions. I wanted it to end. It was the longest 4 minutes of my life. When I got the video back to watch the cringe-inducing mistake, the foot slip surprisingly wasn’t as bad as I thought. But you know what was awful? Everything that came after. My energy shifted and every move became disconnected.

The ability to remain absolutely present on stage is elusive. With time, this skill can be honed. It’s what truly draws the audience into the performer’s world and makes time appear to stand still.

 

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