Moving in New Ways


For the past three days, I have been privileged to participate in an intensive weekend workshop with pole superstar Marlo Fisken. Eight hours of flowing floor work, static aerial spins, flexibility, and signature moves (plus a couple delicious meals, and hours of games and conversation,) have left me sore, happy, and, most of all, inspired! I learned a bunch of new moves and combos, but the real takeaway for me was the discovery that my body can move in so many different ways that I’ve never experienced before.


The movements we explored this weekend were largely guided – we did what we were shown. But we did spend the end of our final class playing improv games. We split into groups of three for the first one, and had to create short routines using a limited number of hands and feet on the floor. The second game involved working out transitions between randomly selected pole moves. After we were done, Marlo spoke briefly about the importance of surprise in pole routines. So often, we learn to move from trick to trick in just one or two ways, and we never think about how else we could approach those moves. But anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time watching pole routines has expectations of what will happen next based on what they’ve seen before. If a transition is predictable, it’s boring to watch. To make a pole routine interesting and engaging for judges and seasoned audiences, it’s necessary to break away from what’s conventional, and do what no one expects to happen next.


Incorporating interesting transitions and new moves in a routine, however, requires creativity. New movements must be discovered, and new combos must be crafted. Creativity is a hot concept these days. Everybody wants it, and everyone’s talking about it. (Sorry to choose such a mainstream topic, guys. I’m unworthy of my imaginary hipster glasses.) Along with the focus on creativity has come the advice, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.” If you’re afraid of making mistakes, you won’t be willing to fully engage in whatever creative process you’re pursuing. People who constantly feel pressured to get things “right” the first time will only do what they’re familiar with, what they’ve seen before and already know works. Fear of making mistakes smothers creativity – nothing new can come from doing the same things you’ve always done. Evolution requires mistakes – not only are they inevitable, but they are necessary to making anything new. So, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.


I’d like to take this concept a little further. I don’t think the “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes” attitude accomplishes all it sets out to do. The word “mistake” is a negative one – it means “error.” It means that something has gone WRONG and it would be made better through correction. I think that the words “right” and “wrong” are completely out of place in the creative process, however. I think that creativity conceptually excludes this spectrum.


This is to say that the essence of creativity is that there is NO SUCH THING as a mistake. There is only the familiar and the unfamiliar.


To be creative, you have to be able, and willing, to turn off the part of your brain that judges what you’re doing as “right” or “wrong.” You have to be willing to try new things, and you WON’T always like what you do. Liking it isn’t the point. Liking it comes later, after the majority of the creative work is done.


I have only a small amount of experience choreographing pole routines. But one thing I’ve learned is that it can take many hours to choreograph a four-minute song. That doesn’t include practicing it – that’s just creating the choreography. Why does it take so long? Because not everything you try works! And even if it does, it may not accomplish everything you want it to. So you try something else. And something else, and something else, and something else…. If you want to make your routine not only fit the song, but present the audience with something new to watch, choreographing will take even longer as you learn to move in ways you’ve never moved before. Some movements will work better with your piece than others, but no movements are right or wrong. No movements are mistakes.


Creativity requires a shift in priorities from making something GOOD, to making something DIFFERENT. Certainly, “good” is your end goal – good AND different. But creativity does not play its role at the end – the perfecting process comes at the end. The creative process is the beginning, and your job at the beginning is not to please, but to DISCOVER. You won’t want to use every single thing that you come up with, but you have to face the reality that you can’t discover beautiful things if you’re unwilling to discover ugly things, silly things, stupid things, completely useless things!


When you begin creating a work of art, pride is your worst enemy. Pride gets in the way of discovery by insisting that everything you do ought to make you look good. If you’ve never done something before, it’s a risk to your pride to try it. But without discovery, anything you create will be predictable and boring. So tell that voice that says, “What if I look stupid?” to shut up, and just try it! Because there is no right and wrong in creating. There is only what has been done, and what hasn’t been.

So move your body! Watch yourself in a mirror as you bend and twist and sway in whatever directions you can. Tangle yourself up. Continue momentum you normally stop. Touch the floor and pole with different parts of your body than you’re used to. Touch your own body with different parts of your body that you’re used to! Do a familiar move, and see what parts of your body are free to do something different. Do a move faster than usual, slower than usual. Do it multiple times in a row. Watch what other people do, and mimic them. Watch animals as they prowl around, watch plants sway in the wind, watch objects in motion, and try to recreate it. Movement is all around you! Let it inspire you. Try things you’ve never done. Surprise yourself!


Rooting Out Pole Envy

Double Front Hook Spin

I recently read a blog post by Mr Pole Dance 2013 International winner, Alex Shchukin, entitled “Five Shades of Green.”  The blog focuses on one of my less preferred deadly sins – you guessed it – envy.  As Alex points out, envy is pervasive in the world of pole.  Whether it’s envy between peers, teacher and student, judge and competitor, performer and audience member, or between a pole dancer and someone outside of the pole world, envy manifests in many ways.  It can lead to irrational actions and unfair judgements of character.

I appreciated Alex’s blog.  It called out the bullshit that people produce and endure on a regular basis in the pole world.  Now, I want to go deeper.

First, what exactly is envy?  Simply, envy is the desire for something someone else has.  (A definition that certainly isn’t up the standards of analytic philosophy, but we’ll go with it for the sake of brevity.)  This doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know, however.  What I’m really interested in is the fact that envy is motivated by fear.

Since we’re talking about pole specifically here, I’ll use a pole example.  I sometimes find myself feeling envious of polers who can do the splits.  Both kinds of splits are useful, and even necessary to complete many advanced pole moves, such as jade splits, box splits and so on.  As I see other women and men move into their splits on the floor or on the pole, I sometimes feel a pang of envy.  It’s not that I don’t think the other person deserves the ability to do the splits when I can’t, however.  It’s a matter of fearing that I will never be able to do that.

Envy arises when we feel that our worth is challenged by what we don’t have or can’t do.  This is the point I really want to explore.  Envy can be recognized in statements like, I’ll never be as strong as her; I wish I looked like that, I’m so fatYou’re so flexible, unlike me! and so on.  In each of these cases, the speaker compares herself to another by setting herself up in an inferior position in that comparison.  Of course, envy isn’t always vocalized, and is often masked, (as Shchukin explores in his blog,) but even in these cases, envy is a feeling of inferiority.  It is the fear that we really are inferior people — not just polers, but people — because of what we lack.

When personal worth is tied to abilities and accomplishments, it’s easy to fall into this trap.  A few years ago, I read an excellent book by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University called Mindset:The  New Psychology of Success.  (It’s at the very top of my recommended books list — head to your nearest library or local bookstore and pick up a copy!)  Dweck’s basic theory states that there are two types of mindset that people can have — the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.  The Fixed Mindset, she explains, is the basic belief of self-as-immutable.  That is, when a person has a fixed mindset, they believe that their abilities flow from natural, determined talent, and that these capacities are incapable of being expanded or reduced. For example, many people believe that artistry is a natural gift that some people have and others do not.  My dad gave up drawing when he was a child because he saw that other kids were better at drawing that he was, and he believed he couldn’t improve.  When a poler has a fixed mindset, she believes that she has a set amount of ability and talent, or potential to develop.  When things get hard, she will say things like “I’m not flexible, I will never be able to do a box split” or “I’m a woman, so I won’t ever have the upper body strength to do crazy tricks like Kenneth Kao.”  Such a person sees ability in absolute terms.  You either have it, or you don’t.

The Growth Mindset takes a different tack on life.  When a person has a growth mindset, she sees ability as something that comes or goes with effort.  To use an example from Dweck, a kid with a growth mindset will sit down with a difficult math problem and not allow the struggle of it to stop her from working on it.  Instead of saying “I’m not good at math” after trying for a couple minutes, she’ll say, “I love a challenge!” and keep at it until she solves it.  For someone with a growth mindset, a lack of skill is an opportunity to grow.  If things get hard, the person with the growth mindset will throw himself into it even more instead of giving up.  This is because he understands that not being good at something at first isn’t the same as never being good at it.  What separates the beginner from the expert is time and effort.

Of course, we all have a mix of growth and fixed mindsets within ourselves — no one sees every aspect of self through one or the other lens.  (What can I say? People are messy and inconsistent.)  But the point I want to make here is one that Dweck brings up.  When a person primarily has a fixed mindset, that person associates talent and ability with identity.  They proudly say, “I am smart,” “I am good at math,” “I am flexible.”  And, here’s the kicker — when anything challenges that identity, it challenges personal worth, and the response to that is to feel fearful, defensive, and yes, envious.  Someone who believes he is a good writer, and that this talent is a part of his identity, will shy away from the challenge of taking an advanced English course, lest his identity as A Good Writer be challenged.  If someone with a fixed mindset is good at algebra, but struggles with calculus proofs, she will give up after trying for only a short while because she will assume she can’t do it.  And if I have a fixed mindset about pole dancing, when I see someone who is stronger, more flexible, or more graceful; more advanced in any way than I am, that person challenges my identity as A Good Pole Dancer because I am not as good at pole dancing as she is.  I would feel envious because I would feel inferior and wish that I was that good.

If I have a growth mindset, on the other hand, I will recognize that I continue to improve in proportion to the effort I put in.  If I want to be able to deadlift my shoulder mount, I have to be willing to try and fail over and over and over again with the faith that someday I’ll succeed.  I have to be willing to ask for help from people who are better at shoulder mounting than I am.  I have to understand that it takes hard work, and time, and sometimes the luck of discovering that one little tweak that makes everything fall into place.  And I must remind myself that everyone begins in different places, and everyone progresses at different rates.  I have to resist the temptation to compare what I’ve worked on for a few months with what someone else has been working on for years.

Envy is motivated by the fear that limitations in our abilities reflect limitations in our personal worth.  But abilities are not fixed — they expand or contract with the effort we apply to them — and more importantly, worth does not come from what we can or can’t do.  Any belief to the contrary is dehumanizing, and therefore thoroughly contemptible in my view.  Personal worth is not awarded or revoked, it is inherent.  It flows from our humanity.  We are all worthy of love and belonging, as one of my most admired public figures, Brene Brown, says.

So here’s my challenge to you.  If you feel envious of a fellow poler because she or he is stronger, more flexible, more graceful, etc. than you, take a moment to realize that this person’s abilities do not make you inferior.  You are worthy of love and belonging no matter what.  Then realize that this person wasn’t magically awarded that ability, but that they have spent hours upon hours of hard work to achieve their current state.  Sure, people have predispositions to be better at some things than others, but no one is born an expert pole dancer.  Instead of allowing envy to make you feel inferior, transform it into inspiration, and then get to work.  When you can, ask for advice from people who’s abilities you admire — they have probably learned a thing or two from their own experience.  And remember, you are not your abilities — you are a human being.