When Sport Meets Art

Pole Dancing a Misunderstood Discipline

Courtesy Omar Le Homard

Making the way up the elevators of this newly renovated apartment building in Outremont, one notices the modern look of the studio Alyssa Da Silva lives in. Fitted with everything a studio needs—except for the eight-foot metal pole reaching from floor to ceiling directly in the middle of the apartment. “I installed it there myself,” Da Silva said proudly. 

"When people think pole dance, they think strippers, then they think sex work, which is a hell of a stretch,” said Da Silva. She explained that pole dancing is a full-body workout: it is resistance training and cardio. It also requires rhythm, agility, flexibility and strength while looking effortlessly beautiful.  

Da Silva started pole dancing a little bit over a year ago at Studio Milan, located on the Plateau Mont-Royal. “It looked interesting, and I had a few friends who wanted to try it as well,” said Da Silva. “I’m the only one who stuck with it and decided to go up the different levels. I ended up loving it so much. Each new figure that I would learn made me want to get better at it.”

“I grew up playing sports with my brothers and my father, I was a bit of a tomboy, […] it's funny that I am so into pole-dancing nowadays, it allowed me to explore that more feminine and gracious side of me,” she said. 

In a pole dancing class, instructors will teach you how to do different positions and motions on the pole, which become increasingly complex as you go up levels. From there, combinations of figures and choreography are added making it the beautiful show that pole dancing can be.

Joanie Coutu is a 28 year-old pole dancer and an instructor at Studio Vexial, a business Coutu and her partner, Nadine Gagnon, started in 2017. Located in the Charlemagne neighbourhood, the studio provides services such as private or in-group pole dancing classes, aerial hoop classes and aerial silk classes. 

According to Coutu, there are three main categories of pole dancing: fitness, arts and exotic pole dancing. “In the fitness sections, that’s where competition pole-dancing and workout pole-dancing exists, you will see the performers dressed a little bit like gymnasts,” she explained. “[Artistic] pole dancing is any performance where a pole dancer is there, a lot of time some choreography of ballet or contemporary dance will be incorporated, and the pole dancer will be dressed a little bit like a ballerina or contemporary dancer […] Exotic pole-dancing is where the pole dancers are wearing high heels, and where there is more focus on sensuality, usually found in strip clubs.”

“To practice pole dancing, you need to develop strength and certain muscles that other workouts don’t target,” shared Coutu, who believes pole dancing is a discipline to be taken seriously. “You need to be strong to hold yourself on the pole, so going to the gym a couple of times a week to get stronger while pole-dancing is recommended.”

Coutu considers the stigma around the sport to prevent the discipline from entering into more serious spaces. [Pole dancing] has aspects of sports and beauty, but the distinctions need to be made in people’s minds,” said Coutu. She hopes that the sport will eventually enter the Olympics. “At any pole dancing competition, there are judges and criteria to be met, a certain number of figures to execute properly to get points,” explained Coutu. “If you think about it, it’s not that different from gymnastics.” 

A 31 year-old mother of two, Marjorie Poirier is an unexpected pole dancer. She said she joined Coutu’s studio a little over seven months ago, after years of a sedentary lifestyle. 

“I never thought I would fall in love with pole dancing the way I did,” said Poirier. “Now, I am entering my first competition, not even a year after I first started the discipline.”

Coutu and Poirier went on to participate in the Pole Sports Organization, one of the world’s largest pro-am competitions. The competition happened in Boston on the weekend of Nov. 19 and 20, 2022. Poirier finished in third place.

“Eleven months ago, I was 50 pounds heavier and I wasn’t practicing any sports,” Poirier stated in a Facebook post following the event. “Today, I performed on stage in front of the public and a jury of judges for my first fitness pole competition after only practicing this sport for six months. […] I landed in third place, a huge accomplishment when I look back at it!” 

Very small shorts and tops are the appropriate outfit for pole dancing since the skin has to stick to the metal pole to be able to hold yourself on it: “I was a bit nervous and I thought people might judge or give me looks, but the experience turned out to be the exact opposite. The environment was so diverse and inclusive, people with all body types and all ages were there”, said Poirier.  

According to Coutu, pole dancing is very in demand in all types of spheres, and is now more inclusive than ever: “Thanks to social media, I have people contacting me for all sorts of gigs. Sometimes an artist needs a pole dancer in a video; sometimes a musical event, like a concert, wants pole dancers accompanying the musicians on stage; one time I needed to train an actor on the pole because of the stunts he was going to have to do in a movie. I have to turn down gigs nowadays!” said Coutu.

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 9, published January 10, 2023.