My fellowship follows my master research in social anthropology. I studied pole dancing as a leisure activity in France and analyzed gender issues related to it. This investigation interrogated pole dancers’ motivations and representations. In France, it is depicted by consumers as sporty, tough, beautiful, feminine, and empowering.
Pole dancing became a fitness activity during 1990’s but it remains bound to striptease from where it came from. In a recurrent movement of rejection, polers tend to link it with other practices such as circus. However, the essence of recreational pole dancing retains a sensual, danced, transgressive aspect.
Nowadays, it is institutionalized through international federations and is turned into a sport. It’s erotic aspect is evacuated. It persists however under a second form called exotic pole –less popular in France--which is anchored in a more sensual style and aesthetic. In schools, pole dance is erected according to sporting standards : the pole submits female and male bodies to similar constraints, but movements are always thought through the two poles of masculinity and femininity. It is a strongly feminized activity but men participate according to an often adapted style. It is moreover by the masculinization of the practice that it became recognized as a sport by adding new movements.
Pole dancing allows for a special way of dealing with gender. It allows physical, artistic performances but also gender performativity. Pole dance shows that todays’ trend is not as much the abolition of the poles between masculinity and femininity but an articulation of them through the appropriation of gender characteristics, thus challenging heteronormativity and hegemonic gender considerations. The aim is to recreate masculinities and femininities through the performance “revisited” by offering more freedom without suffering from stigmatization in this space of controlled expression.
As my research progressed, my attention turned to Japan, a country where pole dancing has a strong presence and is associated with notions of spectacle and performance in a very artistic way but also with strong gender fluidity in its practice. While in France (as in most Western countries) its sexualized aspect is depreciated and its sports and gymnastic sides have become hegemonic, it seems that in Japan, the erotic aspect is often cultivated by both women and men, often by investing in androgynous figures. Eventually, research on pole dance allows us to articulate the fundamental question of the relationship between body cultures -in terms of appearance and physical capacity- and the construction of gender identities.
In Japan I continued the researched carried out in France. I used similar methods :
- Participative observation : I went to 5 different pole dancing studios in Tokyo, one in Kyoto and one in Osaka and took courses from beginner to advanced level.
- Observation : I saw pole dance performance in showcases and show clubs
- Interviews : I did formal interviews with pole dancers and gathered informal conversations.
- Literature reviewing
As a non-Japanese speaker, I also could focus on the use of the body. Observation was my main way to understand the practice. I recorded the interviews on audio files and all my observations in a fieldwork notebook.
Two months is quite short for this kind of study but I achieved some interesting results. First, pole dancing in Japan suffers less from its erotic image as polers don’t totally separate it from fitness practice. A lot of pole dancers achieving an advanced level are involved in cabaret, show clubs and bars, but also perform in showcases. Pole dancing in clubs doesn’t have a long history in Japan and it began not long before the leisure practice. Therefore, pole dancing has little connections with striptease as performers rarely undress but it is sometimes combined with other performances as drag queen or belly dance. Shows are common and choreography is an important part of learning. Pole dancing is more considered as a dancing performance, not far from ballet, including costumes, music and acting than just a sporty activity. Also, that’s why during classes the emphasis is on flexibility and fluidity rather than on physical preparation and strength. Pole dancing performance also allows gender fluidity as both men and women are involved in the practice using similar movements and style. Each performance identity depends less on the performer’s gender than on his/her personality.