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Secretly Banished From Pole: One Man’s Story

Secretly Banished from Pole: One Man’s Story

{Editor’s Note: Bill reached out to me to share his story. As a woman, I never thought of how difficult it was for a “conventional” straight man to be in a pole class — particularly in the more sexy side of our sport/hobby/love. Should men pole? I believe so although recently, I’ve also been encouraged that women should be able to maintain their own “sacred spaces” within our community away from men and also children. Is there a way for everyone to co-exist? Can we find a middle ground that allows everyone’s joy without setting up boundaries that separate instead of celebrating? Please share your thoughts.  This blog is reposted from original personal blog with permission.}

Today is my birthday.

I’m writing this story to my pole-friends, to explain why they may not see me again, and why no one can tell them why. I’ve been removed from the usual Facebook page, and can’t go to the studio any more. I know them as faces and waists and hair, both right-side up and upside-down. Black fonts and white pixels don’t do us justice. But writing is the only form of communication I have left.

The story is not about me, but perhaps about my being one of the very few conventionally straight men dedicated to pole dance. It could easily happen again to any man as long as pole, men, and lawyers still exist. Because of these problems, a close-knit community could again be choked. Anyone interested in that intersection is welcome to read this essay and forward its link to other like-minded types, whether pole dancer or not. But I do NOT want my personal story selectively clipped and re-posted as sound-bites, memes, or hashtags, especially by people who haven’t pole-danced themselves, or haven’t understood stigma. Some of this is difficult enough to talk about already. I want people to hear all of me, like they can see all of me in pole.

Background

Pole dancing changed my life. A few years ago I discovered my body has some serious pelvic mis-alignment, “inactive core” etc. etc., and I resolved to use chiropractic, massage, and training to undo the problem. (Medical details are here). As part of that quest I started pole-dancing at a local studio a bit over three years ago. I’m a theoretical biophysicist, so when I say “pole is the perfect sport” I mean it very specifically: climbing on and twisting around a pole provides more and better sensorimotor feedback than any other sport I can think of, using every possible joint and patch of skin in every possible way. It’s been exactly what my body needs.

It’s also what my soul needs. Uber-geeks like me don’t usually talk about “soul,” but being taught to move in ways which felt shameful (or physically arousing, take your pick) in an encouraging community has opened me to a kind of wordless interpersonal connection I never thought I could share with a whole group at once. When I became the first guy allowed to take the slinky “dancey” classes, I never looked back. Dancing together feels physically more like community than any other experience I have known. I’ve been a guy’s-guy all my life, yet none of my male friends have any idea what it’s like. Six days ago, during an afternoon private lesson in the studio, my instructor and I agreed I’m one of the luckiest guys around for “getting” this. We have been working on a duet for several months.

Pole became my addiction. Soon after starting, my wife and I were in Los Angeles with the studio owner, cheering on our nationally-ranked homegirl. I’ve trained and taken workshops with more internationally-ranked athletes than I can remember. I’ve visited the Mecca of pole, “Body and Pole”, in New York, and was greeted heartily by friends from here. I’ve had dinner with a national champion in Vegas, and hosted another as a houseguest. Over the course of a week, right before my first competition in Seattle last November, four instructors at once critiqued me on dance after dance, teaching me not only to keep my eyes open while dancing, but to make eye-contact with the audience and feel the dance meanwhile. What a challenge!

But worth it. I performed well (Level 4 Freedance), and received a Bronze medal in the Master’s category. So I may be the oldest male pole medalist in the country, I don’t know (and don’t much care). More important to me, one of the instructors who helped me, competing on the same stage, won the highest honor. Watching her routine and hearing her name called was amazing.

What just happened

Last week I was the luckiest guy in the world, savoring being allowed to dance just how my body wants in a room of others doing the same. Yesterday morning, on the way to my favorite morning class with my favorite instructor, the studio owner intercepted me with an unusually stiff formality, took me to a private room (with one witness), and explained that a formal complaint had been filed, and that I was no longer welcome in the studio. She and I both understand the Silicon Valley business world, so I pressed for information every way I could: Who filed the complaint? What was alleged? Did I do anything wrong? When will the ban be over, are there any appeals? To each and every question I got the same response: neither she nor anyone in the studio can talk about it. All of them are under “non-disclosure,” which means if anyone says anything, the whole studio can be sued out of existence. I believe people from the studio who say this path is the only one possible for them, so even asking anyone at the studio what happened regarding me puts a whole community in legal jeopardy.

I’ll get to what I think happened in a moment, but first what I’m certain about. I sent an email to the studio owner, offering my wife’s help in hosting a “healing circle” to help my transition out of the community I’ve come to love, and asking that the email be forwarded at least to my instructors if not to my fellow students. No response yet. I posted the same good-bye offer on the Facebook group, but when I logged in this morning I was no longer a member. Again, no warning. I suspect that the studio owner is not even allowed to contact me, but I can’t even be sure of that, because (of course!) she isn’t allowed to say anything.

I have a pole in my house, but I’ve discovered that I don’t use it much unless others are around; I think the feedback from other people motivates me. If I can find some people to dance with here, I’ll probably be able to continue, but this studio has been perfect for me: it’s a seven-minute drive from my house, it has lots of classes, it’s big, and I know the people there, and they know me. You can’t just replace a three-year relationship overnight. I truly don’t know yet what I’m going to do to fill this void. It may take awhile.

Speculations

So my mind has been spinning overtime, not just about what I’ll do, but wondering what happened, and why. As a matter of principle I take pole to get away from thinking too much. But I’m good at thinking, and trying to figure out a puzzle with no clues whatsoever is the kind of challenge that mesmerizes me, especially if, by finding out the deep incentives, I can help other communities avoid the same fate. So pardon me while I go into nerd-mode…

Nerds like me remember a scene from one of the Star Wars movies in which Yoda deduces the power and sneakiness of an adversary from a mysteriously missing group of stars in the galactic map. This problem is similar: what can one deduce if no one can say anything at all? Quite a lot, actually. They key is that they are under some kind of legal order, what former Silicon Valley executives (like me) would call a “non-disclosure agreement” (NDA). The studio owner never said the word “agreement” (I was listening for it), but I know that only a signed legal contract could have enough force to keep an otherwise good communicator mum. So the next question is, how could such a contract come into being? Could such a contract be written so cleverly the owner is not even allowed to acknowledge the very existence of the contract which constrains her? Could it be a legal “cloak of invisibility”?

My best guess is that the studio owner is indeed bound by a contract so draconian that it not only forced her to do something she very much did not want to, but forbids her from saying anything about it. If that happened to me I would regard it as the ninth circle of hell. Having bad done to you is bad enough; being forced to do bad is worse; being forced to do so with no chance to even explain yourself could trap someone in a horrible form of loneliness. I feel for her. Even though I can’t be sure this happened, given the utter lack of information it’s my best-educated guess. (Two very sharp lawyer friends said it’s entirely plausible).

Most pole dancers regard pole studios as communities more than as businesses. But communities thrive on trust and communication. Unfortunately, non-disclosure agreements–especially the ones which cloak their own existence–insert their legal constraints into all kinds of personal situations, and sow mistrust and uncertainly everywhere. You never know who is hiding something, or even who is required to hide something. It’s hard enough to guard one’s every word when one is “under NDA” about technology. It would be almost impossible to discuss one’s friends and relationships under that constraint. By prohibiting honesty, NDA agreements prevent communities from healing. I sincerely hope that community-minded business adopt countermeasures, such as employment agreements encouraging mediation and specifically prohibiting NDA’s of any kind. (I would love to write an article for studio owners and pole enthusiasts explaining this dilemma in detail).

Who did it? My lawyer friends also said the complaint probably came from an employee, rather than a customer, since employees have far more rights (say regarding a “safe work environment”) than customers do. It’s hard to imagine how an upset customer could have the leverage to force a studio owner to kick out an apparently-popular and certaintly lucrative customer like me; I believe that only a threatened lawsuit could do that, and the most likely law to invoke would be employment law. Since businesses are insured for this kind of risk, there is an excellent chance that money was involved, possibly even lots of money.

Why me in particular? Again, the invisibility-cloak contract invites me–nay, forces me–to make educated guesses. While I’m lost in dance, I feel like a creature swimming in a sea of my fellows. But from the outside, I’m a bald middle-aged guy wearing almost nothing, gyrating and grinding in a room of women, watching them like they watch me. Understandably, some women can feel threatened by that, and many women are in pole studios precisely to get away from men, in one way or another.

Unfortunately, my understanding of the law is that in many legal situations, a man’s physical motion and appearance might count as evidence of sexual intent. To me, how I move in pole class reflects how my body feels, not my plans or expectations. But the fact that the law could in principle deduce my interpersonal intentions from my dance suddenly gives a potential lawsuit teeth, and makes me even wonder if I myself an at risk from legal action. My lawyer friend confirms it is absolutely possible an employee felt threatened merely by my presence.

This situation seems to put all coed studios into a vulnerable legal position. On the one hand, pole dance originated in strip clubs as a physical practice in a sexually charged environment. On the other hand, a man acting, dressing, and moving like a pole dancer in a studio–absent any actual wrongdoing–on its own seems to make a workplace vulnerable to lawsuits. See the problem?

This situation also makes my own life difficult. In the eyes of the law, of course, I am only a customer who paid for lessons offered by a business. From my point of view, I am a member-in-good-standing of a social group which enjoys a certain kind of fun together, an ongoing multi-faceted relationship rather than a pay-for-service contract. So when my privileges as a customer were revoked, a large portion of my social life was yanked out from under me both in physical space and in virtual space. Instant excommunication.

But who complained in my case, and why? This is where my speculation runs dry. I’ve known and taken classes from many of the instructors for years. Although I’ve been told that customers are sometimes put off by my body, I’ve never heard even a hint that I have done anything wrong, or that any of the instructors objected. I was just pole dancing as they taught me, after all.

My unpleasant provisional conclusion is that some instructor (I hope not one I like), with the help of an exceptionally clever lawyer, decided to threaten an unsafe-workplace lawsuit on the knowledge that no studio could afford to defend any lawsuit, much less one involving a middle-aged man in a charged female environment. As my friend said, the prospects of successful litigation are not about whether the women in the studio think it’s OK, but whether a conservative old judge thinks so. I am certain that such a lawsuit would be a credible threat, and in the face of such a threat the studio must settle.

The cleverness of this hypothetical lawyer is evident in two facts. First, I have not actually been accused of anything, even in private, so I may very well have no right to respond or “clear my name.” Second, the fact that non-disclosure prevents any employee from discussing anything at all means that the person who filed the complaint remains invisible; everyone, including those who know and disapprove of the complaint, would be forbidden to identify her.

I know that non-disclosure is intended to protect employees (and insurance companies) from retribution and unwanted publicity, but in this case it also may protect against revealing successful extortion attempts. And it means I’ll never be able to know which of the many people I danced with, and trusted, used my private expression to hurt the studio. Again, genius lawyering. Without information one must speculate, yet speculations (however logical and well-informed) always seem, well, speculative.

I have no idea what individual started this, and it doesn’t matter. An unfortunate tangle of misunderstanding, anatomy, and legal precedent has tugged itself into a tight stuck knot, represented by a question full of contradictions which still might show up anywhere:

What kind of pole instructor is so afraid of men she has to threaten her employer, banish a long-time dancer, and force secrecy about her triumph?

What’s next

Pole isn’t the only dance community I love. My wife and I are also supporting our local “Ecstatic Dance.” Most every Sunday morning several dozen of us dance freely on a beautiful sunny ballroom floor, moving whichever way we want on the two-hour journey the DJ weaves with sound. The rules are simple: No shoes, No judgment, No words, Move as you want. I know this as a dancer and a scientist: autonomous motion feels wonderful, and heals everyone. And the resonance among dancers forges the same feeling of “family” as in churches, pole, and yoga studios. If you see enough of people’s bodies, enough times, you learn to know them.

I have fantasized about a similar approach to pole-dance. What if the ballroom had several poles, and everyone could climb or twirl as well as bump and cartwheel? What if we danced and only danced, without words, all two hours long, no questions or tricks to learn, just motion? A gifted pole instructor and a gifted DJ could together create the most nourishing dance-container possible. I’d love to rent a studio to try it out.

I’ve also sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a pre-funeral, to gather all one’s friends together in one place to say how much they mean to you, but while you’re still alive. It’s just too bad you have to die first to see everyone in one place. I think this is a time like that for me, although right now I can’t even see you, only type. I’d rather dance. The deepest moments of connection I’ve ever felt have been in a room of beautifully-moving dancers, every toe-twitch and back-arch singing to the same song. Upright snakes, winding our spines around the poles, enjoying life itself. I’ve never felt so human. I miss us.

Bill Softky
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This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. This is horrific and I’m not sure why any of it legal!

    I was the first guy in the UK to open his own pole studio, so all of my classes have been mixed forever. Too many places have clung on too long to the women’s only atmosphere.

    I hope you find another studio who would be greatful to have such a keen student xx

  2. I happened upon this when I found out there was a convention going on across from the hotel I was staying at this weekend. My heart breaks for Bill. It’s clear he’s very passionate about his dancing and while to many outsiders it might seem unusual, it’s something that has clearly helped him greatly and made a big difference in his life. For someone to take that away from him is horrible. I hope he can find some way to find a solution or some other way to practice his art. As an IT person myself, I often struggle to be seen as an “artist” or as someone with real emotion so I can understand how Bill must feel. I hope it gets better.

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