“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”
When Erin Hanson wrote these 12 words I am pretty sure she was not thinking about pole dancing. It is, however, a quote that gets thrown around a lot in the studio as people muster the courage to try a new move. Instead of focusing on the risks, it channels our energy into looking at the possibilities.
This approach is great in helping people reach outside their comfort zone and overcome self doubt, but sometimes it is important to understand the dangers.
Falling from a pole can be serious. I’ve fallen a number of times, once from about 2 meters up, head first, giving myself a concussion. I was off pole for a fortnight and it has been a long road to recovery, especially when asked to revisit the transition that caused me to fall.
Our focus on “what if you fly?” appears to have allowed pole dancers to skip over important details in learning how to fall safely. We dance on with the mantra of “well you just don’t fall”. In other disciplines one of the first elements of training involves learning how to fall. Martial artists, parkour athletes, circus performers, and stilt walkers, all train their bodies to fall safely in controlled environments, building muscle memory patterns and understanding of body mechanics to help them if they ever encounter an accidental fall.
Aside from this article from a silks performer, discussions about safety while pole dancing seem to be limited. Suggestions include to use a spotter, have adequate grip aid, and ensuring your pole is installed properly.
These are important tips, but all the Dry Hands in the world is not going to save you if your legs suddenly stop holding on when you’re upside-down. Being tired, over-training, or not understanding the right contact points of a pole trick, can all be causes of serious accidents.
Let’s talk about how to fall properly.
Breaking your fall
It is a natural instinct to put your hands out to save you during a fall, but when you’re pole dancing, there are usually safer alternatives. Our wrists are made up of hundreds (edit: only 8 it seems, but all still delicate!) of delicate bones, and although breaking your fall this way will save your head hitting the ground, coming down hard on your hands may cause serious wrist injuries that will hinder your future pole dancing.
Depending on the nature of your fall on the pole, you might have the opportunity to grab hold on the way down, slowing your descent, or allow you to re-position your body to fall on you butt instead of your hands or head. An author talking about how to fall safely when inline skating makes note of which body parts are safer to fall on than others. Landing on “one side of your buttocks and the thigh, not the fragile tailbone area, [will] … absorb the majority of the impact. The bone in your thigh is the biggest, strongest bone in your body, and since it is supported by lots of muscle and connective tissue, it is your best support system in the event of a fall.”
Depending on the height of your fall you will probably still get a nasty bruise from landing this way. A bruise, however, is a lot easier to heal than a broken tail bone. Emotionally too, your recovery time after a fall with a safe landing will be much quicker than the roller coaster of fear and anxiety caused by breaking bones after a serious fall.
In this video I fell out of an extended butterfly. Grabbing on to the pole, I managed to re-position myself into a shoulder mount position, stabilizing the fall and allowing myself to dismount into a seated position on the floor. All of this happened through instinct. There was no conscious process of telling myself that a reverse shoulder mount would save me. But I was thankful that my strength training, knowledge of various grips and positions, and body awareness took over and quickly found a familiar position that stopped my head hitting the floor. My friend’s watching even wondered if I had invented a new combo! But no, you tell as I catch my breath at the end that my lucky save surprised myself!
The Brace Position
Let’s consider that even with a crash mat you can still hurt yourself by falling the wrong way. Coming down on your head, neck, wrists or knees can cause serious injuries as these joints and connective tissue are not strong enough to take the impact of a fall.
Five years ago there was an incident where a pole dancer was paralyzed from a bad fall from a Cross Knee Release. If you find yourself slipping in this position tuck your chin to your chest, so the point of impact will be across your shoulders instead of the on the delicate bones in your neck. You can practice this movement to make it habit by dismounting with control from the CKR position. Hold onto the pole with your hands, or place your hands on the floor in a handstand position. As you slide yourself towards the floor, tuck you chin to chest and let your shoulders touch the floor first. From here you can use your hands to stabilize as you take your legs off the pole and to the side, allowing your body to roll out into a supine position.
If you find yourself coming down face first, your can brace yourself with your elbows and forearms in front of your face, and use your arms to help you roll to the side protecting you face and neck. At first this seemed counter intuitive to me, however it makes more sense when you understand how to roll with the fall.
Roll With It
Imagine you are in a headstand away from the wall. To exit the position you can lower your legs down to a straddle or a crouch and then sit up. But if you overbalance, what is the safest way to exit?
Chin to chest and roll out.
Here is a video of me practicing this dismount. The momentum from the roll may even allow you to come back up to your feet, the energy flowing through your body rather than impacting on your joints.
Returning to the “face first” fall off the pole, if you use your forearms to push away from the floor, tuck your chin to your chest making sure the and try to land on your shoulders as you roll out, you will protect your face, head and neck, and finish the fall on your butt or feet depending on the amount of momentum. It’s like a forward roll, creating sideways momentum to exit safely rather than the energy compacting your joints through downward pressure. In an ideal case your head would also not contact with the floor at all.
Remember though, instincts often take over and landing statically with your hands out will put a lot of strain on your wrists. Practice this forward roll dismount with a spotter in a controlled way, learning the body positions and direction of the fall.
My research into falling techniques lead me to many articles from martial artists. One of the key elements of their fall training, involves being relaxed and moving with the breath. You can imagine that a stiff, tense body is not going to roll or move with the direction of the fall. A relaxed body guided by an exhale will flow with the roll and be less likely to snap or break.
Our nerves and concentration when up the pole often cause us to hold our breath during pole tricks. If you were to fall at this point your body would be tense. Remembering to breathe through your movements on the pole and on the floor will help you stay relaxed and be more prepared for a fall if it is to happen.
On a final note from this author,
“There are no great falling techniques, but there are good ones. A good fall leaves you conscious, alert, with nothing broken, major lump and abrasion free”
Even if you come away from a fall unscathed, it can still affect your confidence. Hopefully this article will help you and other pole dancers start to train for falls, so they simply become stepping stones and not road blocks in our dance journey.
We all want to get back up and fly!