CategoryBlog

Same Same, But Different

Last month the International Pole Championships brought the best of the best to the world stage. Live streams and social media stories allowed even those across the globe to watch each routine. As I sat there with my laptop perched on my knees, red wine in hand, the next routine started … “I know this song!”

Not only did I recognise the song, I had also choreographed my own routine to it. The waves of joy and appreciation I felt as I watched the competition were then mixed with nostalgia, memories, and connection. Hanka Venselaar … we speak the same language.

Across five years pole dancing in Sydney I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to perform over 15 self choreographed routines.Not only did the studio host regular showcase nights, but we also had access to a theatre venue once or twice per year, allowing us mere mortals to grace the stage and get at taste for the limelight.

Choosing a song for these performances was always so hard. I read over people’s playlists for pole and usually roll my eyes. They were just not my style.

So when I watch competition pieces it is rare to find such a connection with an artist. Tricks are always impressive, flow is inspiring, but when someone perhaps feels something that you feel …. priceless!

In hip-hop culture there are constant references to other artists. A title of a song included in a lyric, a sample from a record inspiring a whole new flow from a new MC. There appears to be less of a threat of copyright infringement and more an appreciation for each other’s talents. Don’t hide your source, name and fame them!

Not to say here that I expect Hanka Venselaar to have seen my performance from 2016. Or to understand how important that piece would become in my growth as a dancer and aerialist. That is not why I write this article.

Dancers, especially from pole, sometimes feel that revisiting a song that someone else has danced too, is the wrong thing to do. What if we changed our perspective to see just how many different interpretations of a song there could be? Not to make them hierarchical, not for the sake of for better or worse, but to learn, to grow, and to be encouraged to also think … more?!?

It is for this reason I have selected to play myself and Hanka Venselaar side by side (or at least simultaneously, my video editing skills only got me so far hahaha). My dance, from 2016, a part time pole dancer of five years, with a number of performances under her belt but far from a professional. And Hanka Venselaar, a competitor in the International Pole Championships and who has tens of titles and a lifetime of experience in aerial arts.

This video was created as a comparative exploration and should in no way diminish or criticise either performance. This one minute sample is from the same piece of music, matched identically as we both reach the climax and move towards the end of the song.

I have the utmost respect for Hanka Venselaar and the other competitors from the International Pole Championship 2018 and believe this platform for pole dance adds value and greater understanding to the idea of pole dance as art. The pole dance community supports creativity, diversity, and unique expression. This video compilation explores how one song, interpreted by two unique and creative minds can lay a foundation for a dance that is both very similar yet entirely different.
Personally, I am elated to find a dancer that shares a certain musical taste and I hope, if Hanka Venselaar sees this, she will have witness how her movements and dance inspire others involved in aerial arts.

May we forge a path of shared vision and shared passion, collaboration over exclusion and judgment. The tens of thousands of pole videos now dancing through the Internet have created a library of people’s stories. The threads of music and songs that now join dancers together throughout the years and across the other side of the world are just waiting to be discovered.

Happy dancing! 🙂

 

Musing on Beginnings

One of the most appealing aspects of the pole dance community is how vibrant and diverse it is. You can be a classic pole dancer, stripper, lyrical dancer, rock’n’pole star, or explore any niche that takes your fancy. Within this, you can also adapt any trick and make it your own. Bend a leg, add a new hand gesture, hold on with your ankle instead of your knee, the innovation is endless and this freedom supports so many people in being able to join and be accepted.

As I find myself in a more aerial world these days, I keep remembering how great this exploration of diversity was. How enlivening it was to just freestyle and play on pole. I cannot wait until I feel as free and creative on silks and hoop that I used to on pole. An old adage is finding it’s way through however, as I realize that it’s not until you know you the rules that you are able to break them!

Being a beginner on hammock, silks, and hoop is an amazing learning experience, but I do sometimes feel trapped by my limited knowledge. With only a handful of tricks up my sleeve, and so much conscious effort going into remembering how to do them, I find it hard to find space to let them flow and evolve. My pole dance background has put me in a position to learn other aerial arts quickly, but as much as hoop and pole, silks and hammock can be similar there are just as many differences and nuances that make each unique and challenging.

“It will all come in time” I keep telling myself, but I’m so eager to return to that space where I used to dance. When all the moves were so familiar that the spaces in between became so much more interesting. That is where the creativity is! I encountered this same learning curve with traditional dance classes. The structures of ballet and the poses of contemporary dance were so overwhelming that I just stopped, completely hindered by my lack of ability to just flow. I know it’s worth persisting, but some days feel easier than others.

I am writing this as a musing of my current circumstances, but also as a reminder to myself as I explore the role of teaching beginners. Too much freedom and too much information can lead to confusion. As a teacher it is important to find a balance between “sticking to the syllabus” so to speak. and encouraging students to make something their own. I don’t want to overwhelm a student with too many rules about how a pose should be. And I think aerial dance is the perfect community to share an acceptance of diversity of body shapes, performance styles, and freedom of expression.

This is still part of my personal experience. I choreographed a silks routine with a friend, incorporating a few doubles tricks and interchanging combos. We both have different strengths and were very accepting that the combos were going to look different when performed by each of us. I am incredibly proud of the end result and believe that the variations in our movements add to the quality of the finished product. I really hope to be able to perform this routine with her once again!

But, there is something nice about tradition, and being able to recognise things that are the same, as markers of your own progress and connections to a community.

I think about my teachers in the past. I followed the same yoga teacher for over 10 years, attracted to his playfulness and innovation. Yes we did Sun Salutations and Warrior poses, but we also did cartwheels, dynamic jumping transitions, and ballet! My favourite pole teachers had a way of making everyone feel successful. They started the class with the aim to teach a move and at the end of class we all had our own slight variations and probably understood the move better for it.

Wearing multiple hats as a teacher may be useful here, and having space to perform for students – and share your creativity – as well as teach, and share the basics. Inspiring students to look beyond the studio and find other dancers that they like is also part of the package, allowing the teacher to gain insight into the student’s motivations and ideas.

Starting a studio was always going to be a huge learning curve. Starting it in Cambodia was only part of it! Realizing what you really want to achieve is the next step.

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Check out our studio on Facebook and Instagram, or keep up to date with my dancing on my personal pages –

Mel Nutter as Baudelaire on Facebook and on Instagram

Spin City Instructor Training – Review

Aerialists and dancers are constantly bombarded with information and advice about training techniques. Stories flood forums with personal accounts of how someone got their splits in just 6 weeks, or how this one rehab exercise supported their recovery. It should be common sense to take such advice with caution and always compare it to research and personal experience before taking up someone else’s training practice. However, it can be all too easy to carried away in the excitement, and forget to consult the experts when it comes to body mechanics, anatomy, and strength and flexibility training.

Seeking to update my skill set and learn from the best in the business, I recently signed up for Instructor Training provided by Spin City Aerial Fitness. They offer a range of courses for pole dance and hoop, as well as training programs for burlesque, aerial fabric, stretching, and anatomy.

This review is focused on the online Stretching and Flexibility for Pole and Aerial course as of January 2018.

Spin City offer face to face as well as online courses, allowing students to complete training at their own pace and from the comfort of their own homes. Their courses are internationally accredited and provide ongoing support post-training including access to a huge library of training resources, manuals, tutorials, and workshops to ensure your skills are always up to date and in line with current best practice.

The material is thorough and full of practical ideas to incorporate into a pole or aerial class, or for cross training at home. If you are already an instructor it may only take you a few weekends to work through the modules in the Stretching and Flexibility for Pole and Aerial course and a following hour or so for revision and assessment. For someone new to pole and aerial training or with little knowledge of anatomy and body work, you may need more time to work through each unit. The team at Spin City generously give you 12 months to complete the course after signing up, so even if lots of life gets in the way, anyone and everyone should be able to manage to fit it in to their schedule.

The Best Parts

– Online training can sometimes be hit or miss with connectivity issues and bad design. This was, however, not the case with Spin City! The team have ensured that nothing is overlooked and you are even assigned a mentor at the beginning who is available for all of your questions about the course. The interface is seamless and caters to various learning styles with integrated videos streaming from Vimeo to supplement the written material.

– The online presentations compliment a PDF of the Stretching and Flexibility Manual which you can download and print off. I loved this as it is not always preferable to read on the screen. My print out is now covered in notes and highlights and I can take it to the mat or studio to work through the sequences. You also get teaching notes for leading a class in a variety of stretches and the videos are all still accessible after you complete the course to ensure you never forget how to complete each stretch or exercise.

– Spin City have ensured that all types of stretching are covered, dispelling the myths about how to stretch effectively. They talk about foam rolling, PNF, CR, as well as cite case studies outlining how different techniques worked for people with different body types and different training requirements. There is no one size fits all and it is great that Spin City stress this point, allowing instructors to develop an open mind when sharing skills and techniques with their students.

– Videos! Dancers are usually very kinesthetic learners. We like to actually do it, not just talk about it or read about it. The team at Spin City have created very clear videos so you can see the exercises in action. There are also hundreds of photographs in the manual to help explain what the positions and stretches look like, including partner stretches. My only additional comment here is that I would have like some verbal instruction to be included in the videos – for example, reminders about keeping the pelvis tucked in this stretch, or notes about using the breath to support going deeper. Lots of this information is in the slides, but hearing it while seeing it in action can really help you connect to the areas of your body as you are engaged in the stretch.

The Details

Spin City offer a range of courses for pole dance and hoop, as well as burlesque, aerial fabric, stretching, and anatomy. The courses range from £89 (about $116 USD) to £295  (about $400 USD). Choose a course that is right for you here.

You are given 12 months to complete the courses online, and get to do a mock assessment before embarking on the real thing. Spin City have structured the course to support your success! Failing is not really an option, as it is more about learning and providing the safest and most effective advice about stretching and flexibility training to reduce injury and make better dance teachers.

After you complete the course you will also receive a certificate in the mail and a digital stamp to include on your studio’s website or personal instructor page. Spin City’s approach to training and teaching is effective, organised, and professional, allowing you to trust them for your first course and right through your career in physical fitness.

On a final noted, I personally liked how the courses acts as a great reminder of the fundamental movement skills that are sometimes forgotten in the endless quests for the best tricks. Consider your pole and aerial goals that you have just set for yourself at the beginning of this year, and consider how many of those nemesis tricks would be more achievable with a more effective approach to stretching and flexibility training.

Read more about Spin City courses here.

Pole Mates

Pole Mate [pohl-meyt] (noun): A person who loves pole dancing as much as you do and who is always in class to encourage you, laugh with you, remind you to point your toes, take photos of your progress, and photo bomb all of your shots with booty shaking and crazy dancing!

It has always amazed me how quickly people bonded in pole class. Unlike making friends in other contexts, the factors that bring together two people as they swing around upside-down can lead to a magical friendship. And when a non-pole-friend becomes a pole mate too, this is something extra special!

One of the most talked about reasons for encouraging people to take up pole is the sense of community that grows from studios and pole classes. For women and men, these friendships boost self confidence, increase motivation, teach people how to share and celebrate success, and make exercising fun!

Dancing with Julie! Photo Credit: Steve Teng

Below are six more reasons why pole mates are the best mates (not forgetting hoop pals, silks friends, and all the other aerial buddies out there too!)

Accountability
Let’s be honest, life can be busy. Between work, family, children, eating right, cleaning the house, and watching the latest series on Netflix, it can be hard to find time to workout. Most likely pole dance classes are easier to show up to than just working out at the gym, but even then, after a long day it can be tempting to just curl up on the couch and chill. Good pole mates keep you accountable. You don’t want to let each other down, and you both know you’re going to have a great time together in class.

Spotting and sharing new tricks or flow
Ideally you want a trained professional to spot you for tricks and teach you the safest and most effective way into and out of pole moves. But during practice times or when training at home, a pole mate is an essential resource in helping you work up to being able to accomplish a trick on your own. If they have already accomplished the trick, they may also share their own knowledge, which may be just the feedback you need to nail your nemesis move! Don’t be competitive and hide all your secrets either. Pole mate relationships are reciprocal and information flows both ways.

Ksenia spotting me as I work out this silk lock

Increase in motivation
By far the biggest advantage of having pole mates is the increase in motivation, and not just to show up to class. Set goals together and support each other in working towards them. Yes this involves a little bit of peer pressure, but sometimes that’s just the push you, or a friend may need, to really be their best.

Celebrating successes
In line with the noncompetitive ideas mentioned above, having supportive pole mates allows you share in each other’s success. These might be pole goals you have worked on for months, or simply learning a routine together and performing at a showcase. No matter how small, reward yourself and add depth to your relationship – a day at the beach, burgers and ice-cream, tickets to a pole show, or a massage!

Objective Perspective
Sometimes you need a friend to just tell you how it is. I love the energy of a supportive pole class, but a real pole mate will equally bring you up and be honest when things are not going so well. It can invaluable to have constructive criticism to polish a routine or choose a costume that fits just so.

Share cross training equipment or even private classes
Having pole mates can even save you money! Can’t afford a private class? make it a semi-private and plan with your friend what tricks and transitions you will work on with the instructor together. Don’t want to buy exercise gear that you are afraid you won’t use? Share the cost with your pole mate and train together – thera bands, yoga mats and blocks, and ankle weights, are all portable and can be shared around if you are training at home or in the studio. As you practice with the materials you will also be able to show your friends new exercises further supporting your cross training goals!

“Strong people don’t put others down … they lift them up!” Photo Credit: Steve Teng

Always remember that your pole mate is also your friend. Know each other’s limits and know when to call it a day. Having motivation is awesome, but over training is no fun for anyone.

On a final note, if you and your pole mates are up to a similar level in your training, try out some acro or doubles pole moves! There are lots of inspiring posts on Instagram and Facebook and doubles tricks are a great way to support your proprioception, coordination, strength, and balance. Already having a strong sense of trust in your partner makes many of these tricks so much safer and easier too.

Send this article to your pole mates and share the love!

Safety with Back Bends

Ask any pole dancer or aerialist about their goals and no doubt they include working on back flexibility. If they were a gymnast or ballerina as a child they may remember doing walk overs and wearing “foot-hats” and hope that their muscle memory allows them to return to being so supple and bendy. Yet, even for dancers who only took up the practice as adults, we all dream of beautiful lines and elegant shapes created by a strong and flexible back arch.

But what is the best way to practice bending backwards? Are all bodies able to do back bends?

Firstly, let’s look at what you are trying to achieve. Vertical Wise published a great article in 2016 showing how, depending on which part of your back is naturally more flexible, what your back bend may look like (in an ideal world where we can all sit on our heads!)

It has been said that although you can lengthen the muscles, tendons, and fascia, that support the spine, the actual space between the bones is set as of puberty (Source). This does not mean that we should all stop flexibility training all together, but it does help us set realistic goals and learn to approach the practice of back bending from a safe perspective.

When you attempt a back bend pose on the floor, you are enlisting the help of your hips, glutes, quads, shoulder, lats, and your neck. Therefore, one of the first points to consider when embarking on safe back bending is that you also need to stretch and learn to engage these other parts of your body. Injuries, especially in your lower back, may occur from continually putting pressure on the spine in an attempt to push deeper and deeper.

Lat stretches included in #SaturdayLaturday can be effective in helping to “open up” the upper back. Lunges and reclining poses that focus on the quads, hip flexors, and psoas, will also help to ensure the final poses are not putting too much strain on your lower back.

In each of these preparatory poses, try to think of opening the chest and staying long through the spine. Try not to throw your neck back more than necessary as this is also a common area for sprains and injuries. Yoga wheels and other props can help you form a safe shape as you learn to bend backwards, however learning how to hold a strong back bend should always be the goal, not just learning how to fall into one.

Different practitioners have opposing views about whether it’s a good idea to engage the glutes during back bends. It is possible that by engaging your glutes you can increase the stretch in your hip flexors, and reduce the load on your lumbar spine, but squeezing your butt may also externally rotate the legs and put you out of alignment. The glutes are made up of three muscles, two of which externally rotate the hip and one that internally rotates the hip. Learning to engage the lower gluteus minimus separately from the others may work in your favour to stabilise and increase the range of motion in your back bends. Practicing bridges from the floor with proper alignment will help you connect with this muscle. I also recommend reading this article by Roger Cole, Ph.D, for some simple and effective exercises to learn how to engage your glutes for safe back bends.

From a personal stand point, I have seen more improvement in my back flex and strength since joining a contortion class at the circus. I believe this is not only due to having professional instructors, but also due to the added diversity and consistency of my practice. In two, hour long classes a week we explore back bending from every angle – bridges and wheel pose, camel pose, bow pose, forearm stands, dancers pose, chest stands, as well as classic contortion positions for the more flexible students. Rather than just holding each shape as a static pose, we are encouraged to be actively entering and exiting the pose working to build strength in the posture as well as increasing our range of motion.

The many ways to enter/exit wheel pose include:

  • lying on your back, hands over head, push up
  • drop backs or walking your hands down a wall to the floor (and reverse back to standing)
  • from a handstand, flipping over to land your feet on the floor or mat (and reverse back to standing)
  • sitting, externally rotate one hand and push up, drawing an arc with your other hand until it reaches the floor underneath you (both sides)

Once you are in wheel pose there are also variations like lifting one leg, straightening both legs, or sinking your butt down to create a hollow back shape.

Some of these entries may feel better for your body than others. I still cannot drop back into a wheel pose, but I can get quite deep bends using the strength in my arms and legs to push up. I am still practicing my drop backs though, going back as far as I can from standing, holding and breathing, and then returning to standing with control and with focus on alignment.

“An honest way to train yourself into deeper backbends is to practice hands-free. When you remove your hands from backbends, you’re forced to work your core and spinal muscles. You can’t cheat how deep you get when your hands aren’t pushing you past what you can hold with integrity”

(Source)

Dancers who have a tendency to hyperextend their elbows, may also benefit from practicing hands free as they won’t be putting any pressure on the joint until their hands touch the floor in the final presentation of the pose.

You can also go hands free dropping back in camel pose.

Or lifting hands free from the floor.

These are great exercises to add to your practice as they will strengthen your back and core and help you learn to connect with the muscles that will support your back bends. Training this way will ensure you are also not falling into a bend that you don’t have the strength to maintain.

It can be scary to start practicing back bends on your own. Try joining a flexibility or contortion class or start small and train with a friend to help as a spotter. From a yoga perspective, back bends are considered to

“stimulate the proper functioning of the digestive system, help preserve the health of the vertebrae and spinal disks, and open the body to deep diaphragmatic breathing.” (ref)

You may also find that regularly practicing back bends improves your posture as well, countering bad habits of slouching at you desk and in front of your computer. A friend used to move her laptop to the floor and work in sphinx pose, challenging her upper back and shoulders for up to 20 minutes or more. If you have a flexible work space this is a great way to add some extra back bend practice to your day. Just be careful not to overdue it, remembering to pull your shoulders back and down and keep the neck long as you look forwards.

Finally, every back bending session should be matched with counter poses. Coming from a yoga background I would suggest, if your training involved lots of back bends, on the floor or the on the pole (e.g ballerinas, cocoons, crescent moons, allegras, and brass bridges), counter these poses with some forward bends off the pole – seated forward bends, plough pose, wall assisted forward bends, and some spinal twists. Don’t forget to breathe deeply into the upper, middle, and lower back in these poses and remember to lengthen and extend. Relaxing with shavasana and giving your body time to assimilate your practice will also support you adapting to your new bendy self!

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This post was requested by Su Ma Zaw, the winner of the October Shoutout Competition. If you would like to be involved in further competitions and be in the loop for all announcements, performance updates, and special gifts, sign up to my newsletter here!

 

 

Cross Training for Pole – Part 8: Acroyoga

Yoga has always been a part of my bodywork practice. Even before dance, yoga showed me ways to start loving my body for what it could do. I still practice yoga almost everyday, but I am now learning about acroyoga and finding the benefits are tenfold in supporting my aerial dance practice!

For pole dance and aerial training, supplementing your program with acroyoga can support body awareness, core stability, balance, and be a great introduction to partner work on the pole or aerial apparatus.

For those new to the idea of acroyoga here is a definition from Maggie McCracken

“Acroyoga is a combination of acrobatics and yoga performed between two partners. One partner is the base while the other is the flyer. The base supports the flyer in a series of movements that combine balance, strength and acrobatics.”

At the circus we play around with group and partner shapes at the end of a handstands or flex class. It’s a great way to apply the skills that we are working and push through boundaries of fear and trust as we work with each other. I am constantly amazed with the breakthroughs I have been able to make. From not being able to hold a freestanding handstand, to being able to fly in the pose below was truly exhilarating!

Many pole and aerial studios offer classes for acroyoga, or use elements of the practice to add variety to a handstand class. Below are six benefits of acroyoga and how you can use the practice to support your aerial dancing.

– Increase in spatial and kinesthetic awareness
If you are a pole dancer or aerialist who forgets their left and right as soon as they are upside down, acroyoga could help! Kinesthetic awareness is about knowing where your body is in space. For example, you don’t need to see your foot to know how to grab it when you bend your knee up behind you. Many acroyoga poses require you to move your limbs while balancing and maintaining your focus out in front of you. Working as the base or the flyer in acro poses supports body awareness and challenges your body and brain to adapt to changes in position or balance quickly.

– Whole body workout
Many people who start acroyoga are initially surprised at how much of a workout it is, or under the impression that the base works harder than the flyer. This is simply untrue. If you are the flyer you will learn how to engage your core to create a stable centre of gravity of which to move around. Your arms are also pushing against the base in many poses, much like a handstand. Rather than being a “dead weight” the flyer supports their weight and compliments the forces applied by the base. The base offers support through a stable core and active legs as they hold the flyer in air. Acroyoga also requires stamina as you hold poses for a extended length of time. The encouragement you are able to provide to your partner, or group, is great motivation to work harder (within your body’s limits, of course). As you become more advanced you will discover muscles you didn’t even know you had in your core, back, hips, glutes, legs, and arms, that are activating and making small adjustments all the time, gaining strength as they keep you stable and respond to your partner.

– Learning how to fall
If you are a beginner I highly recommend working in teams of three, so someone can also act as a spotter. Learning to fall is all part of the fun, however a spotter is essential in maintaining the safety of both the base and flyer when entering poses and dismounting from them. With this in mind, it is also useful to play as both the base and the flyer, as each requires different skills and strengths and also allows you to understand the pose from two perspectives. For example, if you have tendency to push harder with your right hand than your left, you may be able to predict this behaviour and respond to it when your partner does the same. Knowing how to protect yourself and your partner is essential in preventing injury.

– Breath work
Matching your inhalations and exhalations with your partner can be an effective way to connect and enter or exit a pose. Learning how to breath through movement, exhaling into a stretch or inhaling through a strength based invert brings energy and oxygen into the body and helps you maintain focus. Making these techniques habit will allow them to transfer easily to your aerial training.

– Better communication

“In order to work closely with your partner or partners, you must consciously focus on maintaining presence without distraction. Your partner’s safety, as well as your own, depends on your ability and willingness to read each other’s physical, verbal, and visual cues without much discussion” (Source)

If you have aspirations for doubles pole or hoop, learning how to read the non-verbal cues of your partner is essential. Additionally, learning how to talk about positions and adjustments with your base or flyer, will support your kinesthetic awareness, and increase your communication skills as an aerial instructor and student.

If you need anymore convincing, take a look at this stunning acro inspired pole routine by trio Carolyn Chiu, Rosabelle Selavy, & Marcy Richardson.

Happy dancing!