Tagfreestyle

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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Mel Nutter as Baudelaire on Facebook and on Instagram

Imagery and Visualization for Choreography

I have always been fascinated with the process of choreography, actively seeking out connections between pole dance and other forms of movement. For me, the elements of choreography for the pole, aerial, or floor routines, should overlap. Incorporating narrative is important, as well as including motifs and themes. These help the dancer communicate with the audience as well as tie the whole routine together so it is much more than just a sequence of clever tricks and poses.

I recently came across Wayne McGregor from his TED talk and hearing his ideas about choreography just blew my mind!

Dancers from the pole and aerial community talk about “combos”. Thousands of videos are all over social media, linking tricks together in familiar or innovative ways with the change of leg or hand or direction around the pole. Hundreds of questions flood pole discussion groups asking how to link poses – what do I do after a superman? – any tips for my leg hang to ayesha transition?

Creating smooth combos is an essential part of creating a routine, but listening to Wayne McGregor opened up an entirely new way of thinking about movement and what comes together to make a dance.

What struck me is that he didn’t talk about poses, but about movement. Rather than stationary shapes connected with transitions, he uses spatial language and direction to inspire dance. Sometimes he places an imaginary object in the room and asks the dancers to move around it, to trace it’s shape, go under it, or respond to it changing. The eventual dance may have familiar shapes and poses but how they were created and how they flow together becomes a unique collaboration between the choreographer and the dancer.

When we work on a spinning pole we are essentially holding a shape and allowing the motion of the pole to accentuate our movements. The language of pole dance can be limiting as we think about choreography as a sequence of poses – climb, straddle, scorpio, butterfly. Even for floor work, movements can also become quite static, one pose to the next, even if they are choreographed to the rhythm of the music. Naming poses is useful, especially to help us communicate choreography with other dancers, but it should be remembered that this is not the only way to think about movement.

What if there were other elements on stage to inspire your movement? Real props, or imaginary ones, can fill the space and will influence the way you can move around it. If there was a box in the middle of the room, you could leap over it, dance around it, or even pick it up and dance with it!

I first heard Kristy Sellars talk about giving the pole in your routines a character or status, which offers similar possibilities. Think of the pole as a lover, or an enemy, and explore how you might respond to it differently, in the way you touch the pole, walk around it, or dismount from it.

Using these ideas will change the way you enter a pose and move through it, or may inspire a new shape or movement all together. Rather than your combos looking like everyone else’s, your dance will become uniquely you.

I highly recommend watching Wayne McGregor’s TED talk and taking inspiration from his ideas about dance, choreography, movement, and expression. We all have movement habits and it’s easy to let muscle memory and familiarity take over. Adding imagery and visualization to your choreography will help you break these movement habits and dig deeper into your creativity. For those who also feel uncomfortable with freestyle, these exercises can also be a great starting point to exploring new movement and inspiring a new direction for a routine.

I created a simple dance flow with a scarf to explore the prop vs no-prop concept. A small dance was recorded with the scarf and then repeated without it, attempting to recreate the movements as closely as possible.

This clip could be worked on and polished for accuracy, however the point of the exercise needs no more clarity. What amazed me was how the eventual choreography would never have come about without the experimentation with the scarf in the first place. Sure, I could have danced and imagined I had a scarf in my hand, but the result is a completely unique flow that emerged from my body interacting with the scarf in the first place. My body learned “the dance” so to speak and could then repeat it for the second take.

These experiments may never become a final dance, but they do teach us something about the way we move in relation to our environment, and how to inspire new movement through the use of props, imagery, and visualization.

I’d love for you to share your experiments too! Tag me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with your videos!

 

Floor Flow Drawings

A new space inspires new ideas. At home, my dance space is a few square meters on the floor in front of the kitchen bench, stretching out towards the couch. Our floor is polished concrete, slightly too hard on the knees, but amazingly slippy for wearing socks and doing some slinky floorwork or chair dancing. Sessions of yoga often flow into dance sessions as I let my body move with or without music.

The nature of the space creates boundaries for my movement, but I’d rather think of them as creative limitations. I can’t move the fridge or the cupboard, but I can find a new way to slide under myself or turn around, reaching the boundary and bouncing off again.

One morning, I had an idea of being able to draw my floor flows. Inspired by other artists and dancers, I was curious as to how a movement, or a series of movements, would translate to a 2D field of lines on paper. My eagerness grew as I slowly collected the materials to complete the project.

Sourcing charcoal here was a challenge, so for my initial attempts I strapped together six 8B pencils and held them in each hand. Finally getting lines on paper was immensely satisfying, yet I craved to be able to smudge the lines as I rolled across them. Three drawings later, however, I already had a new understanding of the process and output that I was creating.


The freestyle drawings gave great insight into the way my body was moving on the page. It tracked the path of my hands but not my feet or legs. For a long time I have struggled with knowing what to do with my hands when dancing. Body waves, and leg sequences flow quite naturally, and as a pole dancer I could always just hold on to the pole. But now it was the movement of my hands and arms that was in focus.

After a few more pencil freestyles, and a run through with charcoal I took a step back and reflected on the shapes that were appearing. The boundaries of the paper had to be respected, but in the same way as the walls of my lounge room and furniture had to be creatively avoided, I was confronted with almost endless opportunities of how to move within the space of the paper.

Watching the videos of my freestyles, I began to isolate movements that offered shapes and lines that I found aesthetically pleasing. Breaking these down there were sixteen sequences. I made notes of these sequences and shapes in small drawings, numbering each line to recall how my body moved to create the shape.

Just like the process of creating choreography for a dance, my body and mind formed a relationship around the language of movement. My body had showed my mind a new way to move. But this new language needed translating, my mind breaking down the patterns to something more understandable. I am now at the stage where my mind is retelling these ideas back to my body. With a greater understanding of how my movements are reflected on the page, the process is now less of a freestyle and more a choreography.

My small sketches speak to me and tell me how to move. Without words, the lines and shapes ask me to pirouette, turn, thread through, and extend. Some of these dances were seemingly endless repetitions that lasted for 20 minutes or so. Others existed in the boundaries of a song, inviting me to stand up and look back at what I created as the music moved back in to silence.

As much as I am so excited to share these drawings as themselves, I am also curious as to how a pole dance or floor routine could be choreographed with similar symbolism and design. Last year I wrote about Merce Cunningham and how his theories about movement and dance influenced my choreography, and how these thoughts inspired a new way of recording movement. Reflecting on these ideas, the drawings seem instrumental to the evolution of my thinking about movement and dance.

The following video is a floor flow drawing routine I created with choreography with charcoal. This sequence was choreographed based on the sixteen flow shapes I discovered through my freestyles. It was a whole new learning curve discovering how to link the flows together so I didn’t have to get off the paper during the song. After the rehearsals though it was exciting to find that the dance felt similar to my early freestyles where I just let the music move me. I love those moments when the dance takes over, and even though this sequence was mindful and choreographed, it was wonderful to let go and just flow.

 

 

I’m so grateful to my husband for letting me take over the space and helping wash off the charcoal for so many days in a row! I hope you enjoy and are inspired to work creatively in your own space. I’d love to hear your feedback or share in your own ideas for new work!

Everyone who has subscribed to my newsletter will receive exclusive access to the behind the scenes videos of these floor drawings, including the small sketches, process notes, and outtakes! Don’t miss out! Sign up before April 19th to share in this new venture into creative movement.

 

Chair Dance

Since being away from my pole and a regular studio space, I have had more time to explore other aspects of my dance practice. Mornings start with at least an hour of yoga and stretching before breakfast. After some work or time exploring our new city I find that my desire to just move leads me to long floor work sessions and most recently choreographing a chair dance routine!

The processes involved in chair dancing has challenged my creativity, flow, and stage presence and has offered a new perspective on tricks and floor work. It’s a great foundation to strengthen your dance skill set too!

Many pole studios offer chair and lap dancing in conjunction with pole, or as separate classes. Training in Sydney, I joined chair dance for one term a few years ago. As a group of three we performed what we learned at a showcase. But aside from this class, my experience dancing on, with, and around a chair has been limited.

Creating a chair routine and recording my chair dance freestyles, I have become aware of three elements of chair dance that may compliment your pole practice.

Creativity
I have to admit that when I first chose to start working on a chair routine I was stumped. I had a song, and knew what feeling I wanted the choreography to take, but it was hard to know where to begin. I could not rely on standby pole combos or spins. I was also limited by the type of chair available, how it could hold my weight in various balances, and the space it offered for placement in poses.

Making shapes and coming up with something new is challenging. I was surprised though at how many of the tricks and shapes I was able to translate from my pole experience. A pike, a back bend, a dynamic transition from a closed shape to an open one. I was reminded about the quality of the movement that matters, not just a shape having a name.

Unpacking this took time and experimentation, but I’m so glad to have had these moments. When I do get back on a pole I hope to have such a larger repertoire of tricks and formulations to return with.

Versatility
Using a prop such as a chair, or an ottoman as you can see in my final routine, offered new angles to explore floor poses and transitions that I was familiar with. It also challenged me to think of new ways to move around the space. The ottoman does not have a back, so I had to make a decision to have it against the wall, or to be able to move around it from all sides. When working with a chair in conjunction with a pole you can also choose to have the chair rest in front of the pole or place it to one side.

I really enjoyed the process of discovering the wall and then working it in to my dance. As I recorded my freestyles and watched how my arms and legs responded to the space, I found a new sensuality in my movements. Touching the chair and wall could be a movement in itself in a way that is not always possible when dancing with a pole.

Engagement
Eye contact, facial expressions, and hand gestures, are all elements of chair dance that make it more intimate. The audience is right there with you and being able to captivate them is much more important. I have already written about stage presence and polishing your choreography, but there is a whole language of the body that can help you tell your story. This was perhaps one of the most powerful lessons I have learned from engaging in chair dance, and something that is probably more related to burlesque and exotic dancing. I’m excited to see how this evolves as I work on new chair and floor routines too.

 

My “What To Do When You Don’t Have a Pole” videos from my pole hiatus last year got some great air time. Chair dance has reminded me how much I do just love to dance. There have been many moments in the last few weeks where I warm up by just putting on my long socks and turning up the volume. A space to dance needs just a floor and your body, no props required.

I do, however, recommend a chair (or a footstool) if you are looking for ways to change up your dance practice and inspire new movements and inspiration.

You can watch my chair dance routine on Vimeo here.

Inspired by Anais Nin – Part 2: Naturalness

“too great an emphasis on technique arrests naturalness. The material from which I will create comes from living from the personality, from experience, adventures, voyages. This natural flow of riches comes first. The technique is merely a way to organise the flow, to chisel, shape; but without the original flow from deep inner riches of material, everything withers”
The Journals of Anais Nin – Volume Four.

There is so much I love about this quote. Anais Nin is not a dancer, but her words speak to every artist. This is the second part of a three part series, unpacking this quote and talking about it in relation to pole dancing – to pole practice, to performance, to training, to choreography, and to expression.

I think sometimes poledancers forget to see themselves as artists. We’re told by the media and social memes that we are strong, empowered women. That we are athletes, stronger than our counterparts. We need sass, attitude, and if people don’t listen we’ll just bust out a move and prove them wrong.

Just like other creative endeavours pole dance is a form of expression, in your lounge room or on the stage. Just like a painter, photographer, writer, or singer, a pole dancer is expressing part of themselves. It feels good and that’s why we keep doing it! At the heart of the matter, we are not in it for the likes, nor to show off in the gym when we can do more pull ups than the guys. Our intentions when dancing come from within. We are artists and dancers, and shouldn’t be afraid to take that seriously.


Solotude 2

At the beginning of the quote Anais Nin suggests:

“too great an emphasis on technique arrests naturalness”

Last month I talked about the importance of strong technique in creating flow. And yet, “too great an emphasis on technique arrests naturalness”. Is Anais Nin contradicting herself? Far from it! I believe this sentence actually reinforces the ideas I spoke about in the first article.

Without technique, obviously your dance and your art is going to be stunted. We need to know how to invert safely, engage throughout a pose, and extend through our limbs to create elegant lines.

But dance is not just about lines, shapes, extensions, and poses. It is about feeling.

Movements such as Finding Your Freestyle, I feel, are trying to recapture this “naturalness”. As opposed to emphasising tricks and the latest trends, this movement encourages dancers to feel the music and explore what comes naturally. It is always worthwhile filming your freestyles. Small hand gestures or new transitions come out of just letting our bodies respond to the music. Your hand might find your foot in a new shape, or after a pirouette you might find yourself continuing the flow and emerge in a whole new spin.

I have had many conversations with pole dancers who find they get so bored watching gymnastic pole routines. These performances are an amazing display of strength and flexibility, but with so much emphasis on technique there is often no intention to create meaning in their dance. In fact, their routines often have little reference to dance at all, the music simply being a backing track with no effort towards musicality or creating a mood for the audience.

Returning to Anais Nin’s words – their emphasis on technique has “arrested” their “naturalness”.

There is a lot of debate in the pole community over labels such as “pole fitness” and “pole dance”, and many women and men feel strongly about only labeling what they do one way or another. I don’t want to offend anyone by saying that the way they pole dance is right or wrong. If you joined the pole community for fitness reasons, to workout, and be strong, that’s awesome! If your intention is to dance, however, then truly dance.

Find that space where you flow, use your technique as a tool to express your emotions and ideas. Make it feel natural, not stiff and ridged, and bring the dance back into pole dance.


Read on…

Part 3:
“The material from which I will create comes from living from the personality, from experience, adventures, voyages.”

Floorwork: Rising Up to the Challenge

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When I first started pole dancing, we had a saying at the studio, “the floor is lava!”. The pole was our safe place, our rock that allowed everyone to spin around like superstars. The floor was a hard place (especially on the knees!) that revealed our lack of dance backgrounds and coordination.

Over the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence in floorwork. Pole dancers now don knee pads and leggings, and admit to even neglecting their pole tricks for the allure of “rolling around on the floor”. Floorplay is open for auditions once again and studios run classes exclusively for floorwork. Competition pros even have their own take on Basework  and Low Flow.

Floorwork does not have to be defined by sultry and sexy moves. You can make it gymnastic, acrobatic, contemporary, or add a break dance feel depending on your influence. In fact, your floorwork may even impact the overall style of your routine, dictating the flow of your pole tricks and your expression.

I was recently asked about my choreography process, in particular which comes first, pole or floor? Most of my initial inspiration comes from visualisation and as much as I see myself doing pole combos to various parts of the song, I also picture a pose or grounded movement. It’s a starting place for a floorwork sequence that is not necessarily how I will begin the routine, but may become a motive or shape that I revisit throughout.

I like the idea that floor based tricks can add a new layer to a performance. Jazz and contemporary dance talk a lot about levels for pathways of movement. You can try this exercise in your lounge room or studio:

Put on a song and set yourself a limitation. Consider moving from A to B (or pole to pole) by only crawling or rolling on the floor. No kneeling, no standing. Take as long as you need to, the whole song if you wish. Tune in to what comes naturally and places you get stuck.
Try a second and third time with new limitations. Rising only as high as your knees, or moving across the floor from a standing position. Set a rule that you much have one hand touching one foot at all times. Try it with both hands touching each other at all times.

The character of your performance and your intention will define how well each of these suggestions connect to the rest of your choreography. But they are worth exploring though freestyle or as a specific exercise, you’ll be surprised how creative you can be!

It has taken a long time to grow accustom to the carpet burns and bruised knees that come part and parcel with floorwork. However, I am working at making it a more important part of my repertoire. Acknowledging it as a space to incorporate different dance styles and offer even more scope for expression, time spent “rolling around on the floor” can lead to finding the essence of the dance, just as much as a pole freestyle.

But if the floor is still a scary, untouchable place for you take inspiration from Yvonne Smink, who choreographed an entire routine without touching the floor until her final dismount!