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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!

 

Pole Dance Stories

Novelist Willa Cather once said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

Then again, it has also been said that there are seven foundation stories from which every successful narrative known has been made.

Choreography can start from many places. You may have heard a song that you just have to dance to. Perhaps you’ve just invented the best combo, and you can visualize it on stage as the climax to a routine. Alternatively, I have often felt with no place to start but a competition or showcase on the horizon that requires me to put something together. In each of these cases, choosing a focus on a story, rather than just a theme or character, may help you construct a fluid routine that has the potential not just to impress but to take your audience on a memorable journey.

If you are looking for inspiration for your next routine, perhaps some insight into the structure of stories could help you. Before or after you choose your song, adding story elements to your performance will ensure that you are engaging the audience from many angles. In my experience, pole dance routines with stories also tend to be appealing to non-pole dancers. The performance becomes more of a show and offers the audience something to understand and relate to when they are unfamiliar with the nature of pole dance.

I outline each of the seven plots below (as described by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, 2004) with reference to pop culture examples to help you understand how each is different. Under each example are some points about how the plot could form a container for a rich and meaningful pole dance routine.

1. Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.

Examples: James Bond, Attack on Titan, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Shrek, David and Goliath.

This can work well as a doubles or group routine, allowing for dynamic interplay between two or more characters. Costumes and characters here can be diverse, ranging from simple contrasting colours (white vs black), to actors based on real stories themselves.

2. Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person.

Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations

Such a narrative may require props and effective costuming to help support the messages conveyed to the audience. When done well, and with familiar characters, it is possible for the props to “fill in the gaps” allowing you to emphasise just one part of the story over another, avoiding the trap of feeling like you need to fit an entire fairy tale into a 3 minute routine!

3. The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way.

Examples: Iliad, Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, The Land Before Time, One Piece, Indiana Jones

Consider how the music could add a sense of struggle followed by triumph. The poses and shapes chosen by the dancer would also emphasise challenges and then success. When telling this story, the obstacles and temptations would form the bulk of the routine, while the final success would offer the audience a sense of relief. How could the audience feel like they were on the journey with you?

4. Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience.

Examples: Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Hobbit, Gone with the Wind, Chronicles of Narnia, Apollo 13, Labyrinth, Finding Nemo, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz

Try to choose one perspective when telling these types of stories. Or if you are in a group or performing as doubles, keep the elements simple and cut back. I’ve previously shared how much I love Kristy Sellars’ Alice in Wonderland routine. By adding the video projection she was able to share so much more about the journey and the narrative. We might not all be able to be so ambitious, so consider how less is more.

5. Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker makes sure to stress that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. Most romances fall into this category.

Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Bridget Jones Diary, Sliding Doors, Mr. Bean

 

Pole Comedy can be hard to accomplish. There are many moves, tricks, and poses that can be dramatised in a funny way, but make sure your performance also has a sense of triumph over struggle so it is more than just goofy dancing.

 

 

6. Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally ‘good’ character.

Examples: Macbeth, Bonnie and Clyde, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad, Hamlet

This could be a simple as a lyrical or contemporary based routine that captures the emotion of the tragedy. This story line can be a good starting place for those wishing to put more meaning into their routines, or who find energy from an event that has happened in their personal life.

 

7. Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person.

Examples: Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Despicable Me, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

In my mind, this is a more refined version of the “Comedy”, “Voyage and Return” and “Rags to Riches” stories. However, the turning point of the story may happen earlier so within the performance you have more time to express the ideas of the rebirth.


Hopefully these story ideas have inspired you to consider a new routine or have helped you flesh out a previous idea to turn it into a full show! No matter what story plot you choose, remember these key points:

  • Your story needs to be understandable to your audience, which may require that you use props or settings to help them follow the plot.
  • Think about how your costume can also work as a prop to help convey your story. Do you take off something, reveal something new, or change entirely as your character evolves?
  • Many of the familiar fairy tale stories have been done before – think Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Cinderella. This is not to say that you should avoid these topics, they are done again and again because they translate so well! Perhaps think about how you can add to the story, or present it in a different way. Instead of playing the character of Snow White, how would the story look from the Evil Witch’s perspective? Maybe you are the prince, searching for Cinderella after she loses her shoe?
  • Your performance does not need to tell the entire tale. In three to five minutes this would be a huge undertaking. Choose part of the story that is manageable, and add on with props and costumes that fill in the rest of the narrative for your audience.
  • Make sure you sustain your character throughout your floorwork, transitions, and pole tricks. If you can’t do the trick in character take it out, and choose to maintain the mood and integrity of the performance as a whole. Pole champion Irmingard Mayar warns, pole dancers “can be 100% engaged when off the pole, but as soon as they take their movement into the air they shift to robotic trick-mode” which jars and stops the flow of the story.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts about pole dance and story telling. Comment below, or tag me in your ideas on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!

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.”

Inspired by Anais Nin – Part 1: “Organised Flow”

“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. Over the next few weeks I want to break down this quote and talk about it in relation to pole dancing – to pole practice, to performance, to training, to choreography, and to expression.

I think sometimes pole dancers 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 3

What first stood out for me in this quote was the line,

“The technique is merely a way to organise the flow”

To articulate this I’ll use an example from a pole class. In the studio our instructor was teaching us a combo – inside leg hang, through tammy, to elbow grip, to some kind of elbow grip split thing that we couldn’t decide if it had a name. It is an advanced move and required lots of trust through your elbow grip and commitment to the momentum of the spin. But many of us trying to learn the move kept breaking down into it’s individual components, and we all became stuck at various points unable to complete the combo.

Our instructor reiterated,
“it isn’t move, move, move, move, hold. Your arm and leg come around at the same time, hook the elbow as the hips sink out, bring the leg down, split. It’s all one action”.
She made it just flow. It wasn’t the final pose that she wanted us to achieve, it was the entire movement.

This instructor has impeccable technique. She even did the combo on her other side, always a good training tip! Back to the quote, her “technique is merely a way to organise the flow”. In other words, her solid technique allowed it flow, and our failed attempts at the move highlighted gaps in our own technique. For me, I lack trust in my elbow grip.

The individual tricks had become so natural, that our instructor could focus on how they flow together, creating a seamless progression with no stop-starts or jerky moments of uncertainty.

So what do we take from this? How do we find that place of “organised flow”?

I think it starts with trust, in our bodies, our skills, and our strengths. It takes persistence and determination to ensure our technique is solid and not just a series of happy accidents. It also takes intention. Our intention as pole dancer should not be just to nail the latest trick and move on. Our transitions, combos, poses, and tricks are just part of repertoire we use to create art.


Read on ….

Part 2
“too great an emphasis on technique arrests naturalness”

Turning Towards Fear

Today was a moving day. To tell you about today I need to start this story in the past. Writing this was as much cathartic as the Epsom salt bath I had afterwards. For anyone experiencing fear and anxiety while trying new moves, I hope it is as worthwhile for you too.

 

Last year I fell off the pole, two metres up, attempting to windmill/body swap through a Tammy. Landing on my head I suffered a concussion and have unintentionally yet clearly avoided the move ever since.

In class with Bailey each Sunday, she has been throwing challenging moves at us all term. Many have been based around this Tammy transition. For seven weeks I’ve avoided it. Using excuses that my elbow grip is not steady enough to land after the transition. Or, it’s on my goofy side. Or I just kind of make myself look busy until we move on to something else.

I’m not sure what changed today, but something in me wanted to try it properly. I was open about it. I started to share my difficulty with classmate Oryx, “I just can’t turn around into the pole.” Immediately pinpointing the problem, she asked, “how do you feel in your tammy?”

Boom! There was no hiding now!

Revisiting the story of falling, Oryx knew, she was also in the class when it had happened. She smiled and talked me through the motions of the transition.
I try again and Bailey offers pointers. Stumbling I pull out, a half arsed attempt really, and tell her about my fall. She shares a knowing glance and then gets straight to the point.

I’m jittery, angry, tears well in my eyes.
“Bring that circling leg around. Point it to the floor it will squeeze you in and hold the top leg on.”
I hear her but my body is flooded with fear.

She stands an arms reach away and waits for me to try again.

Deep breaths. I try to shake off the fear. Bailey does a jump and shake too. Let’s do this!

I step into a slow spin going backwards. Straddle to an inside leg hang and stretch my inside hand down the pole. My outside leg begins its circle to close over the pole in the tammy position. Every spin I see Bailey’s toes and I can hear her voice.
“Pull that leg down, toes to the floor, yes yes… ”
And then ha! My stomach is facing the pole! I’m so low my bottom hand is now on the floor but my legs aren’t going anywhere. It’s stable.

Woooosh!

The blood drains from my head from being upside-down and plays on a scale with the adrenaline rising in my body. I must look a bit dazed and confused but I have more focus than ever. Maybe I can do this?

Up again, a controlled reverse spin, gemini hook, I hear Bailey, leg is down, stomach to pole I’ve closed off … rolled in, hooked the elbow … holy shit … Bailey talks through the rest of the combo, “get the pole into your trap, catch on the ankle, thread the leg through”, extend……. dismount.
Ha!

I’m too excited, pumped, zoned out, or something, and not sure how to react. Bailey’s excited “YEAH! Jump up and down, shake that shit out!”

Exhale!

There is only five minutes until the end of class. I set up my phone to record the combo, and so next time I get the jitters I can watch myself succeed and prove this fear wrong.

You can see me psych myself up in the video. Bailey is not an arms reach away this time. It’s just the sign of confidence I need though. To really overcome this I need to do it on my own.

Breaking down the pole moves into stages I work through the combo slowly. First attempt – success, but a bit low making the dismount clumsy. I can do better. Second attempt I add a half climb further up the pole.

Slow and steady, it’s not time to get carried away.

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Part 2: actually doing the combo. The part I was most fearful of is the Tammy, closing in to the pole. After falling out of a tammy last year and giving myself a concussion this brought up a lot of anxiety. Big shoutout to @oryxart and @ibaileyhartyou for helping me with this. Pretty sure you showed us a similar combo to a brass monkey about seven weeks ago that I've just casually avoided all this time for the same reason. I should have hugged you today! This meant a lot! #polelove 💜 #pole #poledance #faceyourfears #poleproblems #sydneypole @sydney_pole #danceitout #polecommunity #combo #pdtammy #pdinsideleghang #pdelbowgrip #pdcheebasplit #workinprogress #alwayslearning

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Fear is something that gets talked about a lot in the pole dance community. For women and men, breaking out of their comfort zone and even attending a pole class for the first time can bring out a lot of fear. Anxiety about their body shape, sense of self expression, and failure.

There are even some funny memes about pole dancing fears but humour is usually the last thing on our minds when we are really in the grips of fear.

Your body has natural fear instincts that alert you to be careful when in strange situations. Even though it’s fun to hang out upside-down, when you’re asked to let go of one hand, or hold on with just your ankles, it’s understandable that your instincts flare up and say WTF!

I’ve seen girls have fears about many pole moves, simply the idea of it scares the shit out of them. When you fall out of a move, this fear is compounded. Yoga philosophy talks a lot of holding fear in parts of your body. The release of this energy is sometimes just as overwhelming as the fear itself, further compounding the emotional response to confronting the fear in the first place.

After pole class today I went to my usual weekly yoga session. I was still jittery and had a conflicting feeling of tension and release that comes from your body reacting to a high dose of adrenaline. Across the hour and half my yoga teacher chose some new and challenging poses. By the time were reached Shavasana I was more than ready to let the energy slow to a trickle. Easing into bliss I was buzzing but with less adrenaline and more joy. Joy and love that pole dance did that! That I faced a fear and came out on the other side, unscathed, alive!

It had been a roller coaster of a morning and a hell of a learning experience. There is a chance the fear related to this Tammy combo will resurface and ask me to turn towards it again but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I’m ready for an Epsom salt bath and some down time to let the feelings of the day settle.
If you are working through a pole combo/move and find yourself gripped with anxiety, here are a few ideas that might help you.

  • Visualise yourself accomplishing the move: if all you can imagine is yourself falling in a heap on the floor or cracking your head open, then that is probably going to effect the result.
  • Break down the move into it’s smallest components: thinking conscsiously about what your hands, legs, arms, knees, head, and toes are doing, even for the most basic elements will help you isolate the part that you feel most unsteady in. Identify the contact points and how to engage your body to work through the move safely. Even see if you can add a contact point by leaving a hand on for the first few attempts.
  • Ask for a spot: From an instructor or a trusted friend. Share your fear so they know what to expect when you’re upside-down
  • Talk about why you might be so frightened: Are you scared of falling on your head? Have you fallen out of a similar move in the past? Maybe you’re scared of success and this amazing pole move challenges your image of yourself? Sometimes just verbalising it and talking it out can be the first step in helping you let go.
  • Walk away from the move, for today. Some days it’s just not going to work. Sleep on it, try it again tomorrow, it’s all a learning process.

Feel it, before you try and say it

feel itAs much as training for a showcase is fun, or prepping for a comp makes you incredibly motivated to smash your pole goals, sometimes I just like to turn the lights down and dance.

 

I have a pole playlist on my Spotify account that I return to again and again. A list of songs that I can put on and just flow. Some are fast, hip hop beats, others are slower, melodic, and sometimes instrumental. All of them ring true in someway, and reach a place in me, no matter how many times I hear them.

Last night I taped my freestyle, but didn’t really have any expectations that I’d be able to share anything from it worthwhile.

But then I really surprised myself.

Watching back, I saw a fluidity and grace that is often missing from my choreographed routines. A flow and sense of movement that comes from just being with the song.

There were no big tricks, I don’t even think I inverted. Just spins and floorwork that became amazingly cathartic and gave insight into how emotions could be represented in my dancing.

The pressures of a competition or performance night can shroud the flow and grace that comes from just moving and dancing.

Perhaps a way to overcome this is to freestyle to a piece of music for a while before laying down the chorey. To feel it before you try and say it.

Something to ponder.