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The History and Sensuality of Modern Dance - Defining Pole Dancing
By Mary Ellyn Weissman
January, 2007

Throughout history, various forms of dance emerged from sensual roots and have experienced controversy. The art of dance has been a means of telling stories, honoring royalty, soothing the gods, a means of courting, and expressing celebration and emotions. Many forms of dance faced criticism and censorship throughout history but eventually evolved into acceptable art forms despite their beginnings. Alternatively, some forms of dance had non-sensual beginnings but changed their form and later became socially shunned. 

While pole dancing admittedly embraces sensuality and modern pole dancing certainly has it's roots in the sex industry, there isn't a single form of dance that is not about celebrating the body. All forms of dance are to draw attention to the body and most often in a sensual way. Salsa styles, ballroom dance, even figure skating about about the beauty of the human form.

Various Sensual Dance Styles:

The tango originated in the brothels of ancient Argentina when the “gauchos” would arrive after a day at work in the fields and the barmaids would entice them into going upstairs by dancing close in their arms. The style of this dance is said to have developed when these cowboys arrived unwashed after working in the fields and on sweating horses, so that their pants were stiff with sweat and dirt and their bodies malodorous – thus the ladies would dance holding themselves slightly away from them in the crooks of their arms, with their heads averted to avoid the smell. 

The ancient forms of Middle Eastern belly dance are thought to have been based in women’s rituals and celebrations. It was at one time apparently a dance to induce fertility so women performed it at the pre-wedding celebrations held with female friends and family. It was also taught to young women in order to also strengthen their bodies in preparation for childbirth by toning their muscles.

However, in 1893 when Little Egypt performed the belly dance at the Chicago World’s Fair (later dubbed as the "Hoochee Coochee" dance) there was outrage over her sexual dance style and costume when she wore trousers and a sleeveless blouse. The belly dance continued to be used in the burlesque shows, which were beginning to become popular around this time. 

The Rumba is a dance of enticement and teasing. Through teasing and withdrawal it is a courting dance where the woman uses all of her charms to conquer the man she is dancing with. 

Ancient striptease is recorded in the Sumerian tablets as performed by goddesses and in the Old Testament as performed by Salome for King Herod. In the early 1900s as movies and theaters became more popular, the strip tease dance was added to burlesques shows to entice at least the men into continuing to visit.

In 1957 when Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, the cameramen were directed to only shoot him from above the waist because of his outrageous hip movements. Around this time, minors under the age of 18 were banned from dancing to
Rock N’ Roll
in public in Cleveland Ohio and in the early 60’s, Catholic schools students were forbidden by the Bishop to dance
to “The Twist”.  

The History Of The Pole In Dance:

Hoochee-Choochee Dancers: During this early 20th century traveling tent shows had strip tease acts and as the larger tents drew more crowds when they could see several dancers in one tent, the smaller tent dancers began to use the tent’s center pole for dancing and acting out lewd performances on the pole in order to compete with the draw of the larger tents. 

Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian yoga sport in which poses and feats are performed while hanging from a vertical wooden pole or rope. The origin of this ancient Indian sport can be traced to the earlier part of the 12th century. It was revived late in the 19th century and is now a popular competitive sport in India. The word "Mallakhamb" is composed of malla, which denotes a gymnast or a man of strength, and khamb, which is a pole. Mallakhamb, therefore, can be translated in English as pole gymnastics.

Maypole Dancing is thought to have ties to 12th century Germanic pagan fertility symbolism in which the pole, as a phallic symbol, was danced around celebrating sexuality and life by adorning it with flowers and wild vines. Today's Maypole dancing was revived in Europe in the 18th century and closely resembles the original style using ribbons.

Chinese pole dancing is performed on rubber coated vertical steel poles approximately 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Performers are fully clothed as the rubber can create severe friction burns as they climb, slide down, jump and hold poses. Often the routines are choreographed to music. A few Chinese poles tricks have been incorporated with pole dancing techniques.

Pole dancing as the form in which most people think of it today, first entered the strip clubs in the late 1960s when Belle Jangles performed a pole dance routine at Mugwump Strip Joint in Oregon. From there the trail is sketchy but appears to have emerged fully in the clubs in Canada in the 1980s. In 1998 Fawnia Mondey-Dietrich, who originally danced in Canda, produced the first instructional video on how to pole dance.

More recently, the art of pole dancing has taken on a respected role and is offered in numerous fitness centers and health clubs. Pole dancing as an art form is slowly becoming recognized, though its popularity was first strongest in the UK. There are also pole dance schools in South Africa, Australia, Belgium, Singapore, Russia, The Netherlands, Croatia, and Canada with more opening all the time. 

Today's pole dancing has been compared by many in it's beauty and grace to Cirque de Soleil and now it appears that Cirque de Soleil agrees: in 2009 we will see the art of pole dancing performed in the Vegas Cirque show Zumanity.

Here in the USA, more pole dancing schools are established on the west coast than anywhere else, but there are now over 500 locations providing instructions in the art of pole dance across the US. Schools teach pole dancing with emphasis on fitness, sensuality, empowerment or any combination of these. International competitions range from sensual to fitness based performances, some being judged in both.

updated: December 2008

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