We discovered Jillian Wilschke completely by accident – but we’re so glad we did! We stumbled across her pole dancing blog – Pole Geek – and were immediately inspired. Starting pole in 2011, Jillian has now worked her way up to competitive pole dancing while establishing her own fantasy wear line. We caught up with Jillian to talk about the art and stigmas of pole dancing, body image and empowerment – and we couldn’t wait to share her knowledge with all of you!
Tell us about yourself!
I am a freelance designer living in LA with my boyfriend and 2 cats, Gomez and Pugsley, who I’m kinda obsessed with. My background is in costume design and creation, but I work a lot in graphic design and illustration, too. I also blog about pole dancing and body love at PoleGeekBlog.com. When I am not working, I spend my time on my own designs, planning future travels, trying out new ways to be active and binge watching Supernatural.
How did you come to pole dancing?
I had a friend encourage me to take my first pole class. She had been poling for a while and we had been doing yoga together when she recommended I try it out. This was about 3 years ago and at the time I really had no expectations for what the class would be like or what pole dancers actually did. I’m pretty sure that I had never seen pole dancing outside of film and tv representations of strip clubs at that point. It had been a long time since I had danced and I was missing it a lot so I figured why not give it a try. Even if I did fail miserably at least I’d have a fun story to tell!
What are the benefits of pole dancing? Did it have an impact on the way you perceived yourself or your self-esteem?
One of the biggest benefits I have gotten from pole is the ability to see myself as a dancer. In one way or another I have danced all my life, but whether it was ballet or salsa, I always felt out of place. I would get to a point early on in each of my dance disciplines that it would be made clear that based on my size I would be given a different role in classes. Often it was taking on the “male” roles or being the support dancer to everyone else. No one was ever mean to me or told me to leave, but I immediately felt limited in my ability to grow in these dances.
As soon as I found pole dance there was this freedom that I never experienced in other forms of dance. There wasn’t any rule saying a pole dancer has to look a certain way or even what the best way to dance was. Yes, you are given tricks, moves, and combos, but the purpose of pole classes is finding a way to make it your own. So I realized that there was no invisible limit on my potential in pole, I could take it in any direction as far as I was willing to put in the effort for. I was just as much a dancer as anyone else.
Pole dance also changed the way I saw my body. With some exceptions I have always liked my body, maybe a bit bigger than I am comfortable with, but it did what it needed to do. It wasn’t till pole that I started to have real pride in what my body was capable of. It was such a boost to find out what my body was naturally good at (for me, back flexibility and high pain tolerance), but also what with practice and patience I could achieve. There are moves that I saw early on in my pole practice that I thought would be impossible, that I figured was only for the professional, but now I have achieved. It made me really aware of how amazing the human body is. We are capable of so much more than we think.
The biggest surprise benefit I have gained from pole dancing is how I view all women’s bodies. There is something exceptionally powerful about getting to see women at all different sizes, races, and ages practice extremely difficult moves in a pair of teeny shorts and a bra top. There are no apologies for wobbly bits, or stretch marks, or bumps and lumps, just a genuine appreciation for what each other’s bodies are capable of and their natural beauty.
Were you at first intimidated to try pole dancing? What are common misconceptions?
I was absolutely intimidated! My first concern was the weight limit on the poles, I was fully prepared to walk in and have the instructor tell me I was too heavy. So before my first class I researched the weight limit and for most they are 250 – 300 lbs (later I would see group pole performances where 2 – 5 people were on a pole at a time so it seems like the weight limit is really more a precaution than a hard and fast rule).
I have always felt pretty comfortable with my sexuality so the sexy part of pole was never my concern. Again, I really didn’t know what to expect from a pole dance class so there was definitely some intimidation in just not knowing. My bigger concern was if I would be fit enough to make it through the class. And well I did – even if I couldn’t do everything, I was given modifications so I was always able to participate.
The most common misconception is that we are all strippers. A very small percentage of dancers in the pole dance community are actually strippers. While becoming a stripper is not a choice I would make for myself, I have a lot of respect for the women who do. Those I have meet have all been extremely hard-working, often professional dancers or dance instructors, and devoted to their art. I have yet to meet a stripper who fits into the negative stereotype society has of them.
This isn’t to say their aren’t bad strip clubs or strippers who do it for the wrong reasons – just that viewing strippers through the narrow lens we do does a great disservice to the amazing and ridiculously talented women out there. When pole dancers are called “strippers” so often it is thrown out there as a terrible insult. “Stripper” gets used as this shorthand for “slut”, “whore”, “dirty”, etc and it really speaks to how uncomfortable the world is of women who unapologetically own their sexuality.
Another is that women are only doing it for men. There is the occasional woman who comes in with the idea of learning to dance for her boyfriend, but 99.9% of pole dancers start for themselves. I work the front desk a few times a week at a pole studio and so I get the opportunity to talk to students just as they are deciding to start and a lot of women start after a failed relationship or a negative experience as a way to rediscover themselves and love their bodies. I also see a lot of women come in for the fitness benefits of pole and the fact that pole is a little taboo makes it all a bit more fun.
And finally, that only women pole. More and more men are becoming involved in pole dance. It is really exciting to see men bring their own unique strengths to pole, they have a whole different set of moves and tricks that tend to be easier for them to access. A common misconception for male pole dancers is either they are all gay (some are, some aren’t) or that they are in it to get a free peep show watching the women in the class. The last I just have to laugh at because anyone who poles knows how much hard work it is and if all you wanted to do was see scantily clad ladies it would be so much easier to just go to a strip club. Also, my experience with guys in class is they are there to learn just as much as the women.
What’s your favorite aspect of pole dance?
My favorite aspect of pole dance is being able to express myself and dance out emotions. There is nothing better than at the end of a difficult day being able to freestyle to your favorite song on the pole and just let go of the tension. I also really enjoy planning all aspects of a performance – from choreography, to costume, props, music, and more. My goal is to bring the audience into the world of the performance as much as possible. I am still very new at performing so I have a long way to go, but I am excited for the journey.
Culturally, pole dancing is sometimes seen as degrading. How can women learn to appreciate this form of movement as a more empowering activity?
I am so thankful that pole dance comes from a non-mainstream source. However you might feel about strip clubs, it is because of its origins that pole dance has been able to live in this grey area of art, fitness, self-expression, and sensuality. It can take all the best parts from each of these areas and discard the rules that have left a lot of people out in the past. All bodies are welcomed in pole, and because of its “adult” history most pole dancers don’t get their start till their late 20s with most in their 30s & 40s. Pole dance isn’t just about fitness or dance, but it is a medium that actively encourages self-expression and self-love.
There is a meme that floats around pole dance groups that says something like “Its pretty hard to feel objectified when you’re the only person in the room who can support your entire body weight … sideways.” Pole makes you ridiculously strong and most of all, makes you feel powerful! I have seen the way it transforms women who were once shrinking into the background to stand tall and walk with pride.
They start their first class wearing layers of clothing, but over time gain confidence to shed layers and perform for other students in a bikini. The idea that pole is degrading doesn’t occur to those who pole, because the evidence of its empowerment is in ourselves and our fellow polers.
At the end of the day, pole dancing is a combination of dance and gymnastics with the use of a metal pole apparatus, that’s it. You can choose to dance with the pole however you’d like and the pole community actively encourages you to put your own take on it. Pole dance will only be degrading if you want it to be.
What advice could you give women who are trying to be comfortable in their own skin or women who want to try things like pole dancing but are afraid?
I would absolutely recommend pole dance to women who want to become more comfortable in their own skin. Most beginner classes (though research the studio before you attend) are women-only and start with very dim lights (some don’t even have mirrors) so that new students will feel comfortable touching themselves and moving in a sensual manner. Those beginning classes are really about discovering the joy in your body and learning to love the way you perform even simple moves like walking around the pole.
If you are afraid please know you are not alone, most new students are pretty terrified the first time, but by the end of class are talking about getting a home pole. This is because good pole instructors know that it is just as important for you to gain confidence and leave class loving yourself even just a little bit more as it is to learn the moves. Pole students are also an extremely supportive bunch and are quick to cheer new students on. Don’t be afraid to speak up if something isn’t working for you and don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t get things right away. I was a slow learning student and I am so thankful I didn’t let it deter me from continuing because I have gotten so much from pole than I would have ever expected in the beginning.
I can fully admit to crying at least a couple times when larger body issues popped up for me in class. Pole dance can be an extremely personal experience and a lot of times students have breakdowns in class, I have even seen a few people walk out. They happen and they are nothing to be embarrassed about. If, however, it is something your instructor or other students are doing or saying that triggers you then let the instructor know so it can be corrected or move on to a different studio that has an environment you feel more comfortable in.
Tell us about Pole Sport Organization’s Pacific Pole Championship 2014 and your performance.
I waited till the absolute last minute to sign up for PPC, but at the end of the day it was just something I had to do to prove to myself I could. I have a terrible fear of regretting not trying something so that fear will always push me to do new things.
While I was super nervous about performing in front of such a large audience, I was really excited to have an opportunity to focus all my energy towards a single goal. It was also the first time I realized that as much time as I spend at the pole studio, it really was just a hobby and I had never trained like an athlete or professional before.
Starting about 3 months before the competition I began training everyday. Because I was in Level 1, trick difficulty wasn’t the issue; perfecting what I already knew, creating compelling choreography, improving my flexibility and getting my splits were my focus. I worked with my coach Veronica once a week for the 8 weeks leading up to the competition and she really helped me understand what the judges were looking for.
It was a completely new experience performing in a competition setting versus a studio or club that I’d performed in before. A lot of pole dancing has dim lighting and usually you are surrounding by friends and fellow polers who are going to hoot and holler no matter what, so to perform under bright lights and silent judges was a bit disorienting. It is definitely not my favorite performance as I wasn’t able to fully relax into the movement, but I am extremely proud of myself for putting it all out there. I learned so much that I’m excited to compete again with the knowledge I now have. Also, any excuse to wear a sparkly costume and I’m on it!
Do you have any role models/inspirations in the pole dancing industry?
My role models are my fellow pole students I have taken classes with over the past 3 years. Seeing these women (and man) push past blocks, achieve impossible goals, own their sexiness, and finally become confident enough to share their abilities with others is a constant reminder of how much we are all capable of. None of us were athletes or professional dancers, all of us have full time jobs, many have kids and tons of other responsibilities, but for a few hours a week we are superhuman, flying high and performing death-defying tricks.
The professional pole dancers who inspire me are ones who put on a great show and tell stories (bonus points for gorgeous costuming) like Cleo the Hurricane, Jenyne Butterfly, and Marlo Fisken. I’m also inspired by dancers who keep the sexy alive in pole like Alethea Austin and Adrienne Lauren.
What’s a good way for a beginner to start getting involved in pole dance?
Grab some friends and sign up for a beginner class! A lot of polers get their start poling at home, but that can be a huge investment in equipment and a safety issue without proper instruction. Research studios ahead of time as each studio will have their own vibe and focus – some are more gymnastic, others focus more on dance and sensuality, both are great, but I find the latter more fun. Call up the studio ahead of time for what you need to bring and just have fun.
When you take your first class you will feel silly, you will feel awkward, but just know that every other student in there has felt the same way when they first started. In my experience pole studios are very welcoming places that want to build a supportive community of dancers so you will fit right in!
Jillian Wilschke is a designer, writer, costume designer and pole dancing advocate. You can check out her Pole Geek Blog, follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. You can also contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org!