Friday, April 13, 2012

Pacific Pole Championships

In its infancy, every sport must struggle to define its goals and standards.  How it responds to the challenges of rapid growth has significant impact on the long-term success of the sport.  In the pole community, the path formed by the pioneers of competitive pole dancing is at a crossroads.  In the pole events I’ve attended in the last year, it has become apparent to me that as the number of events increases, the lack of consistency in judging, safety standards, and event organization is leaving many dancers frustrated and feeling ignored, removed from, or otherwise unsatisfied with the process.  Until now, there seems to have been much discussion on the issues causing the dissatisfaction, but little practical action to address them.

The call for change must have been heard; however, for there is a new pole dancing competition throwing its hat into the proverbial ring.  Billed as a truly open amateur competition, the Pacific Pole Championships,with United Pole Artists as the title sponsor, will be held on May 19, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  I sat down with the creators, Amy Guion and Bayleigh Pettigrew, to talk about why their competition is different than the others already out there.


What made you decide to create PPC?

Bayleigh:  Having been an athlete in well-established sports most of my life, there is something so exciting about having the opportunity to participate in a sport that is newly developing.  Seeing the elite level athletes defy physical limitations on this apparatus while incorporating a variety of influences from dance and cirque at the top competitions has inspired the phenomenal growth in this industry.  But at the same time, in talking with pole dancers locally and worldwide, I became aware of the desire of dancers to have a platform to perform their craft.  Even at its most basic levels, dance is all about expression – communicating with an audience.  On some days, we dance for ourselves, to relieve stress or to release emotions that we weren’t necessarily aware that we held inside.  But as humans, most of us don’t live in isolation, we seek communication and relationships with others, and that need to communicate extends to dance.  In pole dancing, there hasn’t really been a venue for non-elite dancers express themselves to an audience.

I am fortunate because my background is in figure skating, and I’ve experienced a similar issues in that sport.  Prior to 1995, the main governing body of figure skating, USFSA, sanctioned competitions at every level – but only up to the age of 18.  If you were not at the most advanced level by that age, there was no venue for you.  Yet thousands of adult ice skaters over the age of 18 were out on the ice daily, pushing their edges and constantly falling just for those few moments when gravity was suspended and they could fly.  Eventually the USFSA realized that this group needed a venue to perform.  At the first national competition, organizers expected no more than maybe 100 adult skaters to show up to compete.  Well over 400 competitors signed up and more than 600 performances were skated at that event.  Since that time, the “adult” level of skating has weathered challenges similar to what I see pole dancing going through now:  dividing the levels to make competition available to everyone while simultaneously not counting out the abilities of skaters allegedly past their prime; providing different types of events, so that those that may not have the technical skills required to be competitive in the championship events still have an outlet to perform and showcase their artistic skills; and how to judge adults at test level and in competition.  There have been many changes as competitive adult skating grew, with one of the greatest being the change of perception from one of condescension and tolerance to the building of a healthy respect and learning not to underestimate the abilities of the older skater.

However, figure skating was fortunate in that there already was a structure in place for judging and the way that figure skating clubs run by volunteers would run the competitions.  In wanting to create an opportunity for dancers of all levels to compete and perform, it is our goal to borrow from the best of the established artistic sports, as well as look at how other competitions world-wide are being run in order to try to create a structure that will draw on the support of the pole community and allow as much opportunity for participation as possible, among dancers and those just wanting to be involved.

That is our goal with PPC – to work with what has already been working in the industry and to continue to push for standards and consistency while making the process more accessible to all.  We plan to elicit feedback throughout the process in order to grow and meet the changing needs of the competitors and the community.  We want to establish a grassroots, community-run event that encourages growth of the individual and the sport.

Why PPC?

Bayleigh:  Although Pacific Pole Championships is being run as a competition, it is designed to provide an opportunity for dancers of all skill levels to perform.  Amy and I spent a great deal of time weighing the benefits of running the event as a competition versus a showcase, and ultimately decided on competition because we felt that by adding the Artistic events, PPC is appropriate for those who want to compete as well as to non-competitive dancers that just want to perform.  The competitors and non-competitors alike can take the judges’ comments and either use the suggestions offered to enhance their performances, or disregard them. 

We believe that in any artistic sport, there remains an element of subjectivity because the artistry comes into play.  It is not like running a race or throwing a ball where the results are easily quantified.  We hope that all the dancers will look at their placements as opportunities for growth, because all any artistic athlete can control is the performance.  After that, it is out of their hands.  We hope that getting feedback will help all the dancers discover both areas of strength and opportunities for improving their communication with the audience, and use that knowledge to their benefit.

Beyond entering Pacific Pole Championships specifically, there are important reasons why the process of training for any competition is valuable to a dancer. 

First, working towards a performance requires the dancer to push themselves, which in turn brings growth in so many ways.  Choreography requires the dancer to thoughtfully immerse themselves in the music, listen to it intently and then explain the emotions that the music evokes without using words to an audience of diverse backgrounds.  Carefully choosing the movements and elements to convey this interpretation requires the dancer to edit their movement, transitions and expression far beyond what is normally accomplished in class.

Second, preparation for a performance often encourages a dancer to reach out to others in the pole community to engage in discussion over choreography, music choices, costuming choices and training tips.  In its greatest form, it can further strengthen the bonds between dancers and increase the atmosphere of camaraderie that can be inherent in our sport.

Third, there is the physical growth that frequently occurs when a dancer has to run through an entire dance multiple times in practice.  Endurance, strength and flexibility often will benefit from the focus necessary in preparation.  Dancers will find themselves pushing the limits of their fitness levels, thereby increasing them exponentially.

Fourth, in facing a challenge and accomplishing it, the dancer gains confidence which then translate into increased confidence in facing challenges presented at work, home, or other ordinary aspects of life.

In summary, whether the dancer wishes to rise up the ranks of competitive pole dancing or simply seeks a supportive venue to perform in front of family and friends, Pacific Pole Championships endeavors to create a space and time for all dancers to have their moment in the spotlight and reap the benefits that the process offers.

What have you learned from all the previous competitions and showcases in which you’ve participated?

Bayleigh:  Most of my experience as a competitor, coach and volunteer at local, national and world competitions has come from twenty years in the figure skating world.  At an organizational level, I’ve learned that trying to prepare for every possible scenario of what might go wrong is important, but that there will still undoubtedly be moments where you have to think quickly on your feet and solve issues that you hadn’t thought of.  So you do your research in advance and when unexpected things pop up, you are prepared to work toward a solution, rather than spending time trying to figure out how it could have happened.  I’ve also learned that it is the support of the community and the volunteers that can make or break the overall atmospheric tone of a competition. 

As a competitor, I’ve learned that the real competition should be my personal growth from the experience and from the joy and inspiration that my performance can bring to others.  There is so much outside my control, but I can determine whether I perform to the best of my ability that day and my attitude.  When I let go of worrying over placement and everything else outside my command, generally my performances go better because my focus is on me and my enjoyment of the process.

As a coach, I’ve taken what I’ve learned from my experiences and refined them.  Generally I encourage my competitors to try to choose one single performance goal to focus on once they program is choreographed.  It is generally simple, like pointing toes, or extending legs completely, or connecting “x” number of times with the audience.  That way, no matter where the placement ends up, the competitor can feel like they succeeded on bringing their performance level up one small step.  It also keeps them from honing in too much on a specific score which generally loosens their performance and helps them direct the extra bursts of adrenaline toward a specific goal so that it doesn’t overwhelm them.

In working with Amy and some other dancers on their performance pieces, I have found that many similarities exist between skating and pole dance competitions.  One that Pacific Pole Championships hopes to accomplish is to set a high bar for safety and operational standards.  It is so important for this sport to find its way to standardizing certain aspects so that the athlete/dancers that are trusting us with their safety can have confidence that the event will be well planned and executed, with every effort made to ensure their safety and enjoyment.

Amy:  Loaded question...oh my.  I've learned a bunch of "don'ts" as well as a few "dos".

Don't:

Change the poles without notifying competitors beforehand.  Poles and stage dimensions MUST be communicated to the performers.  This is probably the thing that has irked me the most.

Change the venue without notifying the competitors.  I hate it when I find out some major change from a friend of mine in the community rather than the event organizers.

Lose your cool when things aren't going as planned.  Again, keep it professional.  The show must go on.

Have a host that doesn't know what they are talking about.  Or one that makes jokes about strippers, sex, or other inappropriate comments.  Keep it professional!

Make the theater freezing cold backstage.  If I can't warm up because it's 60 degrees inside, that's an injury risk.

Do:

Have music track backups in case of major fail OR test all the music beforehand to make sure that it plays properly.

Keep the poles the same (the same of the stage spinning and same side static) during a show to make the transitions run more smoothly.

Have water and gift bags for the competitors.

Use a professional rig if possible.  They look better, they make people on them look better, and they are more similar to the poles that we all use on a daily basis.  Stand alone stages are great for say, club gigs, or private events.  I have an X-Stage that I use for those things, and it works great for those environments.  However, for a competition, poles should be taller and attached at the top and bottom.

Amy, many of us know you as an instructor at BeSpun and competitor at CPDC and USPDF.  Bayleigh, you and I haven't met before.  Please tell us about your background in the pole dance industry.  Amy, for those who haven't met you before, tell us a little about yourself as well.

Amy:  My background is in classical ballet, which I studied while growing up and through college as well.  I switched over to pole dancing in 2007 at BeSpun because I loved the freedom of movement, which was a big contrast to my previous structured training.  I also fell in love with the circus arts, namely contortion, which I trained for a couple of years at Kinetic Theory Theatre in Los Angeles.  I have been competing in pole since 2009, which means that I've seen how far the industry has come, but also how far it still has to go.  With absolutely no standards to competitions in the pole industry, I've participated in both excellent events that blew my mind away by how organized and professional they were to events that I almost walked out of because of the ridiculous drama and the disrespect with which the competitors were treated.

Bayleigh:  I come from a sporadic athletic background that included some gymnastics, some vaulting (gymnastics on horseback), tennis, and other team sports because we moved around frequently during my childhood.  When I became involved in figure skating, it quickly surpassed all my other passions and I trained diligently despite being prone to injury.  After six unsuccessful knee surgeries, my ice time became more painful and as total knee replacements were inevitably on the horizon, I was fortunate to find my way to a pole dance studio.  Initially I went for the slow warm-up and was fairly certain that I wouldn’t really care for the pole component.  Fortunately, I never let my initial reservations about activities hinder my participation and once I managed to stop gripping onto the pole and allow my body to fall into a fireman spin, naturally I was hooked. 

Serendipity stepped in again while rehabbing my first knee replacement when I spoke to Leigh Ann Reilly of BeSpun whose own mother had just had the same operation.  She wholeheartedly welcomed me to come to the studio and take classes despite the fact that I was still on crutches and probably looked quite the sight hobbling in, unable to bend my knee or kneel on it.  Be Spun has been the training grounds for many great pole dancers, and as I relearned the technique on all my tricks to account for flexion and strength I didn’t have, I found that the pole community was larger than I had realized.  Attending Pole Convention in Florida last summer brought the realization of how fortunate I was to live in an area that supported so many pole studios when I met dancers that had had to learn everything they knew from YouTube videos and DVDs.  As a result, I met so many dancers, instructors, and performers and became inspired to try to do my part for this growing sport.

After the second knee replacement this past summer, I worked with Amy on her program for California Pole Dance Competition and we started brainstorming ways to provide dancers that were not at the elite level to have an opportunity to perform…and Pacific Pole Championships thoughtfully was born.

What are you looking for in potential competitors?

Bayleigh:  In all participants, be they competitors, volunteers or spectators, we look for those who embody our motto:  Aspiration.  Inspiration.  [r]Evolution.

We want people with the aspiration to grow from this challenge, whether as another step towards pole superstardom or simply to share their passion with others.  I think one competitor said it best: “Oh well well well...this just sparked an interest I didn't even know I had...!”.  In the broader sense, this competition aspires to educate those unfamiliar with the sport of pole dance and create new aspirations for people to work towards.

We hope that they will find inspiration from the performers at all skill levels and in turn provide inspiration to each other and those new to this sport.

We seek to create a supportive experience from which the individual dancer’s expression can evolve while simultaneously encouraging a revolution in the way that artistic pole sport is regarded by those outside the sport.

Amy:  We are open to all dancers that want to compete, there are no prerequisites, requirements, or skills that you have to have to participate in our competition.  The concept is: if you fill out the application form and submit your entry fees and documents proving that you are 18 years of age, you will be able to get onstage and deliver a performance, and receive feedback from judges.

That being said, we are looking for people who are enthusiastic, supportive, and driven that can catapult this sport to new heights.  We want to promote a friendly environment where all levels feel encouraged by their peers.  We encouraged everyone to apply for the competition, and we are proud to say that we were able to accept every person that submitted an application to us.

How can competitors, sponsors and volunteers get in touch?

Thanks to the internet and social media, we’ve got many ways for people to contact us.  As previously mentioned, our website, www.pacificpolechampionships.com, provides extensive information about the competition.  On Facebook there is a page for Pacific Pole Championships, as well as an event page and both of these pages offer updates.

In addition, one of our Sponsors, X-Pole USA is sponsoring an amazing video competition.  One lucky winner will receive $250 towards airfare, hotel accommodations, a private lesson with the amazing Nadia Sharif, and much more.  Information about the contest is located on our Facebook pages as well as the X-Pole USA's Facebook page.

Our email is HERE.   We welcome all questions, concerns and comments. 

What else would you like people to know about PPC?

Bayleigh:  As the sport grows, we hope that more competitions will take the initiative to set the bar high as far as event organization, thoughtful pre-planning and safety standards are concerned and that competitors and sponsors will research the competitions being offered and use their consumer power to support the more professionally run competitions so that events operating at sub-par standards will become obsolete.

Just a quick note about judging.  We have been talking with other pole organizations and elite competitors in determining how best to create a judging system for the events offered by this competition.  It is probably the biggest challenge, simply because there is no international or even national consensus on judging or difficulty of moves or move names, nor does any training system exist for judges in our sport as there is in other artistic sports.  We will be paying very close attention to the feedback on the judging system after this inaugural event and hope to improve and build upon with each successive event so that one day we can create accounting software that will enable us to offer greater transparency in the judging system.  We believe that training and developing judges for all levels of competition is as vital as training and developing the artistic athletes performing before them.

Amy and Bayleigh:

We would also like to acknowledge our sponsors who have made this event possible:

Title sponsor: United Pole Artists     

Gold sponsors: X-Pole US and Bad Kitty Exotic Wear

Bronze sponsors: Mika Yoga Wear and Tite Grip

Product sponsors: Dew Point, Bendability Fitness, Three Heartz Jewelry, BeSpun

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