Aesthetics vs. Technique: Are you accidentally teaching conformity?
All right, be honest…
How do you feel about the feet in this climb?
Despite this being my preferred climb with my left foot behind (my right ankle has been twisted and sprained in so many awkward directions over the years, this foot hook is rather uncomfortable for it), I used to HATE that this was my go-to.
I KNEW the “proper” climb was with two pointed feet. I’ve certainly lost a LOT of points over my years of competition for each time this climb sneaked into my routine.
But let’s talk about that for a moment…
The big question…WHY DO I LOVE THIS CLIMB SO MUCH?
I actually enjoy the quirky asymmetrical aesthetic of one flexed and one pointed foot, but the big thing for me is really the efficiency of climbing. For me, my legs are extremely dry. Until I discovered the magic of glycerin as a pole grip, unless it was a pretty humid (but not too humid) day or a toasty warm studio (which would send most other polers flying off the pole dripping in sweat), I would not have the grip on my legs to do an energy efficient climb until maybe 20 minutes in to class. Especially now that I train for much shorter periods of time, it is much more efficient for me to just flex my foot and get to the top so I can train the tricks I want instead of focusing so much time and energy on getting my shins a little sweaty so I can grip the pole. Yes, I know that if I wear lots of layers I can get sweatier faster so I can grip better with my lower legs and put more chalk on the rest of my body so I don’t slide with the extra sweat, but my point is…does it really matter??
I'll be the first to admit, back in the day, I'd be the first instructor to say "you did it! That was great!! Now do it again but point your toes..."
Growing up in a dance environment that was based very strongly on ballet technique, it was easy for me to carry that aesthetic preference over to pole...and to assume it to be the "proper technique" for everything instead of realizing it as it is...
…my preferred aesthetic.
It’s funny because I remember as a teen dancer competing in modern dance categories getting so annoyed at the judging feedback that I often received suggesting that I flex my feet more. You see, my teacher trained us in Graham, Limone, and Horton modern dance technique. While “modern dance” was a category in competitions, a lot of judges were unfamiliar with those techniques and saw modern dance as pretty much weird ballet with flexed feet...hence my comments to include more flexed feet. Flexed feet were often included in modern dance as an aesthetic rebellion against traditional ballet, but that was a choice, not the basis of the technique.
Where am I going with this?
All this to say…
There is a certain technique that is important to any kind of technical dance. But it’s important that we don’t begin to confuse our preferences of how we like to see bodies express themselves with “the proper way” for bodies to express themselves within that technique.
I think this is ESPECIALLY true with pole dance where one of the initial purposes was to give women a safe space to reconnect with their sexy side, which really has, for many people, little-to-no way to be expressed safely. Now of course, pole has expanded sometimes with intentions (or at least with verbiage on their website) of being inclusive to all genders and all bodies.
I don’t doubt that studios and instructors have intentions of being inclusive to all folks, but intentions without conscious awareness of HOW our instruction and environments may or may not be inclusive often does not actually create an inclusive environment. We need to make conscious choices to do this. And in a world where inclusive to all bodies is NOT the norm, being inclusive to all bodies usually means change.
I believe very strongly that fitness professionals deserve to receive a high salary and earn good money. It has been nice to see that many studios and independent instructors are putting out higher ticket offers where they can actually earn at least close to a living wage for what they do so they can truly be fitness professionals and have the time and space to actually research, advance, and create programming that better supports participants to thrive.
One of the challenges I’ve seen with this, is many people creating classes and programs that further perpetuate stereotypes of the “proper” way for bodies to move and to look. I personally find this particularly problematic with “proper technique to be sexy.” Yeah… it's not great to promote empowerment through feeling sexy only to tell participants that there is only one right way to look sexy.
Having said that, I think all of the different technical ways to EXPLORE sexy-style movement is really neat! But there’s also a big difference between teaching the “right way” for your body to look and teaching some cool things to explore to decide what feels sexy (or energizing or calming or whatever desired feeling) in YOUR body.
Circling back to the beginning of this post…the picture of the climbing feet…
I’ve talked extensively now about aesthetics and how people should be able to explore and choose the aesthetic they prefer. AND, I also described how I like the climb because it is way more efficient given my skin type with my left foot behind, but super uncomfortable for my right foot behind due to past injury.
So, the other thing I want to touch on briefly is that sometimes when we get so stuck in our head that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do certain skills without considering the WHY (i.e. aesthetics v.s. it’s the way I do it/learned it/learned to teach it v.s. it is actually related to risk and safety).
Obviously when it’s related to risk and safety, we need to be careful - but not recklessly careful. Our caution needs to come from a place of knowledge and understanding so that we are not accidentally limiting people with surplus safety.
When it comes to other things, we need to be mindful of our own biases. In this case we need to recognize that diverse bodies have diverse strengths, diverse expressions, and also diverse ways of doing some skills.
It’s important to be aware that there is more than one way to do every skill. One skill can look vastly different on different bodies - not just because of the characteristics of their body (e.g. shape, proportions, etc) but also because of their perspectives, preferences, and desired outcomes. Not only can the end point of the skill look different, but there are also different entries, exits, transitions, and ways to perform a skill that are all "correct" but some will work for certain bodies and some will not.
As a conscious fitness professional, there’s a lot to be aware of and a lot of choices to make.
As I've grown more as an instructor, especially over the last 3 years, I've realized the importance of differentiating between:
1️) technical instruction - essential components to complete a skill (such as muscle engagement, grip points, etc)
2️) aesthetic expression - the way a participant wants their movement to look (pointed or flexed feet, leg and arm positions when they're not essential to the integrity of the skill, movement quality, etc).
And I’ve decided that my vision as an instructor is to support people to thrive.
And thrive according to THEIR personal vision for themselves.
For me, this means that “point your toes” is not a correction unless someone has explicitly told me they wish to work toward this aesthetic. I may suggest it, but I also suggest exploring other body positions. I used to think pointed toes were important because it demonstrated body awareness. But you can most definitely be just as aware of your feet if they are relaxed or flexed as you are with them pointed. In fact, you may be more connected with your body if you can move with all sorts of different expressions and select your own way than by just blindly following instructions to just point your toes, always.
Having said all this, your coaching style is your choice and it should be aligned with your personal vision for what you want to share. And I’d assume that if you attract jobs and clients speaking and acting true to your vision, then you’ll probably end up in spaces and with participants that align with you, but clarifying their intentions, vision, and goals and making sure you can support them appropriately is also nice to do.
For example, if you are coaching someone who dreams of winning an International Pole Sport Federation championship, you’re not going to be serving them well if you’re not a stickler for pointed feet and having precise lines (IPSF guidelines are very strict and you lose 0.2 points for every single relaxed foot, micro bend in your knees, and other “line breaks”). But, if you’re coaching someone who wants to use pole dance to do some soul searching and challenge themselves to learn some skills in the studio, you’ll probably be serving them better by allowing them to do their own exploration and give them the power to choose their own expression.
There’s a difference between teaching a choreography that has a specific style that you expect people to try because it is the “proper” sexy style, and teaching a specific “sexy” style to give people the opportunity to stretch their comfort zone and try something new.
There’s different teaching styles you can use for teaching brand new skills, where you might be more directive to help beginners develop body awareness and confidence and to learn basic foundations. Whereas, you might include the same skill in a combo with more advanced participants and give space for more exploration and experimentation with different aesthetics and styles.
It also means that as the class leader, you may be open to input from participants in the class sharing how they perform a skill in a way that works for them. This has been super helpful for me in choreo classes when some one with a bum knee can't do a specific move and someone else with a similar injury history pipes up and shares how they've adapted the move to work for them. Same with participants with shorter legs or bigger boobs, or any other body differences.
Just as there is no right or wrong way to do most tricks, there is no right or wrong way to teach or coach. (Ok, so there might be some wrong ways, but for an actual coach with knowledge…you know what I mean).
The point is to be conscious of WHAT you are teaching and WHY.
Is your teaching or coaching supporting the outcomes you've promised your participants?
Perhaps most importantly, are you promoting a diverse, inclusive space for empowerment and perhaps accidentally teaching conformity?