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How Exotic Pole Dance Challenges Both Personal Limits and Gender Stereotypes

Flashing flares of neon lights hug the body of a dancer who’s spinning around a pole in the raucous thrum of music and sensuous gasps. In the mind of the average Vietnamese, pole dancing is often associated with more sordid corners of society. On the contrary, in the past decade, this performing art has slowly earned a respectable place in the country as not only a mesmerizing spectacle, but also a formidable sport.

Not long ago, Saigoneer had the chance to meet Quân Bùi, a pole dance instructor and also Vietnam’s golden athlete at international championships.

10 years on the pole

Quân Bùi shows me footage on his phone from his first-ever competition on the international level. On the screen, a rather slender young man nimbly twists, whirls, and jumps around a pole, but still manages to make graceful landings every time he gets on and off it. The wiry on-screen figure shows a stark contrast with the athletic man sitting in front of me.

Quân says that he’s befriended the pole for 10 years. Since that impressive performance, he’s been asked to judge several overseas competitions in Japan and Germany. These events then opened more doors for him to rub shoulders with dancers from all backgrounds, not only to showcase his skills, but also to gain more knowledge about the sport.

“When I’m competing, I need to execute moves with high difficulty levels to score points, and rev up the audience,” he shares. “But now, I rarely have shows that are that ‘lit’ anymore.” Ever since he decided to turn his talent to instructing, Quân seems to have mellowed out, becoming more patient with students. Everybody who follows his classes knows him by the affectionate moniker “Miss Bùi.”

Even though the bulk of his time is now dedicated to coaching, Quân tells me that he has to keep on honing his skills. Every day, he sets specific periods for personal practice, as he strives to participate in one competition a year even though he doesn’t have much free time. The self-discipline helps Quân to complete his teaching tasks while maintaining his form, especially during a time when new stars have popped up in the scene.

According to Quân, aspiring pole dancers should learn by heart the art form’s fundamental principles and techniques before plunging straight into spinning along with the music. Newcomers will find their start on a static pole to get a feel of the metal while doing basic movements. Then, it will be time for a spinning pole. From there, they will learn how to place their center of gravity so as to not be swept away by momentum.

Everyone’s experience on the pole is different

To help outsiders like me understand the diversity of pole dancing, Quân gives a primer on a host of different dancing styles. There’s pole sport/pole fitness and pole art. To practice the former, athletes go barefoot and focus on acrobatics that demand a level of core strength and endurance that even matches that of bodybuilders. The ideal body shape that results from this strenuous form of exercise has attracted many young hobbyists who take up pole fitness instead of boring gym reps. In pole art, dancers interact with the soundtrack to choreograph a complete art performance. There are also subcategories of pole art catering to performers with different personalities.

A few main subcategories include dramatic, which is close to dramatic plays, aiming to wow the audience; comedy, which blends in humor to tickle the audience; strip, which is fairly self-explanatory; and exotic, a sultry genre that incorporates techniques performed on high heels.

In the expansive realm of pole art, the dancer can freely express their own style and skills on any piece of audio from any genre, not limiting themselves to just club mixes or supposedly dance tracks. Performers can sprinkle in techniques from other genres of dance like contemporary and hip-hop to craft their own unique routine. One of Quân’s best students even finds a way to shine on a metal rock background. Thanks to the flexibility of pole dancing, both literally and metaphorically, dancers have complete creative freedom to channel their energy to viewers, a crucial hallmark of any excellent art performance.

The genre-bending variety of exotic has catapulted the style to one of the most popular subcategories of pole dance. Dancers are not limited to pole movements, but they have ample room to display their floor work on Lady Gaga-esque heels. The challenge is not only mastering the footwear’s weight, but also wielding them in a way that looks effortless. Exotic pole performances are always alluring thanks to a certain sensuality in the movement of the artists. Therefore, besides having complete awareness of their body, dancers need to thoroughly practice the choreography in tandem with other elements like lighting effects and music in order to tell a visual story that the audience can’t take their eyes off.

As a veteran of exotic pole dance, Quân Bùi has enchanted the audience at many contests, as well as via his TikTok and Instagram. When I ask if the word “exotic” is a reflection of the public’s misguided perception of the art form, he explains: “This style is very well-known in the west, but it’s still a novelty in the country [Vietnam]. I bring it here with some adjustments to suit Vietnamese dancers more.”

@quan.buii Không cần phải nói nhiều - Pole dance @txinh #fyp #quanbuii #poledancing ♬ original sound - Quan Bui

Leaving behind gender stereotypes

While pole dancers might appear svelte and elegant, in some aspects they are not too far off from body-builders. In fact, pole interactions require nearly every muscle in the human body, especially abdominal muscles, hip muscles, triceps and biceps.

When analyzed in the context of a physical sport, the pole has been a part of the athletic routines of many cultures for centuries. Mallakhamb is a traditional sport from the Indian subcontinent that employs a wooden pole with acrobatic swings, balancing acts, and even yoga poses. In China, pole swingers appeared as early as the 12th century. Circus performers participate in gravity-defying acts on poles ranging from 5 to 9 meters tall.

Watching recorded footage of the above-mentioned sports, pole dancers might immediately recognize poses like Cupid, Inverted Crucifix or Mantis, even though they were adapted for a circus or yoga context. Being such mentally and physically demanding sports with a rather daredevil attitude, it’s natural that they also attract male participants. In some communities, children can even start learning their ways around a pole without being subjected to social prejudice.

Even though male athletes have been part of pole sports for hundreds of years, gender stigma is currently a specter haunting modern pole dancing. Quân was able to get gigs as a dancer in Singapore, which served as his introduction to pole dancing. He then signed up for his first-ever competition, the Malaysian Pole Championship. One might have pegged Singapore for a land of cosmopolitan influences and worldly exposure, but there remains much prejudice directed at male pole dancers. Features on male performers on Singapore-based news sources like Strait Times and AsiaOne had to be removed after a barrage of criticisms by netizens, demonstrating that a significant segment of the public is still reluctant in accepting pole dancing.

Still, determined to pursue a passion that lets him express who he is, Quân Bùi kept going to practice and signing up for competitions. The later half of the 2010s saw a boom in the number of male pole dancers in Vietnam. Quân’s classes were gradually being filled with more male students just as eager and skilled as their female counterparts. I personally had a chance to be in the audience of VietPole Championship 2022 in Đà Nẵng, and was delighted to find that the contest had an event dedicated to male dancers: Male Pole. Even though there were only two participants, each brought up very different performances in both narrative and execution.

The atmosphere of Vietnam’s pole dancing community has changed so much since the early days when Quân Bùi first got on the pole for the first time. Some still harbor negative perceptions about the art form, but the new generation of participants is serious enough about their craft that it’s now a well-regarded activity.

After years spent in front of students, Quân learns that each person comes to pole dance with a different motivation. Maybe they want to try a whole new hobby, or maybe they want to improve their physique. No matter what propelled them to take up pole dance, to Quân, the most crucial factor behind any success is resilience. Putting aside score cards, Quân is happy to come to class every day as Miss Bùi to sow the seeds of Vietnam’s next crop of dancers.

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