A Conversation with Pole Joy Honoree Paige
Paige is a midwestern-circus-baby-turned-pole-dancer in Portland, Oregon, and the dancer gracing the cover of Pole Joy! With a bubbly personality and an inclination towards making their body into art in every sense, it's clear Paige is a deeply expressive person. I invite you all to get to know them better as we talk about poling and teaching during the pandemic, body art, and their humorous family connection with corn on the cob.
Edited for clarity and brevity.
Photo courtesy of @alpaigeca
View a performance by Paige here
How did you start pole dancing?
I was looking for something active to do after taking a long break from circus. I liked the idea of doing something in the aerial realm, but I didn't know if I wanted to get right back into the same things that I did as a kid. As someone who was getting to know my sexuality as an adult and getting to know myself as a queer person, pole was fun for me. I could use skills that I had, still doing expressive movement and using my existing flexibility. My primary act in circus was contortion, so it was an easy pivot.
You started teaching just a few months before the pandemic hit. What was that like?
It has grown my skills as a teacher. Only being there in real life or only teaching the way that I was initially learning to wouldn't have developed my skills as an instructor as quickly.
What are the biggest challenges for you teaching on zoom versus teaching in person?
I'm a really chatty person and I have no problem with filling the void, but having no direct interaction makes it hard to anticipate what people's bodies might need. It's harder to watch people from one angle on zoom and guess what they need to hear in order to find what I want them to find in their own mechanics.
"As soon as all four limbs are off the ground and you've rotated yourself literally at all, all of those directional cues are out the window."
What do you do about not being able to spot people?
You know, we haven't really been spotting people in person either because we're being so intentional about social distancing. It's been a valuable lesson around consent for me as someone who wants to jump in and grab someone to make them feel safe. It's made me check in with myself around how willing I am to just reach for a human being's body. It also encourages students to build awareness to know if the need a spot; to enter a trick with the intention of getting a little guidance versus having a panic moment and having someone there to rescue you, which realistically, you won't always have. I think it helps people build good judgement on whether they've really got that grip safely. There's a lot of trust that comes with that of course.
When teaching, what are the body parts you mix up most?
I'll mix up knee and ankle all the time. Same with shoulder and elbow. Also top and bottom can get so disorienting when your body is upside down. I tend to use "closer to my face" kind of language as much as I can, because if I say "top hand" people are like, what? I don't know what that means? Or the back leg. What do you mean back? As soon as all four limbs are off the ground and you've rotated yourself literally at all, all of those directional cues are out the window, so I try to stick to language that references the relationship to the pole.
What are your first memories of pole?
As a teenager I got more aware of it as an art form, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I started exploring it and realizing how much overlap there is between pole and the cirque world. I had never been to a strip club until I moved to Portland. As a cirque person and as someone who was mostly in established studio spaces, working in the club opened my eyes to the roots of pole that I was oblivious to when I was first getting into it.
How was that transition for you?
It was a big recognition of my own privilege within the world of pole. This is something that I've had the opportunity to pay some white person to show me how to do, to be introduced to this sport world of competing with a really specific style of judging. Knowing it as a sport or as a performance art for yourself is really different from knowing it as a means of surviving, making your money, taking care of yourself—it's important to understand its roots in stripping and be sensitive to the fact that white people are not the ones who have historically been the most subjugated within that. There's so much we draw not just from the strip club but also from black culture. It's been really valuable to be in that space in real life versus the hypothetical idea of what it means to be in the strip club.
What's special about Portland's pole scene?
In general it's more sex worker friendly than a lot of big cities, but it's still not fully accepted by any means. Portland has more strip clubs per capita than any other place in the country. It's also one of the whitest big cities, so what that means for our pole scene is that it inherently has a lot of white polers who might not be aware of or invested in the sex work scene. My studio offers free classes for black sex workers and strippers in Portland, which I love and I think that's something that should be normal, but I'm not sure to what extent that's being offered in other studios. I think having discounts for sex workers and free classes for black sex workers makes so much sense as far as making it an inclusive space. Having a gender inclusive and trans inclusive curriculum is so important too, as is being conscious and intentional about welcoming fat bodies and welcoming conversations about how different body types pole. I don't think I would feel comfortable doing the job that I do just anywhere and I appreciate that where I am it's being done really thoughtfully.
Talk a bit about the relationship between pole world and stripper world as you've experienced it.
Obviously pole as a sport is very much derived from strip club culture—half of our tricks are named for the dancers who invented them. But there's a huge disconnect. I'm sure you're aware of the notastripper hashtag—there are people who participate in pole but are not on board for supporting sex workers. There are also people who are invested in pole and think they're supporting sex workers but aren't in sex worker spaces, or don't know that they know sex workers. Portland is unique in that there's more representation in the pole community as far as people who've been dancers, but again a lot of that representation is white bodies. I don't want to make it sound like I know everything. I'm also a white person participating in this and doing my best to be thoughtful about how I do that. If someone is taking classes so they can take skills back to the club to make the money they need to make to survive, that's a very different use of that class than someone who just wants to feel good about themselves. It's important to recognize what it means to have resources to put money into feeling ourselves, you know? We all deserve to be able to enjoy the expressive part of pole of course—there are just layers. Making that a normal thing to address is big.
"I loved performing and I liked the glitter and the show and I wanted to be clapped for but I didn't want to feel like I had to fight for it. I felt like everyone deserved that."
How has your relationship to circus changed over the years?
It's easy for me to feel resentful of circus because I was most exposed to a side of it that felt a little bit ugly to me. I remember realizing how intense and exclusive that space can be. Everyone around me had a lot of body issues because they wanted to be good enough to use that form of self expression as a career path, and I remember feeling jealous of people I thought of as more successful. I look back on that and feel sad because I think the message that's fed in the circus community a lot is that there's one star in this show. This act has a lot going on, but someone's the highlight. Something I like about pole is that you're the one. I can do a doubles routine or have a team, but that team aspect is more intentional and less one main person and some side characters.
Kind of who's going to be the lead in the school play.
Yeah. At least that's the way the space that I was in was set up. A lot of times the acts were part of a larger story. The people whose parents could afford for them to take the most classes would be in the most acts, and therefore would get more stage time and more opportunities to be in lead roles. It became a class thing and it became a lot of times a body image thing. There was a lot of fatphobia in that space and there were some really nuanced racial dynamics at play, you know? It just was a lot of casting, which, I'm not a theatre kid for a reason. I loved performing and I liked the glitter and the show and I wanted to be clapped for but I didn't want to feel like I had to fight for it. I felt like everyone deserved that. Pole makes space for that. It's your dance; do whatever you want and whatever you need.
That makes sense. When I think about pole shows I've been to, each performance is personal. It's less one story that's being told and more like a bunch of short stories.
It's people writing their own story to tell. Being a dancer who performs someone else's choreography is not a bad thing, but there's a different element to it when you have the option to make it yours. I didn't feel like that option was there when I was in circus. That doesn't mean nobody is getting that experience. I think there are people who get the opportunity to write their own circus pieces, but it's invited at a way earlier stage in pole and I really appreciate that.
"I feel like in all of life there's been this theme of feeling like the people around you have things figured out even though we all logically know that nobody does. It's been nice this year to have no one be able to put up a front anymore."
Who inspires you?
I've been watching a lot of Yvonne Smink stuff because her movement is so far outside of my natural realm. She does really controlled movement but also incorporates a lot of contemporary style that I would never think to move through. It's also been cool to see more body diversity in the world of pole. I really like Jade the Serpent, Roz the Diva, and these black women who are not the body type we normally picture on the pole, but who are out there normalizing that anyone can do this style of dance and are just such fun people to watch. I'm also so inspired by the people I work with. Asteria Atombomb is one of my coworkers, and she's an incredible dancer—so multi-faceted. As a fat-bodied poler she's been such an educational resource. She's also an amazing friend and one of my favorite people to go dance with and create with. We always learn things from each other and I think that's the coolest type of relationship to get to have in these artistic spaces. My boss Shannon is awesome too. She was a stripper and has been poling for a long time. She's a powerhouse of a human physically and mentally.
How have you been supporting your mental health in the last year?
I think the challenge for me has been offering myself patience and letting myself rest when I need to rest; letting myself breathe and reflect and not always taking instant action on things. We all put productive pressure on ourselves and want to feel like we're doing enough all the time. But none of us know how to handle this, so I'm trying to just be ok with how I'm handling myself. That's my self care. I feel like in all of life there's been this theme of feeling like the people around you have things figured out even though we all logically know that nobody does. It's been nice this year to have no one be able to put up a front anymore.
Is there a song that's really speaking to you in this moment?
The song that comes to mind is one I had been writing a routine to for a staff showcase last year. Of course that got postponed, but enough time has passed now that we're all looking back at the pieces we had planned and saying, that is not who I am as a performer anymore, just because of everything we've been through physically and emotionally since then. That said, this song has spoken to me in a hundred different ways over the course of quarantine. When I was initially writing it I was going through a breakup and it was hitting me because of that. And then I put it away for a long time. I re-listened to it during quarantine and since then I've had a few experiences that have brought new meaning to it in different ways. It's Soft Currents by Alexandra Savior and it's just so pretty. It is a make-you-cry song though!
Always good to find new music!
Yeah, especially in the world of dance. I love hearing what people are moving to.
Sometimes I find my favorite songs that way.
Yeah, I love when I'm teaching and people hear a song a go, what is this?! And write it down. I'm like yessss! I love that! I stole this from someone too, you take it now!
What does your dog think about your acrobatic circus and pole practice?
She doesn't respond well when my feet are off the floor to begin with—even when someone picks me up she does not like it—she barks and gets really close so I have to make sure I don't kick her. I don't pole at home that much because of that!
Tell me about your relationship to your hair.
I have only had my natural color on my full head of hair for like six weeks total since I was 14. I'm 25 now. I've always, always been the keep-people-on-their-toes-with-my-hair type. If I've had my hair the same way for too long I feel an identity crisis. Like, you should be worried if I'm not changing it. During quarantine I shaved my head, which was a great choice. It was wonderful, and I loved how it looked, but it also changed how I move on the pole. I realized how much of my head movements were with anticipation of how my hair moves. Now I'm growing it back and moving through colors, like just trying do color and cut combinations are never before seen. I ran out of basic colorwheel colors a few years ago, so I've been like, what weird in between colors can we find? Or like, how can we do a different hair cut with this color?
"Humans make mistakes, and it's okay to not stand by every single decision you've ever made. That's just part of what life is."
I feel like when I was growing up, no kids ever had their hair dyed ever. It would have been such a big deal. And now I see 10 year old kids with pink hair and I'm like, this is cool.
It's cool to see as someone who was that kid. I wanted to be dying my hair and was told that I wasn't supposed to want to do that, that I wasn't ready yet, or that it was a phase. I think it's really cool to see kids get to be more autonomous and let it be a phase—it's so fine if it is. When I was a kid people acted like I wasn't allowed make a change on my body if there was a chance I would ever change my mind about it. Like, you can't have your hair blue because you might not want it forever. But hair grows. I won't have it forever.
Right. It's not a tattoo.
Exactly, yeah. Or even with tattoos; yes, they're permanent—but there's so much weight put into the question, what if you regret it? And I'm like, yeah what if? All humans have a long list of regrets. Everybody I know with tattoos has one that they would not get now, but it's not like we all hate ourselves because of it. Humans make mistakes, and it's okay to not stand by every single decision you've ever made. That's just part of what life is. People feel shame about it but it's like, making mistakes is normal. If we had been allowed to dye our hair as kids, we would understand that's normal.
We do have regrets we carry with us. I guess an unwanted tattoo is just a physical manifestation of that.
There are so many physical parts of ourselves that we might not be in a place to love, and those things might be there forever, too. The idea that your body is supposed to be exactly the way you want it all the time or that your goal is to grow into an old person that loves everything about their physical aesthetic appearance is naive at best. Our society does not support that. It's not going to be the tattoos that I hate the most on my body when I'm old.
I think about this stuff a lot. When I was 20, I had just gotten my sternum done, and my grandma was kind of giving me shit about it. She's like, you're not old enough to make such permanent decisions about your life. And my mom is in the room, my two uncles are in the room. My mom scoffs and goes, when you were her age you were married to dad, (pointing to my grandpa), and pregnant with Kevin, (pointing to her oldest brother). Looks pretty permanent to me! No malice towards my grandma, but it was like, clearly at 20 you're capable of making decisions for your life at large. And that's yours. If you regretted it or it had been a mistake, that would be okay too.
Sure, having a kid has way more repercussions than getting a tattoo.
If you regret your marriage, or having a child wasn't the right choice, that has real repercussions in your later life at large and will probably influence you forever, versus a tattoo that you just don't have to look at. I just don't think about my tattoos every day. I don't wake up every morning and say hi to every tattoo on my body. I'm used to them. I don't think about it.
Do you have favorites that emerge at different moments in your life?
I will say, I got one right around when quarantine was starting, and it's pretty wild to look at now. It's a little heart with a dagger and it says, "agony is truth." It's from a song about how there's very personal bonding and community that builds through sharing vulnerability and recognizing that we all experience suffering. That's everybody's truth at some point, and we can all share in that, be here for each other, and understand each other better through it. That's a thought I've always valued a lot—but to have permanently placed that on my body and then watched covid happen, to have that sink in so deep immediately after putting up on my body forever...it's carried me through a lot of hard moments this year. I also love my bat, he's my little buddy. He's so sweet. Sometimes I put makeup on him, or I'll put glitter on the wings. I have my dog on my leg too which one of my friends did. I love that I have her with me all the time.
I like that you're coloring your tattoos, it's like you're your own coloring book in a way.
Yeah, some of them have real coloring and then some of them I just do myself sometimes. I have a corn here and I kind of colored it.
What's the significance of the corn?
All my tattoos don't necessarily have huge significance. A lot of them are just things that are aesthetic comfort to me, or that remind me of my family in ways. I love corn, and I grew up in the Midwest and so aesthetically, that's part of it. There's a story—I didn't get it because of this story but the tattoo reminds me of it—so, my dad is obnoxiously good at guessing gifts. He will look you in the eye and tell you what you already purchased and wrapped up for him as a gift, and it's so frustrating. He's always been like that. But when we were kids, he would just ask us what we got him. He was our dad, so we didn't feel like we could lie and we would just tell him. So my mom said, "When your dad asks you what you got him for Christmas, or his birthday, or whatever, just tell him, corn on the cob. No matter what you got him, just say corn on the cob." So now it's a running joke in our family, that when you're trying to keep a secret or when you know someone's trying to get information that you don't want to share, you say corn on the cob. I love corn, and I grew up in the Midwest and so aesthetically, that's part of it too. It makes me think of the unexpected. You can try to know what's coming, but life will always corn on the cob you.
I love within relationships when you form these weird little shorthands that nobody else gets and becomes a beautiful shortcut in your language with each other.
They're the smallest inside jokes that you almost forget are inside jokes because of how much they're in your day to day life.
It makes me wonder how many popular phrases or kooky sayings originated in that way.
It also makes me think of how language evolves in different places. For example, Minnesota is the only state in the entire United States where the game that you play as a kid is Duck-Duck-Gray-Duck. Not Duck-Duck-Goose. I don't remember where it's originally from, but that's what the game translated to in the original language. Then it changed when it got passed from these communities in Minnesota to the rest of the country, but in Minnesota for some reason it stayed grey duck. It's fascinating. And then it makes you wonder about the ducks in Norway or wherever that's from. What's special about the grey ducks?
If you know what's special about the grey ducks, please tell us!
You can follow Paige on Instagram @alpaigeca
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