I had this chat with Ashley Banx back in August. Publishing it got sidetracked by life events, so you'll have to forgive me there! One thing that struck me as I was reviewing our conversation (aside from how much she was making me laugh) was how much talking to her felt like discovery. Her mind naturally follows a rhythm great stand-ups work for years to hone: one where you begin following seemingly unrelated threads, and then bam! They all connect and a bigger picture unfolds in front of you. Needless to say, I enjoyed talking to her!
Edited for clarity and brevity.
Photo credit: Pole Sport Organization
How did you start pole dancing?
My grandmother had passed away, my boyfriend and I broke up, and my car got broken into. I felt pretty rock bottom. I was looking for something to keep me occupied so I wouldn't dwell and stew and mope. I hadn't done anything remotely athletic in 10 years, and I was like, sure, why not? It became a great place to sort out my feelings without the pressure of being around people who were interested in me as a sexual prospect. I ended up with a group of really awesome, supportive friends, and I stuck with it. That's a big deal, because I have ADHD, and I don't often stick with things.
"There's never really a sense that the project is finished or it is unfinished. There's no binary there."
What it is about pole that helps keep you focused?
I don't know if I would have continued pole dancing if social media wasn't a thing—not because I'm looking for attention, but it's a space where I get instant feedback and I can see my own progress. I track my failures, my successes, I reach little miniature goals. It's this ongoing thing. There's never really a sense that the project is finished or it is unfinished. There's no binary there. When you feel like you got really good at something, there's something else to humble you.
How did you start teaching?
I put it off for a really long time. When the studio owners asked me I'd just started, and the space didn't feel like mine yet. I put it off and put it off, even as I was running out of classes to go to. There were tricks I wanted to get that nobody around me was getting, so eventually there came a point where I was like, well I'm paying money. Am I actually getting instruction in return? At that point it made sense to teach so I could have access to the studio and practice. Even though the trade off is poling less for myself, I'm finding it fulfilling to teach others. I really enjoy helping people get hooked on the sport.
"People say, "Oh, we've got to get back to normal," but there are people like me who never had a normal. I always felt like I was grasping at straws."
How has covid affected you?
As a black person, as a person with ADHD, there's been a lot. Last year we had a reckoning about what it means to deal with race. It also opened up questions about accessibility when we realized so many people benefitted from being home. People say, "Oh, we've got to get back to normal," but there are people like me who never had a normal. I always felt like I was grasping at straws. I don't wish the hardships from this pandemic on anybody, but it means something to have everybody take a step back, look at our normal capitalist drive where we're constantly rushing and constantly producing, and say, there are more important things. It's nice to have everyone on a page that I was apparently the only one on before. I remember when the pandemic had just started, I was watching the news come in, and at work I asked, "Hey, are we gonna do anything about this?" And everyone's like, it's just in Italy, we're good. People fly out of Italy! Then the Biogen conference happened, and still nobody was saying anything. I think March 11th was the day I took myself out of my workspace. They made me take a sick day, but then literally the next day everyone was sent home. Around that time I remember preparing for pole class and asking myself, "What can I teach where I don't have to touch anyone?" The studio pivoted very quickly, to their credit, to online classes. But then you have an equity problem, because who has home poles? Who has the space for a home pole? Who lives with roommates who are okay with them poling in the space? Those kinds of things. And even though I have a pole, we had to move on short notice and then I didn't have the space anymore. I tried to keep it in my kitchen and I got sick of kicking my fridge. So I just ended up taking a beat.
"When things interrupt me in my life I tend not to return to them. I was pretty pleased that even after the pandemic stopped me from poling for nine months, I went back."
Are you working on anything now?
So, right now my biggest conundrum is where pole is going to fit in my life going forward. I came to pole around 27, and I just don't recover like I used to. I have a long term partner and we're talking about getting married and having kids, and it's not that you can't pole with children, it's just that when things interrupt me in my life I tend not to return to them. I was pretty pleased that even after the pandemic stopped me from poling for nine months, I went back. Right now teaching is the anchor that keeps me going to the studio. That's not to say that I don't have a passion for it, I definitely do, but it's just organizing the space in my brain to give it its proper position. And now with my body not bouncing back the way that it used to, it's difficult. Do I change my style of pole? No, I'm not going to do that. I am not a flowy dance person. It's not who I am.
You're at a much higher skill level than I've ever gotten to, but we have similar stories in the sense of, I started pole when I was 28. Now I'm 34, and I remember feeling that shift in my body. I get injured more easily, but also, if I'm not active, my body feels just awful.
Just awful! I'm not sure who invented this, but it's terrible. Now I find myself going into pole thinking more about avoiding injury, which I'd never really considered before. I'd go in with reckless abandon and just assume my muscles would heal. Give it enough blood flow, get a little massage, and it'll be good! Not anymore. I poled twice this week and I'm wiped. It could be the pandemic, I don't know. I don't have a control group to compare this against. Who's poled through a global pandemic?
What's up in your life outside of pole?
Full disclosure, I went to Princeton. I dropped out. My boyfriend also went to Princeton and dropped out. After that I felt like I was really behind in life. I had to stop using my regular Instagram page because it became a source of constant stress. It's like okay, you bought a house, and I have to figure out how I'm paying for groceries this week. I'm glad that people are doing well, but I have enough anxiety that I just can't take that—but on the pole page it's like, hey, someone did a handspring, that's great! That's a thing that's within my grasp. Or, oh that's a cool split that I want to try. It's not like the split can not hire me because I don't have a degree, so things feel attainable and accessible and open in a way that they're not in real life.
That's a cool thing about being in a creative space. And I totally know what you mean, how outside of that world, it does sometimes feel like other people's successes hold up a mirror to your failures in a way that can be so painful even though you might be completely happy for whatever successes they're having.
Yeah, it's like, I thought I was happy when I woke up this morning, and then...maybe I'm not? Should I not be? Should I be more productive? What I've learned is that energy is a finite resource, and some are just endowed with more than others. I don't think of my days in terms of hours, I think of them in terms of little bytes of energy: how much can I devote to stress? How much can I devote to pole? How much can I devote to trying to keep my job? If there's anything I've learned from crossing the 30 threshold it's you can't burn the candle at both ends. You have to divvy up your attention and divvy up your energy. So, in terms of comparing myself to others, it's very low on my priority list, but it's there when I open that other Instagram.
How have you been supporting your mental health over the last year?
It's been very good that I've had my boyfriend to commiserate with. I thought I would be annoyed—and sometimes I am—by having somebody in my space all the time. But it's actually nice to know that if I want to sit here and be grumpy and not talk to anyone, including the man in the room with me, he's still going to cuddle me at night. Caring for myself has also meant learning to care about the emotional needs of others, even if it's just those that are right around me. I care about people very deeply, but again, energy moderation. Last summer was awful. I gotta reach out to all my black friends and make sure that they're doing okay, then everybody's dealing with the pandemic, and then for the white folks that were reaching out to me it's making sure that they're okay and know that we're okay. It's a whole thing where we've all got to be okay, and on the same page. It's exhausting. And I just tuned out. Part of me thinks, maybe I have problems relating to people. I don't really think I do. I just think that I have to hyper focus—again, executive function disorder—so I have a few very close friends who are like me in the sense that we don't have to talk to each other every day, but when we're together, it's awesome! But yeah, I have a full live-in person that I have to communicate with now, that's new for me. He wants to walk in at any time and I have to just stop what I'm doing...I get really frustrated because I'm like, I was really focusing on reading this Lifehacker article and if I don't finish it, I'll never know what it says. How can you just walk in and talk, and then leave? But at the same time, I didn't realize how much growing I was doing. That's what I spend my pandemic time doing, trying to work on the few life skills I can manage. And growing plants, that's the other thing.
"I've been through enough bumps and setbacks that I know you don't get over them, you just kind of add them, and then you keep going."
Do you talk to them?
I used to, but I don't anymore. Again, I don't expend energy unless I have to, so with my plants when I see a new leaf on the inside I'm really excited about it, but on the outside I'm like, oh, good. But my boyfriend is really cute. So I have a turtle and I have plants. And they're my things. It's my turtle that I've raised for 17 years, I'm the one that buys the majority of the plants, but it's this big 6'1" black dude that gets up in the morning and sings a song to the turtle and then goes, ooh Monstero, look at your new leaf coming in! I always knew I needed to end up with somebody that I could be really stupid and silly with, because that is actually how I am most of the time. Those are the things that help. And I cry now, that's a thing—have you seen the secret garden with the Maggie Smith?
Not in ages.
That's my favorite movie ever. I've always identified very strongly with Mary Lennox. The whole thing is that Mary Lennox can't cry, and then at the end she cries. As I became an adult I thought, if we can think our way out of all of our problems, we don't need to spend time being emotional, right? And that's very much been my approach to things. So the crying is weird for me. I don't think I changed my core essence during the pandemic, but I feel like I was able to come back to being a little bit softer, a little bit more in touch with feelings. I know they'll make a whole bunch of NPR spots and talk about how we changed in the pandemic and people will come on and say, I didn't know this about myself and I didn't know that about myself and how do we get back to normal? There's no going back. We've all been through this. And I've been through enough bumps and setbacks that I know you don't get over them, you just kind of add them, and then you keep going. If I had any advantages going into the pandemic it's that things have been pretty shitty before. My mom lost her home after the housing crisis, and then I had to live with my dad who I'm not super close to. Oh, I almost died during H1N1—
"I remember thinking in the throes of death, well, I'm either dying, or I'm going to get X-Men powers. This is that critical junction. If I die, that's fine, whatever. I won't care because I'll be dead, right? But if I survive it...I could be Alex Mac! "
Wait, hang on back up—you got sick?
Yeah I got H1N1 doing face paint at my two-year-old cousin's birthday party. This was when Obamacare didn't exist. I didn't have insurance. My fever went up to 105.2, and I think you start getting brain damage at like 105.6—and I wasn't in a hospital. I was at home. And I remember thinking in the throes of death, well, I'm either dying, or I'm going to get X-Men powers. This is that critical junction. If I die, that's fine, whatever. I won't care because I'll be dead, right? But if I survive it...I could be Alex Mac! Then my mom had to lie and say she had it so that she could get Tamiflu and give it to me just in the nick of time...so I woke up normal and I was really upset. No X-Men powers...
Can't turn into a silver puddle...
Yeah I was upset! I was just on a deathbed a whole month. I think it really damaged my immune system. I get sick more easily now. So, setbacks—had them!
"You try telling a 55 year old black woman that there's a difference between pole dancing and stripping and that there's nothing wrong with either—that's a very difficult conversation to have. At the end of the day, my parents mean a lot to me. I love them very much. But it's still my life. I still have to do things for me."
And specifically-viral ones!
I'm not gonna sit here and be all Pollyanna, but I'm really happy to be alive. It makes me want to enjoy life as much as possible while I'm here. I wasn't raised in a super strict household, but my family's Jamaican. They don't really love the fact that I pole dance. My mom would call me out of the blue to be like, I hope you're not going to strip clubs to pole dance for people, with the implication that I'm stripping. You try telling a 55 year old black woman that there's a difference between pole dancing and stripping and that there's nothing wrong with either—that's a very difficult conversation to have. At the end of the day, my parents mean a lot to me. I love them very much. But it's still my life. I still have to do things for me. Anyway, she came to pole class.
Yeah. She thought she was gonna embarrass me out of going to pole. She watched a class and then she took a beginner class afterwards, thinking she's going to catch me in the act—you know, stripping. Little did she know, my best friends run that class. We had a lot of fun with it.
"Then I was like, I competed and I won a gold medal! Watch my routine, it's good. It's Donna Summer. You like Donna Summer. It's not even Hot Stuff where she's having a big orgasm on the track. It's so wholesome."
Did her having that experience change anything for her?
Nothing. My mom is a very special person. She finds ways to move the bar. She found out that I had been dancing at Machine, which was a gay club. No stripping involved. Just pole dance. She'd be like, it would be one thing if you were teaching or competing, but not doing this classless type, whatever, whatever, whatever. But when I did start teaching I said, "Okay mom I'm teaching now. Has your opinion changed?" It hadn't. Or she worried about the company that I was keeping and I told her I was dancing with a neurosurgeon. She's like, well, she's already achieved her accomplishments in life, so she can do that but you're not there yet. Those kinds of things. Then I was like, I competed and I won a gold medal! Watch my routine, it's good. It's Donna Summer. You like Donna Summer. It's not even Hot Stuff where she's having a big orgasm on the track. It's so wholesome. She wouldn't watch it. I still get calls like, I hope you're not going to the strip club to do stripping. I'm like, have you really looked at my pole page? I do power moves. I don't even dance in a style that could be remotely considered erotic. It sucks because as I'm saying this, I feel like I'm putting down other people and I'm not trying to do that. I'm just trying to get my mom to stop yelling at me as a 33-year-old woman. I want everyone to be empowered, but also I want my mom to see, oh that's a cool thing you do. That Venn diagram is just two separate circles. It's not happening.
It's one of those things. Whenever I talked to my dad about it I swear the words wouldn't even enter his head. It was just like I'd never said anything.
I know, I was like, look mom, I'm in a book! And she was like, plenty of people your age have written books, where's the book that you wrote? I have to laugh. She's just how she is. I could say, "Hey mom, I performed with a rap artist at a legitimate venue where people pay ticket money", or "Mom, I poled in one of the main art spaces in the city." Does that legitimize what I do in any way shape or form? No. She's worried about the shame and dishonor that I would bring to myself and the family and probably the island of Jamaica. Then there's her very real worry that those are the kinds of places where people get sexually assaulted. I was like yeah, but so is Princeton University, and you really wanted me to go there. At the end of the day, if you're not on board, you're not on board, and there's nothing I can do really to change your mind about it.
How do you see yourself creatively?
I'm trying to get back into woodworking and DIY-ing furniture. I do paint nights and those kinds of things, and I make things a lot. With all that going on, I still don't view myself as a creative. I'm not original. The few times that I've been forced to wear that hat it's been deeply uncomfortable for me. I always feel like I'm cheating. I don't wake up in the morning and like, think of pole moves that have never been done before.
Most of us don't!
Everything that I do, somebody has done it before. When I've managed to string a routine together I have a very difficult time stepping back and seeing it as a thing I've created. It's more like, oh, I took that move from that person and that move from that person and I happened to put them in a sequence that matched up with Beyonce. There's nothing I would like more than to be creative, but it's not a trait that I've given myself.
Hearing you, it makes me think that maybe you're responding to the gatekeeping people can build up around creativity, because to me it sounds like you are very creative person.
It's so weird the way things end up siloed in your brain. I take these self assessments and they're like, are you creative? And I'm like, do you mean at my job, can I come up with the solution that nobody else can come up with? Yeah. But, can I go home and make a picture without the Art Sherpa guiding me through it? No, I can't. Or when I try to do that, I don't like what comes out. I'm scared to color in your book, but it sits on my coffee table, uncolored, and I show everyone.
I'm going to tell you a secret about people who make art: we make a lot of crappy stuff. You just don't see it. It's just like with pole: you fall a lot, you do awkward things—
—the un-posted videos that fill a terabyte of my iPhone space, yep.
Yeah, there are so many not great things that have to happen on the way to making something that you feel like you're even ready to show the world. So if you do something once and you think, I hate how this looks, you're in the same boat as every artist ever.
Yeah it's just hard. Anyway, I loved the book. I'm super honored to be a part of it. It's like carving your name in a tree just to say, I was here. I did this. And when I'm old and can't move and have no more cartilage I will say, that's a thing I did. Here's evidence!
Silly question time: is cereal a soup?
Is gazpacho a soup?
Yeah, a cold soup.
Well, it depends. There's two kinds of cereal. There's cold cereal, and then there's my uncle's favorite way to eat cereal, which is that you take corn flakes, you pour condensed milk on it and then you pour hot water over it. To me, that's a soup, because the ingredients cook together. Cereal you build, and it's just the sum of the ingredients—wait, but that's not true because Cocoa Puffs melt in the bowl and then you've got chocolate milk. It's really going to bother me if I convince myself that cereal is a soup. It might be though. Oatmeal is a soup, I have no problem saying that—do you let your cold cereal turn to mush?
No, I have to eat it right away.
Then I'd say for you cereal is not a soup. But if you're letting everything meld together, it's a soup.
I like that answer.
You know, my dream job is inventing off-brand cereal names.
I'm here for that! Is there anything else you want people to know?
I feel like everyone needs something that pushes them. Pole is a great way to push yourself mentally, emotionally, and the physicality is a complete surprise. It's pole's gift—I didn't go into pole thinking I was going to be strong. I didn't step into the pole studio expecting to be an athlete, or expecting to be a dancer, but the community, and the space it gives you in your head to sort through things, that's really why I love it. Everything else is kind of a bonus.
If you're in need of a cereal-naming consultant (or you're just interested in seeing more of Ashley's amazing pole skills), find her on instagram @a.dre.a.day
Or if you're feeling lazy, just click here