I'd like to introduce Neda, a Persian-American nurse practitioner, swimmer, pole dancer, and all-around-badass based in Los Angeles. She went to her first class thinking it would be funny to do pole as a hijabi, but the joy of the challenge and the community kept her coming back. She is unapologetically herself, letting backlash for the choices she makes for her body roll off her with a self-assuredness and humor we should all admire. In our conversation, she challenges the assumption that all pole is sexual while highlighting the importance of respecting the contributions of sex workers to this sport and art. We talk about her thoughts on sticky clothes, the silicone pole, and how her decision to begin wearing hijab in her 20's helped immunize her against the critical voices that disparage her choice to pole dance today.
Edited for clarity and brevity.
Photo credit: Bobby Gordon Photography
View an excerpt from Neda's last performance before quarantine here
How did you start pole dancing?
In August of 2019, I'd just done a two mile race in the ocean. I wanted to take a break from swimming for a little bit and try something new, so I looked up all these activities around me. A pole dance studio came up like a mile and a half from me, and I said, "Oh, I want to try some ho shit!" So I just went. I was expecting to go in as a joke, because I did go in with my hijab. I didn't know if people were going to record or something—it was a bunch of people I didn't know, so even though it was all women, I still kept it on. I was expecting to be like, alright everyone, I'm just visiting, but then I stayed because it was just really welcoming.
Had you seen pole dancers perform before?
My experience of pole dance was as a punch line in a joke regarding anything having to do with strip clubs. I didn't know anything about pole beyond that.
What surprised you about your experience, going into your first class?
I kind of thought I was going to go to a class and it was going to be like, ok strippers, thank you for your knowledge, and I would leave after that. But when I went, all of the women were super welcoming. I had a really nice teacher. She made the class really fun, and it was a really body positive environment. We did learn some sensual stuff, which was nice, but I also learned a lot about body awareness. I left the class sore, so it did make me work hard. I felt like I had to keep mastering this thing that was challenging to me, so that's what kept me coming back. Eventually I invested in private lessons once or twice a month.
Were they good at accommodating you as far as remaining covered?
The classes I would go to that I was not wearing hijab in, I would just make sure people knew not to film me in the background. Covering up became a thing when I realized, oh this is some difficult stuff, I want to post it. I realized, ok I can't dodge everybody's camera all the time, and sometimes I'd want to post some of the strong shit that I was doing. That's when I had an instructor tell me about sticky pants.
"I get asked all the time if I'm trying to send a message that I wear a hijab and pole and I'm like, no. I show my videos because I'm strong as hell and I want to show that off."
I haven't tried sticky clothes, tell me about your experience with them.
Oh I love them. Wearing hijab, I feel like they're very helpful because I get a lot of back of the knee sweat and that can cause you to slip. The pants take away whatever sweat is coming from behind my knees. It also accommodates dry skin very nicely. I still get the same amount of bruises, but there's less burn. Most of the time I'm not wearing a sticky top so that's where sometimes lack of skin exposure does make a difference. I'm not doing aerial inverts when I'm covered up unless it's on my silicone pole, because for that you do have to have your abdomen exposed. There are some moves where it can be a little bit limiting, but the great thing about pole is that there's not only one way to do a trick. I don't have to do inverts aerially all the time. I can descend into an invert if I don't have a sticky top.
If you could be head to toe sticky or use a silicone pole, what would be your preference?
It depends. With the silicone pole you have a lot of friction. Moves that you flow in an out of are difficult on silicone, but it's great for doing aerial moves because I can just wear regular clothes and I have plenty of traction on any part of my body. The sticky pole is best if I want to do harder moves and hold them longer. Regular pole is nice for moves that require me to flow in and out of quicker.
You got a lot of hate, but also a lot of love from folks when you came out as a pole dancer. What was that like, experiencing both those extremes at once?
I wasn't really prepared for it because I didn't see what I was doing as a big deal. I wear a hijab and I'm doing difficult moves. I think most people, even Non-Muslims, see the pole as a stripper thing—which of course, they've got their own unpacking to do about why they feel so poorly about strippers—but they project that onto anybody who's on a pole. It's the same thing for children that have done pole before. You see a kid doing gymnastics on a pole and usually the internet response is pretty bad, like, "What are you doing sexualizing these kids?" But really the question should be, "What are you doing looking at them sexually?"
Anyway, the point is I was not ready to have that response projected onto me. I got straight up harassed online. That was daunting. I wasn't prepared to have a whole mob come after me. It was kind of tiring because I had to block a lot of people, but those people would share my stuff and then I would get a lot more followers as a result. It was stressful, but I got a lot more support in response because people saw how I was getting attacked.
Did that help, to feel like the people who were criticizing you were outnumbered by the people supporting you?
Oh yeah, they totally played themselves. It was great.
Has that experience influenced the way you see your community and your faith now?
I mean it's nothing new, because I felt it even when I was not doing pole. I don't consider myself fat, but I'm definitely heavier. I'm thick. I've got big boobs and a big ass—that's been the case all my life, and I feel like when you're curvier you're encouraged to cover it up more to erase it. So I'm going to the masjid and I'm trying to pray and someone's putting a whole sheet over me—so that's not new to me. You know, being told my clothes are form fitting—like, do you want me to wear a potato sack? I don't get it. So this is nothing new. And it's nothing new among Non-Muslims either. If you're bigger, you're told to erase yourself a little bit more. So the kinds of criticisms I was getting from other Muslims I've already heard it in other areas of my life before for much less. I was not surprised, but then I also have a lot of muslim women who are messaging me, and really happy for me...there was another muslim girl from Egypt who started doing pole and I'd facetime her and teach her some beginner stuff. I think a lot of people are just private about it, and so they see me doing it and they feel more confident about their decisions because I'm going public with it.
"I'm just not really scared of people and what they might think. Maybe the way I am might be a form of rebellion because I was kind of raised to lay low and be quieter and I was just like, no."
In a standup performance from a few years ago, you talked about a conversation with a fellow nurse and her choice to wear the hijab in part as a signal, so that any time she helped someone they’d know it was a muslim woman who put that good into the world. It sounds like something you’ve carried with you in your choice to wear the hijab as well, is that right?
I started to wear the hijab when I was 21, and of course that continues to be a reason why I wear it. I still carry that sentiment when I do my job. I'm a nurse practitioner, and it still is a big deal to me that patients remember it's a muslim woman taking care of them. You know I'm not trying to represent Muslims or anything, like, represent yourself—but this is still a part of my identity and it's been trashed by a lot of society, so I feel like that visibility is important so people are not just hating a group of people for no reason. But with pole? I get asked all the time if I'm trying to send a message that I wear a hijab and pole and I'm like, no. I show my videos because I'm strong as hell and I want to show that off. The moves that I do are risky and they take a lot of hard work and I'm proud of my strength. But I'm not trying to send some message that I'm special because I pole and wear hijab. You know, I see this as I'm showing off a physical feat. If I want to send a message I'm usually very explicit, and that's why I do other sets of videos.
One of the things I admire about you is how you’re able to speak with such clarity and conviction, but also be so funny while you’re doing it. Those are some great qualities. Do you think that’s more nature or nurture?
I don't know, because even when I was in elementary school I liked presenting and stuff. I really liked entertaining. Any time I had to speak in front of an audience that just excited me. I even did standup for a few years—more as a coping mechanism—but I'm just not really scared of people and what they might think. Maybe the way I am might be a form of rebellion because I was kind of raised to lay low and be quieter and I was just like, no. So maybe that, I don't know.
Yeah, maybe a little bit of both.
"I appreciate my body for the value that I assign to it, not by outside standards."
Has pole changed the way you think about your body?
Hell yeah. I mean I never felt poorly about my body. I think especially with a lot of Middle Eastern cultures, and just being a woman in general—among Western women as well—bodily autonomy is always brought into question. It's never really respected, so it's really changed the way I feel about my bodily autonomy. I always had a high opinion of my body and what I can do, but it always felt kind of like being on the outside looking in. With pole, it's helped me feel that autonomy and really understand what that means.
You're saying that you felt like you were on the outside looking in before—say more about that.
I think I could objectively say as an outside observer, I have a strong body, I'm muscular, I have a full figure, but I kind of feel like I was saying that with standards that I was taught were good qualities. It wasn't, I think this way because I feel it. Now it's more like I don't have a set of standards to judge my body by. It's feeling that I have a lot of power physically, having that bodily awareness, and being more connected to my movements; listening to my body when I'm getting tired and not just pushing it like crazy in the name of discipline.
I see, so you're saying your sense of value is more coming from within now.
Yeah like I appreciate my body for the value that I assign to it, not by outside standards.
Do you have any goal moves right now?
I feel like what's helped me recently is just eliminating goals. If I'm struggling with a trick I can stop and instead be like, well what if I move my body towards the pole? What if I move my leg this way? And I discover new tricks along the way. So I learned that I don't have to have goals all the time. There some tricks of course that I want to master like elbow grip Ayesha, and I'm still in the process of conditioning for that, but if there are days when I go into the studio or even my home pole and I'm just like I don't want to do it, then I find something else to do.
"Sometimes I get scared of approaching a trick because I'm like, well what if I can't do it? So I have to talk myself out of that kind of perfectionism. Nothing's going to happen if I try it and get it wrong."
Cool. I like the idea of letting it being a little experimental and letting yourself have fun with that. Would you say you're more flow-centric than trick-centric, then?
It depends on the day, because I'll still focus on a trick, but then if I listen to my body and I'm like, I can't do that today because I'm tired or fatiguing, I find something else to work on.
Has pole challenged you creatively?
Yeah of course. I have a swim background and when you grow up with swimming or on team sports, you have resistance kind of drilled into you. Sometimes when I'm trying to approach a trick I'm like, no I'm not going to stop until I get it. So then sometimes I get scared of approaching a trick because I'm like, well what if I can't do it? So I have to talk myself out of that kind of perfectionism. Nothing's going to happen if I try it and get it wrong.
I saw you got to try the lollipop! How was that?
Oh it was really fun! My instructor has one in her backyard so I've been able to play around with that. It's different because with the lollipop you can sit down and take your time with things more, so that part's really fun.
How's the pole dance community in LA?
I only know the North Hollywood one. I think the community is pretty small to begin with, but I really love the studio I go to. Everyone is super encouraging. All the instructors are amazing. Overall it's just a really good environment, like it's a place I can go to and feel at home
What are your hopes for the pole dancing community as a whole?
I don't know, I just joined so it's hard to say! My goal is for more people to try it and just go into it respecting that strippers have largely influenced it. There's no need to go into it and try to separate yourself from strippers, because if you don't work as a stripper, you're automatically not them, so what's the problem? For people who want to go into it, to know that you can have your own identity without disrespecting someone else's. You can still respect their influence even though you had different choices.
"I don't see stripping as something with an unethical origin. Of course the way that they're treated is unethical, but as far as the origins of things in my daily life, stripping is the least of my concerns."
Definitely. For a lot of people too I feel like pole becomes a gateway to understanding issues around sex work, because for those of us not in that community there's not a lot of exposure to it until you get into the pole community where there's this overlap and it opens you up to thinking about it more critically.
Yeah I think people have a lot of dishonesty with themselves about sex work, because their boyfriends have bachelor parties and people go to Vegas all the time, and people don't want to admit that they do enjoy it. It's like they hate themselves for it because of how badly they think of strippers and sex workers and everything. Stripping is not something that I would think of doing, but even though the origins don't align with choices I make, that's not a problem. The way I see it is, I'm a nurse practitioner and I do mostly GYN and prenatal and we know that the origins of GYN care are really terrible. A lot of the procedures we know now were done experimentally on slaves at some point. There's so much in our daily lives that have backgrounds that go against our personal ethics or choices. I don't see stripping as something with an unethical origin. Of course the way that they're treated is unethical, but as far as the origins of things in my daily life, stripping is the least of my concerns.
I can’t let you leave without asking about your cats, because they're adorable. Tell me about them.
With the bigger one, Mittens, I wasn't expecting to get a cat. I was showing the adoption center to my friend and Mittens just ran up to my foot and put his paw on it. He looked at me with his one eye—he's missing an eye and he has seven toes—and something in me was like, I need to take him home. And I did, and it's been three or four years now. And then the little one—I'd gotten a kitten in October because my friend was a foster for him. She wanted him to stay in the social circle, because he was just a really sweet kitten. Unfortunately he died of a kidney anomaly. It was really sudden and I was really heartbroken after that, so two weeks later I adopted from the same shelter as a way to honor this late kitten, and that's how I got the one I have now.
Imagine that your superpower is that you can give phobias to people. What things would you make people afraid of?
I feel like the correct answer is make people afraid of racism or bigotry. If we want a silly answer—damn, I don't know! I'd make people afraid of being wasteful or something.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
Just that I made a choice to wear hijab when I was 21, and it was not something that was accepted by my family at all. Later they came around, but I had to fight to wear what I want. So when I started doing pole this was not the first time that I had to face my decisions not being well accepted. Being accepted was not my goal, but still. I've been rejected for my decisions before, pole is not the first time. So with the lessons I learned starting to wear hijab, I already knew what it felt like to be questioned and to get looks. In that regard, the reaction around pole is not anything new to me.
You can follow Neda on Instagram @hijabiluscious
Or, if you're feeling lazy, just click here