Personal Style: Michelle Stanek

Not too long ago, I noticed a lot of pole dancers that I know (directly or through online networks) were expressing frustration and difficulty in carving out a niche for their own personal style. It seems once you get to a certain point in your pole journey, you spend a bunch of time figuring out what fits you best, and what kind of dancer you really want to be– and that can be a daunting and intimidating process. I asked Michelle, as well as Natasha Wang and Amber Richards, for their feedback in how this process worked for them. All three of them are clearly renowned pole dancers (and interviews with Amber and Natasha will be posted soon!), but all three of them also have incredibly distinctive styles that they have worked really hard to develop over time. I was hoping that by posting these ladies’ experiences, it could be inspiring or helpful for some of you out there!

Today’s entry is a guest blog by Michelle Stanek who has awesomely taken time out of her insane schedule to write for y’all! So thank you, Michelle = ) She’s an immensely talented pole dancer: Pole Drama Winner at EMW Polarity 2010, USPDF Amateur Champion 2011, Pole Dance Universe Champion 2011, and she will be competing in the highly prestigious Pole Art in Finland in October. And she just so happens to teach at the same studio that I do. But,  she’s also a really good friend with a fabulous sense of humor, and she’s followed a really interesting path to become the pole dancer that she is today. Currently, Michelle lives in NYC, is an X-pert master trainer and teaches at Crunch, Shockra and Body  & Pole, where she trains as well.

So, without more ado, I present to you: Michelle’s take on personal style.

As the dust and glitter of USPDF and Pole Dance Universe settles, several people have asked me about my style of pole dance and how it developed to what it is today, or at least the style I have presented in both the PFA’s Polarity and USPDF competitions. Two years ago when I did my first pole performance/competition, Polesque, I described myself as “Sassy McNasty VonMelty.” Now my style has been described as a blend of ballet, modern, grace and aggression. And if I am pole dancing, God willing, in four more years, I’m sure it will develop into something new as I grow as a dancer, artist and person.

When I started pole dancing four years ago at Crunch Gym I would go for an hour class after work on Friday nights. No one knew much in terms of difficult moves or technique and all we really needed were our teeny shorts, stilettos, club music, hair whipping, booty popping and a pole anyway! We just had FUN. I met my best friends in this class. Afterwards, we would go out for margaritas and start a fun-filled New York City weekend. I remember thinking, how COOL is this? I am an art history professor and a program curator who knows how to work a pole like a stripper…but i’m not a stripper! It made me feel strong, sexy and mysterious! That was the attraction of pole dancing at first. And that is what made me come back to class one, two, then three times a week. Who walks around being super sassy and sexy all the time? No one! So this hour was my hour to unleash my inner diva in a room of supportive, diverse, fun women and friends. After about two years, that novelty did wear off when I began to progress in strength and skill. I saw that there can be so much more variety in they way I could pole dance. And maybe dancing like a stripper wasn’t what I wanted to do *all* the time. I wanted to explore and revisit my dance background and bring that to the pole.

I have a classical and modern dance background. By age 13 I was pretty ensconced in the ballet world and had amazing opportunities to perform, travel and study with some of the best teachers available to a teenager in Pennsylvania. Around 17 I discovered modern dance and focused on that, in addition to art history and business, in college, where I was also lucky to work with incredible contemporary choreographers. When I was 30 and two years into pole dancing, I realized that I could really utilize my extension, flexibility, grace and dance background on the pole. After a few years away from dance, a broken foot and the decision to “get a real job,” pole reignited my deeply ingrained passion for dance. I got back into modern dance classes at Peridance, Dance New Amsterdam and Broadway Dance Center. Taking those dance classes and being free from the binding pole felt amazing. And it really helped to expand my movement vocabulary beyond the standard pole dance floor work and typical sexy flows. And instead of watching so many pole videos on YouTube I started to watch a lot more videos of my favorite teachers, choreographers and dance companies like Slam, TOKYO, Calen Kurka, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and others for inspiration and ideas. I even recalled a lot of old choreography I did years ago. I started to dance to music that was more lyrical or classical or obscure to help influence new movement. This resulted in a lot of trial and error, epic fails, very weird and ineffective movement, creative blocks and confusion of styles. I had freestyles where I was a hot mess and nothing I did looked good, felt good or made sense to the eye! Like the simple flexed foot can be incredibly effective if used in a meaningful way. If it’s just a superficial flexed foot for flexed-foot-weirdness-sake (?!) it’s distracting from the fluidity of lines. That’s a minute detail but a world of difference.

Although personal style is important and feels good when you find it, versatility is important too.  It’s important to show that you are not just a one-trick pony and as a dancer and artist, you can perform in different styles. Although I struggled with USPDF’s mandatory 5-inch minimum heel requirement (we fight to be taken seriously as athletes and fight to shed the image of pole dance in seedy clubs as strippers…yet we are forced to maintain that connection through what you cannot deny are “stripper” shoes), I appreciated the opportunity to be obviously sexy and serve up the sass for round 1 and then take the shoes off and get back to my modern roots for round 2. The innate sensuality of pole dance that initially reeled me in is still a huge reason why I enjoy it so much. But taking off the shoes presents me with the opportunity to be unusually and not so obviously fierce and sexy. And that’s the kind of sexy I like.

Finding your own style is difficult. It can take years. In college and graduate school (I have my BA and MA in art history) I hated the word “derivative.” People over-used this word for lack of a better one to say that a particular artists’ work reminds them too much of another artists’ work who came before them, as if they were just copying their style, and should be dismissed as uncreative copycats. No one wants to be an uncreative, derivative copycat! These are also called trends, people. They define artistic genres all the time. That’s why textbooks have chapters called “Abstract Expressionism” and “Surrealism” and “Neo-classicism.” Sorry…this is tangential. When you are just starting out, and most of us are considering how young pole dance is, it’s ok to find a style you like that you see out there. But find things from your own life to incorporate into your dance. I have a friend who is a brilliant choreographer who will always incorporate the spelling of her husband’s name, Max, into her work, like YMCA! in hidden ways. But it’s always there. And it’s special and unique. Spend time alone on the pole to explore. Lose the shoes. Put them back on. Turn the lights off and forget about the mirror. Close your eyes. Then inspect every detail of your movement in the mirror and see what a difference a slight angle in the tilt of your head can make. Dance to Bach then Lil Wayne then Adele. Take other dance classes. Experiment. Fail. Laugh. Grow.

Tomorrow’s post: Thursday Tunes…