A conversation between social researchers and pole artists about being a woman in Islington

On International Women’s Day 2018 we hosted an event that brought together academic analysis with pole dance. Sounds unusual? That’s what we thought too, at first. What happened on the evening of the 8th March was a uniquely rich conversation between perspectives that may seem very different on the surface but share many similar hopes, concerns, interests – and a genuine curiosity about each other.

In a time of tense political debate, social divisions and filter bubbles, spaces where we can meet each other in an open way, with compassion and trust can help us heal relationships fraught by judgement, prejudice and ignorance. In a very small way, this event was an attempt to create a space for dialogue, discovery and connection in Islington.

How the event came about

In September 2017, the BBC Woman’s Hour released a report that rated Islington the worst place in Britain to be a woman. After reading the report, we contacted the lead authors, Julia Griggs and Allison Dunatchik from NatCen Social Research, to invite them to discuss the findings with us on International Women’s Day 2018. When Ayana Patton from the Persepolis Pole Project got in touch a few weeks later with an idea for an event on the experience of female pole artists in Islington – also on International Women’s Day – we got curious. Could we somehow combine the two?

Designing this event involved quite a few conversations between the social researchers, pole artists and our wonderful facilitator, Yasmeen Akhtar from TrustLab, to work out how we might navigate a public conversation that engages with both high-level UK-wide data and the lived experiences of female pole artists in Islington – as well as a pole dance performance by Miss Pole Dance UK and Islington resident, Rachel Tolzman.

Panel

 

The panel (from left to right): Rachel Tolzman, Julia Griggs, Yasmeen Akhtar, Allison Dunatchik and Ayana Patton. Image: Julia Oertli

Challenging assumptions

A key intention for this event was to get people thinking about their implicit assumptions – both in relation to a high-level report such as the one commissioned by the BBC Woman’s Hour as well as the widespread (and often harmful) assumptions about pole dance as an art form. To do this, we needed to involve audience members in the conversation from the moment they walked through the door. So we first invited everyone to write a key word they associate with the labels ‘social researcher’ and ‘pole artist’ and stick them on a wall.

post its

Word associations with the labels ‘pole artist’ and ‘social researcher’. Image: Ayana Patton

We used these word associations to start the panel conversation. Yasmeen Akhtar invited the panelists to reflect on their profession as social researchers and pole artists and what assumptions they had made about each other before meeting. With the help of a toy elephant (to name elephants in the room) and questions from the audience, the conversation quickly took us to some core challenges about being a female pole dancer, a social researcher and a woman in Islington.

Here are a few quotes that capture the breadth of the conversation:

Rachel Tolzman, Miss Pole Dance UK, on pole dance as an art form:

“Pole dance and pole fitness is the same thing. It’s a form of dance, it’s a creative outlet, it’s a performance, it’s a form of fitness. It requires strength, grace, agility, musicality, discipline and dedication if you want to go anywhere with it.”

Julia Griggs, social researcher at NatCen, on the scope of the BBC Woman’s Hour report:

“There are many things about Islington that are great and that we couldn’t capture in the index [of the BBC Woman’s Hour report] […] things like diversity and community that we know are really important to women where they live. […] However, [discussions about the report] raised some really interesting points and started lots of really interesting conversations .” 

Ayana Patton, pole artist and founder of the Persepolis Pole Project, on the under-representation of the perspectives of female entertainment artists in public life:

“Women are from all different groups and they include pole dancers, strippers, sex workers. How often are they included in conversations we have about women? How often do we talk about their pay and working conditions and seriously consider them? […] And How many famous actresses started out as porn stars because they couldn’t pay their bills with their art? There are many artists involved in the sex trade because they don’t have opportunities to make money the way the rest of society does.”

Contributions from the audience captured in a Tweet:

Tweet

Key questions from the audience included whether women across Britain should have been involved in determining the dimensions of the BBC Woman’s Hour report index; if female pole artists’ experiences differ across the UK; and if there is a parallel between the extremes of wealth and deprivation in Islington and the spectrum of empowerment and vulnerability within the pole dance industry. To hear the panel’s reflections on these questions, you can listen to the conversation in three segments on YouTube.

We ended the evening with a beautiful performance by Rachel Tolzman, who gracefully mastered the pop-up pole kindly sponsored by Lupit Pole.

Rachel Tolzman

Rachel Tolzman, Miss Pole Dance UK, performing at Impact Hub Islington. Image: Julia Oertli

Rachel’s performance was followed by audience participation around the pole, facilitated by Persepolis Pole artist Aleksandra Karolina. We never knew a pole could be such a brilliant tool for engagement!

Pole participation

Aleksandra Karolina (right) teaches members of the audience a few simple moves on the pop-up pole. Image: Kirstie Wielandt

What next?

We learnt a huge amount from this event and experienced how valuable it is to bring people together who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to engage in a deep way. We want to host more conversations like this on topics that are alive in our borough. Particularly, we want to create spaces to talk about things that are on the fringes of public discourse.

Janice Gittens, a therapeutic coach and teacher from Islington, is launching a workshop series this month, Real Talk, which has exactly that purpose. If you live or work in Islington or beyond and identify as a woman, you can sign up to the first free workshop on the 26th April at Impact Hub Islington and become part of a network of women who want to shape and influence life in Islington.

Janice Gittens

Janice Gittens (standing) announces the launch of Real Talk, a workshop series for women in Islington: “What’s missing in Islington is real conversations – about race, identity, sexuality, age, representation.” Image: Julia Oertli

We will be plotting future public events of this kind. If you have an idea for a collaboration, topic or any feedback or suggestion you’d like to share with us, Julia will be delighted to hear from you.

Our heartfelt thanks go to Ayana for her energy and vision, Julia and Allison for their open mind and curiosity, Rachel and Aleksandra for their generosity and presence and Yasmeen for her graceful guidance and facilitation. Big thanks to Lupit for sponsoring the pole, Elysia for the lovely catering and Mayan for all the behind-the-scenes help that made this event possible.

islington_hosts

islington_hosts