Daniel Darling spins around a 12-foot pole, slowly undulating and unfolding his body just a few feet from the ceiling. His toes form perfect points, sometimes aiming skyward. When his feet finally touch the stage again in this Cary, North Carolina, auditorium, he bends down to pick up what looks like a cotton ball. But it’s actually a small, artificial blossom that he had tucked into the center pocket of the distressed denim overall shorts he’s wearing.
In a few hours, the Fayetteville, North Carolina, resident will perform this routine in the Pole Sport Organization Triangle regional competition, a qualifying event for the group’s national pole-dancing championship. This is his final rehearsal.
Darling, a whippet-thin 22-year-old with a quick laugh, is now shirtless, but walked in wearing a fashionably ripped cutoff T-shirt emblazoned with the word SEX in big letters. He is worried that the flower might fall out of his overalls when he’s hanging upside down or executing a move. And he’s nervous about the performance even though he knows that as the sole male performer, he will walk away with the regional crown and earn a chance at the bigger title no matter what.
He’s one of a small but growing number of men making names for themselves in the female-dominated sport of pole dancing — a field that blends gymnastics, modern dance, ballet, international movement traditions, and circus arts — and its stigmatized distant cousin, stripping. Darling is also among the pole performers trying to disrupt norms, particularly the gender binaries that divide movement, makeup, emotion, and even high heels into “male” or “female.”
It’s a relatively new sport, partly popularized by a segment on “Oprah!” in 2001, featuring entrepreneur Sheila Kelley, who opened a chain of S Factor pole fitness studios to help women find their inner “Erotic Creature”, while tightening their cores. At its best, pole dancing is an affable subculture that invites athletes and amateurs alike — your former dancer or your next-door neighbor — to don a bikini and try something new within a supportive studio. It’s also a community that’s fighting for legitimacy — some advocates want Olympic sport status.
Amy Guion, the owner of PSO, is the person ultimately responsible for staging her business’s 20 qualifying rounds across the country. She says only about 80 of the 4,000 people who register to compete identify as male.
Pole dancing has long been defined as a feminine pursuit — and one partly defined by the heterosexual male gaze. But Guion says that men and women tend to take it up for different reasons. Faced with more cultural pressures about their looks, women often come to their first class on a lark, but find it to be liberating. Men, on the other hand, tend not to have the “courage to step into the studio for the first time. Pole is not something they randomly stumble across.”
Ego is not the only reason why few men have found pole to be their diversion of choice. A lot of the teaching studios began as safe, private “women-only” spaces with no men there to gawk, harass, proposition or assume that a self-assured or sexy dance is an open invitation or sex work.
“I have to explain to people that the reason we wear bikinis for women — or shorts for men — is that we need our skin to stick to the pole,” says Guion.
For Darling, pole was an epiphany after years of dance classes where he couldn’t find a way to channel his desire to dance outside established gender boxes. His “pole journey” — a phrase often tossed around among the dozens of competitors here — started years earlier, when he attended a contemporary dance class at a Fayetteville charter school as a student. He moved on to ballet, but he balked at how male dancers were mostly props or muscle for female partners.
“I loved [ballet] because it had a softer side,” he says. “I love the strong, delicate quality of the movement. But I realized, as a guy, I can’t really be the delicate one, I have to be the strong one – because with ballet, you have to be a guy and a girl.”
A similar problem arose when he got deeper into ballroom dancing, which he had briefly learned at age ten. “Being the only male dancer in my studio, I advanced quickly to partner,” Darling remembers. “It was, ‘Hey, you’re a boy, partner with a girl. We need you.’ I envied the girls.”
The deeply gendered politics of partnering in dance pushed Darling, who is gay, to think about his own sexuality. When he became a ballroom instructor at age 19 and the studio hired another male teacher, Darling trained the newcomer. He realized that he didn’t just want to wear fancy, flowing women’s dancing garb; he wanted to partner with another man on the dance floor and beyond. But there was no version of ballroom that would let him dance with a man. Even just dancing together offstage was taboo — when he asked the other instructor to dance with him at a company party, other revelers complained that it was like visiting a gay bar. He looked for another outlet, and he found it when he attended a pole class.
Darling is chipper and chatty but serious about his art. He readies himself for his routine by spraying his hands with adhesive, testing the pole, reminding himself to make eye contact with the audience, practicing a move reminiscent of the downward dog yoga pose.
After his rehearsal, he trades admiring compliments with a female competitor, praising her electric blue stretchy maillot and her transparent, five-inch stiletto heels. Then he worries aloud that the flower won’t stay put in the pocket when he is suspended upside down and slinking across the floor.
For Darling, the flower is more than a boutonniere. It is a soupçon of the feminine to contrast with what he sees as the rough-hewn masculine feel of the overalls.
“The concept of being gay was kinda a mystery to me,” he says. “This need to be a little more feminine started a long time ago. Now I’m pushing my art form more, I’m pushing the feminine a bit more.”
His 2017 winning performance had him sharing an edgy bondage-related piece (and sporting makeup “bruises”) to the rap song “Sucker for Pain,” featuring Lil Wayne and other male musicians. While the previous year’s performance boasted breakdancing moves, handcuffs and deliberate, sexy darkness, this routine has the elegance of ballet and a sense of sweetness. And Darling performs it to Ta-Ku’s “American Girl” — a song whose conversational back-and-forth between male and female vocalists allows Darling to imagine himself in either role.
Seanmichael Polaris of San Francisco, who captured PSO’s first male professional crown in 2014, and describes himself as a “raging faggot all of my life,” says pole can push the boundaries of gender. But it’s not immune to concepts that reinforce larger ideas about gender. There are those who believe that hip swivels and body rolls are the province of women. Pole dancing is a field that’s, overall, friendly to queer competitors, but it’s also a field that — explicitly or not — places more emphasis on women’s appearances and, in some cases, looks askance at the popular “men in heels” trend that has some male competitors working the pole and “werking” stilettos at the same time.
“We can pretend that pole is a magical fairy bubble where everybody loves each other,” says Polaris, but he believes the sport, though queer-friendly and welcoming, still shows gender bias. “Pole can be the opposite of patriarchy and still that at the same time.” It’s generally accepted that male performers should be strong and female performers graceful. Those who cross those lines, like a male friend of Polaris’s who was recently told to do more “boy moves,” may find themselves scored lower by judges.
But even in a mostly female sport, being a man has its privileges. Male pole performers may land gigs simply because they are considered more a novelty among scores of talented female performers. The small number of male competitors means better chances of advancing in competition. A running joke among the circle of male polers — and one that may contain a vein of uncomfortable truth — is that if they were forced to compete against the women, the male champions might not even get runners-up honors.
But it’s unlikely that gender-based categories will entirely disappear anytime soon, though there has been some change, amid a patchwork of policies across the sport’s organizations. Trans performers are welcome in PSO and can register in the category that aligns with their gender identity; in 2017, the organization ditched guidelines — based off NCAA rules — that made trans participants show medical proof of transition surgery and hormone levels. This year, the New York-based U.S. Pole Dance Federation is rolling out a new male amateurs competition as a prelude to the first nationals for men in its history. Pole Theatre USA, another competition circuit, groups participants not by gender, but by the style of performance.
“I have spent my entire fucking life with people telling me my body is wrong,”Darling says. “Who cares what the genitals are on the pole?”
It’s a question that Daniel Darling thinks about, as much as he thinks about his own sexuality. As of this moment, he says he’s defining himself as a gay man, though, he says, “I’m still working through my sexual identity and learning who I am in general. Sometimes I want to be androgynous, sometimes I want to be feminine.”