What I Wish I’d Known As A Beginner Pole Dancer and Aerialist by Emily Erickson
Dear Beginner Poler / Aerialist:
First of all, congratulations on making the commitment to study pole and aerial arts! Signing up for your first class/membership is often the scariest part of getting started in the discipline.
You have a lot to look forward to as you begin your pole and aerial journey. You will gain more strength, flexibility, and grace than you ever imagined and frequently amaze yourself with what your body is capable of doing as you progress. In the beginning, getting used to the way an apparatus feels, the seemingly endless number of moves to learn, and the sensation of spinning upside down in the air can be daunting, but know that by showing up to class each week, you will overcome these struggles and ultimately reflect back on your progress with pride.
I’ve learned a lot about both myself and pole/aerial over the four years I’ve been taking classes. In reflecting on my own journey as a pole dancer and aerialist, there are a few pieces of advice I wish someone had given me when I was just getting started. I’d like to share these things with you today.
Take Foundational Strength Movements Seriously
When you envision an aerialist, what images come to mind? Do you imagine a woman moving through stunning postures with strength and fluidity or fearlessly executing dynamic movements? Or, do you imagine a person spending HOURS refining their technique on knee tucks and pull ups?
Many beginners are excited to jump right in learning the tricks of their apparatus. Teachers, equally excited to keep their students engaged/coming back, may treat the conditioning exercise section of class much like a warm up--or as something to be gotten through so that the “real” and “fun” stuff can start being worked on.
While strength and awareness can definitely be learned while working on apparatus-specific moves and combinations, I would strongly advise beginning students to consider training foundational strength and technique as just as important a part of their training as learning the moves themselves.
One of my first aerial arts teachers had a philosophy which has stuck with me to this day:
Beginner level classes should provide you with the technical foundations and strength so that when you move to intermediate and advanced classes, you are able to work on the technical challenges of moves instead of fighting to do the climb/invert/shouldermount/footlocks/eggbeaters/etc to get into or out of them correctly.
Choosing to prioritize strength and technique early on may lead to you spending
more time on fundamental movements within beginner classes,
but will ultimately allow you to progress more quickly and safely in later classes.
Given the importance of building strong foundational strength in pole and aerial, what specific things should beginners focus on while training?
First, it is important to build strong technique early on as movement patterns which you consistently perform will become ingrained in your brain/body and stay with you as you progress.
Listen to your teacher’s feedback and ask questions:
What is the proper structure/alignment to hold yourself in? Should your shoulders be fully engaged pulling in holding you in the air or should they be partially engaged when rotating through a transition? What muscle groups should be firing, and in what order?
Second, work to execute movements slowly and with control.
Some teachers will encourage beginners to swing or jump into positions so that they can get into moves. While feeling how an end position feels can help you understand where you are trying to go and what muscles you need to engage to get you there, building up the strength to lift into moves without using momentum is important as a beginner.
Not only is it safer (you won’t be able to lift yourself into a position your body isn’t ready to support), but putting in the time and effort to build the strength and control necessary to do a move early on will serve you well as you progress to harder classes.
Many beginner polers kick into shoulder mounts or inverts only to find with frustration that when they move into intermediate classes, they are unable to do any moves aerially.
Build strength and control early on so that it doesn’t hold you back later.
Third, train both sides.
Your teacher will tell you this, more experienced pole dancers/aerialists will tell you this--it can’t be said enough.
It is common to have one side feel stronger or more coordinated than the other on certain moves and to begin preferring one side. This sets in motion a vicious cycle where the stronger one side becomes, the more you use it at the expense of training your other side which, resultantly, never has a chance to catch up.
In the long run, training only one side can lead to developing muscular imbalances which threaten the structural integrity of your body and therefore the longevity of your practice (i.e. you are prone to injury and less likely to heal as quickly or properly). As an intermediate or advanced poler/aerialist, it becomes more difficult to correct these imbalances because moves require more strength and finesse and are harder to safely execute on your less-practiced side.
Commit from the beginning to do equal reps on both sides, or even extra on your less-practiced side.
Fourth, find joy in the process of mastering foundational strength movements.
If you go into the conditioning portion of class with a positive attitude, it may become one of your favorite parts.
In contrast to learning tricks, where it is common to attempt the movement and then move on to the next one, you will find foundational conditioning movements being trained in all levels repeatedly. This repetition will allow you to see improvements--both qualitative and quantitative--in your strength and skill week by week.
You will find pride and excitement in discovering muscles you never knew you had!
It’s Never too Early to Start Finding Flow.
You will find pride and excitement in discovering muscles you never knew you had!
Creative movement comes easy to some people. They hear a song and naturally begin to sway to the melody with grace and familiarity. I was never one of them.
The strength and tricks came quickly for me, but finding that euphoric state of flow eluded me for the longest time. How exactly I found it is a story for another blog, but as I beginner I can’t emphasize the following enough:
What you know is enough to flow.
Even if you only know two or three moves, stringing them together and playing with arm/leg variations on both sides is enough to start finding your flow. In fact, if you find yourself overwhelmed by all of the moves you do know, pick just a few of the ones which come most naturally to you and approach stringing them together and adding your own flourishes playfully.
Turn your brain off and let the music guide your body, even if you are simply walking around the pole or mounting your apparatus.
Don’t Be Camera Shy...Film Yourself!
As a beginner, I felt that my execution of class combos was unsightly and not worthy of being recorded. Because of these sentiments, I went out of my way to not be on camera...going so far as to not even record my first competition routine!
Looking back on my pole and aerial journey, not capturing my progress through videos is one of my biggest regrets. Learn from my mistake and don’t be camera shy!
There are numerous advantages to filming yourself:
Filming allows you to critique your form and clean combos up. Though glancing at yourself in a mirror can give you some idea of how what you are working on looks, it is hard to critique and improve upon the aesthetic elements of a movement while holding on for dear life spinning upside down. Videos can offer you a valuable new perspective on how your movements look to an objective observer. You may become aware that you unpoint your toes when you hook your leg, breathe through your mouth, or do something else you never would have realized you do had you not filmed yourself. Looking at videos of yourself allows you to make minor refinements which will collectively translate into major improvements in your performance quality.
Filming helps you remember moves better. As you take more classes--especially across a variety of apparatuses--you may find yourself struggling to remember everything you’ve learned. When it comes time to choreograph a routine, having a video bank of moves and combos to draw from is extremely helpful. Even if you don’t plan on performing anytime soon, looking through old videos can remind you of moves and transitions that you may have forgotten which you can reincorporate into your freestyles and combos.
Having video documentation of the progress you have made over time will allow you to look back on your pole and aerial journey with pride and celebrate how far you have come. The video you cringe at today may very well become something you look back on and laugh at with pride in the future. Having videos to look back on to remind you of how far you have come can also be reassuring when you are feeling frustrated or like you have plateaued as an intermediate/advanced student.
When in doubt over whether or not you should film yourself at the end of class, take that video! You don’t have to share it with anyone and can always delete it later, but time will pass and if you don’t take a video now, you won't ever be able to go back and capture it later.
Last But Not Least:
Enjoy being a beginner.
Being the newest person in the room can feel daunting. Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing (trust me, they don’t) and the amount of new movements there are to learn can feel overwhelming.
Enjoy coming to class and seeing things for the first time. There is a certain magic to your first few months of taking classes. You will progress dramatically, learning a staggering amount about both pole and aerial as disciplines as well as yourself.
Find joy in asking for help and advice when you need it, and be willing to immerse yourself in opportunities to take workshops, perform, and otherwise engage in your studio’s community.
Make mistakes. Learn, laugh, and have fun, celebrating your progress along the way.
Finally, be open to exploration. As you gain more experience working on different apparatuses, seeing which styles of dance and movement appeal to you, and feeling how your body likes to move, your practice will start to reflect who you are as an aerialist.
Try new things. Take risks. See what you like and cast aside the rest.
Enjoy making your journey your own while taking pride in being part of a larger community. Most of all, know that your teachers and fellow students are rooting for you! YOU GOT THIS!
Written By Emily Erickson
photo: Nikkita Saulnier @nikkittyta