Kent Pole Championships – my journey from start to finish

January 2014 Today I did something I never thought I would do. Ever. Today I registered to compete in the professional category of Kent Pole Championships. My first competition. In fact, my first ever performance.

Just the thought of competing brings me out in a cold sweat. I want to run away and hide in a cave and never come out. How could I ever be good enough to compete? I’ve seen those girls and they are amazing. They blow me away. I’m just not like them and I never could be. So what am I doing entering a competition?

I would quite like to have a go at putting together a routine, just because it’s such a challenge, and totally out of my comfort zone. I might not actually do the competition at all, probably won’t actually, but I can put something together, and then at least I have the option. If it’s any good of course. Which it won’t be.

I’ll be rubbish though. I can’t dance without resortng to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice moves. Maybe I could do an MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice themed routine!

No. No

What is a theme anyway? What does that mean? An epic tale of my struggle to find a parking space today told thought the medium of interpretative pole dance?

I speak to some pole friends and tell them what I have done. One, Jo, lives in the US and I have never met, but I feel like I have known her for years. Recently she told me she was thinking as she walked to her pole class – it feels like we have been friends for ages even though we never met in person, and I smiled to myself. When I tell how how I feel about this competition, she tells me to take my own advice – be more confident, don’t be afraid, and feel good about yourself. She never fails to cheer me up. She is coming to the UK in the spring and we are going to train together. She is awesome. I am so grateful. 

I speak to another friend – one who has become a good friend after getting to know her through pole.  She won at Miss Pole Dance last year after entering last minute on a whim. She has told me to compete several times, and claims I will enjoy it. She promises to come and watch. I love her a little bit.

I tell her I will need to give her a nickname so I can talk about her in my blog.  She says as long as she is not freak. Vodka freak? I suggest. Conversation deteriorates into singing the chorus of Le Freak by Chic. 

I speak to another friend Sophie in the UK. I tell her about my doubts. She doesn’t compete yet but I would love to see her perform and tell her so. We realise we are giving each other the same advice. When I point out that she has the advantage over me in being awesome and amazing and waaaay better than me, amazingly, she tells me she thinks I am better than her at some pole stuff .  This is nuts, but does serve to remind me that it’s normal to doubt yourself and no one goes into competitions thinking they are going to smash it.  

I think I may get a sparkly outfit for the competition, possibly in red. Or green! I can have a bejewelled bikini made, and then wear it on holiday! This is BRILLIANT! I’m going to enter loads of competitions until I have an entire wardrobe of bespoke bikinis and hotpants. In truth, the idea of a sparkly bikini is one of the most appealing things about the whole competition.

A week later

Maybe some of my students would like to enter? It’s be great for them, to push themselves and show their families and friends how hard they have worked and what they have achieved.

Oh. Students’ universal response to suggestion that they compete is akin to response I would expect if ‘d suggested we all smother ourselves in garlic butter and lay in the sun under a giant magnifying glass.

They all think I should do it though. This is because they think I’m quite good, largely because I’m the only pole dancer they ever see who can do something more than a basic invert, and as we all know, in pole you think everyone is brilliant who can do anything that you can’t.

The initial panic is getting worse though. Maybe that’s why I should do it! Do something every day that scares you! Overcome your fears! You have nothing to fear but fear itself! It will be a triumph of Facebook memes over human worries. Maybe you’ll discover a whole new side of yourself that you did not know existed! Maybe you’ll be awesome and amazing and the crowd will be reduced to tears, possibly throwing themselves to the ground with emotion, flogging themselves, weeping and wailing!

They probably won’t though will they, to be honest. A more likely scenario is that the response will be “that was a bit pants, we thought she’d be better than that”

Actually, a more likely response would be “We have no idea what she’d be like as we have no idea who she is”, in which case I can be as rubbish as I like.

OK, let’s do this. I’m in.

February 2014  Really bad week. Just so much negativity around in the pole world. Sometimes this industry is so supportive, and then other times it seems to tear each other apart, intent on destroying each other and forgetting that it’s just a sport, a dance form, something we love and we are all people just wanting to pole. I don’t want any part of this. I’m an instructor, not a performer. Why am I putting myself up there on a stage just so people can tear me down? I don’t want to do it. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t want any part of this.

I text the group of friends who have been supporting me so far. I tell them I’m not going to compete this summer after all. The pole world has been so negative and judgmental and spiteful this past week, I have no idea why I thought it was a good idea to put myself up for such scrutiny. It’s meant to be fun and it isn’t.

I meet up with a friend for a drink, and after the initial chit chat, I say, all casual like: “So anyway I’ve decided I’m not competing in the summer after all”. And then I burst into tears.

The Next Day

Well that was an interesting reaction. I had no idea there was so much pent up emotion there. I get some responses to the texts I sent. Everyone is so lovely and kind and supportive it breaks my heart. I feel like I’m letting them all down, and all my students, and everyone else who has supported me.

Jo from Florida writes a public post on Facebook about how the industry can affect people. She mentions that a friend – ie me – is not competing due to such negativity. There is an overwhelming response, with 100 or so comments from people I don’t even know, sending positivity and support. I feel like a bit of a dick now for throwing a wobbly.

The phone rings and it’s Hannah. I got to know Hannah by chance when I had a spare ticket to a masterclass the the X Pole centre and a friend put us in touch. We met when I picked her up from a layby on the M25 and have been friends ever since. We train regularly together and even host workshops together. Hannah competes regularly and has won titles for her pole dancing. I love her a bit.

After the usual catch-up, Hannah gets down to it: “Right, what’s all this about you not competing? I am coming down there, and dragging you to that competition by your ear!” It’s actually the best I’ve felt about the competition in days. So after much thought, and support from friends, I’m over that wobble and decide, for real, to do it. I’m not going to win so I can relax.

March 2014

My student Ash is also going to compete. I am absolutely thrilled – she is going to put together a contemporary routine which I think will be brilliant – unusual and original, and full of emotion.

I decide to perform in a pole showcase, so I can get an idea of how to put together a routine and see how it feels to get up on stage. I put together something very simple, with nothing too complex, and it goes OK. I actually really enjoy the day, with all the girls backstage, getting ready together, sharing cakes and doing each others hair. It’s like the “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” scene from Grease – but with more hotpants and chalk.

The feedback from the judges is invaluable – I realise that to cope with the nerves, I totally ignored the audience, did not make eye contact once and in fact just looked down and pretended they weren’t there at all. I will need to address this if I am to compete for real. But the thought terrifies me.

I get some great tips from Yvette Austin, who is just one of the nicest people in the industry. If nothing else, this process is introducing me to really good parts of the pole world I never saw before. Basically, Yvette’s advice becomes the entire basis for my routine.

March 2014

OK, so where do I start? A song would be good. This one is nice and slow. That’ll make it easier, right? Won’t have to dance so much and exhaust myself. Can also lay on the floor in an emotive manner a fair bit. 

Oh wait. Turns out dancing slowly means holding moves longer and being more controlled. Oh good lord there’s going to be an audience of hundreds and I’m going to have to LOOK AT THEM and acknowledge them and stuff, and smile and make eye contact.

Breathe, breathe.

How about taking on a persona, and playing a role? That way, you can cover all the anxiety in a cloak of character and it’ll neatly take care of that tricky theme dilemma too. What exactly IS a theme? What does that even mean? My theme appears to be prancing about on stage in shorts looking a bit of a dick.

OK so let’s pick a character. By which I mean, let’s go through all your favourite films and see if any have good music. Kill Bill! I love it! Great music, an iconic costume and a feisty persona! How did I not think of this before? I also love this film – I saw it at the cinema when my daughter was three weeks old, and it was my first night out after I had her (and probably last for about a year).

Surely this has been done before? Best have a quick check on YouTube. Hehehe these YouTube videos of animals with human voices dubbed over the top are HILARIOUS.

April 2014

I realise one of the biggest things I have to understand about performing and competing is that, when it comes down to it, you are standing on stage prancing about, and everyone else is sitting there with their Rolos or whatever, watching you in silence. It’s weird. It’s like suddenly standing up in a library or cinema or during a lecture and doing a cartwheel in your knickers. That’s a really hard thing for me to do without feeling like a total nobhead. Even when I’m practicing I feel like a bit of a tit, and then when I show it to another person I’m totally cringing and saying oh god no don’t watch this bit, I look like a twat.


Right, better get down to some serious choreography. I have an hour after class, should be long enough to get a fair bit of it done.

That evening

I am soaked with sweat, breathing like a pensioner who’s just run the London Marathon or Snickers or whatever it’s called now and think I may vomit. But that’s OK, because I have managed, over this hour of intense workout, to choreograph a whole 20 seconds of my routine. Yes folks, 20 seconds. A whole 7% of the finished piece.

I really am hopeless at choreography. But that’s OK, because I have the perfect pole combination in my head. I have a series of moves in my head all of which will obviously look amazing and be at the perfect optimum angle for the audience and judges. I’ll have a go at them another day, when I can actually breathe again. 

27 April 2014

Received the stage measurements this morning and suddenly everything seems very real. I realise I have been avoiding thinking about the competition at all, pretending it’s some far off event that will happen in another lifetime, ideally one where I’m much better at pole than I am in this lifetime.

The main message from people seems to be to have more faith and confidence in myself. But it can’t be that easy can it? If I wake up tomorrow saying “I am bloody amazing, me” will that make my performance better? Aren’t I better knowing my limitations and playing to my strengths instead? Is everyone else entering this comp going in with the belief that they will win? I feel better knowing that I won’t win, like the pressure is off and all that is required of me is to put on the best show I can and entertain the crowd.

Anyway, it’s a good job I haven’t worked out too much of the routine, as the stage plan reveals audience on three sides of the stage, so bearing in mind that I’m looking to perform to the crowd, I’ll need to change some things about.

May 2014

So yeah, may have been a little over enthusiastic with this combo. As Jameson might’ve said to Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle, let’s edit this considerably.

Decide that it might be a good idea to watch some videos of other routines for some inspiration. Last year, I went to watch UKPPC and was amazed by the performanced so use that as a starting point. I remember that I absolutely loved Annalisa Muresu’s winning performance. I’ve already watched it back several (million) times, but now it’s about to become the blueprint for me for how a performance should be done, even though I’m nothing like as good as that and nowhere near as strong. I even go so far as messaging Annalisa for some tips on a move and pretending I’m not a stalker, and she is just the nicest person ever, and becomes an endless source of advice and support. Love this community.

8 May 2014

It’s less than four weeks to go, and today the competitors were announced. In my category, there are six girls – I know a few of them, and am relieved as they are really lovely girls. I think it would be harder to be beat by someone I don’t like, and also I can get behind them and hope they do well. The other girls I don’t know at all, and I resist the temptation to look them up on Facebook and YouTube and see how amazing they are. I stand no chance against the girls I do know, and I don’t need to know that I  stand no chance against the others too.

I am using backing dancers for the first minute of my routine, and we are rehearsing regularly. It’s brilliant. I’ve enjoyed the sessions so much, and there has been much piss taking and embarrassing videos. I’m so pleased that my girls are part of this, and will be there with me on the day, and have contributed to the whole thing. Many parts of the dance have become in-jokes among us – “this is the Dingly Dell bit, and this is the bit when Ash rolled into the mirror” – which makes it even more fun when we perform it – as long as we can keep straight faces.

Four weeks to go

I speak to the usual suspects, and get some great positives. Long chat with my mum where I say “but what if I’m craaaaaaaaap… what if I fall on my heeeeeeead…” and she says “Who cares? It’s not like it’s your A levels or degree finals” which is a good point.

I have lunch and a beer with an international pole star and idol of mine who has become a good friend. She says whatever happens, I’m up there performing, while a lot of people don’t even make it that far, so I’ve already done more than most. There’s much high fiving and hugging, and then (because of the beer) she shows me some ideas for floor work in the middle of the bar in Covent Garden.

Three weeks to go

Things are not going as I planned. The competition is in three weeks, I only have 50% of the routine done and what I have got worked out is very scrappy and messy. I’m struggling with even simple moves. I really had absolutely no idea how difficult performing an entire routine would be.  I do however have lots of support and advice from wonderful kind people from the pole community who undoubtedly are making this whole process easier, and who must be getting sick to death with my periodic rants and self-absorbed Facebook updates.

I’m not much fun to be around at the moment. I’m stressed, and anxious, and feel useless and defeated. I’m watching what I eat, I’m not drinking, and work is incredibly busy. Every second of every day is accounted for, and any moment of spare time is devoted to practice. I’m not spending time with my kids, and I’m not seeing my friends. When I do, I’m distracted and stressed. Basically, it’s crap, I’m crap and everything is crap.

Best friend has just told me that I am not to enter any more competitions or she will kill me herself. She’s had a rough time of it too, with me banging on endlessly about it and stressing and moaning. I’m seriously never doing this again.

I go to a pole workshop and it happens to be near a friend of mine, so I go to her place afterwards, and she runs me a candlelit bath with Epsom salts and cooks me a nice meal. It’s lovely to have a bit of down time. She’s been my friend for 20 years and she’s coming to support me on the day. I love her.

On the motorway on the way back, it’s pissing down as it always is when I have a long drive. But there is also a rainbow. It’s straight ahead of me, right where I am driving to. It’s a sign! A sign that everything is going to be great and positive!

Don’t be stupid woman. It’s a bit of natural phenomenon. It’s rain, mixed with sunbeams. The sky doesn’t give a toss about your competition. It doesn’t even care about big stuff like famine and world hunger. If it did, it’d go and rain in Africa instead of drizzling on the M25. Nature is a complete cow.

But still, apparently, we are surrounded by signs in the natural world all around us, and we should pay attention to them. And it’s better than moaning all the time.

Two weeks to go.

I have had a bit of an epiphany. I have had lots of messages from friends this week, telling me they are coming to support me. Some are coming from a long way away – four hours or more. Some are staying in hotels over night. It strikes me that they are making a lot of effort and paying a lot of money just to see me (some of them know nothing whatsoever about pole, much less care). I feel really honoured. It strikes me that in fact, I owe it to them to put on a good show. In fact, all of us competitors owe it to everyone who has paid to see us and made the effort to be there to put on a good show. Suddenly it doesn’t seem like a competition any more, but more like a role in a stage production. I know I won’t win or place, so my role is to perform and entertain. Suddenly, it all seems more fun, and rather exciting.

Over the weekend, Jo visits from Florida and I finally get to meet her. She’s absolutely adorable and awesome and it’s great to finally meet her. I feel so uplifted and supported, not only by Jo and her husband Russ’s positivity but also by the support from my students who are having to listen to me moan constantly about how hard I am finding this. I go through my routine with Jo and I show her some possible combos. She gives me some honest feedback and we rejig some parts. By the end of the day, I feel like the routine is 70% done.

One week to go 

I make a few more changes, and it feels 90% done. I wonder if it will ever feel 100% done, or if there is always room on the day for a bit of freestyling? I have no experience in this. Maybe some people have their routines nailed to the second, and others wing it a bit. I think I’m definitely a winging it type.

Ash and I go for a practice session where we can use XStages. I have borrowed one from a friend, but my ceiling isn’t high enough for the pole so I have just had to practice with only half the pole, about 3 feet high. Maybe next time I will do an Ewok-themed routine.

Two days to go

It’s two days to the competition. Better actually finish the routine. God I’d kill for a vodka and orange. I’ll be pleased when all this is over. I can’t even remember why I’m doing it now.

My costume has arrived from Pole PerfeXion and it is awesome! Yellow shorts and crop top with black stripes at the side, and a white kimono. I practice in the kimono and it ends up completely hanging off, but the designer Jo assures me we can alter it on Sunday and it will be fine, and I know it will.


Kimono by Pole PerfeXion

My friend does my nails as a special pre-comp treat – yellow with a black stripe. It’s all feeling a bit real now. I go to the studio and work out the last few bits of floorwork in the corner while another class is going on. Nothing like leaving it to the last minute.

1 day to go 

It’s the night before the competition. I just want to chill out, and watch some TV, nothing to stressful (so The Descent is out) or taxing (ditto Inception) so I end up watching a Louis CK stand up routine. I wonder if he gets nervous before a gig? If you screw up your words telling a joke that’s it, no coming back from that. I sometimes stumble my words during a warm up – I often get shoulders and elbows confused – and that makes me look like a dick, but at least I’m not delivering a killer punchline.

Towards the end, I can feel my anxiety levels rising, so I decide to do something practical and iron my kimono. I hate ironing, but it helps. I settle into bed for a read of Michael Caine’s autobiography. I read his account of when he was evacuated as a child during the war, and it’s really upsetting. I can’t imagine living through such a terrible time, or how a child would feel being sent away at such a young age, or indeed how a parent would feel sending their children away and not knowing what might happen to any of the family. It puts everything in perspective. My fears are totally vacuous.

The big day

The big day has arrived. I wake up feeling OK. There’s nothing I can do except my best. It’s too late to change anything so I may as well try to enjoy it. I arrive at the venue and am relieved to see some friendly faces. There’s a nice atmosphere, and it’s great to catch up with some old friends.

I go backstage for a bit, and when I come out, everyone has arrived. I’m inundated with support, as everyone rushes over and gives me a good luck hug. There’s students, lifelong friends, mates from the pole world, training partners, and people I’ve worked with, though I have banned my family as it would make me far too nervous. It’s amazing and I’m really happy, although terrified.

I watch the first part of the competition and my student Ash is amazing. It’s the best performance she has done so far, full of raw emotion and truth. I’m in awe. I look at the other girls and more than a few of us have tears in our eyes.

Backstage it’s a whirl of girls stretching in the corridor and sequins being glued on bodies and costumes.What am I doing? These people are all amazing and talented and a lot better than I am. And they’re all eating nuts and bananas. What am I missing? Am I meant to know about this? Oh god I can’t even get the food right. I sheepishly eat my bacon roll, but I am saved by the fact I have brought along a gluten-free biscuit. I wasn’t entirely sure what gluten is, but now I know: it’ the ingredient that makes food taste nice.

It’s a great atmosphere; everyone’s really cool, there are no diva strops or bitchiness. When it’s time for our category to perform, I’m bricking it. What’s best to do? Run through it in my head? Dedicate the spare time to having one more wee? Check for wardrobe malfunctions? By the time I go out to perform, I’m shaking.

What on earth am I playing at, I don’t belong here with these talented girls. As lines from Creep by Radiohead (what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here) run through my head as I am announced and take to the stage.

The music starts and the routine has begun… and then stops. We have a music malfunction. Oh great now I’m totally thrown. We go back to the beginning and start again. It’s all OK but then I get to the pole. All I’m doing is holding it for a pose but I’m already slipping. What’s wrong with me? Handspring: fail. My bottom hand gives way and slides down the pole and that’s that. Oh well, moving on. Shoulder mount: OK, but now I’m upside down there’s no grip. Head is already at the floor and there’s no room to do any of the moves. This pole feels like water! What’s wrong with me? God I’m crap. I knew I should never have done this. Screw this, I’ll just have to freestyle it. Badly. Yep, I’m totally rubbish. I can see the look of disappointment on the faces of my students. The music cuts out again. Well this is going from bad to worse. Oh well, at least it’s nearly over.

I look over to the judges. What are they doing?? They are waving their hands and making frantic chopping gestures. “Bex, stop, Bex stop, start again…” Start again?? Are you kidding me?? No it’s fine, I’ll just finish this dreadful abomination of a routine and go and get some chips and possibly jump off a cliff thank you very much.

And so this is how I found myself, moments from the end of my first competition routine, stood  at the judges table drinking their water and being asked to start again, ideally after wiping the pole and with music that didn’t keep cutting out. To cut a long story short, I ended up backstage more nervous than ever, breathing out my arse and sweating like a pig, preparing to do it all over again

Now the pressure is really on. I can’t fuck up TWICE. I wish I was at home watching Deal Or No Deal. I’ve also done the whole routine so the impact will be lost and it’ll be boring for everyone, unless I can actually manage to do it properly this time. Well, at least I can’t do any worse… Nothing to do now but try to enjoy it and do the best I can and hope I don’t screw it up too badly. I can hear the crowd. They seem to be having a good time. I suppose I’d better just try to entertain them and… and what? Smile? Hope they don’t notice the terror? Or that I’m way out of my league? Oh well too late to do anything about it now. Here goes… 10312626_299407173559297_3882914468909530633_n OK. OK. I’m still alive. I didn’t die. It didn’t go perfectly but it was OK, I think. Took me about 4 years to get into that Marion Amber but there was no way I was giving up on it even if I was still there at 11 o’clock this evening. God I’m glad it’s over. I am going to have such a massive vodka later. It was actually quite fun, more fun than I thought it would be. Can’t wait to see everyone. I hope they enjoyed it. 10428395_331750230324991_3567484368015701259_o The categories are called up on stage for the results. I’m backstage when I hear they announce my student Ash has won her category and placed first. I go a bit crazy backstage – Ash has worked so hard and was considering pulling out a few days ago. I am ridiculously proud. Everyone wishes each other luck as we are called out for our category’s results. I’m holding a bottle of water as the results are announced and suddenly think oh god I better put this down so I can applaud the winners. And then…

Well holy smoke balls and sweet mother of all things that are good and pure. Unbelievable. I have placed second in the professional category – a category full of incredibly talented girls, all of whom deserve to win and who have been a pleasure to hang out with backstage. I really cannot believe this. Surely this is a dream? This cannot be real.  10405274_300130553486959_4081549523258441706_nI genuinely was not here to win or place. In the midst of everything, the fear, the self doubt, the hard work, the pressure, the pain and the bruises and the time away from my family and friends, I pretty much forgot why I was here. Now I remember – it was to push myself, to see what I was capable of, to do something I thought I never could. To prove the voices of dissent wrong. To encourage my students to do the same. This has been an amazing journey, and not an easy one, but one I am so glad I took, if only just this once.
Now, where’s that vodka and orange?


With Ash, who won in her category

To watch the performance, click here  *An abridged version of this article appeared on the United Pole Artists website in June 2014 ALL CONTENT COPYRIGHT BEXIITA ACKLAND

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