Breaking The Pole Dancing Mold

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Former Cirque du Soleil performer helping to redefine dance discipline

Sword pose during last year’s first-place finish in Amateur Division of USPDF (Photo by Sean Harris)

Pole dancing may have earned a seedy reputation as a kind of erotic dance associated with strip joints, but in recent years, it’s gained popularity as a mainstream form of fitness that combines dance and acrobatics. For Syosset’s Sara Joel, she’s found herself transitioning from the world of Cirque du Soleil to competing in an art form that has spawned numerous amateur and professional pole dancing competitions around the world. Having cut her teeth as a member of the Vegas-based Zumanity troupe from 2003 to 2006, she was also guilty of turning her nose up at pole dancing when she returned for a Cirque 10-year reunion.

Sara Joel

“When I was in the show, they didn’t have pole dancers. I was very snobby and thought, ‘Ugh, they added pole dancers.’ I was so closed-minded and I had the same look people have, that look when you say you’re a pole dancer,” rolling her eyes at the memory. “It turns out they were trying to boost ticket sales for Zumanity and were planning to hire a celebrity to pole dance and somebody in New York City was needed to be a rehearsal director, so they asked me to do it. I’d never touched a pole before. So I figured I better take a class. So I found a class in Manhasset, went and fell in love.”

Sara Joel’s first public performance at Schtick a Pole In It back in 2016 while eight months pregnant (Photo by Sean Harris)

Three years ago, the mother of four took to the pole in public for the first time at Schtick a Pole In It, a night of comedy and pole dancing that takes place in the East Village with a different musical theme every month. The event features five comics and dancers alternating throughout the evening. It’s an event that Joel goes to whenever she gets a chance. Her love for Schtick a Pole found her making her debut while eight months pregnant. It was a videotape of this performance that she submitted to last year’s U.S. Pole Dance Federation (USPDF) championship. The USPDF features rankings of Novice, Amateur and Professional. The Wisconsin native applied to compete in the middle category and came away with a surprising result.

“I sent a video and applied for Amateur. I’d never done a dance competition ever in my whole life and I won,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow. I guess I can do this.’”

By winning last year’s category, Joel was automatically accepted into ascending to the Professional level. In doing so, she’s committed to training a minimum of two hours a day—one hour stretching and one hour choreographing. Depending on distractions, that time could double. In dedicating herself to this form of dance, she sometimes finds herself regretting that she hadn’t taken it up sooner.

Body 2 Body act from Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity (Photo by Phillip Dixon)

“I don’t know how I hadn’t done this before because I’ve always loved dancing with props and always liked choreographing my own pieces,” she said. “You usually do a piece between three and five minutes long, so this was perfect. I had four kids and enough energy to do that much. I enjoyed solo work, so I got a pole in my house.”
With the competition featuring two kinds of poles, Joel has been focusing on honing her skills on both. And while you wound think a lot of work would go into strengthening the upper body, the lifelong dancer insists it isn’t the case.

“It’s funny, because I don’t focus on doing any supplementary strengthening at all. It’s mostly just focusing on flexibility, “Some people do more acrobatic tricks. I’ve started to do some of those. That is the strengthening part—practicing the tricks. I’ve started that way and worked more towards the acrobatic. There are two modes in a pole—there’s a spin mode and static mode. In the competition, they have a static pole and a spin pole. On the static pole you do more the tricks—acrobatic things. With spin, you hold a pretty pose and they’ll spin you around.”

Outside leg hang cocoon pose during last year’s first-place finish in Amateur Division of USPDF (Photo by Sean Harris)

While she’s been lucky in terms of avoiding injury through her time in Cirque and in this recent pole dancing stint, Joel does have to contend with a chronic hip issue, which she doesn’t consider a problem (“I’ve still got one good hip.”) In the meantime, she’s continued dedicating herself to a form of dance that continues to feed her spirit in a way that’s been consistent throughout life.

“The best part of all of this is that feeling of performing and being on stage,” she said. “It’s a connection with the audience that you love and don’t get any other way.”

Sara Joel will be competing at the U.S. Pole Dance Federation (USPDF) 2019 championship on Saturday, April 13, at Symphony Space’s Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.uspoledance.com or call 718-292-2904.

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