Pole fitness is a sporting activity that has increasingly taken centre stage in recent years. Once traditionally confined to strip clubs and exotic dancers, pole dance is becoming a highly popularised form of fitness for women worldwide. It has become a new way of reclaiming our bodies and embracing our physical strength in a way which makes us feel strong and sexy.
The double standards which arise out of patriarchal notions of sexuallity and empowerment mean that often, women are criticised when they take agency over their bodies. Whether that is being catcalled in the street, policed for our clothing, or told to tone ourselves down or be more ‘ladylike’.
There are a multitude of contradictions in how patriarchy tells us to live our lives, whilst expecting us to fit into predetermined ideals of femininity and self-respect. We live in a society where a man could attend strip clubs and watch pornography, but condemn his own girlfriend for wearing a certain outfit and ask her not to dance in public.
Middle Eastern culture in particular often sees men and women assigned heteronormative gender roles which we are expected to conform to. Respectability politics is a huge factor in the way women navigate choices in both the private and public sphere.
I have found that when I visit Turkey every summer, my male relatives always try to police what I’m wearing, even if that is just a pair of high waisted flared trousers. As much as I am aware that they do this because they care, I can’t help feeling that we should be challenging men’s degrading views of women as opposed to making women change to avoid the inevitable catcalls or stares.
One woman working against these gender and modesty expectations is Turkish pole fitness instructor and performer Melek Maister, who has gained over 30,000 Instagram followers. I spoke to her about her journey, honing her craft, and how she navigates pole dance, complex cultural norms and women’s empowerment.
How did you get into pole dancing?
I have been pole dancing for six and a half years. I used to work as an engineer and I wanted to take a break from my job, so I quit to have a little break, and at that time one of my friends told me about pole dancing and we started a course together. I was planning to return to engineering, but I didn’t know that I would love pole dancing this much to the point [where] I quit my job completely for it.
What did your friends and family think?
My father never knew. He passed away 3 years ago and I could not tell him because I felt he would never accept it . I told both my brother and sister and they supported me with my decision.
Some of my my friends think it was a stupid decision and have been judgemental of me because I give up my career, but personally, I chose this job despite the fact I had to lose some friends on the way, I knew this was what is best for me.
How does pole fitness make you feel?
When I first started pole dancing, I was going through a very hard period in my life and starting pole dance made a tremendous change to my entire life – it was like therapy. I was very dedicated, I wanted to spend all my physical and emotional energy on this sport. It makes me feel powerful like I’ve never experienced [before], for the first time I felt like I can express my internal emotions in the way I was dancing, it’s like art for me.
How do you feel your culture views pole fitness?
When I started pole dance it wasn’t very popular, and some pole dance students didn’t have the courage to tell their friends and family that they were doing this sport. But lately it has become very popular, and day by day people are understanding that pole dance is just dance, another form of sport.
Is being a Turkish woman who does pole fitness controversial?
Conservative Turkish people find it immoral, I often receive offensive comments and messages which are extremely disturbing, like sexual harassment. I’ve also received really intense messages like “you will go to hell in the afterlife and you will burn there forever”.
I was very disturbed to the point I closed my DMs and turned off my comments section, but there are also a large number of more liberal and open people who support me, which gives me the motivation to continue. I receive so many positive messages from friends and students, but also from women who I have never met and this makes me really happy.
Do you feel that Turkish culture makes women feel shamed for expressing themselves through performance and dance?
I think this is more of a global point of view, but yes it is common in Turkey. Girls who do pole dance are associated with being sex workers and they often receive suggestive and disrespectful messages for partaking in pole fitness.
I think for both women who do pole dance and belly dance, people think they have chosen the wrong path in life, because they think these women are only doing this to entertain males, rather for themselves.
What would you say to young women who want to try pole dance, but feel restricted by their culture or background?
I would support any woman [wanting] to do pole dance. I myself was born and grew up in the countryside, where it was very conservative. I was afraid at first, but after I started it and experienced the strength it gives me, and the change it has had for me personally, I want every woman to experience this inner strength.
How can we change the negative perceptions that people might have in society around pole fitness and pole dance?
By encouraging these dancers to be brave enough to share their dance on social media, and showing people that pole dance is not easy, like any sport it takes lots of effort and discipline. To do all these hard moves and still look elegant on the pole is a very difficult skill.
How can we educate people and normalise women’s empowerment?
I’m just a pole dance instructor, I don’t aim to educate society, but I’m always giving my full support to every woman I have the chance to empower. Year by year, the pole dance family is going to be full of strong women who are all supporting each other. Then if one of us has a negative experience or receives judgement because of pole dance, we can be there to empower [them] and support each other to feel more confident.