Let's start at the beginning...so you want to be a pole instructor?
My name is Sonja Sloane and I worked as an instructor at Tantra Fitness for almost 10 years. I recently ended my tenure due to a move across the country. Thankfully my pole mamma and dear friend, Tammy Morris, has found a way to keep me on the pay roll by asking me to contribute to the blog. As an introduction, I thought I would start at the beginning as it may help those who find themselves at the start of their own pole journey, whether as a student or as a new instructor. What makes a good pole instructor? What should you be looking for as a student? Or, what should you pay attention to as you transition from student to teacher?
Unlike many pole instructors these days, I did not begin my pole journey as a student. It has become a rather natural progression to go from student to instructor. I came to it from a fitness background. I answered a Craig’s List for a group fitness instructor at a pole fitness facility. I was a certified fitness instructor and specialist in performance nutrition and had been running bootcamp classes around the Vancouver area. The post peeked by curiosity. Upon walking in, I was greeted by a bubbly blond dynamo. Tammy and I hit it off immediately and she said that I would be trained to teach Bachelorette parties. I had never touched a pole in my life. This was before the era of pole competitions and Instagram, when pole dancing had very little visibility and when pole was desperately trying to legitimize itself as a sport by disassociating itself from adult entertainment (more on this problematic ‘whitewashing’ in a future post). Pole was far from mainstream. Sheila Kelley was making the rounds of the most popular talk shows, including Oprah, and recruiting the support of celebrities but you were hard pressed to find a pole dance studio in every major city. In any case, I jumped in, fell head over 8 inch platform heels in love with it and never set foot in a regular gym again.
The learning curve was steep. I had an afternoon training session, shadowed a couple of parties and the next thing I knew, I was teaching one. While Tammy was endlessly encouraging, I could not help but feel like a fraud. Here I was teaching pole moves to people who thought I was some kind of expert when the only moves I knew were the ones I was teaching them! Every bachelorette party I taught, I prayed no one would ask me for a demonstration lest I be exposed as an impostor!
By Sonja Sloane
Soon Tammy suggested I start teaching the regular curriculum. She would train me, I would shadow classes and boom! I was on the schedule teaching everything from pole technique classes to exotic dance. It would be strange nowadays for a pole instructor to have no capabilities or knowledge of pole moves above the level they were currently teaching. My lack of “street cred” haunted me. I progressed in pole as I progressively taught higher levels, through teacher training sessions with Tammy and taking classes taught by other instructors as often as I could just to keep a step ahead of my own students. The point is that pole was never a hobby for me or a fitness regimen. It has always been, first and foremost, my job. I did not get the experience of being a pole student or go through the process of transitioning from student to teacher. I was both at the same time which is what I believe has contributed to me being a successful or efficient teacher. But in order to explain what I mean, it is important to ask what exactly makes a good teacher? The answer to this question has very little to do with pole per se. The key is to be a good pedagogue. While I have no intention to insult any member of our pole community or any of my colleagues, I have been a firm believer that a high level of skill does not necessarily correlate to being an effective or safe teacher. Since our community is growing and more and more pole instructors pop up every day, I thought I would touch upon a few tips as to what can help a person transition from being a great student to a terrific teacher or, what newbies should be looking for when picking out a studio or coach.
First and foremost, the ability to communicate what muscles students should be recruiting is imperative especially considering that pole dance can be quite a dangerous sport. Beyond the obvious danger presented by hanging upside down with nothing but your grip strength and skin to prevent you from smashing into the floor as well as the added fear of slippage caused by sweat or dry skin, improperly engaged shoulders or back muscles can have repercussions down the line. Pole has been, for better or worse, trying to legitimize itself for years as a fitness activity in the strict/mainstream sense, even through the adoption of monikers which are understood by some as more acceptable (“No, no. It’s not pole dance, it’s pole FITNESS.”) However, and I can only speak from experience, the emphasis on muscle engagement is often secondary to the technical execution of the move. This prevents students from actually getting stronger as they progress, impeding them from getting in and out of moves cleanly and safely over time and in the end, causing them more frustration (“I’ve been doing my butterfly for months but I still get my hands stuck under my knee when I invert! Whyyyyyyy?????!! or “I always feel a pull in my back when I come down from an inversion…how come?”). Of course, this is not all in the hands of the teacher. Students have to take conditioning into their own hands and prioritize safety over the desire to progress as quickly as possible.
Secondly, teaching pole requires an ability to effectively breakdown moves, whether dance moves or tricks, in a variety of ways so as to accommodate different types of ‘learners’, fitness levels and body types. Additionally, being able to troubleshoot is crucial. By this I mean, that a teacher should be capable of identifying exactly where a student is going wrong and fix the problem by giving them additional tips. The fact that my journey as a student coincided with my progression within the teaching ranks benefited me in this respect because I could readily identify with students’ technical and physical struggle. When learning a move, I was constantly having to identify precisely what I was doing right and, crucially, where I was going wrong in order to properly teach it to a student. For example, when I started teaching something as simple as leg hangs, they were not years behind me in my pole journey and figuring out how to invert without getting my hands stuck under my legs was fresh in my mind. Basically, I learned every move and practiced every trick in a manner where I was constantly deconstructing it so that I could more effectively communicate it to a student. Still today, my approach to learning new tricks is the same; try it, identify which muscles I’m using, pinpoint my mistakes and what subtle adjustments made things easier and then figure out a way to explain it.
Lastly, the key to being a great pole coach is patience and attentiveness. It’s about making it less about your ability and more about the student’s potential and progress. Pole can so easily be defeating. It can be painful, it is physically demanding and one can easily become competitive and feel pressure in terms of progressing in skill level, sometimes at a greater pace than one’s strength safely permits. I definitely felt this pressure to progress, to learn the biggest and baddest tricks because I felt that would make me a better teacher, a teacher my students would look up to. That was my error. It would definitely make me great at pole but not necessarily a more credible or good instructor. It was an ego driven sentiment and it made pole less enjoyable at times. An instructor’s job is to always make sure that pole remains an empowering activity by celebrating the little victories. And of course ‘spotting’! A good pole coach will always ‘catch you when you fall.’ 😉