When people ask to see your favourite pole trick, they don’t expect it to be lying face-down on the floor muttering “Oh my God” into the carpet. But in a year when two friends’ suicides turned my nervous system into hot mince, pole dancing gave me unexpected tools to piece my mental health back together. Here’s what I learnt about dealing with grief by hanging off a stick, both literally and emotionally.
Pole dancing is fun! It involves showing off, wearing ridiculous little outfits, and getting lots of attention from hot people when you post videos online. But what I didn’t expect, and what kept me going back to class, is how it’s also a way into much deeper self-care.
Most people start pole dancing with loads of mental baggage: negative body image, low self-esteem, a screaming internal critic or a hot mix of traumas. A good instructor will help you not just to twist into a human pretzel shape, but to gradually repair negative beliefs in your brain by replacing them with good ones. “I can do the thing that looked impossible!” “I am strong enough to hold that move!” “I can be sexy without getting hurt,” for example. Even if you feel like a flailing kebab, repeated exposure to these ideas and the evidence that you can do it eventually helps them to stick.
On my podcast, I’ve spoken to people from all walks of life who’ve used pole dancing to feel more at home in their bodies and in themselves. I have C-PTSD, and pole dancing has given me a fun, healthy way to unravel my internal dread and be kind to myself despite the overwhelming feelings that surface, by fully connecting to my body.
Especially when you’re working on flexibility, a lot of pole practice is spent soothing your panic reactions by saying to your body, “This is OK,” or “This is as far as we’re going today and that’s fine.” It’s been the most effective and fun way I’ve found to manage my anxiety – even if my signature pole move is “crashing into things”.
This was tested in 2022 when I lost two friends to suicide. I thought that grieving would feel like the absence of a person, a little void where they used to be. Instead, the grief was an active, vicious and sticky thing that eventually knocked me out. The guilt, confusion and obsessing, from the moment I woke up, over why my friends couldn’t bear to live any more blew chunks out of my brain like it was a Swiss cheese, and eventually the whole system collapsed from disrepair. I was working and keeping busy, I had therapy every week, and I’m very lucky to have amazing friends who were all cried on in succession. But eventually, I just had to stop.
The turning point came after I’d taken holiday leave to recover, came back to work, then had to take more time off as I still wasn’t functioning. I was frustrated and furious – it wasn’t me who had died from being suicidally sad, so why couldn’t I get over it?
I was miserably googling “suicide bereavements” and started reading about the effect on your nervous system. It’s not unusual for suicide deaths to send your parasympathetic nervous system into overdrive, so that you constantly feel winded, distressed and exhausted. It all suddenly clicked. This was a physical problem, and I needed to treat it like one.
I’d been avoiding pole dancing for weeks, as even if you enjoy grinding to gloomy bangers at the best of times, suddenly crying over your dead friends upside down and in high heels is a vibe kill. But I realised I had to go back to first principles, and reconnect with the fundamentals of pole that had kept me going back to class.
Practically, this means I’ve included longer warm-ups and stretching into my practice. It’s similar to the principles of meditation: I focus on breathing and body scans, checking in on which bits of me feel stiff and sad, which ones hurt, which ones need more care and attention, and which ones need to be left alone.
I’ve mostly done this alone, because more than once, sitting still and letting the emotions surface has let me know “You are too sad for pole today,” and instead I have to drink coffee, eat chocolate and cry. But paradoxically, the more of these kinds of sessions I’ve allowed and forgiven, the faster I’ve gotten back on my feet and into training for new things.
I can’t bring my friends back, or plead with them to see there are things worth sticking around for. But I can do this thing that helps me through the shock of it, and makes me stronger, gentler and more resilient for whatever’s next.
Siân Docksey is a pole dancing comedian, writer and podcaster
If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.