Performance » Dance

Polar Opposites

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Elements of classical dance, aerial artistry and acrobatics play a part in today’s version of pole dancing. Yet while many classify it as an art form (or even a sport), there are still those who can’t erase the image of scantily dressed women in clubs seductively slithering around and down poles for men with fistfuls of money.

It’s the latter image that many believe continues to hinder the full progression of pole dancing as a universally accepted form of dance.

But Jessica Anderson-Gwin is on a mission to change that, and she’s receiving help from an unlikely source: Butler University.

Vertical poles have been used in art and exercise since at least the 12th century. - COURTESY OF JAGGED
  • Courtesy of Jagged
  • Vertical poles have been used in art and exercise since at least the 12th century.

Today (April 9) the Butler ArtsFest 2015 begins, and the 10-day event will feature more than 50 performances under the festival theme Outlaws & Outsiders. On Monday (April 13) Jagged: A Contemporary Pole Dance Company will be among them, introducing audiences to the graceful athleticism of this new form of dance.

Anderson-Gwin, who founded Jagged in 2009 in Los Angeles and pioneered group pole choreography in America, thinks this will be the first time that pole dancing has been presented in an academic setting.

Ronald Caltabiano believes the university and arts lovers, in general, are ready for it.

“Through the heart of the arts through millennia, it’s been society verses the individual. We’ve seen it in so many art forms -- from theater to dance to opera,” says Caltabiano, dean of Jordan College of Arts at Butler and director of Butler ArtsFest. “We thought it would be a very useful way to continue the dialogue about (pole dancing as art).”

Jagged will present Fly, an original, full-length piece about allowing your dreams to become reality.

“The piece focuses on lions and birds, and the lions are dreaming about flying,” says Anderson-Gwin. “It’s a metaphor for not having fear in everyday life, and that can be any walk of life. Everything comes down to love or fear and not letting fear take over.”

The 27-year-old Anderson-Gwin says this is probably going to be the hardest show the dance company has performed thus far, mainly because of the academic setting and the artistic pedigree among the other festival artists.

“We’re here to show that it’s just a dance show like any other,” says Anderson-Gwin. “We are kind of the outcasts and the misfits (of the festival). But it’s an honor just to be on the level of all of the other performers at the festival.”

Jagged: A Contemporary Pole Dance Company intertwines the gracefulness of classical dance with the athleticism of pole dancing. - COURTESY OF JAGGED
  • Courtesy of Jagged
  • Jagged: A Contemporary Pole Dance Company intertwines the gracefulness of classical dance with the athleticism of pole dancing.

While preparing for the Butler ArtsFest, Caltabiano was presented with the idea of screening Off the Floor, a documentary about Jagged, at the festival. He was intrigued but wanted to up the ante. After all, there is the theme of Outlaws & Outsiders that the festival has to live up to. So he suggested that in addition to showing the documentary (an official selection of the 2014 Heartland Film Festival), Jagged should also perform.

But like any good arts festival director, he wanted to ensure that Jagged was worth a spot on the event roster.

“I went to see them perform in Santa Barbara and liked what I saw,” says Caltabiano.

Jagged: A Contemporary Pole Dance Company will perform April 13 during the Butler ArtsFest 2015. - COURTESY OF JAGGED
  • Courtesy of Jagged
  • Jagged: A Contemporary Pole Dance Company will perform April 13 during the Butler ArtsFest 2015.

“… Let’s be clear, this is not like the ballet or modern that we do here at Butler, but it is an art worth knowing about and worth seeing. I believe that art should be risky and we’re bringing in a different kind of art.”

Anderson-Gwin knows all about risk.

A classically trained dancer, who was a student in the dance program at UCLA, Anderson-Gwin says she fell in love with pole dancing the same day she took her first class several years ago.

“My teacher demonstrated a spin to us, and it just looked like she was defying gravity, and I wanted to be able to do that,” she says.

“As an art form, it was a fun challenge for me. The first class I took was really graceful and it really looked like ballet.”

Anderson-Gwin wasn’t satisfied with just doing pole classes. She wanted to find a way to intertwine her classical training in ballet, modern and hip-hop with traditional pole work, and tell a story in the process, which is how Jagged was born.

At first, even her family provided a little push back.

“In the beginning, my parents were a little apprehensive, but they trusted my judgment,” says Anderson-Gwin, who says she even lost a boyfriend because he couldn’t get past the stigma that surrounds pole dancing. “But (my parents) also know that I’m very headstrong and that I would do it regardless.”

Despite the initial apprehension of many people, she says once they see their first show, their opinion of what pole dancing is quickly changes.

Contemporary pole dancing emerged in the United States and Canada around the middle of the 20th century. - COURTESY OF JAGGED
  • Courtesy of Jagged
  • Contemporary pole dancing emerged in the United States and Canada around the middle of the 20th century.

“By the end of the performance, they gain more respect for it,” she says. “Even my dad has gotten on the pole at some point.”

Today, pole dancing has grown from stripper heels and bikinis to bare feet and themes and storytelling.

“What we do is more on the dance level,” says Anderson-Gwin. “Pole is an athletic art form. We simply take our dance into the air and make it three-dimensional. Pole is just becoming another form of dance. It’s becoming something that’s much more accessible.”

The one thing that hasn’t changed with the progression of pole dancing is the skimpy costumes. There’s a reason for that.

“We have to wear less costuming to do some of the tricks, because we need the skin for safety reasons,” says Anderson-Gwin. “The skin provides needed friction with the pole so you don’t fall off.”

For Anderson-Gwin, pole dancing is like breathing … she can’t live without it.

And as long as she has breath in her body, she’s going to continue to fight until pole dancing becomes a respected art form.

“I’m really just trying to break down the stigma that exists. I don’t want people to be sensationalized any more; I want to shed a different light,” she says.

“When I started Jagged, I wasn’t setting out to become an activist and feminist, but I have. I feel like an evangelist. If I can touch anybody and change their minds about pole dancing, I’ll be happy. People are afraid, but it’s just another form of performing arts.”


Jagged: A Contemporary Pole Dance Company

What: Jagged will perform Fly -- an original piece created for the Butler ArtsFest.

When: 8:15 p.m. Monday, April 13.

Where: Schrott Center for the Arts, West 46th St. (the building on the corner, next to Clowes Memorial Hall) on the Butler University campus.

Cost: $15-$25.

Info: www.butlerartsfest.com

Related Events: Prior to Jagged’s performance, a conversation called “Off the Floor: Pole Dancing, Art & Society” will begin at 6 p.m. inside the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall, followed by a 7 p.m. screening of “Off the Floor,” a documentary about Jagged, at the Schrott Center for the Arts.

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