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  • Kenny Daici

At Play: The Poler Bears and the Lust for Liberation

The Brown University pole dancing team pushes the limits of their bodies to explore their sexuality and radicalize stigmatized identities.

Bijoux strikes a bold pose against the pole on Brown University’s Main Green.

Butterfly. Hello Boys. Chopper. Ballerina. Jasmine. These are just a small sample of all the tricks and poses that you could see the Brown University Poler Bears perform at their biannual pole dancing shows, where they blend dance and acrobatics on a vertical pole and exhibit their bodies, often with revealing clothes. Or if the weather is nice, you may even see them defying gravity on the Main Green, the heart of Brown’s campus life. Also open to students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), this Providence, RI pole dancing team has been kicking and flaunting ass since 2006—the first group of their kind in the Ivy League. I watched several of their performances and spoke to the co-directors, Brown sophomores Ioanna Ninos and Edie Fine, about pole.

Originating in India and China around 800 years ago as an athletic sport, pole dancing didn’t gain a reputation for being sexually provocative in the U.S. until the late 1800s, when women in “Hoochie Coochie” traveling sideshows wore revealing clothing as they performed belly dance-like moves around a pole. By the late 1900s, pole dancing cemented a firm root in sex work in underground clubs, as a part of a sexual exchange catered to the male gaze. Only in the 2000s did pole deviate from this hypersexualized, heteronormative, and cisgendered scene, with a growing number of people adopting the dance for fitness or artistic expression. This is where the Poler Bears come in: at the crossroads between a complicated sexual legacy and new openings.

Ioanna joined the Poler Bears her freshman year as a way to feel sexy, show off her confidence, and explore the body. While Edie also joined their first year at Brown, they were more attracted by pole as a liberating, celebratory, and artistic dance form. Both have developed into bear-like leaders, actively promoting and embodying the values that define their performance art. By overcoming and dismantling the stigma around pole dancing, the Poler Bears radicalize the body, redefining it as a tool for art, expression, and liberation.

The Poler Bears in motion at one of their weekly studio practices in Pawtucket, RI

Down the Shady Staircase and Into the Light

Ioanna and Edie explain that it’s difficult trying to find pole studios, and when they do, they often feel shameful, private, and hidden. The path to such a space might involve crossing a deserted parking lot and entering through the rusty side door of what looks like an abandoned warehouse. One almost always ends up descending down a staircase in the dark before finally finding a windowless room filled with a few poles.

Of course, not every pole studio requires a search party to find, but this dramatic description is a representation of the fact that pole is often too societally taboo to put in plain sight. Even The Dark Lady and JM Kennedy Studio, the two main venues for the Poler Bear performances, have curtains covering their windows, acting as a barrier between what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable for the public to see. But why? As Edie puts it, pole is “very involved in sex work and the stigma around sex work and around stripping. It carries over.”

Laurel flaunts their flexibility and strength on the pole in front of Sayles Hall, a 19th century academic building

The Poler Bears have had their safety threatened simply because they were in public. The team once set up their pole in a park by the Providence River, only to be verbally harassed by a stranger, who hurled questions like “does your father know you’re doing this?” at dancers. This is a recurring issue the dance team faces. Brown University has rejected all merchandise designs that place “Brown University” and “Poler Bears” alongside each other, what Edie calls an “administrative microaggression.”

When the Poler Bears applied to perform for the recently accepted Class of 2026 and their parents at A Day on College Hill, Brown University event organizers would not allow it, citing a lack of time—despite other dance groups performing at the same event. While the Poler Bear dancers are aware of the privilege of attending a school that sanctions a pole dancing team in a generally welcoming atmosphere, they also remain frustrated at the resistance they face.

The way Edie sees it, the only way to make it down the shady staircase and into the light is to embrace pole’s sexual roots and forget what others may think. Edie combats opposition not by hiding the parts of pole people deem immoral, but instead “working actively to destigmatize and—not normalize, fuck normalizing—but radicalize” its connection to sex work. Of course, not all pole is radical—some dancers perform to pay their bills and put food on the table. That is referred to in the community as survival work.

When asked about why the Poler Bears sometimes practice on a place as public as the Main Green, Ioanna says she “never thinks about the fact that other people are there” since she just wants to dance, not caring if the eccentricity of pole makes others uncomfortable. Part of this lack of concern stems from the fact that Brown is a relatively safe space for pole. But the stigma is difficult to completely eradicate, and Ioanna’s mindset represents the radical and sexually liberating forces that drive the Poler Bears: resistance, existence, and persistence.

Edie stares back at their reflection with a piercing gaze

Burning the Closet

The human body is 60% water. More than 50% of Americans sleep on their sides. And over 90% of the Poler Bear members are queer. Brown is already known to have more members of the LGBTQ+ community than other schools, but it’s as if the members of the queer community decided as a hive mind, we want to dance on a pole.

Edie says that part of what drew them to pole was that it “seemed particularly queer. Because of its expressive nature, and because of its extravagance, it requires a lot of courage, and confidence, and connection to your body. And that feels like it lends itself to queerness.” They stress that pole is a very individual sport, and that the art form is not innately queer. But what the queer and pole dancing communities have in common is persecution from society, labels of immorality, and othering, all of which require both community and radical expression to overcome.

The Poler Bears also provide queer people with a unique space to explore or play with their identities. As a nonbinary person who often feels uncomfortable with femininity, Edie knows that pole dancing tends to be a feminine sport, with many of the moves accentuating feminine parts of their body. “But in pole it does feel very different. I feel like especially with an audience, I get to play a role, rather than having to figure out what authenticity means to me. I get to just forget about authenticity, and do whatever the fuck I want,” they say. Through their pole dancing, Edie feels empowered and mocks the same gender norms that constrain them.

Breakthroughs and Breaking Bodies

There are the average able-bodied human capabilities (i.e. walking, running, jumping), and then there are the abilities of the Poler Bears (i.e. contorting their bodies into the most impossible-looking poses, all while several feet off the ground, hanging by a single powerful limb, possibly spinning, and looking sexy as fuck—and they make it seem easy). With these superpowers, it’s clear that the Poler Bears don’t just make sexual or queer breakthroughs, but also physical ones.

Emma helps Lyric, a new member of the Poler Bears, perform a trick

As Edie puts it, “I also think that part of the breaking of stigma has to do with breaking the stigma of the body, and what your body is supposed to do. And there are positions that feel really fucking awkward, like it doesn't feel like your body's supposed to do that. But you look in the mirror, and you're like, oh, shit, that is so cool.” The Poler Bears radicalize their bodies by breaking the normal limits of what they “should'' be able to do.

Pushing boundaries takes a real toll on the body. Ioanna describes the process of “getting home from practice and seeing bruises on your body, the literal result from pole. You can really see what your body's doing for you. It's been so empowering, helped me again, gain a lot of confidence.” Ioanna and Edie make it very clear that they are not actively trying to get hurt, but while the bruises do bring pain, they appreciate pain as embodied proof of a radicalized art form that pushes the body to new limits.

Ioanna (left) and Sue (right) join forces on the pole

Welcome to the Playhouse

So what happens when you’ve finished dismantling stigma, burning closets, and breaking boundaries? Well, obviously it’s time to play!

The Poler Bears allow their imaginations to run loose when designing their shows, with concepts intended to shock and amuse the audience, anything from “slutty cheerleaders” to “devil goes down to Georgia.” Ioanna describes this dynamic: “something about the minds that we put together, everyone is just so down to fuck around, and I feel like we rarely turn ideas down.” Even when practicing on the Main Green, much of the time is spent experimenting with new poses, whether that be hanging on to the pole upside down using only the legs, or pretending to be underwater while making silly faces. Play is the simplest summary of the mission of the Poler Bears; being able to go wild is a reward for overcoming external opposition, breaking from pre-established norms, and using the body as a tool for liberation.


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