Old School Thoughts: To Witness And Be Witnessed

arlene caffrey pole dance portrait by stephen white december 2023

Snow was falling as I slowly stepped my way through a sleepy Berlin suburb, wet sludge making the streets slick. The hour was late, almost midnight, as I was making my way back to my AirBnb. I had just spent a final evening of teaching classes during my residency at Drehmoment, the studio of my dear friend Alisa Saric. After Alisa had finished teaching her class, we spent hours in lengthy conversation about the art of performance and Old School pole dance; this blog is the result of that conversation, as well as my own musings. Some of these thoughts came to me on my walk home through the snow, others I have been reflecting upon since that cold November night.

Alisa and I talked about what does it mean to be present, embodied and authentic. To allow yourself to be fully seen while you’re dancing, to overcome fear of being perceived, to resist the urge to retreat into a private internal world? Similarly, what does it mean to be fully present and watch someone while they are dancing, to not get distracted or assign judgement?

I’ve also been reflecting on how it seems that connection is wanted more than ever, not just during dance classes but in the world at large.

I am writing this blog because I regularly get asked by pole dance students to share more about my interpretation of Old School Pole Dancing and to share tips on how to access this magic. I may be wrong, but I feel that more and more polers are drawn to the Old School style because of the opportunities for connection that it allows; it creates space for allowing yourself to be witnessed.

So in this blog, I want to focus on the act of performance through an Old School lens. I wanted to write about what I feel it means to be present, embodied and authentic, as well as to share my own journey of almost on this subject (based on my experience of almost 18 years as a pole dancer, as well as a practicing visual artist and academic researcher). You’ll find some suggestions and tips that may or may not work for you, either way I hope you’ll get something from my musings and find it informative.

Towards a definition of Old School Pole Dance:

Firstly, when I talk about Old School style, I am referring to a style of pole dancing that is very much rooted in performing arts. I’m not talking about simply throwing on a pair of high heels and doing a bunch of body waves to a classic rock song; Old School style is so much more than that and I have previously written about the stylistic and aesthetic elements, like this one that I wrote in June 2023 on my Irish Pole Dance Academy blog.

I also teach these elements in my workshops and classes online and in person, so if you’d like to learn I’m happy to share my magic!

We also know that pole dancing originates from strip clubs: this is an indisputable fact no matter what your feelings are on the matter. As a performing artform, this is very much about the relationship between being witnessed and allowing oneself to be witnessed.

From this lineage, I feel that key qualities of Old School style today are presence, embodiment and authenticity.

To be witnessed:


My teacher Alethea Austin used to say ‘Dance like everyone is watching’; I think this is the simplest way to differentiate two very different types of energy and presence. There is a difference between going within and dancing like no-one is watching versus dancing like everyone is watching.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not throwing shade at dancers who like to go into an internal state and completely block out the world around them when they dance; I rather enjoy doing this myself as a movement meditation with many benefits. However, I feel it is vital to understand that there is a very different quality of presence to dancing from an internal, present state versus an external, present state. One comes from a place of being willing to to be seen and includes the audience, the other not so much. I am not saying that one is better than the other, they are equal but different. However if you’re working on developing your style towards an Old School aesthetic, it’s an important consideration. I’ll talk more on how you might achieve this below.


This is important for all forms of dance, I feel. Embodiment can be a slippery concept (much like the notion of sexiness), one that I have written about during my Masters degree studies and will be writing about again for my PhD in relation to performance art. There are so many definitions out there and I humbly offer you my own understanding of embodiment, which is resulting from my research as well as my 17+ years as a pole dance artist and instructor.

To me, embodiment in the context of Old School pole dancing is about finding connection to myself and my sensuality. Being strong enough to allow myself to be vulnerable. The bravery from going within and exploring who that authentic and sensual self is, and feeling comfortable to express this, without the need to be validated or accepted.

I would also like to invite you, dear reader, to reflect on what embodiment means for you. If you’re comfortable enough sharing it online, please do tag me!


When I was a younger pole dancer, I relied heavily on performing or adopting the role of a character within a story when it came to putting myself on stage. It felt easier to behave theatrically rather than authentically; I was layering characters and imagined selves on top of the real me as I danced. Whilst this was really helpful for me as a tool in building confidence as I put myself out there, and I still use elements of character and narrative to inform some of my performances, I feel that there has been a lot of valuable learning in coming to identify and understand the difference between using my imagination to tap into something deeper versus using acting and theatrics as an avoidance tactic in showing my true self, ‘faking it’ if you will.

Another way this showed up for me was that I would also drown in anxiety when it came to freestyling; the act of letting go of perfection and allowing myself to move without having a character or plan to hide behind was something I really struggled with. Giving myself permission to be imperfect took time and effort, after all it was a habit of most of my lifetime. One mistake I made was judging myself for not being able to simply drop all my bullshit and dance like a wild and free spirit the second that my instructor said the word ‘freestyle’ during a pole dance class that I was attending; guess what, this did not help me to relax and tap into my creative flow state.

However, accessing and harnessing my imagination can also be a useful aid for finding flow while freestyling. For example, visualizing that I am dancing for my partner, as well as imagining seeing myself through their eyes. This is less about the external validation of a loved one’s approval and more about accessing my authenticity: I know that when I dance for my partner I am safe, seen and loved. So when I visualize myself in this place of safety, I am not feeling anxious and can move from a relaxed place, feeling comfortable to let myself be fully witnessed.

Here is a recent freestyle performance that I made in my living room, filmed by Stephen White, which I feel brings together this presence, embodiment and authenticity for me:

To witness:

I feel that cultivating connection is about giving and receiving. Just as important as learning how to step into your presence, embodiment and authenticity, is learning how to hold space for others and witness them, an aspect that I feel is often overlooked.

When I say to witness someone as they perform, I mean to be fully present. Which in some ways is way easier said than done, and in other ways, very, very easy. However, I have some suggestions for applying the above qualities in this regard:


Put your darn smartphone away and look at them with your actual eyes.


Give your ego a break by dropping your expectations of others or feeling the need to judge them in any way. Get curious, can you imagine that you are seeing someone perform for the first time? Maybe you are, and in that case resist the urge to compare them with anyone else, most of all yourself.


Treat their performance with the reverence and respect of witnessing a ritual; remember that this person is showing you their art and a little bit of themselves, which is a brave act.

How to bring presence, embodiment and authenticity to your Old School pole dancing:

Remember, putting yourself out there and performing is not easy. It takes both courage and patience in abundance. Many of the things I have talked about I have developed over my almost 18-year career as a pole dancer, and am still working on. However here’s a wee list to summarize, for your ease:

  • Cultivate awareness as you dance. Notice where do you go in your head when you’re performing? What are you thinking about? What are you feeling? What are you aware of, within and without? Are you aware of the audience? Witnessing them witnessing you? Without assigning judgement to any of these observations, notice the ways that your presence, sense of embodiment and authenticity changes depending on if there’s an audience present or not, and how these qualities are ever changing, never fixed.
  • Allow yourself to be perfectly imperfect. Your life probably won’t fall apart if you drop the pursuit for perfection for a little while.
  • Be willing to be weird and not take yourself so seriously. In life in general!
  • Understand the difference between dancing in character vs. your authentic self. Character can certainly be a conduit for showing aspects of authenticity, but recognise within yourself what is truly coming from you and what might you be using as something to hide behind.
  • Manage freestyle anxiety by picking moves that you know you can execute comfortably and feel safe doing. By this I mean the movements, tricks, poses etc. that you don’t even need to think about how to do, you can flow into them and focus on how they feel, and feel joy!
  • Trust. Trust that your audience has your back. Trust yourself to not fall over or mess up as you dance; this comes back to being willing to be weird as well as choosing movements that you can feel joy whilst doing. Because truth is, you might fall over or have things not turn out perfectly on stage, in the studio, on your home pole, wherever. So what, as long as you don’t injure yourself you’ll be grand. You are human, and humans are certainly not perfect creatures all of the time.
  • Drop the screen. To not hide behind a screen and to be present, to show yourself fully as well as to see others fully. The irony of me posting this on a blog and you reading it on the screen of your device is not lost on me. But hey, these are the times we live in.

My humble request as always:

If you enjoyed this blog and found it helpful, why not pay it forward by tipping me the cost of a coffee? Thank you, you gorgeous being!

In any case, I’d love to know what you thought of this blog. You can DM me on Insta (@arlenecaffrey) and please do tag me if you are sharing this blog. Sure isn’t it only polite 🖤