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A Breakdown of My First Competition: what it cost and what advice I have to give

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

That’s the easiest way to describe the entire experience of what it took to compete in Pacific Pole Championships 2012. I had no idea what it would cost – not just financially, but across the board. Emotionally, physically…the time it took, the mental exhaustion…it was a crazy ride, but in the end, I’m proud that I did it. This post is simply my way of giving back to all of the gals who haven’t competed.

I’m in the unusual position of having competed without yet being an aerialist. Most competitions are for the upper echelons of pole dancers. PPC was different because it allowed every kind of performer to compete – the separate levels, as well as the separate categories, allowed so many performers to compete who would not normally be able to be involved in the competition. The categories and levels were as follows for the 2012 competition (text copied from the PPC website) – [please note that the categories and levels for the 2013 competition are different]:

I.        Championship Event:  This event is for those dancers wishing to compete with a traditional technical competitive program.  Designed to offer competitors the type of experience found at National and International competitions, the focus will be on the dancer’s technique, flexibility, artistry and difficulty of tricks.

II.       Artistic (Entertainment):  This event is focused less on the difficulty of the tricks executed and more on the dancer’s ability to interpret a piece of music to provide a comical or upbeat performance (as opposed to a more dramatic and serious performance).

III.    Artistic (Dramatic):  This event is focused less on the difficulty of the tricks executed and more on the dancer’s ability to present a serious, emotional artistic interpretation of a piece of music.

IV.     Freedance:  Dancers will draw numbers approximately an hour before the event begins.  That number will correspond to a piece of music chosen by the event coordinators.  Dancers will then have an opportunity to listen to their music for a pre-determined amount of time before performing.  Focus will be on the dancer’s improvisational interpretation of the music rather than practiced choreography. 

COMPETITOR LEVELS (Self-Assessed):

I.   Level 1 (Beginner):  This is the appropriate level for true amateur beginners who have never taught pole dancing nor made any money from dancing.  Dancers at this level are permitted to engage in floor dance, spinning moves, and climbs.  There is no inverting at this level and hips must be below the shoulders at all times when the competitor is on the pole.

II.  Level 2 (Intermediate):  This is the appropriate level for intermediate dancers that have never placed in the top three in a pole dancing competition.  In addition to the skills permitted in Level 1, dancers may invert, however dancers must maintain three points of contact with the pole while inverted. No release moves are allowed in this category. Pole dance instructors may enter this category.

III. Level 3 (Advanced):  This is the appropriate level for the more advanced pole dancer, pole dance instructors, and those who have placed in other pole competitions.  Dancers at this level may perform any tricks, inversions, or release moves.

Pacific Pole Championships offers the Artistic events for those competitors that are classified in a higher level than they feel their current skill level is at in their tricks, so that they can still compete but the judging focuses more on the artistic interpretations than the difficulty level of the tricks performed.  Competitors that are found to be “sandbagging” (competing at a level below their actual skill level) will be disqualified from that level, so please contact competition organizers to avoid that situation.

In addition to these categories and levels, there were also provisions for ages, and I think for sex as well (although there was only one male competitor, and unfortunately, he was not able to make it into the country for the competition). Each level also had song length restrictions.

Because of all of these specifications, there were SO many performers in this competition that had never competed before. It’s a lot to undertake, especially if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into! I was SO lucky to have the help and guidance of other seasoned performers and competitors, like Kat, Drea, and Natasha. Drea in particular had a number of really helpful tips, which I will try to include in my breakdowns of everything.

Preparation:

I knew I’d have to train hard, and train more than once a week (my usual rate of taking class), but I didn’t know exactly *how* to train. I was using space at Kat’s studio in the back of Pure Delish, because she has a 45mm pole – the poles at PPC were 45mm, and I had never worked on one, so I thought it best to train as much as I could on that size pole (The Pole Garage had one installed a couple of weeks before the competition), and it took a lot of discipline. I had to run my own warm up, decide what tricks to work on, etc. When I started, I would simply go in and work on tricks I thought I might use in the routine, specifically working on holding the tricks for long periods of time to build up my conditioning – for example, I would hit a Superwoman and hold it for a 30 count, then do the same for a pike, etc. I would basically be doing a version of my class stuff in the practices, but not working much on choreography in the beginning. Early on, I had a rehearsal with Kat, where she helped me block out the opening 30 seconds of the routine, and while I would practice that, I didn’t work much on anything beyond it. After a couple of weeks, I met with Kat again, and she urged me to start doing only the routine in my practices, so I could build muscle memory – and to save the other conditioning and classwork type of training for my actual classes. We worked on more choreography, which I started to bring into class as well after her rehearsal space had to close for a couple of weeks due to a repair that needed to be made.

While in class, Drea helped me refine my static pole run, which I would practice in every class. She would give me small tweaks and feedback to incorporate. On my own, I worked on strengthening my spinning pole skills by borrowing my friend Claire’s pole and taking a spinning-only class at another studio, and I did my best to pick up extra classes when I could. In one great session with Mary Grace (another teacher at TPG), I worked on the 45mm spinning pole and discovered that my whole plan for spinning pole was not going to work, so I threw it out and worked on other ideas that I learned in the spinning-only class and inspired by moves I’d seen in YouTube videos.

I took extra classes and worked in rehearsal sessions, and I even worked on stuff at home, but I still didn’t feel like I had stuff set up well, even in the week before the competition. That week, I had extra classes, but I also had a private lesson with Drea, which was so helpful. She taped my run-throughs, helped me with tweaking things, and was generally so encouraging – which I really needed! My dress rehearsal with Kat did not go well – had an ugly cry – but I think that meltdown was bound to happen. The night before the performance, I took an hour and a half to run through the routine in our hotel room – miming the pole runs – and I think the repetition really helped for the day of the competition.

What I wish I had done was really take it to heart that my choreography needed to be locked sooner. This was a tip that Drea gave me, and that I had read in an interview with Natasha, as well as something Kat mentioned. They were all correct – I think that, had I locked it sooner, I would have had fewer slips and mistakes in the competition. The confidence of knowing the routine in and out would have been higher if I had locked the choreography sooner, too. That’s my advice to anyone looking to compete: start rehearsing immediately. Choose tricks that you know how to do already and do well – or that you’re very, very close to locking, and work the hell out of them. Don’t throw in something new or something you only nail 80% of the time. Don’t chance it. Choreograph early and be smart about what you choose to do. Kat’s advice was to pay attention to musicality, but not be so focused on it that it’s all you think about. Breathe and feel the music, but let your body flow, because if you try too hard to “hit” moments, it will come off as forced. It’s a weird balance.

Another miscellaneous piece of advice: get all of the elements of your costume together earlier, at least with enough lead time that you can rehearse in costume and work out any issues you may have. In my case, I bought two sequined bras in pink and purple, to match my stripes, and discovered that they could not be layered on top of each other because they did not have enough elasticity built into them. I ended up having to use one of my own bras on top of one of the sequined bras for the performance, which I would not have known that I needed if I hadn’t tried everything on a week before the competition. I also had ear issues – the original ears I commissioned were never made, which I did not find out until three days before the event. I bought a crappy substitute pair at a costume shop, only to discover that they did not stay on my head very well during the dance. I ended up not wearing any ears after the hair stylist at the event fashioned “ears” out of buns on my head (thanks!).

There is another reason I am taking a moment to mention all of this: I just watched a bunch of performances (some of which were in a competition) and it occurred to me that a section on costume woes was a smart addition. Something to keep in mind: while floaty, pretty tendrils of material at the waist can be beautiful, they’re also a pain in the ass to wrangle and can be downright dangerous if you’re in a layback or anything with a thigh grip. I have a skirt made of beads that is totally cute, but I have only worn it once because the beads get in the way and have to be wrangled – and wrangling your costume is not cute in a performance. I watched a doubles performance the other night in which the performers both had flowing tendrils of material from the waist, and one of them was visibly adjusting it mid-performance – not only is it often obvious to the audience, but it’s distracting to the performer, I’m sure. I know I was worried that my tail for PPC would get in the way, until I actually danced with one in rehearsals. So definitely try to get all of your elements with at least a week’s lead time, so you can do some dress rehearsals and have a little time to work out the kinks or get something new if you need it. If you want a costume element that could interfere with your grip, see about getting it made to be easily removable in the performance – if it’s something you can whip off, you can use it for flair until you need to use the grip areas it might block.

The Day Of:

First, the obvious: get some good sleep! 🙂 Go to bed early, because you’ll probably have nerves and not be able to fall asleep right away – better to give yourself a chance to get a little more sleep by trying to head to bed sooner. In my case, we actually rented a hotel room at the location of the competition. It was both to make my day easier – my hair and makeup were so early that I would need to be at the venue REALLY early, which would mean getting up even earlier – and also to make sure that none of the “home distractions” would apply. I was up at 5:45am to eat breakfast and stretch before the rehearsal time began – my intention was to be one of the first in line to rehearse, without having to stretch/warm up, because I wasn’t sure how many people would be jockeying for space…and I wanted to be sure that I got a chance to test the poles before I had to go for hair and makeup. I was lucky enough to have a Starbucks in the lobby of the venue, so I grabbed some oatmeal and caffeine, headed back to the room, and stretched in the bathroom alcove while reading advice from Natasha on my phone. 🙂 I headed back down to the space to rehearse and was third in the door! (Yay for planning!). This is where another bit of advice comes in: always, always give yourself more time than you think you will need. Hair and makeup were backed up, so I was backed up in getting into costume, and as a result…I almost missed my category! A friend sent me a text to warn me that I was MIA and needed, which had me running from my hotel room to the venue, with no time to finish my costume (I was missing stripes). On the plus side, I had less time to wait and get nervous, but I wouldn’t recommend being so late!! 🙂 Other bits of advice: plenty of sleep, eat a solid breakfast (not too much sugar or caffeine), and keep yourself stretched and warmed up (leg warmers!) without overextending yourself and your strength.

As far as other advice, I had a huge list of things to pack, and they all ended up being important:

  • All costume elements, which in my case were my tail, ears (which I didn’t use), pasty stripes, shorts, underwear, outer bra, and accent bra.
  • Back up costume elements: in my case, I had an identical pair of costume shorts (in a different color), an identical back up bra (it was the same as my second costume bra – I wore two bras in the costume), and a spare thong. If I had been wearing shoes, I would have brought a spare pair of those as well.
  • Double undies: I had my usual seamless thong for coverage, but I also threw on a nude g-string, on recommendation from Drea – triple coverage! 🙂
  • Double-sided tape (I ended up using it to secure my under bra)
  • Duct tape (I had hot pink – again, a recommendation from Drea)
  • Safety pins of multiple sizes (I used one to secure the zipper on my costume shorts)
  • All makeup and hair products I thought I might use if I had to do my own makeup/hair (i.e. makeup, skin products, hair spray, bobby pins, hair ties, hair straightener, etc)
  • Warm up clothing: spare shorts, tank top, sports bra, yoga pants, slippers, hoodie, leg warmers
  • Snacks: protein bars, trail mix, etc. Anything reasonably healthy that could be eaten on the run and provide energy.
  • Back up music: in my case, it was required that we bring a cd of our song (and only our song was to be on it), but I brought a cd and a disc containing the MP3 version of the song, as well as an iPod. I also had the song on my phone, so I could listen to it with headphones when I was rehearsing in the room and stretching the day of the event.
  • All props. Seriously. All of them. Make a list. Check it twice. 🙂
  • Grips of your choice. On a side note, DON’T pick the day of the competition to try a new grip. Work it into your rehearsals/classes in the few weeks before your competition and see how you like it – you may get a grip and hate it, so don’t use your competition to try it out. In my case, I got two new grips in the weeks before the competition, and I ended up only using one of the new grips in the competition itself (along with my usual grip). Keep in mind that you may not be able to apply grip to the pole itself, so plan ahead and be comfortable applying your grips to your skin before you perform. If you need to give yourself time for a grip to work, plan for it – one of mine (Tite Grip) was an antiperspirant that needed to be applied about an hour before performing, so I had to remember to do it as I was getting ready, then add my Firm Grip spray to my contact points just before I went on stage.
  • Something to wear from any rehearsal room or hotel room to get back stage, if you don’t have dressing rooms behind the stage (hard to know beforehand). I did NOT plan for this and had to run to the stage in a long cardigan and my boyfriend’s pajama pants, because I didn’t want to throw anything on over my head.
  • Cash for tipping hair/makeup artists, incidentals, items available at vendor booths, etc.
  • A camera if you want your friends to take photos/video – or ask them to use their own. 🙂 My friend used my phone to tape me, while my boyfriend took stills – this was in addition to the professional photos and video that I paid for, as I wanted to see everything asap!

The Cost:

This can be measured in multiple ways. The obvious is the financial expense. For me, it was high. Really high, more than I thought it would be. I invested money in the following:

  • extra classes/rehearsal time
  • costume
  • hair and makeup
  • professional video/photos
  • hotel room and incidentals
  • a massage the week before the competition (to help my body heal a bit and be stronger for the competition)
  • registration for the competition itself

The costume itself was more expensive than I thought it would be, mostly because I had no idea what I wanted to do for it at first. Two of my items were custom made, and I invested in back up pieces, so the money I saved by having a few elements that were already mine (or were given to me) was helpful. As far as the classes/rehearsal time, while I do have a pole at home, it is neither high enough, nor sturdy enough for me to have seriously rehearsed on it – it also does not spin and is a 50mm, instead of a 45mm. I used it for conditioning holds more than anything else. This necessitated using more classes/rehearsal time elsewhere.

I could have saved money by simplifying my costume; choosing to not get professional photos and video (or just choosing one or the other); doing my own hair/makeup; staying at my own apartment the night before the competition; not getting a massage, etc. However, being that this was my first competition – and who knows if/when I’ll ever compete again – I wanted to invest in as much of the experience as I could, which is why I paid for the professional pics and video. The hair and makeup were both so that I could look my best, but also so I could have an easy morning and not have to worry about doing it myself (which I’m not great at) on top of everything else. The hotel room was also to make my morning easier, and the massage? Well, I needed and deserved that. 🙂 My poor body. I was in knots from the extra rehearsals, so much so that I was having grip issues with my hands/wrists.

So, while I spent around $1000 – yes, you read that correctly – I don’t think this is what you *have* to spend to compete. It just happens to be around what I spent, in the end. And, keep in mind that I live in the same city as the competition – there were women from all over the country that came to compete! Plane tickets, gas money, hotel rooms, etc…yikes!

My advice in this regard would be to really make sure you can afford to compete. Think about all of the elements – costumes, training, makeup/hair, video/photos, travel, incidentals, etc – and that stuff might come up that you don’t expect. I had NO IDEA that I would spend this kind of money on it. I never really thought about what I would spend beyond the initial registration fee and that I would need a costume.

There’s also the physical and emotional cost of competing. I wore myself down. I have odd work hours, which have me up very early in the morning three to four days a week. I was able to rehearse after work, but I was exhausted most of the time. The week before the event, I was taking naps in my car in between work and rehearsing – I even had to pull over one night on my way home, in order to take a short nap because I couldn’t keep myself from falling asleep while driving…and I was about a mile and a half from my apartment! Take care of yourself – eat better (eating well is my biggest challenge, always), sleep more, clear your schedule and treat yourself well. After each rehearsal/class, I would do an epsom salt bath, followed by Arnica lotion on my bruises, sometimes Ben Gay on my sore muscles – or Salon-Pas heat patches on my knots/sore muscles if they were really bad. I had Arnica pills (both the pills and lotion are homeopathic and can be purchased at places like Whole Foods) that I took every day, and a big bottle of anti-inflammatory pills for my poor beat up body. I also had a heating pad, which I would nap on, and I would ice my bum knee as needed (the knee brace was worn whenever I was walking around or on my feet for a while). I only had one really ugly emotional breakdown, once the exhaustion, nerves, and lack of preparedness caught up with me. So, if you cry, know it’s totally normal!!! 🙂 I felt like I sucked – I was terrified of letting people down and disappointing the people who believed in me and invested their time in helping me. I was overwhelmed beyond belief…and I am willing to bet that I was not alone in that feeling! My advice? AGAIN: Be kind to yourself. Take time to give back to yourself – a night off to relax or do something that gives you joy – let yourself cry if you need it. Know that it’ll be all about the ups and downs, and that it’s totally normal. 🙂

In the end, it was an exhausting experience, but I ended up enjoying it after the fact. I do think that I enjoyed performing a little more because I am an actor, and performing is something I am conditioned to do, even if I was NOT used to performing pole. Whatever it is in me that knows how to do that kicked in and took over, which I think allowed me to let go of some of the mistakes I made mid-performance, at least within the performance itself. Something would happen, and I would accept it and let it go in the moment – there’s no other choice, really. You have to pick yourself back up and keep going as if nothing happened. I felt so much for some of the girls that went ahead of me, who were nearly in tears when they walked off stage because of a mistake they had made in their performances. Even with the mistakes I made – I had one slip that was super obvious, and I was too fast and had to improvise twice – I still understood that there was nothing I could do to change it after the fact. Sure, I beat myself up a little bit afterward, but it doesn’t do any good to dwell. So, my advice: get up there, give it all you have, and if there’s a mistake, pick yourself back up and keep going with a smile, let it go, and when you step off stage…do your best to accept it and let it go again. 🙂 I placed third in my category, which is amazing – and it’s really due to one great score from a single judge. Honestly, I am not sure if the fact that I placed made me see the competition as more fun or not, but it’s entirely possible – however, even before I knew my placement, I found myself having fun as soon as I performed. The nerves beforehand got the best of me in terms of truly enjoying everything, but I did have fun being in the middle of the experience – the rehearsal in the morning and getting to meet some of the other girls, plus seeing the ones I knew; hair and makeup coming together; putting on my costume, etc. As soon as I was done performing, I had a blast and felt so thrilled to have done it. I was so proud of myself for getting up there and DOING IT. Seeing my friends waiting for me made it that much sweeter, too.

I guess that’s my last piece of advice: be proud of yourself for doing it. You committed to doing something that SO MANY other people would not have the stones to do. You put yourself out there, you competed, you performed, and no matter what the result, it took balls. It takes a lot of courage to get up like that, so be proud and own it.

Some ugly truths…and untruths

This quote came across my Twitter feed today, from a Portland-based actress that I follow: “Sometimes when things fall apart, they may be actually falling into place.”

Perhaps it struck me so much because I had my own little meltdown today and generally feel like things are falling down around my ears. It’s the result of being really overwhelmed, in addition to being over-tired, filled with fun hormones (oh, being a lady can suck sometimes), and being the type of person who is really, really hard on herself.

I hadn’t felt nerves about the competition until Tuesday. I woke up in a mild state of panic. It was not yet to the “cling to the bed” stage, where I can’t force myself to get up because the anxiety is so overwhelming, but it was definitely present. Still, I got my ass up and went to my private lesson with Drea. It was a good hour and a half. Calming for sure, and we worked on things in a way that wasn’t too intense – I felt capable, like I got things accomplished, but like I still had work to do. So, I took it as a successful experience overall.

Tuesday night, I got a much-needed massage to try to free up some of my strength. My forearms lock up almost every rehearsal, even when I’ve barely used them, which is a sign to me that something is out of alignment. The massage helped, even though it wasn’t exactly restful – I was so tight through my shoulders and arms that there was a lot of pain involved, and my brain wouldn’t shut off, but I still felt better when I left.

Wednesday was such a long day that it didn’t feel like I had any time to breathe and relax, which was the entire point of taking it off from rehearsal (and, of course, to give my muscles a break after the massage). I think it set me up to have an exhausting day today, too.

Upon arriving at rehearsal, I got a chance to see my costume mostly put together, which was fun for all of about a minute. (I’ll post a teaser pic later.) And then, we started my rehearsal, with Kat sitting in to give me final tips on things to polish.

Cut to, I do one run through and burst into tears as soon as it ends.

I hate crying in front of people, and I gotta really be upset to do it (and there’s often a certain element of trust involved, which tells you that I trust Kat enough to be a gibbering mess in front of her).

It comes down to this: I am playing an old, old game with myself, where I really do a damn good job of making myself “not enough” – I spent the last few days (rather unconsciously) picking away at any good will and sense of accomplishment I had for myself, leaving me with a hell of a lot of, “What are you thinking?! Seriously, you entered a competition? That’s a joke, right? You’re terrible, and you have no business doing this on stage. You’re going to be annihilated. You will be the worst, you’ll make a fool of yourself, and you will let everyone down.” It’s a truly terrible inner monologue to have, but the reason I am being honest about it is that it is part of this journey. Pole can be a lot of fun, but for me, it’s also a tremendous challenge on more than just a physical level.

I’m not used to feeling ill-equipped when it comes to performing. While I get nerves when I act, and I have my own little demons pop up, I have weapons and tricks to combat it. I also know my strengths and how to play them, and in general, I know how to play at my maximum level. I know what that is, and I have confidence in it. Doesn’t mean I always WANT to do the hard scene where I’m weeping, but I am pretty good about knowing that I can, even if I’m also pretty adept at trying to self-sabotage sometimes.

With this…it’s still relatively new to me in a lot of ways, and COMPLETELY new to me in this realm. Performing?? In front of people I don’t know??? WITH JUDGEMENT INVOLVED?!?!?!?!? *dies*

The truth is, I don’t feel any better than anyone else at this particular endeavor. I don’t see my own value, I haven’t been rewarding my accomplishments because I am hard-pressed to see what they are right now (beyond the recognition that I’m stronger physically in some respects). I feel like a big, fat failure because I am not as good as I want to be. I’ve put this hugely unattainable and unrealistic expectation on myself of being flawless. It’s a nice way to validate that secret fear/belief that I’m not good enough. “See? Your routine isn’t flawless. You’re clearly not good enough to be in this competition.” It’s insane.

Humans, we be sneaky like that. It’s an old, old game that EVERYONE plays, whether they know it or not. And, even though I’m well aware of the existence of it, and where I’ve done it in my life, I got gobsmacked by it today.

So, in that way, I’m being very hard on myself. I’m mad that my routine isn’t as beautiful or perfect as I wanted it to be. I’m mad that I’m not 120lbs of grace. I’m mad that I didn’t work harder. But, all of that is distraction. Being mad at myself is a manifestation of being scared and an act of displacement, in a way. It’s a vicious circle that feeds right back into the “not enough” story that I have created for myself.

Anyway…getting back to rehearsal…I spent a while crying and mopping myself up, confessing that I desperately did not want to let anyone down. Which is very much true – I feel such a sense of responsibility (which is code for: “Don’t fuck up!”) to everyone who has been so helpful and supportive throughout this process that I am terrified of being a failure. But, as Kat said – after comforting me and teasing me that “there’s no crying in Pole!” – the only way I would let her down was if I dropped out of the competition. Which I don’t even consider an option, because while I am a commitment-phobe, once I DO commit, I’m in it, even if I’m kicking and screaming half of the time. 🙂 Kat reminded me that my choice to enter is something that most of the other girls in our studio didn’t choose. That it took balls to do it. I need to re-frame my thinking on that, because I didn’t see it as brave – I never see myself as brave, even though it’s one of the qualities most singled out  by others in reference to me (I feel like a doofus saying that, but it’s true). Instead, with my fear and anxiety, I see it as really foolish and ridiculous.

Gotta love what that shit does to you, right? As I like to say, “Oh, Brain. I thought we were past this.”

After finishing my cry, I went back to rehearsing and felt much more solid, even if I was still having some trouble in my runs. It’s mostly little nuances and things I’m not sure I can change at this point, given that I have a day left. I’ll work on some stuff tonight and tomorrow, but I think the most important thing will be doing mental runs of the routine and generally calming myself down, reminding myself that I do have fun doing this, and that this is just a chance to have fun playing a character. I got into this to learn what it was to prepare for a competition – and that includes the good AND the bad – and to be better at pole overall. So, in that sense, I got everything I set out for when doing this – I just need to accept me for me and not be so hard on myself.

I’m still in a bit of a mental health shut down, but hopefully I can reboot in a few and start working again a little later. I got my costume sorted out and did my rehearsal in it today, so that’s good. It works, with the exception of one piece that is a little bitchy – not entirely sure how to fix it, but necessity is the mother of invention…and creativity doesn’t hurt! So, anyway, here’s a little teaser!