Earlier this summer, on my way home from work on the J train, two kids got on at Marcy Avenue and started up the familiar chant of, “It’s showtime!” To most New Yorkers, this slow chant and its attendant rhythmic clapping, indicates that—whether you like it or not—you, the captive audience, will now be treated to some more-or-less breakdancing. There are lots of subway performance shticks in the city, but few are as inescapable as the dance crew shtick. Anywhere from two to five young men will board a car, turn on a boombox, and dance their butts off for the duration of whichever expanse of track between express stops your train is currently barreling down. Some of these crews are clearly just starting out, but some are astonishingly good. I don’t know much about where they come from or how they get started, but the best of them must get their moves from participating in some very serious breakdancing elsewhere in order to be able to manage the kinds of fancy footwork, acrobatics, and flips they perform easily on moving trains. Given that most of their performances take place between far-distant stops on express lines and that the subway trains move faster on these stretches than anywhere else, that means that these young men are often dancing on their hands, doing spins, and flipping off of the ceilings at well over 30 mph. It’s no unimpressive feat. It’s just that most of us who ride the rails frequently have seen all these impressive feats so many times we hardly notice them anymore.
But on the afternoon in question, the impressiveness factor reached a new high. Not only were these two kids performing during rush hour on a packed J train (dance crews tend more toward nights and weekends, when there’s usually more room to maneuver in less-crowded cars), but their shtick was markedly different from what I’m used to seeing.
Whereas most dance crews utilize the cars’ central poles and other furniture to facilitate their moves, one of the kids in this small crew was centering his entire performance on the pole. To whit: he was poledancing. I don’t mean spinning around it or using it to launch a backflip. I mean he was climbing up and down the pole, clinging to it using every available joint, hanging upside down from it, sliding down it… Kid was definitely poledancing.
This tickled me absolutely fucking pink. Again, I have no clue as to the background of dance crews on the subway. There is no way for me to know if the young man in question is a trained dancer or a punk teenager or both or neither. When he’s not in his dance clothes, he could present just about any way imaginable. But I do know that, like most dance crew kids I see on the subway, in this instance he was dressed in loose, light clothes than implied a heterosexual male from an urban background. Which implies a highly macho-ized set of principles in which breakdancing serves to up the macho cred, rather than diminishing it. But here he was, on a packed rush hour train, poledancing. And he was good. It would never have even occurred to me that it’s possible for a human being to hold onto a slippery metal pole with one ankle, yet there he was.
His performance was definitely more a show of strength than eroticism. I wouldn’t say there was anything sexual about it. And I’ve seen a lot of other poledance performances that were similar: dancing on a pole can and often is an incredible display of athleticism no matter who is performing, or where. High-level poledance competitions will prove my point. But rarely is it taken so far out of its usual strip club context as it was here. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other commuters in the car didn’t even consider what he was doing poledancing at all. I don’t know if he would have, himself.
Which, while I was so excited to see something so often equated with displays of feminine sex appeal being performed by a male in such a desexualized environment, I couldn’t help but think, What if a young woman got on this train and did this same routine? I suppose there’s no way to know—I have never once seen a female member of a subway dance crew, much less one who included dancing on the pole in her repertoire. But I can’t imagine that the response from the audience would be the same. Whereas the response in this case was largely some applause, one toddler who’d previously been screaming and crying stopping to dance and clap (which was totally adorable, btw), and a few dollars being dropped into the passed hat… if a young woman had done t he exact same routine, I can’t help but assume there would have been a different reaction entirely. Perhaps she’d have made a lot more money on the premise that she must have been “desperate” to have done such a thing, whether her act included scanty dress or gyrating or not—after all, so many exotic dancers and other women who make money by utilizing their bodies outside of formalized dance programs and performances are assumed to be sad, desperate women on their last leg. Or, of course, she might have made a lot more money because, if the body on that pole had been female, it would have become a sexualized object to more people in the car. Because a female body on a pole usually is seen as a sex object, no matter how athletic or non-sexual the routine is. Because female bodies are sexual and they are so often objects, and putting them on display can mean only one thing. Or maybe she’d have made less money as people disgustedly turned away and tried to distract their kids from the obscene spectacle of a woman on a pole. Maybe there’d have been tut-tutting and head-shaking and all sorts of judgment. Because worse than a woman’s body being sexualized by being put on display is the wantonness of a woman who would do it on purpose. Horrible. Heartbreaking, really.
I know, I know… I’m making a lot of assumptions about the people in the car. Maybe they were all post-gender-disparity, body-positive, pro-sex-worker-rights angels. Maybe every one of them was watching this young man sliding down the pole as the music from the boombox thumped behind him and thinking, “Wow, it’s so great to live in a time when a male can dance on a pole without fear.” It’s possible that I’m making a mountain out of a male-stereotypes-turned-on-their-heads molehill. The point is, I think it was fucking awesome that this kid did his routine on the J train for us all to see. It was sort of brave, and it was an excellent dance routine. I loved it. But I just can’t help flipping the situation in my head and wondering… what if he’d been a she? What then? I just don’t think it would have been the same.