Limitations on who can pole dance?
When I first learned of Deb Roach, a pole dance artist that has only one of her arms, I think my mouth literally fell open. I found out about her on Michelle Ngiam’s blog HeartnPole.
I teared up as I read about her, the condition she was born with (congenital malformation) that left her with only one arm to go through life with and the fact that she had won a major pole dance competition. With one arm? I had to know more.
I then watched some of her videos of dances that are filled with passion and spirit and it seemed each move was straight from the heart.
Amazing, amazing, amazing, was all I could think. Now, I HAD to talk to her.
Deb Roach is a woman full of life, sass, attitude, a powerful underlying strength and as she describes herself, “mouthy, opinionated, and thick-skinned”.
Deb has always loved dance, ever since she was a young girl, dancing and singing along to the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson. She grew up in Sydney, Australia and her family helped her build an incredible foundation of self-confidence, complete acceptance and a “can-do” attitude that made her feel like she “ruled the roost” and gave no thought to the fact that she wasn’t ‘normal’ or unable to do things that other kids did.
It wasn't until she started school that she was taunted and made fun of at times but all it did was bring out the fight in her. “The school environment wasn't like home so I fought back,” says Deb. “The fights I got in were more the issue than the taunting.”
As a youngster, she got involved in some other forms of exercise and sports but found that her biggest difficulties came from the severe asthma and allergies that she suffered from that then became more mild and manageable as she grew into her teens.
She started figure skating in 7th grade and worked her way up through all the levels and in 9th grade took 3rd place in a competition. Skating built her body awareness and was the first time she made friends outside of her school peers and this is where she found new confidence in herself. Of course, there were the ‘elite, clicky’ figure skaters that snubbed her, as she describes them, not because she was missing an arm, but because her family didn't have as much money as theirs.
Deb reflects, “Even if I had my other arm, I would still be as opinionated and some people find the mouthy, bitchy side of me hard to deal with. Having one arm has given me a thick skin.”
It was then in her teenage years she started going to gothic clubs and dancing her heart out and then going on to do stage dancing.
She was first introduced to pole dance when she saw a doubles performance at a club by Missy and Suzie Q. “I was amazed,” Deb exclaims. “It was so much more like Cirque du Soleil than my idea of pole dance; the routine as I remember was themed around rag dolls, or marionettes and was so creative! There were stripy socks and they were so super strong and athletic. I had no idea there was something like this! I was hooked!” What was going through her mind while watching it was that she wished she could do something like that, but had no belief at the time that she could.
She went backstage and talked to Suzie Q. It was then that Suzie Q challenged her by asking how did she know if she could or couldn’t do pole dance and told her to come to the studio.
“I started low on the pole. We worked on 50 mm poles and it took me 6 weeks to learn to climb. I could spin effectively and I could sit on the pole and grip, grab and release,” says Deb.
But learning to invert took her 18 months. “I still kick into inverts and am trying to learn how to tuck up.” She explained to me that it isn’t a core weakness problem, but that the body mechanics of the task, the invert on the pole, are different for her without her other arm. She’s currently training with Bendy Kate and almost has it. “But it gets pretty frustrating,” she says. She laughed when she told me that she has the students in her master classes do single-arm exercises on the pole and there are burpee penalties for placing both hands on the pole.
Since she had been stage dancing already, Deb was comfortable with entertaining and being in the spotlight.
The first competition she tried out and won was local but then when she was approached about competing at an international competition in Hong Kong to help develop the disabled division, she was hen training as a cyclist with her sights set on the paralympics. Her cycling coach was none too impressed by the prospect of her being distracted from her training or tired in her sessions.
“I didn't even know what I was doing then,” she says. She had about 5 days to get a submission video together but hadn't touched a pole in 11 months. Her coach didn't like that she was doing this but she got the video in, competed and won the 2012 Ultimate Pole Championship Disabled Division. “Everyone was so nice. It was the best experience to be there,” she remembers.
Her two favorite grip aids are iTac and Dry Hands. She puts iTac on the contact points of her body (insides of knees, inner thighs and inside of arm) and Dry Hands on her hands. She currently trains at least 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. “I listen to my body,” Deb says. “If I can train, I train.”
She did a lot of cable weight training in her gym days and now finds that the number one thing to do is “Train you’re *ss! We KNOW we need a strong core and great abs, we know we need guns too - but you've GOT to get your glutes firing! It’s glutes and hips, glutes and hips. In a good pole class, you train butt, hips and core. It’s good to have core activation and an understanding of how the shoulder functions. But I don’t think there is enough on self-care.” She feels that students are too unaware of the injuries and long-term nerve damage that can happen from poor movement patterns and improper form and technique.
She feels there is always more room for understanding and education in pole dance, “but pole dancing is meant to be fun, like a soul-nourishing hobby, to feel passion and if people get too technical about it, it will extinguish that flame. It is just equally important for people to be able to get their groove on in a class without us forcing all of this technical information on them.”
For those students who are barely beginning and may not even be able to hold their body weight on the pole yet, she says “In yoga there is a saying, ‘With practice all is coming’ and I think that is true in pole as well. Breathe into the moment. Your body is learning something new and your frustration doesn’t serve you. It doesn’t help you get better.”
Deb is also doing burlesque dancing which brought up memories from her days of cycling training. “I was sick of the squeaky clean image I had then. I had to keep my pole dancing under wraps. But then someone there had seen me on TV and came up to me and said ‘Disabled people shouldn’t be pole dancing!’” to which she had a comeback that would set anyone back on their heels about who could be sat in the seat of a bicycle. “What I do is hard!” she exclaims. Any of us that use a pole for exercise and dance can attest to that, much more can someone with one less limb than the rest of us.
How has pole dancing changed her life? “It didn’t change my world, it became my world! It takes me on some crazy freakin’ adventures,” she exclaimed. “Because of pole I was on TV in Korea, I performed in a casino in south France, I make friends all over the world and get to share my passion with all of these eager women who soak it all up like sponges. We are all consumed with passion for pole. It’s the fuel that keeps us going. I’m supposed to be doing circus and I always find myself at the pole studio. I can’t escape it and I can’t give it up.”
She has written an inspirational short poem that holds a message all of us can learn from:
“Train from the heart and without expectation, Train without fear or perceived limitation,
Find silver linings when faced with frustration; This takes perseverance. This takes dedication.”
Deb is also a personal trainer that teaches yoga, Pilates, flexibility and acrobatics. She is currently residing in Sheffield, U.K. on an assignment with a grant for disabled artists to use for their professional development that you can read more about here.
Her other love is contemporary integrated dance where disabled and able-bodied dancers are integrated into performances. She became involved in the Catalyst Dance Masterclass Series where she further developed her stage presence, artistic and performing abilities. She is doing a lot of theme exploration right now in this area as well as trying to secure more performance work as pole artist.
What are her big goals now? “I want to showcase at PoleArt in Helsinki next year. I want to perform at the box in London. I’m doing a lot of auditioning.” With all that she has overcome, I doubt that anything will stand in her way of accomplishing this too. :)
All photos courtesy Don Curry Photography.