Home to Mecca, Saudi Arabia is usually thought of as a highly religious, and often rather intolerant, country. But I was invited there to teach pole dancing.
Women in Saudi Arabia
Saudi is now the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Women must also cover their bodies with an abaya in public at all times and are asked to cover their faces and heads with a burqua.
Men may marry up to four wives and until recently women had almost no rights in the judicial system, effectively making them the property of their husbands. It’s not an easy place to visit for anyone, but all single women travelling to Saudi need a sponsor to explain the reasons for the trip in order to secure a visa.
Life in Saudi Arabia
Most of Saudi life takes place inside the home due to the extreme desert heat, where blissful air conditioning allows people to enjoy the sorts of lifestyles familiar to most of us. Generally speaking women and men live in separate houses, and men are not allowed to socialise with women who are not family members.
Many Saudi households are well off and have a staff, including drivers to chauffeur female family members and pick the children up from school. It was strange at first, but I got used to having my own driver – I was able to relax and see much more of Saudi, which was rather nice. (Though not everyone has such positive experiences.)
There is a large foreign population in Saudi too, often working in or with the oil industry, and living in complexes known as compounds. In such a compound, a British one for example, about 40 homes are surrounded by a large wall with guards. Also inside the complex are shops, schools and entertainment, and residents of the complex must uncover themselves and act ‘British’.
My home in Saudi
Upon arriving into the Kingdom, I was whisked off to a wonderful complex (surrounded by big walls and with a huge gate) and introduced to my host family. They all made me feel very comfortable, and I was shown how to order food from the pantry(!) and ask for anything I needed.
I had the chance to have some excellent discussions and debate with the family regarding culture and lifestyle within the Kingdom. I had my own reservations about the country and the culture before I visited Saudi – in particular the treatment of women – but I saw a completely different side to life when I was staying there.
There is a huge difference in Saudi between public life, which is very conservative, and home life, where the family can choose to live how they please. In some households the women and men live in separate houses, but I was embraced as a family member and ate every night in the same room as the whole family. The women can walk around freely without covering themselves, and even sunbathe in bikinis by their swimming pools! (Yeah, it was tough.)
Pole dancing in Saudi
Alcohol and drugs are outlawed in Saudi and punished with strict penalties of imprisonment and execution. Theatres, restaurants, parks, cemeteries and other public venues are segregated by gender. Needless to say, there is no history of pole dancing in Saudi Arabia.
So why was I invited to Saudi to teach pole? The answer is actually remarkably mundane. My client’s sister lives in Europe where she’d discovered pole dancing for fitness, and they’d talked about the amazing benefits pole can have on the body.
My client wanted the same things that attracted many of you to pole dancing: a great, exhilarating workout to get her fit and toned. She liked the fact that it was a feminine exercise, and that she could feel liberated and sexy whilst doing it.
I taught my client pole six days a week, with one day off a week for recovery and rest. I had already arranged to have three X-Stages shipped to my client, which looked wonderful set up in her pole room, with large mirrors spanning the length one wall. (Yes, she had a whole room dedicated entirely to pole.)
Tight pole clothes weren’t a problem at home – we had more privacy than I’ve had in some fitness centres in the UK, and the staff didn’t disturb us while we were training.
Although my client kept our sessions top secret, she assured me it was not because she didn’t want her friends to know, but because she wanted to make the most of our time together and didn’t want thousands of her friends turning up for lessons!
Towards the end of my time I choreographed a routine for her to perform, and she donned her heels and performed for her husband and eldest daughter. They were amazed at what pole dancing had done for her!
Her husband was very impressed by how much she had learned, and was pleased that she was responding so well to the exercise and with the enjoyment she was getting from it – not to mention her dramatically changing body shape. :) And her daughter couldn’t wait to start swinging round the pole – she was a natural.
A new fitness craze in the Middle East?
As far as I know, the poles I taught on are the only poles in Saudi, but it’s interesting to ask what would happen if pole dancing for fitness and fun started to become more popular across the country.
Because there’s no history of strip clubs or pole dancing, most men would think women were just learning a new form of exercise – ironically in a place where religion and judgement plays such a large role, pole suffers from fewer preconceived connotations or moral judgements.
My client’s husband didn’t try the pole while I was there, but he didn’t try because he felt he lacked the strength, not because of pole dancing’s less salubrious roots.
Changing through pole dancing
As someone who lives in a liberal, pro-woman world I thought I would find Saudi a very different place to be. It certainly was different, but my experiences were overwhelmingly positive.
Pole dancing for fun and fitness will always happen in the home and in private classes, something that suits Saudi culture well. If pole dancing were to take off in Saudi, it could well mark the beginning of a new era for freedom of choice from the women and men living in the country.
Change is happening, if sometimes painfully slowly, but my visit to Riyadh suggest that the change is a positive one and that pole dancing may someday be embraced by the good people of the Middle East.