Stories of Impact: Caitlin Bailey
“When I started therapy, that’s kind of when I got more serious about pole.”
(image by Zhanna Kurmanova Photography)
Why did you start pole dancing?
It’s something I’ve been interested in for a really long time but I never knew it was a class you could take until fairly recently. I took a class [at S Factor]. It’s really different from the studio I go to now. It’s always very dim, there’s no mirrors—it’s more about the internal journey and finding your own sensuality, which is great but wasn’t what I needed or the approach I felt really resonated with me, so I ended up trying a different studio and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
You shared that you experience depression and anxiety. How long has that been going on?
Looking back on it, I think those things first showed up when I was a teenager, but I didn’t get a diagnosis until I was in grad school. I had a lot of symptoms and was always a really nervous or stressed out person, but when I would talk to family or friends they’d say, “oh, I think that’s just your personality,” or “you’re applying for college, it’s normal to be stressed out.”
When I was in grad school, I guess I had what I would call a real depressive episode for the first time. I had suicidal thoughts for the first time and I actually ended up in an emotionally abusive relationship. I wasn’t in my right mind. That was when I was 23. I turned 30 last week and just started meds and therapy less than a year ago.
For a long time I was like, “I can manage this with yoga, meditation,” I tried all these other things. It’s really good to have—for me at least—a support system of activities and treatments or ways of dealing with it, but I was really resistant to trying meds or therapy. Finally, I just got to a point where I felt like my life had stagnated because of it and that kind of frustration drove me to try therapy. I found a therapist that I loved and trusted and she helped me get onto meds, and I feel like I’m finally just getting clarity about what I want and what direction I should take next.
So you started medication after you had already started pole. What’s the difference been like?
It’s funny because when I started therapy, that’s kind of when I got more serious about pole. A big part of what we talk about in therapy is that I’m very much a people pleaser and I’ve always had a perfectionist thing—I was always a straight A student and in the gifted and talented programs—and sometimes it’s really hard for me to find what I personally want and not what would make people like me the most.
I was pretty open about starting pole when I did. I was really conscious about the fact that I didn’t want it to turn into what my relationship with music* had turned into—it was really depressive, negative, and opposite of uplifting. I think I considered pole as kind of my therapy from day one, like a container to examine my self-esteem in and look at how I put limits on myself and make up all these constraints that aren’t really there.
How has pole dancing affected you?
I just feel like such a different person. It’s so crazy to me, the fact that I post videos after every class, the fact that I tell everybody I know that I do this. I’m just really open about it and I try to be really honest about what my experience with it is.
How else do you open up to people about it?
In my [Instagram photo and video] captions I’m like, “here’s what happened in class today. I really didn’t feel like I could do this one thing but I got this one thing,” or, “I felt really shitty all day today and then I went to pole class and it was hard but now I feel better.”
I’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive response to that and it’s kind of like this feedback loop where people are so grateful for me being open about it and so I’m willing to keep sharing. It really shows me that people don’t have a lot of representations of the whole human experience. I think with social media especially we only see the highlights. It’s really easy to feel like everyone has it easier, so I think that when you can show your whole experience people really respond to that. In anything you can do, being authentic is so powerful and breathes so much life into whatever your livelihood or activity is.
Do you ever look back on your Instagram photos and videos and feel a certain way?
I had a teacher, Roz the Diva, who said, “take videos all the time because it’s going to show your progress.” You can’t argue with video. You might feel like you’re not making any progress but if you just go back and look you can see it. That’s been very true for me and really helpful, because sometimes I can’t trust my own perceptions because of my mental-health issues. It’s really nice to have a record of all the stuff I’ve done. It’s very black and white, so there’s just no room for my emotions to get in there and twist the story around.
How do you feel in the pole dance studio when you’re practicing?
That’s a whole other laboratory to explore my mental health because my anxiety in particular has a lot of social components. I think most people can’t tell when I’m feeling anxious of fearful, but a lot of time in social situations I just get so nervous.
That’s another thing that the studio is great for—it’s a place to interact with people and kind of force myself to be social even when I don’t feel like it.
What do you have to conquer on the tough days in order to get to the studio?
Sometimes it’s just a physical energy thing, but there’s never been a time where I’ve gotten into class and been like, “I can’t do this, I have to leave.” I always know that it’s going to make me feel better. No matter how shitty I feel, physical activity is probably the most successful thing for me as far as shifting a negative state that I feel stuck in.
You’ve done other physical things before pole, what makes your experience with pole different?
I did bike racing for a while and I loved it, but it usually felt stressful to the point of being not fun for me. Sometimes I would get panic attacks before races.
For me, there’s a huge difference between that and pole because cycling is straight cardio. Sometimes I didn’t know if it was even feasible for me because with an anxiety disorder, it’s like you’re fight or flight response is active all the time. Doing an activity that is so intense and produces so much adrenaline felt overwhelming.
Also it’s such a different environment. Cycling is very male dominant. There’s a ton of sexism and it’s really demoralizing and just not the sense of community that I found in the pole world.
How else is pole different?
I feel like pole is a lot more open-ended as far as what you want to learn, how you want to move and what energy you want your body to show. I think that’s really special and what makes it really different. When you’re talking about the healing process or self-care thing, to have that freedom, it’s a very rare opportunity for a lot of us.
Has pole changed your life in any other ways?
I think it’s really like, there’s things I’m not happy with but I just have to do what I want to do and it’s not always about choosing the path you kind of get funneled into. I hope that I can one day become a teacher because it’s just been so informative for me and I would love to share that with other women.
One more thing that I really love about the pole community: it’s not all young people. I was a ballerina for a while and in ballet it’s like, if you’re not to a certain level when you’re 18 then you’re not going to have a career. I know so many women who didn’t start pole until their mid 30s or after they had two children and now they’re incredible performers. I think that reminder that we can always renew ourselves and our age is not a limit in the way that society tells us it is is such an important thing to hear and see.
*Bailey has a performance background as a classical musician and studied the subject in graduate school at SUNY Purchase.