Stories of Impact: Monica Kay
Monica Kay shares how pole dancing helped her through a low point in her life due to extreme vegan activism, plus how she balances her vegan lifestyle with pole dancing and positivity today.
Name: Monica Kay a.k.a Vegan Pole Dancer
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Pole dancing for: 8 years
Training studio: Luscious Maven and occasionally The Vertitude and BeSpun
What got you into pole dancing?
I used to do street performance in New Orleans with a friend of mine, and his wife is a Bourbon Street stripper. Every time I’d go to their house, she’d show me a trick on their pole. When she’d try to teach me, I couldn’t do anything she did—everything looked so easy, but when I tried to do it I had no strength, nothing, I couldn’t even do a pull up, so that was the spark.
Shortly after you started stripping yourself. What followed?
Most strip clubs are not interested in tricks, but I just really loved the artistry and grace [of pole dancing], and one day I came across Leigh Ann Reilly’s YouTube videos at her first pole studio. I had never seen anybody dance like that and just thought it was amazing. Then somebody shared with me a Felix Cane video and it blew my mind. I realized, “oh, this doesn’t just have to be for a strip club. This can be something that is almost like aerial ballet.”
You’ve since moved on to burlesque and pole dancing performing outside of the strip club, but before you started any pole dancing, what was your life like emotionally and psychologically?
I was a completely different person. I feel like the Monica Kay before pole dancing was very non-confrontational. If something was not agreeable to me in my work setting or relationships, I was kind of the person who just wouldn’t voice my opinion. In general I was kind of a shy person and was also not comfortable in my own body.
I think veganism is what really pushed me out of my comfort zone as far as shyness goes, because I knew I really wanted to be an activist even though I was extremely shy—I just knew I had to do something.
Did pole dancing accentuate any of those feelings?
Yes, when I started pole dancing shortly thereafter, it really helped propel me into an area of being comfortable with my body and able to approach anybody. I wasn’t afraid of anybody who I didn’t know like I was in my younger years, and I feel like a lot of that has to do with the fact that when you learn pole dance, you get so much upper body strength and carry yourself in a confident posture. When you have a posture of confidence your inside—mentally and spiritually—will also exercise confidence.
You were vegan for four years before you started pole dancing, and you had previously mentioned that vegan activism became draining on your mental health. Can you share a bit more about that?
I think it’s common for a lot of people to go to extremes. Pole dancers—I see it in my students, I see it in my peers—want to bend as far as they can, climb higher than they’ve ever climbed. It’s always going to the extreme, and there’s not a lot of emphasis on balancing it about and maybe taking a rest day or just practicing their non-dominant side. There’s a very valid reason why having balance in our life is very important, physically as well as mentally.
So, when I first started doing activism I had almost like a panic attack. I couldn’t believe all of the horrors of factory farming, even with humanely raised animals. What’s going on behind slaughterhouse walls is the scariest, most horrible horror movie you could ever see, but it’s totally real and it happens every second of every day of every year. I freaked out out about it and felt like I had to tell everybody, so I became the most annoying vegan in Louisiana. I alienated friends, coworkers, relatives, because all that I thought I could do was talk to them about it. I would send people photographs, videos and pamphlets, and I think I went to the extreme with that.
Earthlings had also just come out and it covers all aspects of veganism, not just the food but circus animals and sea life, and I was watching it everyday because I felt like it was a way for me to educate myself and be prepared when conversations came up. Not only was I watching it everyday, but I was wearing it on a DVD player that I had fastened on my chest as I walked around the French Quarter and tried to engage people in conversations about it.
As a result of me delving in head first on this abyss of activism, without any kind of joy—there was no day where I watched a funny movie and laughed, there was no day that I laughed with friends—I was pretty much all alone. All I bombarded my eyes, ears and brain with was animal suffering.
What was the result of your activism?
Some people had very positive responses to the information I gave them but others did not, and one tragic night I handed a pamphlet to this man on his way to work and looking back I think I probably should not have even made eye contact with him. He was wearing a chef’s uniform and was going to work and immediately after I handed him the pamphlet he became enraged and I felt the fear of death come over me. I thought he was physically going to beat me up. He was so enraged that I handed him this pamphlet about veganism and I think he took it personally. He was very much in my personal space and I had never been so scared in my life. That was the last night I did any leafleting and then it kind of started this vicious cycle of feeling like I was not doing anything while all of these atrocities were happening.
What happened next?
I just kind of ended up holing myself up in my house and that’s basically what happened when I went to an extreme with my activism and didn’t balance it out with days off, experiencing joy or positivity or something that didn’t have to do with animals.
You said at one point it even made you feel suicidal.
Yeah, so I’ve had bouts of depression since I was a preteen as a result of some sexual abuse that I was exposed to when I was 13, so I had suicidal thoughts at a young age without even knowing what depression was at that time.
It’s normal to experience a fluctuation of emotions and some low days every once in a while, but I think it’s [dangerous] if you kind of go to the dark side of your depression. During my first few years of being vegan and my attempts at activism, because I was so bombarded with sadness all the time, I had these terrible thoughts of suicide. Everything seemed at that time—this was 12 years ago—impossible, like there was no way that anybody was ever going to listen to me and I was really just spinning my wheels.
Right around that time, I started pole dancing and it was a distraction from what was going on with animals, and that’s what allowed me to find joy again.
Would you say pole dancing became therapeutic?
Absolutely. In yoga, they say inversions are mood elevators, so whenever you can get your head below your hips it switches the flow of your blood. I feel like there are very similar things with yoga and pole dancing: there are inversions in both, breathing is extremely important in both and also keeping the facial muscles relaxed and calm in uncomfortable positions.
So pole dancing was a distraction for me, and it provided me some exercise and got me upside down, which can help change the way your emotions are. I could notice improvement in my strength everyday, and knowing there’s progress somewhere in your life can be a very rewarding thing.
I wasn’t seeing any progress in animal activism for me. None of my friends were converting to veganism and in fact I was losing friends, but the opposite happened when I pole danced. Not only was I making friends with people in the clubs, but when I started training at pole studios I had instructors who believed in me and I learned knew things from my peers. Joining the pole dance community was something that was extremely beneficial to me in terms of my depression.
Does pole have that same impact on you today?
Absolutely. Everything is still happening that was happening 12 years ago. There are a lot of improvements that have been made in the way that veganism is expanding, but I still see tragic things happening. I see it on my Instagram feed every morning and it’s a terrible way to start the day, but learning a new trick or teaching somebody a new trick is kind of a way to leave that stuff out of my brain and focus on something that is uplifting and joyous.
How do you manage your vegan activism and lifestyle now without going back to the place you were in before?
I’ve realized the importance of balance in my life. I have to take a break from looking at things with animals because otherwise it becomes too overwhelming. I’ve definitely kicked back on my activism a lot and I’ve diverted my energy into doing a different kind of activism. Everything I post has the word vegan in it and everytime I do a show they introduce me as the “Vegan Pole Dancer.” I’m just trying to bombard the bubble that’s around me and let everything people see and associate me with have to do with veganism. If people have any questions for me, I answer them as respectfully as I can and if they don’t ask me any questions I don’t say anything about it. I keep my interactions with other people in the community about pole, but if they do ask me a question I give them an answer.
I think because I’ve switched my activism I’m able to keep my emotions at a middle-level range and emotions with others on good terms, whether they’re vegan or not. I don’t think it’s wise to become the kind of vegan that alienates everybody. It doesn’t really help the situation. I don’t want to become that person because it’s not healthy for myself and I think it just kind of turns people off.
It sounds like pole dance has really helped shaped the last few years of your life.
It has and I’m so glad it has because I feel like I’m the happiest now than I’ve ever been in my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’d just like to send a message out that what’s more important than listening to what I say or what anybody else says is learning about nutrition and about the intricacies of your own body.
I 100 percent feel that a vegan diet—a plant-based diet—is the gateway to optimal health and I believe that for every human on the planet, but that doesn’t mean what I eat daily is going to work for somebody else. Self-education is probably one of the most important things you can do, because you live in your own body, so you should learn about it.
I think being curious about a vegan diet and educating yourself and being tenacious about it is important. If you try veganism for a few months and it doesn’t work it out, don’t put it in the past completely. It’s good to keep revisiting it.
Photos courtesy of Monica Kay, via @vegan.pole.dancer