Exotic vs. Erotic: What’s Correct in the Pole Dance Community?

Exotic vs. Erotic: What’s Correct in the Pole Dance Community?

In January, Ecdysiast, the pole studio I attend in Portland, Oregon, decided to replace its usage of the word “exotic” with “erotic.” They released this statement:

“You may have noticed we’ve replaced all use of the word EXOTIC with EROTIC. We agree with many of you that the word exotic is offensive, racist and othering to specific groups of folks. We have listened to the community here at Ecdysiast and we stand with you. This is not new or some left-wing fringe school of thought, but rather mainstream and also the correct grammatical use of the word. We have heard our community and we stand with you. Stand with us and we can all stand united.

“Oxford Dictionary English Definition of the word EXOTIC: Originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country. ⠀

“Oxford Dictionary English Definition of the word EROTIC: Relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.⠀

“Here’s an excerpt from Glamour magazine: ‘The words we choose matter. And for minority groups that are feeling not so welcome in our very complicated cultural landscape right now, I would argue that it’s crucial to our sense of unity that everyone try harder to stop even small acts of racial marginalizing … And let’s just stop using exotic for people altogether, shall we?’

Before I delve further into the usage of the term “exotic” in pole dance, let me share a little bit about my experience with the word.

I’m Puerto Rican, but apparently my light skin, thick, curly light brown/blonde hair and hazel eyes make it difficult for people to know this. How do I know this? Because all my life people have told me that I look “exotic,” before trying to guess “what I am.” (Yes, this is exact phrasing people use before starting their guessing game while I stand uncomfortably by.)

Then, once they find out I’m Hispanic, they more often than not ask me to speak Spanish for them.

Most of the time, these comments are from people I barely know or from people who don’t know me at all.

Now, if you’ve never been called “exotic,” you may not understand why this term is so upsetting. It’s supposed to be a compliment, right? Since the person who calls me this can’t think of anyone else who looks like me?

Nope. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you being called exotic makes me feel like an outsider. Like my looks don’t compare to what people in American society deem “normal.”

It also makes me feel objectified, like I’m some sort of sexual curiosity, which I feel deeper when I see a person’s eyes flicker once they assume I can speak Spanish and, furthermore, that I will to them (spoiler alert: I can’t and won’t).

Highlighting a person’s features for being “different”—whether it’s touching a person of color’s hair without consent because it’s more textured than your own, likening a person’s skin tone to a flavor or food, or telling someone they’re attractive for their race—is insensitive at best, no matter how well-intentioned your comments or actions are. That includes calling someone “exotic.”

But back to the usage of the term in pole dance.

I tried to track down where usage of the word in pole dancing and stripping originated. The most comprehensive article I found was from The New York Times back in 2006, which says in early days, the term “exotic dancer” did not “denote the removal of clothing” when describing belly dancers, apache dancers, and other performers. But, as striptease became more popular in the 1930s, the term became increasingly unclear.

I encourage you to read the rest of the article for more insight, which brings us to where we are today. I believe we’ve strayed far enough from the roots of the term that it’s become unnecessary to use, and we’re right inside a “complicated cultural landscape,” as Glamour describes it, in which it has become offensive.

Replacing the term “exotic” with “erotic” not only makes more sense, in my opinion, to describe the heel-clacking, booty-bumping, floor-splitting style that we see in strip clubs and many pole dance studios today, but it eliminates any potentially exclusionary language.

But what about Russian exotic style? When it’s taught elsewhere in the world than Russia, it is indeed “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country,” or, in other words, the definition of exotic. But, if it’s called “Russian” exotic, clearly originating in Russia, do we really need to include the word “exotic”? Or can we just call it “Russian erotic”?

I’m all for switching the term “exotic” for “erotic” in any case, but as the pole community develops and we continue to pride ourselves on being inclusive, we should pause for dialogue every once in a while when it comes to the language we use and the actions we take in order to really live up to our own expectations.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments while I switch any prior usage of the word “exotic” in my writings. 😉

4 thoughts on “Exotic vs. Erotic: What’s Correct in the Pole Dance Community?”

  • Do you expect people from Russia to change their class names in order to spare some American feelings? I know this sounds insensitive. I am genuinely curious. It is after all, as you said, originating from a different country the very definition of the word ‘Exotic’.

    I am a WOC and as hurtful and annoying as I find it when someone refers to me as “exotic” I understand that words can have multiple meanings. They’re dictionaries out there that give different definitions than the one you listed. Definitions like “weird, strange, or interesting.” Now the definition of ‘Erotic’ is to arouse sexual desire. Is it fair for us as POC to say “No no no. The movement you’re doing is not interesting or weird. Your dancings’ intention is to arouse sexual desire.” Truly. Is this fair? How do we know that sexual desire is the dancers intention?

    I’m pole the word “Exotic” is referring to a type of dance movement. Not race or ethnicity. Just a thought.

    • Thanks for commenting, Caitlyn. I was interested in hearing what opposing views might be on this. I look at it this way: I believe greater groups of people in the world than just “some Americans” have been negatively affected by the word “exotic,” or something very similar. But even if just a few people find the word offensive, no matter the context, it’s enough for me to want to exclude it from my vocabulary.

      I understand that doing so may be inconvenient in the greater sense, but language is ever-evolving, and imagine where we would be today if we as a society were resistant to changing some of the words once used to describe people of color, which are now noted as incredibly offensive.

      When it comes to the multiple meanings of exotic, you’re right, but they still always revolve around being unusual or interesting. I feel like if that’s the case, you can say any form of dance is unusual or interesting, so why not pick a more defining term that is free from negative connotations? Especially if it is neither “exotic,” nor “erotic,” although, in studios, performances, and even competitions, I’ve known the “exotic” dance category to be most closely associated with sensuality and sexuality.

      • I have been described as exotic since I was a child due to my mixed ethnicities. I was not behaving sexually or dancing when people would “compliment” me- I just looked different than others and humans just really like being nosey and knowing why I looked the way I did. I think pole dance, or any dance, may be either exotic or erotic. I would describe an interesting style or signature movement as exotic. (Would dancers from Asia consider an American pole dancer with a contemporary flare exotic since there may be a stylistic difference?) Movement that is of a sexual nature can be described as erotic. Just because something is exotic does not necessarily mean it is erotic and vice versa. As far as the term exotic being offensive- I can understand that completely. I’m so used to it tho, I guess I just don’t care anymore nor listen- If others want to do away with the term, I support that. <3

        • Thanks for commenting, Monica! I think that’s where the issue gets murky–the word “erotic” may not always fit in place of the word “exotic.” I think it’s very important to have this conversation however, so we can hear how people in this community react to the word and if they indeed find it offensive and believe there should be a substitute. Thanks again for contributing to the dialogue! <3

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