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.