How Alberta’s pole and aerial artists connect with nature
As you walk through the beautiful woods in part of the Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies, you hear a sound in the distance.
Could it be other hikers? A wild animal?
As you listen closely, you notice that the noise more resembles shouting and cheering. What could it be? Curiosity gets the best of you and you decide to follow the noise. A couple more steps and a quick peek around the bend, and a spectacle stops you right in your tracks.
In the wild, sometimes you see things you might not expect.
By the shimmering water, a large black circle sits on the shore line, small waves lapping at the edges of the stage. On that stage is a dancer, twirling on incredibly high heels. A crowd in front of them cheers on and shouts encouragement at the dancer, as they seemingly float while spinning around the long pole in the middle of the stage.
Few Albertans have witnessed the phenomenon of an outdoor performance by the students and instructors of Calgary-based R.Song Studios. The members of the studio have been training in the art of pole dancing and aerial art for years, coming together as a group since the studio’s opening in January 2019.
Robbie Song (he/him) renovated and opened a world-class pole studio right in the heart of Calgary, his home for many years. It’s at R.Song Studios where students can find strength, the ability to dance without judgment, and each other in a welcoming, inclusive community.
“Our studio has the best vibe out of all the ones I’ve been in,” says Kim (she/her), one of the highly skilled instructors at R.Song. “It feels so supportive and there is a community here. There’s space for our creativity and different strengths.”
To highlight and showcase the talent of the students and instructors, Song often organizes photoshoots, either in his own studio or with the impressive scenery of Alberta as the background.
Past outdoor locations have included Upper Kananaskis Lake in Kananaskis Country and Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, in the middle of the Albertan winter. The studio members also performed on Ghost Lake, where Song put a pole on the back of his boat while an audience on pool floats watched dancers and cheered them on.
The photoshoots are always fantastic. Everyone leaves with a great experience and a plethora of photographs for professional use and keepsakes.
The photos not only document the dancer’s accomplishments, their strengths, and flexibility, but they are also a vessel to convey emotion. In fact, many studio members find passion in pole dancing and aerials, and develop a deep, personal connection to the art form.
“Dancing is a grounding thing for me, because I’m using my body to express myself non-verbally,” says The Lady on Fire (she/her), a fire performer based in Calgary.
“Pole dancing creates more strain on my body, but I get to use my whole body as my art, compared to the other things I do, where the fire is the focus. Pole dancing has taught me to bend instead of break,” she says. “It’s teaching me to build tolerance for more and more. When to take a break, and to listen to your body because your emotions and your body are connected.”
“Sometimes I’ll have a concept, a narrative, an emotion, or an idea that I’m trying to embody,” says Kim. “But mostly I just try to really open myself so I can invite the audience to share an experience with me, so that I can connect with them on a heart level.”
“There is a quietness to the outdoors that is very calming. There’s space to breathe.”— Jess, a pole dancing student
Albertans have connected with the outdoors in numerous ways; whether it be hiking, kayaking, or climbing, there are methods for everyone to explore nature. Our environment is teeming with diversity, so why not the activities?
For the members of R.Song Studios, being photographed outdoors enhances their art, their expression, and the ways they connect to their bodies and each other as they share this space.
“Every time the weather is different, and the environment creates a certain world,” says Ana (she/her), an instructor at R.Song Studios. “Weather reflects how I feel, it reflects how my art is created.”
“The scenery is beautiful. In the studio, there’s always mirrors. I’m always checking out my form and lines, but in the outdoors, you can just enjoy what you do,” Jess (she/her), says as she looks towards the gorgeous backdrop of the Spray Lakes Reservoir. “There is a quietness to the outdoors that is very calming. There’s space to breathe.”
“I think it’s cool to see how far we’ve come evolutionarily and what weird things we came up with against the background of something ancient (vs. new age),” The Lady on Fire says. “This is a big part of our province, and to be able to show the world where I live and my art is so important.”
“I’m proud and I think it’s fun when people walk by and see what we do, they’re surprised and curious,” Kim says with a smile. “I like bringing weirdness into the world, so it’s another way to do that.”
From these artists’ testimonials, there are parallels to pole dancing and other recreational activities often done in the Eastern Slopes. The mountains and lakes serve as a motivator to move their bodies and gain energy from their surroundings.
Their art goes against rigidity, this notion that there’s only one way to connect with our backyard.
As The Lady on Fire aptly says, “Don’t be afraid to take a risk and go out into the world that you’ve never stepped foot in before. You can slowly push your boundaries in how you express yourself and don’t forget that there’s magic in the outdoors, around all of us.”
Photography provided by Patrick Chan and Shahrukh. This article was written by Chanwoori (Diana) Jeong, one of Y2Y’s 2022 story gatherers. These four unique people are sharing personal stories, memories and places related to the special landscapes of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, often perspectives that are underrepresented in mainstream media. Read other stories in this series.
Header photo: Akvile dancing, by Patrick Chan.