Are Swedish six-year-olds learning pole dancing?
A Stockholm gym owner said to be offering kids ‘strip aerobics’ classes tells spiked that it’s her accusers who have dodgy ideas.
Swedes have long had a reputation for sexual proclivity. But have things now gone too far? After all, a recent shock headline on the front cover of the Stockholm Metro revealed that there are now strip dancing classes here for children as young as six.
At the heart of the chic borough of Östermalm, home to some of Stockholm’s most well-groomed ladies and Chihuahuas, a gym specialising in ‘strip aerobics’ is teaching children how to dance around poles. Or at least that’s what Metro claimed.
But visiting Östermalm’s Dancing Queen studio in the wake of the controversy that ensued from Metro‘s ‘revelation’, the only sign of dodgy dealings I noted was the remnants of graffiti sprayed on the gym’s entrance. Enraged by the Metro article, a group called Nordisk Ungdom (Nordic Youth) had vandalised the family-run gym, spraying the slogan ‘Let children be children’ on the door. The youths filmed their action and spread the video online, declaring that this was their ‘first warning’.
Inside the Dancing Queen studio, the atmosphere was convivial. The gym owner, Petra Larsson, seemed to know the names of all the gym members arriving for a Tuesday evening class of ‘Strip Chair’, a dance form inspired by variety shows. Women in their twenties to forties dropped in, dressed in sweatpants, loose-fitting t-shirts and trainers. By the reception, Larsson’s husband was looking after their toddler son while she chatted to members. Twenty minutes into the Strip Chair class, the ladies looked exhausted, sweating and panting as they stepped up and down the chairs, swinging their arms this way and that. It looked like hard work, but not particularly enticing.
So was this clean-cut, women’s centre-like atmosphere simply a façade, a cover-up for a seedy sex club taking advantage of little children? After all, isn’t Kids Acro, as Larsson named the gym’s Friday afternoon children’s classes, all about sexualising kids’ play, about putting kids in adult roles, teaching them behaviour that is aimed at pleasing adult men?
Larsson showed me the place where it all happened – an airy room with steel poles neatly lined up in rows. It’s starkly lit in the evenings but during the day light streams in from ceiling windows. ‘When my sister’s and friends’ children visit the studio, they go straight for the poles’, Larsson told me. ‘They swing around them and climb like little monkeys. They love it!’
One day, after Larsson’s sister’s children begged to be allowed to come back and play, she decided to ask a friend, a professional children’s gymnastics instructor, to run a series of Friday classes for them and their friends. The parents chipped in to cover the instructor’s expenses and were allowed to sit in during the gymnastics classes, as is common at children’s activities. No other activities took place at the gym while the children were there. The kids got to choose the music themselves and, according to Larsson, it was all fun and games. They ran around, did somersaults, climbed the poles and had fun.
As Larsson later wrote on a Swedish opinion website, ‘this is what kids do when they’re allowed to be kids. Kids Acro has nothing to do with individual adults’ (and apparently Nordic youths’) twisted fantasies… A child who sees a pole thinks “fun”, while it has turned out that many adults… think “sex”. So, I wonder, with whom does the problem lie?’
The Metro journalist had not bothered to visit the Dancing Queen studios, but got the idea for his ‘exposé’ after interviewing Larsson about an event called ‘Battle of the Poles’. It took place at a fancy Stockholm nightclub and was promoted through a ‘flash mob’ on the underground. A bunch of dancers surprised commuters by suddenly swinging around the poles in the train carriages. Larsson told the journalists that women of all ages, as well as men and even children, took classes at Dancing Queen.
Larsson insists that there is nothing unusual about gyms using their premises for children’s activities. ‘All gyms that offer pole-dancing classes have empty hours. It’s very common to fill these with children’s activities, but I have never heard of any gym asking children to act sexy or to rub up against poles.’
Underlying the attitude that kids should not go anywhere near a place that offers evening pole-dancing classes – even if in a non-sexualised atmosphere – is a presumption that those who engage in this form of exercise are morally compromised. ‘Some people think that women who choose to dance around a pole are doing it to get money stuck down their panties’, Larsson told me, ‘but our classes are about exercising and having fun’. Larsson insists that Dancing Queen has nothing to do with the seedy underground clubs that many people think of when they hear the word ‘pole dance’.
‘Our members are strong women’, said Larsson. ‘One instructor is in medical school, another is training as a lawyer and another is a pre-school teacher… These are women who know what they want and those who criticise us for pole dancing clearly haven’t tried it out themselves.’
Apparently, some people have a problem with such unconventional exercise forms becoming mainstream. Larsson told me that at the start of her career she used to get a lot of flak for using the term ‘strip aerobics’. But eventually she managed to convince the owner of the gym where she worked to put on some trial classes. The owner, Daniel Westling – who later went on to marry the Swedish crown princess – participated in a class and apparently told Larsson afterwards: ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had!’
Another of Larsson’s students was a press officer at the Swedish parliament and brought Larsson in to run classes at the gym there. Larsson reveals that several Swedish politicians – male and female – attend her classes. The most popular one is Strip Chair, though in the parliament gym schedule it’s listed as ‘Dance Mix’. Either perversity goes all the way to the top of Swedish society, or these classes are just harmless fun.
So, as it turns out, the controversy around Kids Acro was caused by a blend of shoddy journalism and a presumption that women who sign up for Strip Aerobics classes are so duped by male chauvinism that they’re even willing to groom children a sex toys. It’s that poisonous presumption that is really perverse.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.
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