"This Woman's Work" Pole Dance by Khristen Pahler
Dancer and Choreographer: Khristen Pahler
Song: This Woman’s Work by Maxwell
Video: Alloy Images
Many thanks to Khristen for sharing this beautiful and raw story, and for creating a space where others can do the same. I wrote this in her voice based on our interview about her piece:
This dance is a tribute to my mother, Sharon- a beautiful human being who passed away from breast cancer on October 15, 2009. My mom and I were incredibly close. I didn’t even go out with my friends on the weekends, I went out with my mom. She lived with breast cancer for 10 years, with a little break in between. She was in remission and almost made it to the 2 year, all clear mark when they discovered it had returned to the same breast. She lived for 5 more years before it spread to her bones.
I floated through life the first year after her death, just living day to day to day. Then it’s like there was this trigger and all of a sudden it really set in. I was like “this person is really gone, this person doesn’t get to come to my child’s birthday, this person won’t be at these major events in my life.” I fell into a major depression. I couldn’t get out of bed for 3 weeks- no showers, nothing, it was gross. I couldn’t function. My husband was so supportive, but I didn’t want him or my kids to see me like that, so I checked myself into a mental health center. After that, I started going through the motions again.
Starting my dance and fitness studio, Twisted Bodies, with my best friend, Carissa, was what really pulled me over the hump of that depression. Now, I get to work with breast cancer patients and survivors- to give them a place where they can cry and work out and come for support. Making them a little bit better has really helped me in turn. It’s still hard; there are still days where my first thought is to call my mom and tell her all about the new pole trick I mastered. She would be proud of the work I do now.
This piece has evolved over time to be bigger than just my story about my mom. It is still not exactly what I want it to be. I want to revisit it. It was a very frustrating creation process, because the emotions do get in the way.
The first time I performed it, at Pole Con, it was about just me and my mom. I imagined she was in the audience, and I performed for her. Taking my journey out there on stage was a form of therapy for me. The Pole Con performance starts with me wrapped around the pole. I had this image of my mom curled around the toilet on the floor after her chemo treatments, and there was just nothing I could do to help her. My mom was a caretaker to her last day. She never let people know she was in pain. She always pulled through. She would be throwing up and at the same time telling me she just needed a few minutes to pull herself together to go shoe shopping with me. Just 3 weeks before she passed, she drove 12 hours to attend my little sister’s wedding. She knew she was dying by that point, but she pushed through and didn’t tell anyone. I wish she would have just let us take care of her more.
Some days, I channeled my emotions into my dance. The first part- the first minute- was the most emotional for me. It was the hardest- the diagnosis and drawing focus to what the performance was really about. After I drop the microfilm, I step behind the pole to pray, and then my hands come down, and just that little spot would get me - I would cry. I just couldn’t get past that part no matter how many times I rehearsed it. I would have to choke it down, because it’s hard to dance and cry at the same time. Once I started moving, I felt a little bit more free, like I could breathe. Art is therapy for me. If there is something I need to work out, movement helps me process and express my emotions.
It took me 2 years to put this piece together. I’d play with it and choreograph 30 seconds, and then I would need to step away for 3 months. During that 2 year process, more people I knew had experiences with breast cancer, and as I helped them through their journeys, I incorporated their stories into mine. When you have a piece that you keep stepping away from, like with this one, you have to ask yourself "Why do I keep walking away from it? What am I missing here? Do I need to change my music? Do I need someone to come in and watch me? Do I need a little push?"
When I got stuck choreographing, Carissa, my best friend and business partner, would give me that push I needed. She’d say “stop putting all these big tricks in, this piece is more about the experience.” And then I thought about it and was like “would a woman with breast cancer really be doing a rainbow marchenko?” So I simplified my choreography and I took out my big show-off moves that didn’t signify anything. This was challenging since my natural style is more athletic, with flips and tricks. I don’t normally move in a slow or dramatic way. I don’t like to sit with my emotions, I like to process things and put them away quickly. Performing these movements slowly made me stay in the moment longer, which made me connect to it more genuinely, to express sadness rather than anger, to be soft.
I was originally using the Kate Bush version of the song “This Woman’s Work” because I related to the scenario in the movie She’s Having a Baby, which it was written for. The lyrics are about the moment a husband learns the lives of his wife and unborn child are in danger. I felt like that must have been what my dad felt like, where he’s completely helpless and there’s nothing he can do to stop this disease. But my movement patterns didn’t work with Kate Bush, it just felt really flat. There was no emotion behind it. I found the Maxwell version of the song and it flowed much better. There is more range in his voice, a deeper emotion felt in the way he sings it.
While I was working on the piece, Carissa’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I felt that I needed to bring that into the story. So that is her mom’s real mammogram on stage during my second time performing, this time at the Pole Sport Organization’s 2017 Southwest Regional Competition (PSO). I wanted to convey how you feel when you are diagnosed, the helplessness you have when your body is fighting you. The first time I performed the piece, at Pole Con, was harder because Carissa’s dad had died very suddenly 2 days before. I couldn’t even draw focus to our moms' stories because I was already crying about losing her dad. I had co-created the piece with her, so I wanted her to see it. When I looked back at my Pole Con video, I wanted my movements to be softer. My mom was very soft on the inside. She was the one people called when they needed help, and she would be there whether she knew them for a minute or for a year and a half. This is a quality she passed on to me, and that I see in my two daughters.
I felt better about the quality of movement and my connection with the piece in the PSO performance, even with my flub where I almost ate the pole. I was performing with a shoulder injury and it buckled, so I pushed out too far and then slipped on the microfilm! I missed 45 seconds of my choreography and had to give up on the handspring sequence I had planned. I knew I had to keep going, and I have moves I know well in my repertoire, so I freestyled them. As a pole dancer, it’s critical you always have a backup plan- something that you know really well and feel comfortable adding in- so it didn’t throw me off. (editor’s note: When Val was watching it, she felt the flub actually fit really well with the piece. It felt symbolic of having to keep going and pull yourself up when you stumble.)
There are so many people out there who are better pole dancers, and that’s fine because I’m trying to create for myself and do what makes me feel good about myself and my body. This piece is ultimately about breast cancer and the audience can take what they will from it, as long as they feel something. I didn’t want it to be about death, but I wanted to show the struggle between fighting to survive and wanting to give up when the pain felt overwhelming. My mom would say “I’m not dying from breast cancer, I’ve gotten to live with it for 10 years.” That really helped me see how strong she was. I wanted this piece to help me show that strength to others, and to connect with them on a deeper, emotional level.
If you would like to work with Khristen, she can be found at Twisted Bodies in Denton, TX. She loves working with beginners and non-movers, who have so much to discover and amazing milestones to come! When choreographing, she likes to have a collaborative process- expect the unexpected and discovering movement that works for your body. She also offers myofascial release and pilates classes, working with many trauma and breast cancer survivors. Follow her on instagram here.