"Burn" (Hamilton) Pole Dance by Val Oliphant

Dancer and Choreographer: Val Oliphant

Song: "Burn" from Hamilton the Musical

Thanks for reading my first post! There is so much to talk about with each piece, it was hard to narrow it down. I tried to write my thoughts out while watching, so that it goes kind of chronologically with the video. If you have time, I'd love any feedback you have in the comments! 

This was my first performance after I moved to NYC to pursue working in dance full-time. I had been teaching at incrediPOLE for a month, and this is from our Halloween showcase. Studio showcases are such a fun experience because it feels like performing from the comfort of your own home- you are familiar with the space and know at least 1/3 of the audience. Everyone is so supportive because they see you practicing and learning on a regular basis. It's extra exciting when you see someone master a move you've watched them struggling with. You can hear the whole audience go wild. 

I grew up doing musical theater, so moving to NYC felt like achieving a small part of my childhood dream of being on Broadway (albeit this is like off-off-off-off-off Broadway). When I first moved here, I lived at 140th street and worked at 27th. Every morning I would listen to the Hamilton soundtrack while biking down the Hudson River Park bike path (a truly gorgeous ride), singing my heart out as the wind whipped through my hair. 

When performing, I try to infuse my movement with genuine emotion and feeling. I've never been cheated on like Eliza was, but I was in a long-distance relationship at the time of this dance. It sounds kind of melodramatic to compare the two, but long distance can be really hard- waiting by the phone, constantly checking for updates, and trying to plan your life around Skype dates. Each misunderstanding adds up into feeling disconnected and isolated. I channeled the sadness of missing my partner into this piece. I imagined each letter I spread out was a phone call, and the crumpled one was when we had planned on having a call, but my partner ended up working late and missed it. Something as small as a missed call can feel like a punch in the gut, which was why I gripped my stomach. I think a lot of people feel their emotions in the stomach, so I wanted to include that in the dance.

Pema Chödrön says "determination means to use every challenge you meet as an opportunity to open your heart and soften, determined to not withdraw." I think of this quote when it comes to pole dancing and costume choices. I really wanted to wear a dress, but it's impossible to pole in chiffon, as having any clothing in the way will cause you to slip. The dress looked beautiful for the floor work, but once I wanted to move up the pole, I knew I would have to take it off. Undressing always seems to be a crowd pleaser, but there's also something vulnerable about it that I think sometimes goes unnoticed. It takes bravery to stand up there, take your clothes off, and not withdraw.

My mom is a costumer, so I love making my own costumes. When I took off the dress, I wanted it to show Eliza's transition from sadness to anger. I put a fire patch on my pole shorts and the lyrics "the world seemed to burn, burn", and then performed a very slow hip circle showing it off, as a kind of rubbing it in Alexander's face.

Honestly, a lot of the choreography in this piece is very literal- like miming reading and searching or using prayer hands for the cathedral. Pole dance moves are all named, so when I get stuck while choreographing, I make a list of moves whose names fit the theme of my piece. This is a great way to get out of any ruts and to explore new moves, or revisit ones I've forgotten about. For example, there is a pole move called "Hello Boys" that I use when the lyrics say "you told the whole world how you brought this girl into our bed." There's also a pole move called Icarus that I really wanted to do, but hadn't been able to nail 100% of the time while practicing, so it got cut.

Another unique aspect of pole dancing is the delicate balance of stickiness and slipperiness, as some moves require a lot of stick and others a bit of slide. Your ability to grip the pole varies significantly depending on how sweaty you are, the temperature inside the room, and more. You have to be ready to change your choreography at a moment's notice if you are unable to stick a move you had originally planned. During the run through before the show, my hands were entirely way too sweaty, so I borrowed someone's pole gloves for the show. However, the gloves were actually too sticky- they don't allow you to slide at all. As a result, I had to completely redo the part of the piece starting at "icarus" on the fly. You can see that I'm unable to slide my hand to transition into a move called the extended butterfly. I was able to catch up to my original choreography by the time the lyrics say "how they perceive you," so it all turned out well!

The pole has two settings: static, which means the pole is stationary, or spin, which means the pole rotates on its own. You can see this in my performance when I move over to the second pole, which is set to spin. My adrenaline caused me to give myself more of a kick off than normal, which made the pole spin incredibly fast when I pulled into the Michelle Kwan inspired figure skater move. When I went to invert (flip upside down), the momentum was working against me and I had to struggle to get my butt over my head. Luckily, I was able to hook my ankle on the pole and pull myself over that way, so I could continue with my planned choreography. 

I ended this dance with a move called the Jade, which is one of my favorite tricks. When you are on spin pole, the more your body is pulled into the pole, the faster you spin. Conversely, when you extend out, the pole slows down. Doing a jade on spin is one of the most exhilarating experiences- when you extend your legs out into the full split, the world around you slows down in such a peaceful way. It reminds me of the moment right after you deploy your parachute when skydiving- everything is rushing by you so fast it's really hard to concentrate on seeing anything around you and all you can do is go through the motions you practiced. Then you pull your chute and the world goes completely silent, you feel everything slow down, and you can even enjoy the landscape around and below you. I always try to sneak in a jade on spin in any performance I do because I absolutely love this feeling. 

Thanks again for reading my post! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, and if you're a dancer and want to tell your story, I'd love to interview you!

Val OliphantComment