Not the standard model: the physics of pole dancing

A University of Sheffield scientist is using pole dancing to make his subject more accessible

April 24, 2014

Source: Alamy

Get a grip: lessons from a practitioner demonstrate it’s all about friction

A Sheffield scientist has found a way to make his subject more accessible by delivering a talk on “physics, feminism and pole dancing”.

Matthew Mears, a teaching fellow in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield, tackled the subjects for a charity event called Inspiration for Life, held last month in memory of the Sheffield physicist Tim Richardson. Dr Richardson, who in 2011 put on a gruelling 24-hour lecture marathon for Children in Need, died of cancer, aged only 48, last year.

Inspiration for Life consisted of 48 successive half-hour talks by academics. “It was mostly quite light-hearted,” Dr Mears recalled, “with experts talking about how to be a 16th-century Roman spy or someone from the fertility clinic talking about their experiences. There’s usually a personal touch about why we do our work.”

Since a friend introduced him to it two years ago, Dr Mears has himself become an enthusiast for pole fitness training but has also got used to being asked questions such as “Is it just people shaking themselves and gyrating round a pole?” and “Do you work at Spearmint Rhino?”.

In reality, he said, he is taught by an accredited professional in a licensed studio and “has never met anyone who does it for fitness who also works as a stripper or at a gentlemen’s club”. It was this that gave him the idea for his “Spinny Science” talk.

Physics, he told the audience, can help us answer the questions: “How do pole dancers move so fast?” and “How do they not fall off?” But what could it contribute to the “fitness versus sexualisation” debate, as exemplified by the 2013 row over whether to ban a student pole fitness society at Swansea University because of claims that the activity was “inextricably linked” to the sex industry. After all, “if pole dancing isn’t sexual, why is there so much skin on show?”

In response to that challenge, Dr Mears asked: “Can first-year physics provide a possible explanation?” He displayed a series of equations demonstrating that “the coefficient of static friction describes the maximum retardation force before an object can slide”.

And, just in case that wasn’t clear enough, he also “asked a first-year physics student who had never done it before to demonstrate friction – climbing the pole with gloves – and spinning. He’s a bit of a joker in lectures anyway, and was more than happy to make a fool of himself.”

All this, Dr Mears’ talk concluded, only went to show that “skin provides better friction than clothing…With a bit of physics knowledge, we can see that pole dancing may not be as sexualised as it first seems.”

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