Pole as Metaphorical Mother Part 2:
Secure Bases and Paradoxical Spaces
Amy H. Olson, LCSW, CEDS-S
One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical…for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity.”
― Soren Kierkegaard
This is the second essay of a three-part series examining the use of the chrome pole as part of a Movement-Based Expressive Arts Practice, through the lens of Psychoanalytic and Attachment Theory.
In 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an interactive installation in the outdoor courtyard titled Pole Dance. It consisted of a 16 x 16-foot grid of 30 pivoting poles, connected by bungee cords, and contained by netting. The fiberglass poles were flexible and able to pivot, but given structure and stability by the tension in the bungee cords and netting.
The mission of the architect was to invite visitors to experience “repose and revelry” through interaction with the environment. Repose referring to a state of rest, sleep or quiet. Revelry, with its root in the French word rebel - referring to merrymaking. Visitors played with poles that transformed movement into sound. They bounced large colorful balls and rocked in hammocks. Misters, pools and pulls all added to the playfulness. The environment, when acted upon, oscillated between periods of rest and periods of chaos — the paradox of resiliency and instability.
A statement from the architect:
“On one hand, we needed the structure to be resilient enough to withstand the environment, on the other, it needed to be sensitive enough to gently dance with the wind and with visitors play” (Idenberg, 2010).
The architects of Pole Dance compelled visitors to engage in the architecture of being human. We must be resilient - stable and sturdy enough to withstand the environment, yet also be flexible enough to be creative, to play and adapt. Alternating states of rest and contemplation with chaos and energy, renew us and keep life interesting. The ability to embrace these states of paradox, repose, and revelry, form the parameters of emotional health and balance.
Perhaps titled tongue-in-cheek, “Pole Dance” the installation, shares attributes of the experience of pole based movement. The pole’s solid, sturdy construction provides balance, stability, and a place of respite during movement - a “secure base” returned to time and time again. At the same time, it offers an opportunity for movements that feel dizzying, unstable and exciting both on and off the pole.
In previous essays, I proposed that pole based movement links us to early developmental experiences, feelings, and relationships. Freestyle, improvisational movers, who move in a space with poles, and with other movers, illustrate the dilemma of the developing child, and the human predicament in general. We are always moving between two poles: connectedness and self-exploration (Lee, 2018).
Attachment Theory, the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, teaches us how critical it is for a child to experience a sense of “secure base” with her caregiver. Mother represents constancy, reliability, and stability. She is at the center of early explorations. It is her sturdiness that allows the developing self of the child to unfold in an unobstructed way. Early attachments form the blueprint for how a child will care for herself, as well as inform all future relationships.
"No form of behaviour is accompanied by stronger feeling than is attachment behaviour. The figures towards whom it is directed are loved, and their advent is greeted with joy. So long as a child is in the unchallenged presence of a principal attachment-figure…he feels secure. A threat of loss creates anxiety…sorrow..(and) arouses anger (Bowlby, 1969, p. 209).
When early attachment bonds rupture through neglect, abuse, or traumatic separations, it may result in excessive clinging, emotional detachment, depression, anxiety, anger, as well as addictive and self-destructive behavior.
There is good news. Harm to the brain by relational ruptures can be healed, albeit with consistent effort, in adulthood. The healing balm is the development of reliable, safe, sturdy attachment relationships. Friends, lovers, teachers, mentors, and psychotherapists - all may aid in this reparation. Also, a willingness to assume the role of one's own good resonating mother is crucial in this process. Creative movement and expressive art practices give us a hands-on, sensory-based vehicle to increase our vitality, and sense of internal safety and security.
Breaking down the attachment styles is complicated, and attachment styles are not "things" - they are concepts, like any other psychological construct. For simplicity, we may think in terms of polarities. There is greater fluidity when imagining oneself on a continuum between two poles - connectedness and self-exploration. It also provides a spatial reference that we can imagine between two people. On the dance floor, it refers to the space between a mover and her pole, or between two movers.
In the installation Pole Dance, visitors were encouraged to move flexibly between elements of repose and revelry, creatively responding to the environment. Flexibility is a desirable state whether the context is one's, relationship with another or our movements on the dance floor. “At any particular developmental moment for adults, self-identity will be defined in terms of the relationship between the poles of autonomy and connection. Sometimes the centre of gravity will be more towards the pole of autonomy, in which case self-identity is defined more in terms of interior experience…other times the centre of gravity will be more towards the pole of connection….self-surrender, with a reduced attunement to interior experience” (Lee, 2018, pp. 277-279).
The passage between these poles is murky, full of obstacles, shadows. How does it look when we are unable to be flexible and creative? The shadow side of autonomy is defiance - which may emerge as a controlling, criticizing, competitive and emotionally distant stance. The shadow side of connection is compliance - emerging as heightened other-focus, a lack of spontaneity, overly eager to please, and a fear of abandonment (Lee, p. 282). We see these in ourselves both on and off the dance floor.
Our attachment style is stored in our tissues and emerges in our dance. It is not there for another to interpret or analyze - it is for the mover to reflect upon and make meaning. Only you know the moment, hand on the pole, when you did not let go, full of uncertainty of what was to come next. Or the moment when you wanted to engage with another mover, but the vulnerability, the risk of rejection felt too high. Perhaps there was a moment you needed to find your secure base, back against the pole, but felt pressure to match the energy or style of another mover. Each of these moments is a portal into our paradoxical inner worlds, reflecting our longing for, and conflicts about connectedness and autonomy. Let it be noted though; we cannot walk into our dance worrying about what it may reveal. We have to get lost in it, in order to find ourselves.
The opening quote affirms that paradox is the source of passion. Repose and revelry. Autonomy and connection. But tolerating, and even finding pleasure in, life's inherent tensions requires safe spaces, secure bases to return to when we are confused, tired and depleted. It is when we return to home base that we pause, breathe, find what is good within us, and begin again.
Idenburg, F. (2010, June 23). Repose and Revelry: Pole Dance at MoMA PS1. Retrieved from
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Volume 1, Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Lee, G. (2018). The location of authenticity. In Spelman, M.B. & Thomson-Salo, F. (Eds.), The Winnicott tradition: Lines of development - Evolution of theory and practice over the decades (pp.273-290). New York, NY: Routledge.