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Trained and Untrained Instructors are Poles Apart

By Dr Katherine Humphrey


Pole dancing, pole fitness, polenastics, vertical gymnastics, and it’s many other aliases; no matter how we refer to it, pole is becoming ever increasingly popular as a fun and expressive way to keep fit. With the growing media attention, we are breaking out of our niche and into the public eye. And with the increasing number of pole schools and gyms offering pole classes, comes an increase in demand for instructors. However, the number of these instructors that are trained and qualified to teach is open to discussion. There are various clubs, associations and communities that offer a seal of approval, but these do not necessarily offer, or require the dancer to hold, any type of teaching qualification. Many simply ask for insurance, first aid and a membership fee. Similarly, some freelance instructors are not asked to provide proof of qualification by the gym or community centre they teach in, and thus there arises a worrying discrepancy in the level of teaching and safety across different classes. This is not to say that such qualifications do not exist, nor is it meant as a criticism of any particular school, individual or governing body, but the fact is that not all those whom teach are qualified to do so. So, this article raises the question: should they be?

‘some freelance instructors are not asked to provide proof of qualification by the gym or community centre they teach in, and thus there arises a worrying discrepancy in the level of teaching and safety across different classes.’

With pole breaking into the public domain, fitness industry and media, it feels to many of us like we are finally starting to win our battle against naive and negative stereotypes sometimes still associated with pole. However, it only takes one bit of bad press to turn our one step forward into two steps back. Take for example the story of Debbie Plowman, the 32 year old that fell from a cross-knee-release and broke her neck, leaving her paralysed. No one can deny that this was an awful tragedy, and the hearts of fellow pole dancers went out to Debbie and her family. However, the press don’t report on the hundreds of thousands of successful pole dance classes that happen every week, yet one bad experience could tarnish the reputation and professional stance of pole in the fitness industry. Needless to say, it doesn’t help that stories like these are reported by The Daily Mail, readers of which resemble ‘bad news magpies’ whom swoop upon anything remotely outside their narrow-minded beliefs. Nevertheless, being able to teach, demonstrate and spot safely is paramount to preventing accidents from occurring. Despite our obvious initial reaction as safety-conscious pole enthusiasts of “yes, of course instructors should be qualified”, there is actually no existing scientific data on the benefits of such courses. Therefore this article aimed to examine the influences of both experience (how long one has been pole dancing for) and specific training on the ability of instructors to spot mistakes in technique.

‘this article aimed to examine the influences of both experience (how long one has been pole dancing for) and specific training on the ability of instructors to spot mistakes in technique.’

Previous research has shown that experts (i.e. those with more experience and/or training) have improved memory for domain-specific (i.e. knowledge related to their area) information, such as chess (Gobet & Simon, 1996), baseball (Voss, Vesonder, & Spilich, 1980), athletics (Chase & Ericsson, 1982), and radiology (Myles-Worsley, Johnston and Simons, 1988), to name just a few. Expertise has also been shown to affect the way people move their eyes. When we look around the world, our eyes make lots of movements in quick succession. When we pause briefly to take in information, this is called a fixation, and is kind of like taking a photograph of what we are currently looking at. The movements between fixations are called saccades, during which time very little information can be processed. The brain then puts together all the ‘photographs’ to make a picture of what we see. Therefore, where we look generally indicates what information we process in a scene (although there are exceptions, e.g. Crundall, Humphrey & Clarke, 2008). The effect of expertise on eye movements has been seen in sports such as gymnastics, where expert coaches make longer and fewer fixations than novices when inspecting videos of gymnastic techniques. It has been suggested that expert gymnastic coaches attended to more informative (i.e., relevant) areas and ignored uninformative (i.e., irrelevant) ones (Moreno, Reina, Luis, and Sabido, 2002).

Furthermore, evidence from both cricket and football show that eye movement patterns differ between beginner and expert players. When a ball is bowled in cricket, the batsman makes an anticipatory saccade to the location where the ball will bounce before it reaches him/her (Land & McLeod, 2000). More skilled players fixate the ‘bounce point’ sooner, suggesting that they are better at determining the trajectory of the ball when it is pitched. In football, when determining the direction of an oncoming kick, more skilled players tend to fixate the midsection of the opponent player rather than fixating the legs or ball, as unskilled players do (Williams & Davids, 1998). This difference suggests that the skilled players have developed an eye movement strategy that focuses centrally, relying on their peripheral attention to monitor the movements of the opponents’ limbs. When watching more complicated situations that involved everyone on the field, the experts tended to make many more saccades with quicker intermittent fixations throughout the field of play while the novices showed a slower and less comprehensive search pattern (Williams et al., 1999). These examples show that eye movement strategies develop with experience as knowledge about the information most critical for selection is gained.

In relation to pole dancing, instructors should be looking at key features of a move, and especially at areas where common mistakes are likely to occur. Therefore, those with greater expertise (experience and specific training) should be more likely and faster to fixate mistakes than dancers with less expertise. In the current experiment, participants attending an instructor training course were asked to watch a series of videos, before and after training. Participants were divided into groups depending on the amount of pole experience before taking the instructor course. The videos consisted of several basic pole spins either performed correctly or with an ‘obvious’ mistake. It was predicted that both experience and training would affect participants’ efficiency in spotting mistakes in technique, as measured by eye-data analysis.

This article is not meant in any way as a criticism of any particular school, individual or governing body, but simply an unbiased scientific investigation into the benefits of specialised instructor courses. It aims to look at the influence of both experience and specific training to determine whether the money we spend on qualifications really makes a difference.

‘Analysis of the written data showed that before training, only two out of the seven novices reported noticing a mistake (28.57%), whereas after training, all of the participants correctly mentioned at least once that the spins in the video were flawed in some way.’



Participants were an opportunity sample of pole dancers attending a Level 1 Pole Passion Instructor course, near Brighton, UK. An opportunity sample refers to those people available at the time – the researcher did not work for and was not sponsored by Pole Passion. Sixteen participants took part, with an age range of 18 to 35. Seven of the participants had under 1 year’s experience pole dancing (range 0-12 months) and thus were counted as ‘novices’, and nine participants had over one year’s experience (range 18 months to 5 years) and were for the purposes of this experiment labelled as ‘experienced’. All participants had normal or corrected-to-normal vision (i.e. glasses or contact lenses).

Materials & Apparatus
A remote eye-tracker was used to record eye movements whilst the participant watched the videos. This is a small desk-top camera that shines an infra-red beam of light onto the eye and tracks the reflection as the eye moves. It is completely harmless and non-invasive. No head-gear is required. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 above: A remote eye-tracker used to monitor eye movements
Thirty-two video clips of basic pole spins were shown in as random order, each lasting, on average, seven seconds. The spins were: back, front (forwards spin), fireman, and sun-wheel (attitude spin). Each was performed either correctly, with an error of the hand/arm, foot/leg, or posture. Example screen-shots are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2, and 3 above example screen-shots from the video clips. Left  is a back spin performed correctly. right is a back spin with incorrect posture (the hips are not pushed forwards).

So as not to restrict or influence participants’ eye movements, participants were told that the eye-tracker was a camera that measured the size of their pupil, which is not something that can be controlled, and thus should be ignored. Participants watched the 32 videos in a random order, and were then asked to write down anything they could remember about them. No leading questions were given, e.g. “did you notice anything wrong in the videos”.A three-day training course then took place, which, amongst other things, focused on technique of basic pole moves, including different teaching methods and identifying common mistakes. On the final day, participants were asked to watch the 32 videos again, in a random order. Again, their eye movements were covertly measured, and at the end they were asked to write down anything they remembered about the videos.

Many statistical analyses were conducted, but for the purposes of this short article and for ease of reading, only a few will be discussed here.

Free-Recall task
Analysis of the written data showed that before training, only two out of the seven novices reported noticing a mistake (28.57%), whereas after training, all of the participants correctly mentioned at least once that the spins in the video were flawed in some way. Before training, seven out of the nine experienced participants made written reference to mistakes in the videos (77.77%), whereas after training this increased to 100% of the experienced sample. This data is illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 4 above: A bar chart illustrating the percentage of participants from each group that made written reference to errors in the video clips, before and after training.

Eye data analysis
As where we look is generally taken as an indication as to what information we are processing, the average number of fixations on the error in each video clip were analysed for each participant group, before and after training. Statistical tests (t-tests) showed that both before and after training, experienced participants made reliably more fixations on the errors, indicating that they spent longer monitoring and processing this information. However, for both groups, training significantly increased the number of fixations participants made on the error, suggesting that training had the desired effect of making the participants more aware of errors in technique. Figure 5 below illustrates these data.

Figure 5 above: A bar chart to illustrate the average number of fixations per video clip on the error, for each participant group, before and after training.

It was predicted that if instructors know what to look for in correct technique, they will be quicker to spot an error. Analyses (t-tests) of the time taken to first fixate an error revealed that both before and after training, experienced participants fixations the error reliably quicker than novices, suggesting that experience aids knowledge of correct technique. However, for both groups, training significantly decreased the time taken to fixate errors, showing that experience alone is not sufficient, and that training improves our knowledge of where to look (and thus improves the efficiency of our scanning patterns) and how quickly we can spot errors in technique. Figure 6 below illustrates these data.

This study aimed to examine the benefits of specialised instructor courses, looking at both the influence of experience and specific training to determine whether the money we spend on qualifications really makes a difference. Analysis of the free-recall data revealed that participants with more experience were more likely to pick up on errors in technique; however training was shown to be of even greater importance, as after completing the instructor course, all participants regardless of experience made at least one written reference to errors in the video clips.

As there were multiple video clips and the free-recall analysis only required a single reference to error, in order to examine differences between the groups in more detail, eye-data was analysed. As the video stimuli were dynamic, the area of interest (the error) was moving throughout each clip, and thus participants whom follow this with their eyes, for example to see whether the person corrects themselves, will produce more fixations upon that area. The increased number of fixations on errors by experienced participants suggests that experience is important even without specific training. However, the significant increase in the number of fixations, for both groups, after training, implies that once fixated, errors were monitored more consistently after training. As mentioned above, this could have been to see if the person in the video corrected their mistake. The increase would also be partially due to participants fixating the error sooner. When tested at the end of the instructor course, participants in both groups fixated the error earlier in each clip, allowing them more time to monitor and follow it dynamically (and thus produce an increased number of fixations on this area). This suggests that training improved participants ‘scan pattern’ efficiency, which basically means they knew where to look for correct and incorrect technique, instead of inspecting the clips in a more random fashion.

Previous research has found that our pattern of eye movements (‘scanpaths’) change depending on whether we are ‘free-viewing’ (i.e. without a target, task or intent), or searching (with intent) a scene (e.g. Castelhano, Mack and Henderson, 2009), and also whether we have expertise in the domain-relevant area (e.g. Humphrey & Underwood, 2008). Before training, both groups were ‘free-viewing’, although prior knowledge of the experienced group may have aided were to look. After training, even though the task was essentially the same (“watch these videos”), the knowledge acquired on the course helped guide participants’ eye movements, creating scanpaths that resembled those of a search task. In essence, this is what good instructors should be doing – constantly ‘searching’ for correct and incorrect techniques, as well as a wider search of the room for safety issues and the general wellbeing and happiness of their students. This is even more important when different students are doing different moves, as the instructor has to have a wide range of knowledge and be able to monitor several different things at once.

In sum, this short article provides scientific evidence that instructor training works. This has great practical implications, as it lends critical support for the argument that all instructors should be qualified. A combination of experience and training seems to be most effective, although experience alone is not sufficient. Of course, one has to remember that due to the opportunity sample, the participant groups were quite small, and these results are specific to Pole Passion Instructor Qualifications. In order to be able to reliably generalise these data to other instructor courses, more studies would have to be carried out. A comparison between different instructor qualifications would allow us to identify the most effective courses and highlight any discrepancies.

Future research could also follow students longitudinally, from Level 1 through to Level 3, and examine differences between levels of teaching qualification and experience. Furthermore, the different content in Levels 2 and 3 allows more aspects of instructor training, such as ‘spotting’, to be explored.

Copyright 2012 Katherine Humphrey. All rights reserved

Report used with kind permission of Dr Katherine Humphrey

NB: While this study was completely independent it should be noted that only Pole Passion offers 3 day training and 2 levels or training from Level Foundation to Advance.

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