A Piece of Pole History: An Interview With Diane Day

 

You see that right? That’s a televised pole dancing performance from 1973. The history of pole is unique in that, although many of its founders are still alive, our records are spurious and continuously undermined by mainstream attempts to rewrite it.

We must work together to highlight and honour the contributions of those who were played roles in the development of the art we love today, and not simply parrot the most popular narrative that is fed to us. The history of pole is far more complex than many wish to admit – with people sometimes favouring a simple, linear or chronological approach to the retelling of our pole story.

So, I am absolutely honoured to be able to host this interview, transcribed from a video conversation between Diane Day and Jhani Miller (this wonderful human supported and facilitated the entire process). I hope you enjoy this illuminating interview from one of the very first pole performers, and, I would be tempted to say, THE first performer to be recorded, televised and create a mainstream media portrayal of pole dancing. Maybe?

Editors Note: This interview was recorded February 2018, and transcribed in 2020 as accurately as possible. Due to a hiatus on the running of the Pole With Peach blog. Please keep this context in mind when enjoying the interview.

Without further ado…

Jhani Miller (henceforth JM): May I ask you your name?

Diane Day (henceforth DD): My full name is Diane Day Crump-Richmond, that is my stage name combined with my maiden name, combined with my married name.

JM: And where are you originally from?

DD: Buffalo, New York

JM: Oh, I’ve been to Buffalo. Are you a vegetarian?

DD: Yes, I am.

JM: OK, I won’t talk about the wings then!

DD: (laughing) I wasn’t a vegetarian always. When I was at Buffalo I wasn’t a vegetarian, but I am now.

JM: Did you grow up with any siblings? What were your family like? I read your mother was a dancer?

DD: Yes, she is a dancer. My father was a musician.

JM: What was it like growing up with creatives?

DD: Oh, it was great. It was wonderful. Although, my father didn’t want me to take up dancing. He didn’t want me to end up like so many dancers working in night clubs. He didn’t want me to grow up like that. He didn’t realise I would go into dance. He was OK with it, he just didn’t want me to pursue it as a career. He wanted me to go to college and become a professional… anything. Doctor, lawyer, one of those things.

JM: So what was the perception of nightclub dancing then? Because, I imagine it wasn’t just from a place of ‘I don’t want you to do it’. He worked in clubs, so what was it that he feared?

DD: There was some good dancers. But, mostly he thought there was a lot of (giggling) butt shaking, and it wasn’t his idea of what dance was all about, and that was where the money was at the time. Working as a professional dancer at places like the Cotton Club, and things like that. Vegas was where I ended up going into dance. He wasn’t really happy about that.

JM: Did he ever change his mind?

DD: Oh yeah! When he came to Vegas and saw the shows I was in, then he saw the dancers at the shows. He was a musician on the strip at that time. When he came here he started working with bands at the strip show, he understood it was totally different. The Vegas shows were of course a little different from the Buffalo nightclub dancing, and Rochester and 52nd Street, those were a different type of dancing.

JM: What year was this? What was the difference in the dancing?

DD: My parents, when we were growing up, they were both working at 52nd street. This must have been the 50s and 60s. And the dancers, they were mostly picked, mostly not for talent, but their appeal to a mainly male audience, and that’s what my father didn’t want to happen. Like some of the shows that were travelling at the time, called Tall, Tan and Beautiful, which I saw and I loved, and the Cotton Club, I thought they had a lot of talented dancers. But, he just thought it was a lot of shaking their parts.

JM: (laughing) Did you ever perform with either of your parents?

DD: No, I don’t think so. We both worked around the same time on the Vegas strip in the 70s though.

JM: I just saw a show called the Brass Ladies, in New York city, and it’s all brown women burlesque and cabaret act. This particular show, a lot of the performer’s parents were there. This one particular act, their father got on stage with them, and it was really sweet to watch.

DD: Yes, my dad did come over. He would come with Sammy Davies Jr, or with Isaac Hayes. My family came and were really happy, they thought it was great.

JM: Since you bring up Isaac Hayes in the 70s, tell me about that famous act. How did it come together?

DD: It was interesting! Well, really, Isaac had seen a group of girls Sammy Davies had put together for a world tour. He loved just the way this group looked. There was a mix of everything, there was an Asian girl, two white girls, two black girls, and he just loved that look on stage. So, we talked and we were hired. Most of us were hired for Isaac’s act, and Sammy’s act. We went on the road, and it was a wild adventure! Working with Isaac, it was something else. It was fun though, and we loved the music, choreography, and costumes.

It was a totally different group to in Vegas. In Vegas you had to come down, and show your credentials. Meet them as a group to OK us to do the show, because we were a touring company. They had to check who had committed a felony, because they had to note this for their records for anyone who was working in town. They had some heavy legislation. Well, meanwhile the dancers were the only ones without a felony! (laughing) So, that was interesting.

JM: How did you come up with that spin pole?

DD: The choreographer! Ron Lewis. He wanted to mix pole with choreography. There was an incredible pole number here in Vegas at the time, he wanted to get hooked up with Isaac and Isaac was looking for a great choreographer. Isaac wanted girls who looked a certain way, he loved the way a woman looked, sexy girls, and he wanted choreography that would portray that and compliment that. And Ron Lewis did that, and he choreographed the pole number, which was my number. I just fell in love with that number.

JM: So, there was this great collaboration between you, Ron Lewis, and Isaac Hayes. Did that influence you in helping other women? Other performers? Helping others in order to grow, and create something beautiful.

DD: There was first-time dancers that I took under my wing. Took to auditions and so on.

JM: What were some of your favourite collaborations?

DD: My proudest collaboration as a dancer… oh my gosh. Ron Lewis, doing the Ivory Coast Tour, was probably my biggest collaboration, and the thing I’m most proud of. Let’s see… I worked with Lester Wilson a lot, in Los Angeles, who is another icon. A black choreographer who was hiring a lot of black dancers…

One of the biggest things… the choreographers were changing things, ‘you’re hired’, and them saying ‘that’s OK, we will just do the lighting better’. Y’know, because before it was ‘oh we can’t light that, dark skinned and light skin people together. No you can’t! No you can’t!’

Working in collaboration like that, with people that understood the struggle of black dancers, and how there were so many talents who were overlooked because of colour. Those who I became close with are still doing the same thing, still are keeping the doors open.

JM: Longevity means keeping the doors open, I like that. 

DD: Especially at this time, with this racist element that we are going through now in this country… so it is up to us to keep those doors open and not be beaten down. These political things that are happening around us.

JM: Do you have advice for current black dancers?

DD: Keep your eyes on the prize. Work on your craft… you have to be better, OK. That’s what we’re all about. Practice doesn’t hurt anyone.

So, if something doesn’t quite work at an audition. Or you see someone that looks that way, and you think ‘Oh gosh, I don’t look like that!’ Just make yourself look the best that you can look, the way you want to portray yourself, and have an inward knowledge of yourself. Be the ‘I am’ in your dance, to show that, y’know ‘My skin’s not too dark! My eyes aren’t too small! My butt’s not too round or flat!’

You’re always judged 1-10 on looks, but it is open to a lot of different looks. Now, they don’t look at us, especially black dancers, as one certain type of dancer… like they did in Los Angeles then. The first ones to be hired were fair complexion.

My best friend right now, she is a darker complexion than I am, and she worked a lot. She’s fabulous… she would move forward and say ‘Here I am!’ She was a force to be reckoned with, and still is! (laughing)

JM: So, how can allies be better to black dancers? 

DD: Do you mean if they are not black themselves? Do you mean dancers or the general public?

JM: Probably dancers and producers. 

DD: I’ve gotta say, the entertainment community is not like other communities. Most white dancers I work with are very open minded. They say ‘Diane, do you want to do this show?’ they never say ‘Black Diane, do you want to do this show?’ *laughing*

I do have to say, a lot of white choreographers, when they worked in Los Angeles and became very successful, they said ‘I want a diverse group, I don’t want to see just one kind of dancer. As long as they can dance, and as long as they have talent, I want to see who they are. I want to paint this portrait of the way America looks.’ That’s the way entertainers, and the majority of choreographers and dancers who are not black, think. I really feel that way. They don’t look at colour. They look at talent, and ‘Can she work with us? Does she blend with us, personality wise?’, not, ‘Does she blend with us culturally?’

So, I think that they’re doing all the right things. I don’t know how New York is, but I know how LA is. They will look at anybody with talent… The white choreographers I have worked with, they are always very open.

JM: I think sometimes it is you telling them who you are, and what your boundaries and standards are. Because I won’t perform in shows if I’m the only black dancer. Little things like that. All white shows still happen, which is odd to me. I feel like you have to work really hard to have a show and justify that the only individuals you were able to get were white. Especially in a place like New York City. 

DD: Oh, are you a dancer also?

JM: Yes. 

DD: OK, so, now you’re saying in New York City it is harder for dancers to get into a show?

JM: I think that in pole dance I see a lot of all white casts. It is odd to me that one would choose to do that, because at this point you’re just choosing to do it. 

DD: You can always have a black dancer, an asian dancer… When I see an all white cast it bothers me. I don’t know how that happens, because I agree with you. Even if it is a period piece… you’re portraying art, you’re not portraying history in most cases when it comes to stage.

JM: It’s an international issue, a national issues. Shows, not just in New York, but I’ve seen it in lots of regional shows, where everyone is white. it’s like, how? There’s so many amazing, talented people.

Then I’ll go to a show, where it is diverse. The acts are beautiful and colourful, and so thought provoking. There is such a respect, and often elders of the dance community will show up, and there will be a moment given where we express thankfulness to elders of the dance community. Like, ‘That person down there is the one that taught me how to dance, that person’s the first one to give me dance shoes…’ That kind of thing happens. I see it less when I attend all white dance shows, it is something I have observed. 

DD: Interesting. I know Vegas is very diverse. The shows, there’s black dancers working. With auditioning, if they’re good they will get into the show. Like the Cirque show. I don’t see this much here.

Same though with national cheer leading. Cheerleaders that are working in the NFL. I don’t understand why there isn’t as much diversity there, because there is so many beautiful black girls that can dance and want to do those jobs, because they like to do things like that. But, I don’t see enough. Where’s the black cheerleader? My husband is like, ‘I know they auditioned, where is she?’ We’ve got 40 cowgirls here, and maybe one black girl…

JM: We’re here!

DD: *Laughing* Yes, we’re here… We need to encourage each other to audition for shows. If we don’t audition, then we’re not going to be picked. We can’t be beaten down, we just need to keep going.

It’s difficult, I know. When I first started they would say, ‘You need to change your hair! You’re in Hollywood now. It’s not pull your hair back in a bun here like in performing arts’, y’know, you have to come in floofed up… and I’m like, ‘That’s not what I’m about.’

As soon as I started changing my attitude, ‘OK, this is what you want, I’m going to give you this hair. I’m going to give you my talent.’ I used to get so insulted when they would say to me, ‘Face front, turn to the right, turn to the back, turn to the left.’ I used to get furious, and then when I was assistant choreographer on so many TV shows, and I heard what the producers and production staff were saying, it made me more sick!

So, I would mention to my dancers, ‘When you go into that audition, I know it sounds bad, these are tits and ass people. Even if you have small ones, play it up!’ If you’ve got the prettiest ones in here, because y’know everybody’s not the same but they could be sold on the same kind of BS they’re trying to sell. Just stand there, and know that your talent’s going to shine through, and you’re going to get the job. The only way you can make it so you open that job for somebody else, is if YOU get that job… Give them a little bit of that, and more.

That’s how everybody broke through that barrier. The dancers, the dark skinned girls, they broke through that barrier. They would say ‘Wooo, who’s that?’ and we’d say ‘She’s been around all the time!’ As soon as she started putting a bit of makeup on for her auditions, and doing her hair, they would notice her.

I would have a leotard on, I never knew there were french cut leotards, so you would have to hike that stuff up, put that elastic around your waist, and stand there tall. Don’t look like a ballerina trying to do performing arts, they won’t look at you. You won’t even get to the first walk across the floor.

So, that is really important. I’m not sure where else, but definitely in Vegas. I’m sure it’s still that way.

JM: Thank you so much. I will not keep you. You’ve given me so many gems. 

DD: If you’re ever out in Vegas, and you want to come and look at the things they’re doing here, feel free to call.

JM: Oh, you’re so sweet!

DD: I really enjoyed speaking with you. Let’s keep in touch. I love your laugh, I love your spirit.

***
What I love about this interview is how it shows us an extra puzzle piece to how pole dance developed.

We know that pole dance as we know it today in our studios started with the burlesque and striptease shows that took place in circus tents between 1920s-1950s. After that, for years strip clubs primarily focused on nude stage shows, and by the 1970s they started installing poles in their venues.

But now we know that pole dance has been inspiring choreographers and dancers this whole time, even being featured on mainstream TV as early as the 1970s. It is a really fascinating detail that we can add into our research and understanding of how pole dance as a contemporary art form grew.

So, is this a missing piece of our pole history? Can we begin to fill in some of the gaps?

Did you enjoy this interview? Let me know in the comments below.

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