June 16, 2022

From the Head and the Heart - How Ecdysiast Became a Leader in the Pole Industry

Last year, APANO was able to distribute a series of small business grants through the CARES act to local businesses in our community for COVID relief. Our Small Business Blog series was created to highlight some of the small businesses that APANO has begun to work with in the past year.

In the first highlight of our series, we had the opportunity to sit down with Co-Founding Director of Ecdysiast, Shannon Gee, to talk about her career as an owner/operator of the leading pole dance studio on the west coast. Co-founding Ecdysiast at the age of 24 during the early 2000’s, Shannon’s work quickly put Portland on the map for Pole. As we interviewed Shannon, we were struck by the passion that she has for shifting the conversation around Pole, and the very intentional framework in which she teaches and educates about Pole. We heard story after story of the incredible work that Shannon is doing and the people whom she has helped. Shannon is interviewed by Grace Henricks, APANO’s Small Business Advisor.

Grace: Hi Shannon, thanks so much for joining us today to talk about Ecdysiast. So, getting started, what made you choose to start your own business?

Shannon: I never really looked at it like, “I'm gonna start my own business.” Maybe in the early aughts, I started to notice that there was this huge draw towards Pole. Being a stripper in the strip club, I was noticing that this is a real genre of movement, and that we need to classify and categorize it as so. I also recognized that it was underestimated because of the field that it was mainly operated in - which is in strip clubs and the sex industry - and that is really fueled in the framework of misogyny and patriarchy, and anti-feminism. It was also underestimated because mostly femme-identifying folks were predominantly connotated with doing pole, or being strippers, or being sex workers, even though that's not the actual truth. It's quite a diverse demographic.

Grace: What I'm hearing you say is that you had an awareness of the social values held around sex work? So in a way it sounds like you wanted to legitimize this dance form, or this movement form as a means to bring awareness to sex work as well and that was some of the motivation around starting your business?

Shannon: I did, and I wanted to standardize it and be part of that trailblazing movement to do that. I didn’t realize I was really leading until I was in the muck of it. That being said, though, I really want to be careful because as much as I wanted to legitimize it, I wanted to do it in a very specific framework. A lot of folks back then were trying to “legitimize” pole and that really meant being anti- feminist, anti- woman, anti- bipoc woman, anti-sex worker, really propagating those tenets of misogyny, patriarchy, white supremacy. I was very careful that while I'm legitimizing it and using this education model to bring it to the masses, that I use language that they could understand and hear and then therefore also have compassion with these real stories, these real human experiences. So I think, yes, I wanted to legitimize it, but I had a very clear vision on what that meant to me.

Grace: I appreciate the way you're connecting the idea of not legitimizing Pole in a way that gets absorbed into patriarchy. Are there any stigmas or opposition you have faced while operating Ecdysiast?

Shannon: I can't think of one time where we haven't faced stigma or opposition. Everything from direct ridicule to our face, to sexism, racism, ageism. All the isms. Even still today unfortunately. It's less now, but I still feel like I have to prove myself if I walk into a boardroom with different shareholders. The wonderful thing that I have now that I didn't have then was, maybe I'm asking for a $40,000 investment, and I walk out with $80,000 because I feel really confident in being able to speak to folks now, just hitting head and heart at the same time, even if they don't share the same experiences that I have. So yes, we faced much opposition and, you know, like with anything we learn from those challenges.

Grace: That's kind of touching on this other idea that I'd love you to elaborate on - that there's a connection that happens with what you are offering with Pole. When you and I were first talking, I said some things to you that were so personal. I felt safe with you and I felt heard by you. That's due to some of who you are personally. But I'm getting this sort of picture, in that boardroom example that you just shared, coupled with what we talked about in our last meeting where you said there's something that happens sometimes, you're able to speak to the mind and the heart. Your clients come to you and you said they didn't know what they needed, but once they start dancing in your studio, they feel that sense of having arrived to where they belong, and I experienced that with you as well. I'm wondering if you can speak to that.

Shannon: I think connecting with humans is a really difficult thing. I think some folks are naturally gifted and talented at it, and some of us learn those skills, learn those gifts and talents and craft and become better at it, whether it was through experiences or conscious effort. I really learned over the years, and I've had really hard lessons. One thing that I've realized is that business is really about relationships. And that doesn't matter whether you're onboarding an entry level wage employee, or you're talking with some, cis white elder rich man who has their own ulterior motives to invest in your business. And so it's about really understanding that human, seeing that human being.

Somebody told me once that investors don't give their money to good ideas, they give their money to good humans. And that really makes sense to me, because there are a ton of amazing ideas out there that people could invest in. But the ones that people really commit to, are the ones that they're moved by, ones that they want to be a part of.  And the same practice carries over in our team, and with my students. It's a really human primal need. We all want to be seen and heard and to be our most authentic self. And we all want to have that comfortability and safety to do so whether we recognize that consciously or not, and to be collective and in community with folks, whether that's business community, or just a dance class.

Shannon shows us her wall of notes and letters from her Ecdysiast clients. Many of her clients often write about having life affirming experiences at the studio and while being a part of the Ecdysiast community.

Grace: I'm thinking some of that sense of belonging that people get may come from how you manifest your personal beliefs into your business and train your staff in that openness and acceptance. I think that's where some of the comfort that I experienced with you comes from, is in your acceptance and inclusion. People come to your studio, and they keep coming back for that sense of community and validation. They can show up as they are and they're fully acknowledged. That said, can you talk a little about values? What are your business's mission and values?

Shannon: At Ecdysiast, the mission is to really be the top leading pole school in the world, and to not only legitimize pole in ways that align with our values, which is really rooted in a revolutionary framework, which means it's rooted in anti-capitalism. As much as we are operating in the belly of the beast of capitalism, I very much try to run this operation rooted in a revolutionary framework in anti-capitalism and transformative justice. So part of this non-judgmental, non-penalizing framework that you're hearing is really rooted in transformative justice. At Ecdysiast, we like to say that we are a team that embraces new cultural and generational attitudes, a brand that is unfiltered, unpretentious, and honest. A school that looks to empower rather than define people, a community that promotes cross cultural mindsets and diverse identities, a work team that challenges outdated ideas and established norms, a crew that champions the fluidity of love, and I really feel that not only do we have those values, but we can proposition those values.

Grace: Thank you, Shannon. I really appreciate you and I am so moved by your mission and values and who you are. These past couple of years have really brought to the collective attention what your mission speaks to.  What has it been like running your business since the pandemic hit? Has it been difficult?

Shannon: I have been through it with not just my life experiences, but with this business. Just this business alone, I have had no location for almost a whole quarter, nowhere to house our classes. I've had team re-developments, where I've had zero staff. And compared to my own personal experiences of being in prison and all this other stuff, the challenges of the pandemic felt so approachable as far as my resiliency to it and how I could foresee it, and strategize against it. It's been challenging, but when I look at the whole scope of my experience running this operation, I felt pretty stable during the whole pandemic. I was able to manage my emotions, I was able to manage my team, I was able to not lose employees, I was able to stay open. We immediately re-strategized. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, by March 20th, I had a whole virtual program blasting out to the world, every single day from 10 am to 930 pm. I like to tell my team, what we do is we solve folks problems, we have solutions to those problems, and over my dead body, are we going to stop helping folks or stop resolving our clients issues. We're going to keep providing solutions for our folks. We worked really hard, I didn't have to lose anybody, I was still able to provide. Almost everybody had maybe no less than a 25% decrease in payroll, which I know was hard for some folks. And the grant we received was super impactful. It usually goes right towards either just sitting as cash flow as a cushion or it goes directly to rent or pay. The grant money we received from APANO, we were able to use as a cash flow cushion.

Grace: What a great story of resilience, perseverance, strength and tenacity. Really commendable that you were able to get an online program up in two weeks and continue serving folks in that virtual space. I admire your sense of duty to provide for your staff and keep their livelihoods going too.  How do you see your role or your business’s role in the community?

Shannon: I find it vital and important. I think that I see the business really working in conjunction with the community, and in community, with the community. And we have a very specific community. We've first focused on our stripper-sex workers, and our BIPOC and trans stripper sex workers. That's our main focus. And then because we focus so hard on that, it's like it kind of just attracts all these other folks. And we had a ton of backlash over the years, we've had so many kind of smear campaigns, from upper middle class, wealthy white women, business owners, really speaking out against us saying, “We don't need to accept strippers,” or, “We pole, but we're not strippers.” Why is that even a hashtag? So for me the effect that we've had in the local scene, Portland is on the map for pole because of us. So I know that we really lead in the community, we lead in the community very loudly.

Grace: I hear this Shannon, thank you! What are your hopes for the business in 2022, and in the future?

Shannon: I have a lot of scale goals that I'm still trying to achieve right now coming out of the pandemic. I want to be able to eventually have more locations, or just be able to have options of what I want to do with this organization. I want to make sure that I build and grow so that when I go out, I can leave something to my daughter. That is my ultimate goal. And I think it's really important that entrepreneurs align their goals, the first thing a good entrepreneur should do, in my opinion, is figure out what the fuck they want to do with their own personal goals. And then from there they can build their entrepreneurial goals around their personal goals. That's one thing I failed at in the first decade, I didn't really understand what my personal goals were, and I didn't have a strategy for the business. So now I very much clearly understand what I want. I want to keep educating folks, I want to keep amplifying sex workers, especially Black and Asian sex workers. And trans sex workers, those are the most effected demographic of sex workers. I want people to really understand the intersectionality of what we do. I want to keep continuing to amplify that education model of like really spotlighting the whole intersectionality of white supremacy, sex work, misogyny, patriarchy, Asian peoples, and how does that affect us and our diaspora. But that's where I see us in the future.

Grace: Following your work, I have to admit that there's so much just in the word intersectionality, or in so many of the other things you've said, there's so much deeper meaning and I'm awestruck by the depth of the implications of what you're saying. There's so much to the discovery of who you are that is key in guiding a business. The businesses that I see that are backed by an owner's personal mission or personal vision - those are the strongest, I feel like those have the strongest ethos or the strongest passion attached, it translates out, and people get that. You do have a strong sense of your personal self throughout your business. Can you tell us more about your personal story?

Shannon: I was born in Korea. and I have a rare experience where I was actually adopted by Chinese immigrants, first generation, here in the United States. I didn't have a very good childhood. I left home at 14. I remember I just walked all the way to I-5 and just hitchhiked all the way to Portland. Ironically, I have lived under the bridges and the areas in which I've owned businesses now. And to be pregnant during some of that time, and to be living under the Hawthorne bridge, and to not know that 15 years later, you'd run a business under that same bridge is quite ironic and circular. It took me a long time to get us off the streets and get us stable. The kind of lifestyle and the little skills that I had and the bad habits that I was picking up very quickly led me right into prison and incarceration. I have worked through the trauma and I've worked through the shame and the guilt into this day. I can now let it empower me and I can forgive myself. But I don't think that was the case for most of my life.

I had the idea of opening Ecdysiast before I went to prison, but then I went to prison and everything just kind of got put on hold. This is just a pipe dream. I have zero money. I'm literally a meth addict. I have a two year old. When I eventually got out, I started from nothing. And of course, I went right back into doing what I knew, which was quick money - hustling, sex work. There are so many things about my own personal story that really add to the personal journey that I've had and how far I’ve grown. Embracing that, it’s able to really bleed out into the operations of the organization that I run at home.

And I like to always tell everyone that I know whether it's my team, friends, colleagues, y'all, revolution starts with you. It starts in your bed, it starts in your home, starts in your family. You can go to all the trainings, you can work at a nonprofit, you can mobilize all you want. It doesn't matter if you don't start a revolution here and within your inner circle. And these are not my original, organic ideas, I've learned that from all the people that have paved the way before us.

Grace: Wow, thank you so much for sharing your story with us Shannon. I think that's all we have time for today, but if anyone reading would like to learn more about Ecdysiast, please visit https://www.ecdysiaststudio.com/

Photography Credit: Tojo Andrianarivo

This programming message brought to you by APANO Communities United Fund, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.