Pole-dancing tends to be associated in many people’s minds with strip-club sleaze, but ‘pole’ is rapidly becoming a respectable sport with Olympic aspirations.
The International Pole Sport Federation (IPSF) is determined to tackle the negative stereotypes and promote it as a fiercely competitive pursuit with all sorts of health and fitness benefits.
To that end, it has got pole into the programme of events at the 2017 World Urban Games in Wrocław, Poland, next July, and is beginning a push for it to be added to the roster of Olympic sports.
A Pole World Cup event actually took place earlier this year in the host city for the 2016 Games, Rio de Janeiro, featuring 150 dancers from 36 countries and £20,000 in prize money on offer.
This year’s World Pole Dancing Championships was staged in Bucharest, Romania, and featured competitions for women, men and doubles combinations, with performers judged on their artistic flair, core strength and agility.
A survey conducted by The Pole Room, an organisation committed to raising and improving the profile of pole dancing in Australia, found that all participants are taking part for the health benefits such as endurance, upper-body strength and mental well-being.
Nearly 80% of respondents said the got a real sense of achievement from pole.
“I’d heard pole-dancing was a fantastic way to keep fit, but with every photo I saw of friends doing it on Facebook or YouTube videos, it looked sexual to me”
Kaisha Windred from Harwich is a member of the JC Pole Fit Club in Colchester and says she took up the sport for health reasons, which have benefitted her greatly, as well as the fun of participating.
“I find pole a lot more enjoyable than working out in the gym” she said.
“Pole works every muscle in your body without you realising because you’re having too much fun.
“The main benefits for me have been increased upper-body strength, weight loss, increased muscle mass and general emotional well-being.”
The 24-year old has been taking part in pole for two years after she saw an advert for a free trial, and admits she didn’t take it seriously at first.
“I’d heard pole-dancing was a fantastic way to keep fit, but with every photo I saw of friends doing it on Facebook or YouTube videos, it looked sexual to me.
“This didn’t bother me though as I am comfortable in my own skin, and my aims are and have always been to take part to keep fit. My perspective of pole soon changed.”
Pole is not just for the young, either, as the over-50s category at this year’s World Championships proves.
The undoubted star of the senior category is 65-year-old Greta Pontarelli, who was diagnosed with bone disease osteoporosis and turned to strenuous exercise to combat it at the age of 59.
This year, the Californian captured her fourth world title, and is a prime example of the health benefits of pole which turned her life around.
She now seeks to inspire others through her success.
“I want to be living proof that nothing is impossible. I want to help and inspire women to prove that no matter what age you are, anything is possible.”
But with public perceptions of pole still heavily linked to exotic/erotic dance, seedy clubs and the sex industry, much work still needs to be done to reshape its image.
Windred believes there are many different versions of pole and it is just ignorance that leads to the typical stereotypes of the sport.
“You can make it as glamorous, sexy or sleazy as you like,” she explained.
“When I first started out I got a lot of compliments about my body strength and shape, which was a huge confidence boost, but I also got a lot of ignorance towards me. Some people couldn’t quite understand and thought I was a stripper.
“They should come to one of my classes and they will realise it is not as glamorous as it looks. It’s quite painful but it is so worth it.”
In 2013, Swansea University’s Student Union banned its members from taking part in pole-dancing fitness classes as they believed it was ‘inextricably linked to sex industry’.
A statement read: “Activities such as pole fitness contributes to an atmosphere where women are viewed as sexual objects and where violence against them is acceptable.
“All the stereotyping around pole-dancing is just people with small minds”
“Evidence shows that young women aged 16 to 24 are the group who experience the most domestic and sexual violence.”
The Pole Fitness Society was due to hold twice-weekly sessions before the union intervened and pulled the plug after a large number of women had already signed up to take part.
Club president Beth Morris hit back at the claims, by stating: “Lap dancing occurs in gentlemen’s clubs.
“Pole fitness is strictly for fitness. Since the classes are purely for that purpose, there is no link between it and the sex industry.”
However, pole-dancing has become established at other universities including Manchester, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Surrey and Huddersfield.
Manchester University student Natalie Baker attends pole-dancing classes and said it is great fun and also very competitive.
“Us girls have so much fun during classes and it gets quite competitive with who can pull off the best moves,” she said.
“I have no interest in denying where pole came from. There will always be exotic pole, but also pole art and pole sports”
“We are always aiming to learn new tricks and we embrace it as a way of expressing ourselves. All the stereotyping around pole-dancing is just people with small minds.”
KT Coates, president of the IPSF, is keen to stress that rules on clothing and how the competitors present themselves is key to building an acceptable image.
“Competitors aren’t allowed to show cleavage but you have to show some skin or you stick to the pole,” he said.
“The clothes they wear are very glamorous and in no way not appropriate.”
He admitted the sport’s origins are an obstacle to gaining acceptance, but insisted his organisation’s work was a different matter altogether.
“I have no interest in denying where pole came from. There will always be exotic pole, but also pole art and pole sports. We’re creating something new for family viewing.”
Pole’s invitation to be part of the 2017 World Urban Games alongside established sports such as basketball and cycling suggests its Olympic dream may still be alive.
A few days after its 2013 World Championships in Spain, the IPSF was officially recognised as the governing body of pole by the Federation of International Gymnastics and by Sport Accord, the umbrella organisation for both Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations.
Much to the dislike of the cynics, pole is knocking on the Olympic door and one day soon, someone may be forced to answer.
Feature image courtesy of Your Mildura via Flikr Creative Commons. Greta Pontarelli image courtesy of www.midwestpoledancing.com