Strippers or Sportswomen?
Sarah Witty | 27 March 2017

The previous issue explored the misconceptions surrounding cheerleading as a sport. This issue, I would like to do the same for pole dancing. Many people’s minds at this point will conjure up the image of a dodgy backstreet bar, with lonely men clutching dollar bills racing in whilst a rowdy bachelor party stumbles out under the luminosity of a flickering neon light. Could this really be the arena and the audience for a new Olympic sport? Well, no - although, a form of pole dancing that has distanced itself from its sexualized image may well be. In order to dissociate from people’s preconceptions, those involved in the sporting aspect have rebranded the activity as pole art, pole fitness, or simply as pole. If you’re finding it difficult to replace the picture of lingerie-wearing lap dancers with that of physically fit, determined and hard working sportswomen, I would recommend watching the routines of Anastasia Skukhtova. This Russian athlete and artist was the 2nd runner up in the Pole World Cup 2011 and is now an instructor and general superstar in the pole universe. Her strength and grace is truly breathtaking, and a testament to the training that goes into pulling off a performance like hers – she makes it look effortless despite a wardrobe malfunction: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vw7pCiZEVs).

 

The heritage of pole may surprise some; it goes far beyond the trend of ‘Hoochi Coochi’ dancers of the 1920s American depression. Origins of this style of dance date back further than the 12th Century, in the form of Chinese pole. This version allowed Chinese acrobats and circus performers to demonstrate immense strength and skill using a 3-9m tall pole to climb, flip from and hold positions on. Training often resulted in friction burn marks that became a badge of honour and a means of earning respect from fellow sportsmen. Chinese pole is less seamless than the modern day style due to their emphasis on grip, but it has been responsible for some of the most popular and physically demanding moves, such as ‘the flag’ (holding your body at 90° from the pole). There have also been influences from Indian pole, through a variation known as ‘Pole Mallakhamb’ (translation: wrestler of the pole). This focused on precision and agility, as participants were required to run and flip directly onto a smooth wooden pole. Its purpose was to prepare and train men for other sports, such wrestling, athletics and horse riding as well as gymnastics due to the improved flexibility that it promotes. Championships still take place in India, although in tradition of Indian pole it is a very heavily male dominated sport. Even the exotic side has ancient cultural roots. The striptease, for example, can be traced back to Sumerian myths (a civilization existing in about 4000 BC).

 

The western style of pole that will be most familiar is an amalgamation of these forms.

 

Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of pole outside of both the strip-club and competitive circuits. This is in part due to a gradual acceptance that the two are not inextricably linked. From the history of pole, it is clear that the skills needed are the same required by most credible sports: strength, skill and determination. Many local gyms and dance studios are introducing pole to their list of classes in the same way that Zumba is offered. There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, compared to other group exercises, it takes up relatively little space and so once the poles are purchased it works out to be quite cost effective for the gym owners. Secondly, it really is a great sport for keeping fit. It can burn as many calories in 30 minutes as a traditional aerobics work out, build muscle tone all over the body and improve flexibility. Thirdly, there is a demand for it – from ex-gymnasts (often retiring in their teens) looking for another way to channel their skills to the physically unmotivated person who wants to exercise but can’t stand the thought of a boring ‘gym sesh’. (Don’t think that the market is exclusively female or of any particular age range or body type; every variety of person takes part). Although the fitness classes are completely dissociated from their sexual ties, with skin only being bared when it’s needed to create a grip on the pole and high-heels being a big no-no, it does boost self-confidence. This is because it teaches body control that can then lead to body confidence, as well as toning up some tummy muscles along the way. Finally, as with any exercise, it’s a great stress buster due to the release of built up adrenaline- and its fun! Sadly, it does not come without sacrifices. Bruises, blisters and burns are a necessary evil of progression in pole - and purple-green tinted legs are anything but sexy.

 

These classes evince the growing acceptance of pole as a sport, as do the University societies that offer it. Even the Oxbridge institutions of higher learning recognize and make available pole to their student bodies. Competitive pole athletes must train and dedicate equal amounts of time and effort to their discipline as any other professional sports personnel. Therefore, it is only right that it should be acknowledged with the same respect as other sports. After all, it can broadly be classified within the revered realm of gymnastics and dance. Strict clothing and make up rules at competitions (e.g. not being allowed to remove any item of clothing during the routine) serve to make a clear division between sporting pole and its (still strenuous) exotic counterpart. Judges base their scores on style, execution and the difficulty of the moves and not the sensuality of them. The International Pole Dance Fitness Association (IPDFA) and others are campaigning for pole dancing to be the next Olympic sport. Although it may be a push to see this happening at the 2016 games, I believe there is a strong possibility that pole dancing will be televised as part of the Olympics soon. Certainly it, at least superficially, appears to offer more of the traditional sporting values than some others... the Winter Olympic ‘sport’ of curling springs to mind here...

 

Hopefully the Olympic campaign will succeed and pole dancing will become the next sporting phenomenon. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone and everyone to open their minds to it as a sport and give it a go if presented the opportunity to.

James Routledge 2016