Let’s be real, the title sounds interesting to you because at first glance it seems to be an oxymoron. Most of us do not really associate pole dancing with sports. It reminds us of strip clubs and excessively raunchy moves in skimpy clothing. The truth, however, is that the very sexualised act of dancing on a pole requires immense muscle strength and is inherently very artistic: two things that characterise many mainstream sports including gymnastics and diving. Nevertheless, for the longest time, pole dancing in the Western world has been performed only by strippers and none of them were very proud of their work. The stigma surrounding sex work kept the hidden potential of pole dancing under covers for a very long time. But the last two decades has seen some extreme transition in terms of how pole dancing is perceived and practiced; and today, it dreams to be a part of the Olympic programme.
The early 2000s turned people’s heads, as pole dancing began its roller coaster ride to mainstream popularity as a fitness routine. After all, pole dancing undeniably involves intense upper body strength. Many also argue that pole dancing is a form of art. It involves expressing and finding oneself, which is basically what art is for. Besides, who can deny that pole dancing is extremely aesthetically pleasing. More recently, pole dancing has also started on its journey as a move of female empowerment. The first time I came across something like this was when I watched one of my favourite youtubers Devin of the channel Ladylike share her sexual assault story. Her rape had left her in a dark place and she was desperately trying to get back her confidence, and pole dancing helped her find her way out. She talked about S Factor, a pole dancing academy aimed at empowering women and encouraging them to be sexy for themselves rather than someone else.
The S Factor is the brainchild of Sheila Kelley who has been featured in various talk shows including that of Oprah Winfrey. She has also been a speaker at TEDx American Riviera. In her roughly 20 minute long talk titled ‘Lets Get Naked’ she hits on various feminist issues like female objectification and talks about the sexual reclamation of the female body. Kelley was only a young actress when she ended paying a strip club an unwanted visit, and the experience made her fall in love with the art of pole dancing. She went on to write and produce a film where she played a stripper called “Dancing at the Blue Iguana”. She learnt the art of pole dancing and as she reiterates throughout the talk, found herself during the process. She realised that pole dancing is not just about stripping for men, it is a lot more than that. By the end of it all, she knew she had to share her revelation and the art with women across the world. In no time, she gained a massive fan following among women across borders. Her conviction that finding one’s sensual identity had a major positive psychological impact led her to start her own pole dancing company.
As pole dancing continued on its ambitious path to get rid of the stigma associated with it, #NotAStripper started trending on Twitter. However, it is difficult to claim that it was well received. Twitterati attacked pole dancers, claiming that their routines were not even half as pleasing as those performed by strippers or that their story was not as important as the multitude of other issues that the modern woman faces. Besides the fact that these people clearly did not get the memo that pole dancers were not really indulging in the art to please others, they also failed to recognise that the aim was to dissociate the art or sport of pole dancing from the stigma associated with stripping. However, many also claimed that the hashtag was a blatant proof of whorephobia that it is deep rooted in the belief that sex work is not really ‘work’. Very soon, stripper and activist Elle Stanger created the #YesAStripper in response. She was once quoted saying “…#NotAStripper and I am like, OK, why is that important? Why do you feel the need to differentiate?” Her hashtag had a significantly larger number of tags than the former and it seemed like a great social media win within a very short span of time. Stanger has also repeatedly said that it was necessary in order to let recreational pole dancers respect and embrace their professions at the fullest. While all these were going on, many even argued that modern pole dancing is the brainchild of strippers and thus, #NotAStripper was borderline disrespectful. However, it seems that pole dance has much older roots than that.
Chinese Pole is an ancient form of acrobatics born during the Qin and Han dynasties of China between 221 BC and 230 AD. While one can easily spot several similarities between Chinese Pole and Pole Dance, there are some very important divergences. The pole used in the former is much taller, often extending upto 30 feet. The length gave it a necessary wobble during the acrobatic performances. Besides, pole dancing adds dancing, calisthenics and gymnastics to make it more erotic or aesthetically pleasing, depending on the audience and requirement. Another form of exercise bearing close resemblance to the modern day pole dance is Mallakhamba, an ancient Indian sport. This sport involves gymnasts performing aerial yoga postures on a pole or a vertical rope. However, it is undeniable that modern day pole dance is very different from these ancient forms of ‘sport’ and in fact, was born in the strip clubs. Clearly, Chinese Pole and Mallakhamba were performed as sports in the past, in stark contrast to the conventional pole dancing in gentlemen’s clubs. However, some pole dancers have actually practiced the art as a sport for a while now and envision a future where pole dancing is a regular at the Olympics. Various figures across the world have advocated for this cause.
For years many have backed the inclusion of various sports, which were fast-tracking their way to their main-stream acceptance as a legitimate sport, in the Olympics. The non-existent formal and popular definition of the term ‘sport’ makes it easy to accept or deny the status to various activities by the general public. Case in point, cheerleading. Often appreciated for the very enthusiastic and artistic moves alongside the incredibly difficult jumps and gymnastics, cheerleading is often dismissed easily in sports discussions. Many consider sports to be an activity that is inherently competitive in nature and follows certain rules. Cheerleading, however, is popularly seen as an activity solely meant to entertain the crowd during various sporting events. Many also believe that there is no proper mechanism by which cheerleading competitions can be judged. Proponents of the debate argue that cheerleading requires at least, if not more, as much effort, practice and dedication as mainstream gymnastics. Besides, they claim that the problems associated with judging cheerleading tournaments are encountered in sports like figure skating, synchronised swimming and gymnastics too and thus, the argument is, in the mildest terms, frail. However, after the immense success of having breakdancing in the 2018 Youth Olympics, ‘Breaking’ was added to the program of the 2024 Games to be held at Paris. This came in response to the IOC’s aim to make the Olympics “more urban” and “more artistic”. Climbing, skateboarding and surfing were also added to the programme after a unanimous vote by the IOC’s session in Lausanne, Switzerland on June 25, 2019.
Various sports federations and commissions have come up with varying definitions of the term ‘sports’. The Global Association of International Sports Federation’s definition of a sport has many requirements. Besides the fact that the proposed ‘sport’ must have an element of competition and should not rely on any element of luck, it should also not pose any risks to the health or safety of the participants. In addition, the equipment used cannot be provided by a single supplier. Going by this definition and the fact that the IOC is eager to revolutionise the Games to be more “artistic” and “urban”, I see no reason why the process of inclusion of pole dancing in the Olympics is being delayed. This ‘process’ involves various steps, many of which have already been achieved by the sport.
Katie Coates, the woman behind the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF) and pole dancing’s 11 year struggle to be recognised as a professional sport, always dreamt of seeing pole dancing in the Olympics. In 2006, Coates conducted a survey to review the public’s opinion on pole dancing as a sport and over 10,000 people voted in the favour of it being included in the Olympics. In 2008, she collaborated with Tim Trautman and started working on the IPSF and coined the term ‘pole sports’. Soon, various federations across the world cropped up and competitive pole sports started gaining attention. However, this was not easy especially for Coates. Abuses were hurled at her as many didn’t appreciate her efforts to reinvent pole dancing as a serious sport.
It cannot be denied that the art of pole dancing is dominated by women, thanks to its exploitative history. In fact, a startling majority of pole sports federations across the world are run by women. Over the years, pole dancing has been harshly criticised as an antithesis to movements of female empowerment. Ariel Levy’s book* Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture* is one such literature. In the book she writes, “spinning greasily around a pole… is more of a parody of female sexual power than an expression of it. How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish for good for women?”
Many women who actually practice pole dancing vehemently criticise this view. Third wave feminists argue that women should have control over their lives and their decisions. The ability to choose a career path, manner of expression, dressing and so on is integral to the feminist movement. Therefore, the choice to be a pole dancer and or or a stripper is empowering as long as the woman concerned retains control over her decisions. However, the stigma against pole dancing perpetuates even among the most liberal-minded of people. An incident that bears testimony to the same took place back in September, 2016. An event aimed at ending violence against women and the popular culture of victim blaming called the “Take Back the Night” march was going to be organised, and London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC) was due to participate in the same. However, on finding out that a pole fitness studio would be in attendance, they immediately withdrew their participation. The programme manager for LAWC was quoted saying, “we will not solve women’s oppression by dancing on a pole”. In countries like China, Russia and several South and Central American countries, however, pole dance never existed in the heavily sexualised form that people in other countries popularly know of today. In fact, in Mexico, pole sports is funded alongside other Olympic sports. This includes provisions for sports science testing and youth programmes. Although pole sports found it easy to establish itself as a serious sport in these countries, the stigma of sex work continues to haunt athletes in the rest of the world.
A major set back came in 2011 when it came to light that an estimated 95% of all Pole Sports athletes were women, something that the IOC did not appreciate. However, this did little to discourage Coates and 2012 witnessed the inaugural edition of the World Pole Sports Championship with the humble participation count of 38 women and 5 men. By the following year, the youth category was introduced and the first year saw the participation of only 7 athletes. As the athletes continued to fight to establish pole sports as a serious sport, the need for a rulebook became very apparent. Very soon a rulebook was devised that lists down the compulsory moves and categories of skills required for ranking each routine. Initially the book comprised only 20 moves but by 2018, it was already 170 pages long. New techniques are invented and added every year. After hiccuping its way through the years, 2017 brought in great news for pole sports enthusiasts. The male and novice categories were introduced in the World Pole Sports Championship which increased male participation by 70% and an 80% increase in participation in the youth category was observed. A total of a staggering 229 athletes from 36 countries across the globe competed in the event.
However, in spite of all this, Katie Coates’ goal of making pole sports an Olympic event remained unfulfilled. She reached her first milestone in the direction of the same in 2017 when GAISF announced its recognition of pole dancing as a professional sport. Coates was quoted saying, “In the early 2000’s people started doing it as fitness routine and taking away the sex stigma, so no high heels and making it accessible for average people. Pole dancing is not like everyone thinks it is, you need to actually watch it to understand.” The IPSF continues to emphasise that pole sports is all about “athleticism and technical merit” and that it is in line with “other Olympic standard sports such as gymnastics, diving and ice skating.” They argue that even though the act of pole dancing is popularly associated with strip clubs, a performance does not have to contain an erotic element. By extension, the IPSF deems pole sports appropriate for all ages and audiences and thus, runs competitions for athletes between the ages of 10 and 65.
There are three basic criteria that a particular sport needs to meet in order for it to be eligible for Olympic consideration. Firstly, it needs to be signed to the World Anti-Doping Agency. It also must be a full member of GAISF and finally, it must have at least 50 national federations. Pole sports currently fulfills only the first criteria. In February, 2020, GAISF awarded Observer Status for a further 2 years to pole sports. However, there is still a long way to go before we probably actually see pole sports in the Games.
It is clear that pole dancing has come a long way from its days of being a profession that required women to strip for men in exchange for money while society continued to look down upon them to a sport that is fast gaining attention and support to be featured in the Olympics. A little more than two decades ago pole dancers were afraid of even acknowledging their profession in fear of being seen as ‘too easy’ and harassed. Today, women are using the art of pole dancing for their sensual awakening and learning how to be sexy for themselves. A large number of people across the world have incorporated pole dancing into their fitness routines. Many others, irrespective of their gender and age, are embracing pole dancing as a form of expression and sport. Presently, it is fast turning into a symbol of feminism much the same way the mini skirt has become the symbol of women’s liberation over the years. However, whether or not pole dancing will be able to make space for itself in the Olympics is a question only time can answer. For now, that continues to be the goal that athletes have in mind as they fight for recognition.
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