Pole sports merges dance and acrobatics with a vertical metal pole. For example, athletes climb up, spin from, hang off, flip onto, jump off, and invert on, poles. Therefore, pole sports requires agility, strength, balance, endurance, and flexibility. A 2017 study of 52 female pole dancers indicated that pole dance fitness improves strength and posture. Pole sports athletes include men and women of various ages and physical ability (including para-athletes). They perform alone or with other athletes (e.g. doubles competitions).
Poling quickly developed into a fitness activity and sport in the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in a variety of national and international pole competitions. The International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF) was formed in 2009 by Tim Trautman and Katie Coates, and has been taking steps to bring pole to the Olympics. The IPSF has been holding world championships since 2012, and in 2017 pole was one of seven sports granted observer status by the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF).
Poling involves technique as well as artistry. When entering a pole competition, each athlete performs a routine to music. Athletes are judged on their ability to perform complex movements (e.g. spins, strength poses, flexibility poses) as well as their choreography choice, style, and ability to express themselves to the audience. Poles used in IPSF pole sports competitions are made from brass, are 45mm in diameter, with 4m of usable height. In competitions, athletes utilize a static (non-spinning) pole and a spinning pole. With this type of poling, skin helps performers effectively grip the slippery poles. Hence, athletes commonly wear outfits that expose the skin on their shoulders, waist, arms and legs. IPSF requires that competitors have their pelvis, gluteal, and breast (for women) areas covered throughout performances. Note that performers engaged in Chinese pole utilize different poles where heavier and thicker clothing can be beneficial in protecting the body.
Poles have historically been used in various physical activities such as Mallakhamba and Chinese Pole. Mallakhamb traces its origins to malla-yuddha in the 12th century, an indigenous wrestling form in India. Mallakhamb commonly involves the use of a 2.25m wooden pole and a cotton rope. The practice has a spiritual component, involves acrobatic and yogic movements, and was first developed as a tool for wrestlers. Over time it has developed into a contemporary sport. “When mallakhamb re-emerged in the nationalist period before Indian independence, it was practiced separate to wrestling. At this point, paradoxically, the actual form of mallakhamb, in its new incarnation, became influenced by English competitive sports and took on the structural framework of colonial British gymnastics. It was at this point that mallakhamb became an organized sport and was most often practiced in western style gymnasiums and urban sport grounds." Practicing the sport has been demonstrated to improve mood. According to Qifeng and Xining, acrobatic Chinese pole climbing was first mentioned 2,000 years ago. Techniques came out of tree climbing for agricultural purposes. Today, Chinese pole is a professional acrobatic activity that has been included in Cirque du Soleil, and is even taught for recreational purposes in some aerial gyms such as Aerial Athletica in Las Vegas. Although various online articles and websites draw historical connections between these ancient activities and contemporary pole dance and pole sports, exactly how much and in what ways mallakhamb and Chinese pole may have affected their development is unclear. Regardless, the existence of pole use in mallakhamb and Chinese pole has been used to argue that pole dance and pole sports are not inherently erotic and may be suitable for youth. Online conversations also suggest contemporary connections, such as the adoption of moves from Chinese pole by pole dancers/athletes (for example see this online interview with Carlos Ramírez where he argues pole dance is being influenced by Chinese pole ).
Researchers suggest other potential influences on contemporary pole, such as maypole dancing. However, poling is commonly associated with stripping and exotic dance. For instance, some perceive contemporary poling as having come out of exotic dance clubs in North America in the 1980s. Note though that not all exotic dance clubs have poles, and exotic dancers do not all make the pole a central part of their performance. Fawnia Mondey-Dietrich, a fitness model, performer, and former exotic dancer, is often credited with developing the first instructional pole dance videos and classes in the 1990s. Since then, classes in exotic pole, pole fitness and pole dance have been offered in exotic dance clubs, bars, and traditional gyms, as well as specialized pole studios. Fawnia Mondey-Dietrich currently operates Pole Fitness Studio and hosts the annual Pole Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada. Polers have made a concerted effort to demonstrate that pole can be more than erotic and belongs in more than strip clubs. Even what terminology should be used to refer to contemporary poling is controversial; for example, those trying to distance pole dance from its erotic connotations talk about pole fitness. Currently, pole studios, or studios focused on teaching pole, have arisen in many places across the world, including Africa, Asia, America, Australia, and Europe. Pole studios offer classes that have erotic components as well as classes that are focused on fitness and athletics, such as Power Pole Sports that offers training in pole sports competition and judging.
Students taking beginning pole classes learn how to perform spins supporting their body weight with their hands. Over time they learn how to climb the pole, invert (or flip upside down), and perform complicated maneuvers or tricks. Pole classes therefore are physically challenging. Pole sports requires a high level of skill in understanding how the body’s points of contact work with the pole. As pole athletes advance in skill they are able to use fewer body points of contact with the pole, engage in more moves aerially without being on the ground, including deadlifting their bodies from one stationary aerial position where they are parallel to the pole into an inverted (or upside-down) position. Pole sports requires not just strength and flexibility, as one must also endure the pain and bruising that comes when interacting with a metal pole.
The development of poling into a fitness activity and sport has come with some tensions. Some feminists argue that poling will always be symbolically linked to exotic dancing, is part of the larger sexualization of culture, and is objectifying. However, studies of poling have shown that pole classes can provide a place for students to bond and support each other, and encourage their athleticism. Poling has aspects which are sex positive, may challenge gender and sexual stereotypes, and studies show polers can describe feeling empowered. Silvia Grosso of Milan Pole Studio (Miami base) explains that poling is a tough workout. It can be hard for students to get started. However, she believes poling is fun and creative compared to the traditional gym and she aims to have a studio that is part of a community where students have the freedom to express themselves.
However, there have been controversies between exotic dancers and fitness polers. For example, a Twitter debate erupted as some polers used the hashtag #notastripper to distance their poling from exotic dance; exotic dancers and supporters came back with #yesastripper. In response, other polers argue there is a pole community that needs to come together and support all forms of pole.
Pole dance and pole sports are now practiced in classes, in professional and international competitions, as well as on stages in non-strip club venues. For instance, Felix Cane and others have performed pole in Cirque du Soleil. The IPSF now hosts world competitions in not just pole sports but ultra pole, artistic pole, and para pole. Experienced pole athletes travel the world providing workshops to students in various countries.
Scholars of sport and leisure recognize a process where physical activities develop into sports. In general, sportification comes with rationalization. Modern sports (compared to previous eras) have the following characteristics according to Guttman: “secularism”; “equality of opportunity”, “specialization of roles”, “rationalization”; “bureaucratic organization”; “quantification”; and “the quest for records.”
In line with this, pole dance has been rationalized into pole sports. In 2008 the International Pole Sports Federation was founded. Under this umbrella organization, national federations and competitive teams have formed. The organization has formalized rules and a code of points. “Pole sports: This flagship discipline includes artistic elements but is based more heavily on athleticism and technical merit, and judged by an original Code of Points in line with other Olympic standard sports such as diving, ice skating and gymnastics.” Sometimes traditional practices disappear in the sportification process; however, poling is still practiced in exotic dance clubs.
Pole as an Extreme Sport
As pole has developed, more groups of people have become involved in poling. The tricks performed have multiplied as the pole community has developed new techniques and shared them interpersonally and online. As part of this, some athletes perform acrobatic tricks and jumps and other maneuvers, making poling into an extreme sport. The IPSF now supports ultra pole competitions: “The exhilarating Ultra Pole, was designed to encourage innovation, embolden creativity, elevate freedom of expression, and escalate ultimate athleticism to attract the most radical and innovative athletes yet. Judged by the Freestyle Rules, Ultra Pole is an ultimate trick battle enabling the athlete to trick out against other competitors in battle style rounds.”
Companies have formed to support pole sports and other forms of pole. Companies make not just competition poles but poles for home and practice (for example see ). Performers use a variety of grip aides to manage how their skin interacts with the pole. These can minimize sweat or aid in stickiness. Further, companies now exist which promote clothing to polers.
Many people, competitions, and organizations have expanded the definition of Pole Sport to include Pole Art. Pole Art combines the athleticism of the sport of pole dancing while using creative means and self-expression to create artistic works with a pole.
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