A sport that’s gaining global popularity as a fitness trend still has an image problem.
As Rio de Janeiro in Brazil prepares itself for the football World Cup, another, very different sporting event took place in the city this weekend.
The third annual Pole World Cup saw more than 150 men and women from 36 countries competing for a top prize (valued at RM110,200). Yet competitors don’t call their moves “dancing”, and you won’t find any sexy costumes here – this is pole fitness, a sport that’s gaining momentum internationally, and is even pushing for inclusion in the Olympics.
Pole fitness is a combination of acrobatics, gymnastics – and the pole dancing you might recognise from a nightclub. The first schools for what was then called “exotic dance” opened in North America in the 1990s, but now pole fitness is popular worldwide.
Earlier this year, photos of the Chinese national team rehearsing in the snow went viral, while finalists at the World Pole Dance Championships 2014 came from 14 countries, including Argentina, New Zealand, Russia, Brazil and Cyprus.
The winner of the event’s women’s singles category, Kate Czepulkowski (stage name Bendy Kate), is from Bristol, and the auditorium was full of her fans from pole clubs around the country. Pole fitness is one of Britain’s biggest new fitness trends and amateur classes are springing up everywhere, with at least 10 dedicated schools in London and many more in Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton.
Classes are often women-only, though more and more mixed classes are popping up and most competitions now include men’s categories. Controversially, junior classes for children as young as three are also on offer at many pole studios.
A typical class begins with stretches, followed by lifts and moves on the pole. Most first-timers can expect to barely lift themselves off the ground, while the most advanced moves seem to defy gravity – athletes grip the pole with a single foot or several fingers. The lifts and tricks tone muscles, while high-intensity choreographed routines provide a cardio workout.
Katarina Hromnikova, who teaches pole fitness classes in a gym in London, says the sport has become so popular that it’s hard for her to take a holiday.
“My girls love coming every week and there aren’t enough teachers to cover me – they have their own classes to teach.” Her classes tend to be made up of dedicated regulars, who come every week to build endurance and muscle strength.
In the past five years, the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association has been pushing for pole fitness to be included in the Olympics by improving its instructor accreditation system and promoting the sport through international competitions.
Yet the sport remains controversial – Swansea University Students’ Union banned its student pole society last year, and in a statement said the sport as a whole upholds “raunch culture and the objectification of women and girls”.
In order to escape the sleazy undertones, pole fitness is undergoing something of an image overhaul, and competitions have introduced strict rules about clothing and dance style.
Competitor guidelines for the International Pole Sports Federation Championships 2013-2014 stipulated that tops should “fully cover the breast area for women and show no added or unnecessary cleavage”, while men could go topless – but only if they started their routine topless and didn’t strip off their shirt midway through.
Heels are usually a no-no in amateur classes, though are sometimes worn in competitions. In general, legs and feet must be bare to grip the pole. A standard uniform is shorts, T-shirt and special hand powder or gel to improve grip.
At last weekend’s Pole World Cup 2014, organisers appointed a costume committee to check all entrants’ outfits, with instructions to disqualify any competitors wearing heels, bikinis, thongs, leather, rubber or latex, and there were also guidelines for performance: “Any movement relating to sex shall entail disqualification.”
But are these rules pushing the sport away from its roots, and limiting competitors in the process? Charlotte Robertson, Alan Carr’s body double for his Chatty Man performance, first tried pole fitness four years ago after spending 10 years as a professional gymnast, and the “sexier” aspects of the sport have grown on her.
“I’m on the fence with the sexy/non-sexy debate,” she says. “Obviously for Alan Carr the routine had to be humorous, as it was ‘Alan’ performing, but the more I see people performing the sexier pole styles the more I appreciate how impressive and empowering it is. We should embrace all the different varieties, not suppress them.” – Guardian News & Media 2014