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The Art of the Pole Pastime: Sports Club Sweats Out Stigmas

Pole fitness is on the rise. The activity became a professional sport in 2017, and ever since there have been increasing calls for inclusion in international sporting events such as the Olympics.

But despite the recent international recognition and transformation into a more mainstream sport, the activity continues to become the brunt of stereotypes and dismissals. It’s hard for many to see past its close proximity to sex work.

To understand the popularity surrounding the sport and its rise, I joined the Saints Pole Dancing, a university athletic club. The club’s classes, which range from beginner to Advanced, can only hold eight students each, with pairs to poles. This puts the capacity of the club to a strict cap of around forty. The society was only established in 2021, but the official university club has grown so popular that — this semester alone — it was forced to reject over 100 applicants.

Members said that its appeal is that it combines strength, flexibility, and artistry, providing a rigorous whole-body workout (with safety ensured by the trained professionals who lead each session). While the club said it occasionally has to deal with criticism and misogynic slights, they sweat it off by the time they’re back in the gym.

“I think realistically lots of the movement around it now is about empowerment”, said Natalie Wood, Saints Pole Dancing’s president. “Maybe you have the odd man who chooses to objectify you for a laugh, but you get bored of it after a while.”

I attended an ‘intermediate session’ to find out more about the club. The group began with a rigorous warm up before entering into conditioning training and practising some skills. I found myself in awe of their capabilities. The group are all able to seamlessly replicate the ‘Martini’ move, which entails emulating the ‘Y’ shape of a martini glass whilst being entirely off the ground. To say the least, core strength is a must.

Although elegant, the sport is certainly not for the faint of heart, Wood said. Bruises are an undisputed given, and there’s an obvious injury risk that comes with holding yourself several feet in the air. To minimise slippage, towels are used after each turn to erase any sweat, and the group members consistently apply a grip spray onto themselves and the steel poles.

But the club isn’t all about the workout, said my instructor, Isa Wolting, who had just started as a society teacher in September. “It fills my heart with joy seeing people have a good time in class and take photos of all the stuff they’ve learnt”, she said.

Operating as any other Athletic Union club does, the society has socials — although there is no pressure to drink, said Wood — and the club encourages anyone, regardless of gender or skill level, to join too.

This inclusivity and encouragement is reflected in class, where students can be heard offering each other assurance and cheering on their peers as they take turns on the poles. It’s also something the club is trying to reflect in its membership, which Wood said they are hoping to grow before they start competing in the next few years.

But everyone involved hasn’t been the only challenge. Members say that many still cannot escape the idea that the artistry and creativity behind pole dancing can only be associated with explicitness and sex.

“A lot of us will have experiences where you tell someone you pole dance and the first thing they say is ‘oh, are you a stripper?”, club secretary Jiayi Ee said. “I’ve explained the conditioning and sport behind it and have been accused of lying.”

But the group doesn’t want to suggest that they think associating the sport with sex work might be an insult, something Wood said would be imply they had a misalliance with women in that industry. “We would never want to make it seem like we were actively against people who are involved in sex work”, Wood said.

There are multiple origins of pole dancing that go beyond sexual culture, as well. For example, the Chinese pole, dating back to the twelfth century, involved circus performers on a ten-metre-high pole performing acrobatic feats. The Indian Pole, or ‘Mallakhamb’ also originated over eight hundred years ago.

“Choosing which cultures to accept and choosing others to push away — we don’t really feel comfortable doing that”, added Wood, who got into the sport herself after a year abroad in Russia.

There are also different genres such as flow and exotic, which are more dance-centred and may incorporate a sexier culture. Wood voices that every form is of equal validation, “We want to be able to support everyone within that,” she said.

She added that even the language within the industry can be stigmatising. “I think it is a bit problematic to call [exotic] in itself”, she said.

No one, the girls tell me, who has joined the club has ever tried to make the distinction that they only align themselves with pole fitness and reject the sexual association with the sport. “We do tell people from the start that you need to have this inclusive mindset because otherwise, you’re ‘culture vulturing’ of sorts”,Woods said.

As I thank Wood and Ee for letting me observe the class and for taking the time to speak to me, I comment on the welcoming and all-embracing environment that the society upholds.

“A lot of people are very clued on that it is a very good form of exercise”, Wood responded. “It’s obviously fun, and also very inclusive and happy too.”

The astronomical membership demand for the club is clearly constitutive of the effort and commitment that members and the incredible teachers put into each class.

With expansion on the horizon, and the entrance of competitions in coming years, Pole Dancing Society truly is the one to watch. It is frankly difficult to see a reason as to why people shouldn’t sign up (aside from, of course, the one-hundred-person waitlist for now).

Photo: Natalie Wood

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