WBUR

Pole Dancing Is Empowering Performance Art

Future pediatric nurse Gabrielle Valliere hopes to make her students, colleagues and family proud with her performance at the U.S. National Pole Dancing Championship. (Courtesy of Kari Sedano/USPDF, LLC)

NEW YORK — There was certainly a time when pole dancing was limited to dark, smoke-filled bars and performed for men whose eyes had glazed over from too many over-priced drinks. But the sold-out U.S. National Pole Dancing Championship is being staged in the bright performance hall at Symphony Space, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Inside, women like Jeremee and her friends from PoleLaTeaz in Atlanta are excited about this night’s competition. Jeremee says she’s a lover of all things pole dance.

“I say all the time it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” she laughs. “It’s confidence that they do have sometimes in those clubs but it’s so much more. It’s empowerment for women.”

Jeremee is the stereotypical pole dance success story. She says the sport has changed her life.

“When I started pole dancing I was actually about 47 percent body fat, 265-270 on a good day, if I had a little cheese,” Jeremee admits. “I lost 24 percent of my body fat in the first year.”

Leigh Ann Riley, one of 12 finalists and the owner of BeSpun in Hollywood, says she’s not surprised to see the 700-seat theater filled with women like Jeremee.

“This is completely different. This is a performance art that just happens to use a vertical pole.”

– Leigh Ann Riley

“These are all women that participate in the sport,” Leigh Ann says. “Guys go to strip clubs for what they go to strip clubs for. This is completely different. This is a performance art that just happens to use a vertical pole.”

The pole dance work-out craze began a few years back with everyone from “Desperate Housewives” to Martha Stewart taking a spin. Today, the sport has made the transition from strip club to performance venue and this winter the International Pole Dance Fitness Association began circulating a petition to get competitive pole dancing recognized as an Olympic sport.

Pole dancers are scored on their transitions, technique, execution, originality, flexibility and original style. Like in figure skating, there is a compulsory round in which competitors must perform certain tricks, and an optional round in which they are encouraged to break new ground. And although quite a bit of bare skin is needed to grip the pole and perform more advanced moves, Leigh Ann says nudity is strictly prohibited.

“The truth is, it is extremely athletic,” Leigh Ann says. “And you can absolutely compete in it. You put these girls up, you give them criteria, and you see who’s the best.”

Jessalynn Medairy has been practicing her routines every day for weeks and all that practice has taken its toll. Pole dancers don’t just swing around the pole with their hands. They turn upside down and hang by their legs, or their underarms, or even their stomachs. They climb to the top of the pole and loosen their grip, plummeting toward the stage. Sometimes they fall head first and stop themselves right before they crash. Other times they land in the splits.

Like most of this night’s finalists, Jessalynn has a laundry list of injuries. She’s injured her ear, bruised her shoulder, lost skin on her stomach, pulled a hamstring and more.

“I broke my two left toes last week and that was fun,” Jessalynn says. “It’s gonna be worth it. I’ll go see a doctor when it’s all over but right now they’re not really attached.”

Lauren Goldstein, left, poses for the camera. (Karen Given/WBUR)

Many of the finalists, like Jessalynn and Leigh Ann, are pole dance instructors. Others are elementary school teachers, grad students and moms. Gabrielle Valliere is finishing up her final semester of nursing school and teaches pole dancing on the side. Gabrielle was a cheerleader for the New England Patriots for five years, so she’s no stranger to skin-baring outfits. But, she says her family didn’t quite get it when she made the transition from NFL cheerleader to competitive pole dancer.

“Oh god,” Gabrielle sighs. “I’m glad they’re coming today and can really see what I’ve been up to and don’t think that I’ve been shaking my moneymaker for a couple of dollar bills somewhere. Because it’s certainly the complete antithesis of that.”

As a slightly nervous Gabrielle takes the stage for the compulsory round, one of the women in the audience shouts, “You’re hot!” Gabrielle has 90 seconds to make it through the required moves, including floor work, two spins, a spinning inversion, a split, a pirouette and a handstand on the pole.

The sport is still too young to have a standardized glossary of tricks — meaning that people like Allegra, Miss Pole Dance Australia, can name their own moves.

“I can’t explain it. You’d have to see a picture,” Allegra insists. “My arm is behind my knee, my top leg is straight, my bottom leg is bent, and I’m grabbing onto my foot.”

Competitive pole dancers each have their own style. Zoraya Judd’s might be the most distinctive. She moves fluidly from one perfectly held strength move to another, almost as if she was demonstrating advanced yoga moves while hanging 10 or more feet in the air. Zoraya is a mom and fitness instructor from Salt Lake City who took her first six months of pole lessons in a class full of men.

“We did no sexy spins or floor work,” Zorah explains. “It was all strength and crazy circus-y flips and stuff like that.”

Alethea Austin made her living as a photographer until she discovered pole dancing. She says she’s been doing gymnastics since birth, but came to pole dancing as a way to rehab neck and shoulder injuries from a serious car accident. Alethea says she was a “baby poler” when she took second place at the 2009 championships. She promises her tricks have only gotten better.

“Oh, they’re much bigger,” Alethea says. “I can’t even look at my routine from last time. We all have really trained and learned and progressed this past year.”

Costumes and props are allowed in the optional round, and the lights come up on Alethea handcuffed to the pole. Despite the restriction, she still manages to twist and spin and contort into dozens of positions. It’s easy to see why her routine — which offers equal parts athleticism and artistic impression — impresses the judges and earns first place.

Alethea takes home a $5,000 check, round-trip airfare to Australia, and a dozen other prizes. It’s a far cry from an Olympic gold medal, but the petition to include pole dancing in the 2012 Games in London has already gathered more than 4,000 signatures.

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