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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  • Cam

    This is pathetic–when men start doing it, I’ll say, OK, maybe this is a real athletic competition…until then, come on–”handcuffed to the pole”? These women are willing participants in male fantasy, willing to be objectified and to further the idea of women simply being things to be ogled.

    Men don’t do this because they would rightly feel silly. And maybe they–and the women who don’t do this–have a bit more self respect than to gyrate in a come-hither way for all present. When was the last time you heard someone yell “You’re hot!” at a legitimate sporting event? Let’s not kid ourselves about what this activity really is.

    There are clearly terrible injuries described as well–puts me in mind of the way (largely female) cheerleaders do extremely risky stunts with no protective equipment or clothing (heaven forbid they wear something protective instead of something “cute”)–sometimes with fatal results–while boys are off playing football and hockey, surrounded by tons of quite sensible padding and helmets.

    There are plenty of other ways to get your exercise.

  • keys

    Pathetic — exactly. There’s this whole industry of people out there who distort the truth, make up excuses, and devalue excellence. This is just another sad example of talentless people packaging porn as art and hectoring the public to sign off on it.

  • http://www.poledello.com Laura

    Cam, you’re betraying your naivete’ by your comment. you’ve obviously never seen a serious pole dancing routine. doesn’t even sound like you read the entire article. for one, men DO pole. did you miss the line where it described Zoraya Judd first learning pole in a class full of men? It’s called Chinese Pole. here are men doing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVsvz6DuKEI most amazing part of the routine is at 5min30sec. I don’t think they feel silly. and yes, they are hot! chinese pole allows you to wear normal clothing, since it all depends on strength, and they use their sneakers to grip. women generally do not have the strength to use the same techniques, so you rely on using the friction of your skin against the metal to hold you on. it’s not to be “cute”.

    so why pole dance? because there is something mentally AND physically invigorating when you learn something new, and pole dancing embraces your background and personal aesthetic in a way that no other sport I know of does. you can perform in a way that goes from super sexy to classical. if you have 20 years of ballet experience, you might put together something like my wonderful instructor, Noelle Wood: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guYN7sjWdIQ Prefer something with a tango twist? Mariana Legarreto does: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v745Q9lbC4s or do you fancy swords, like the beautiful Becca Butcher? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6La1XdJczM and there are many many many more, including myself! I’m a SAHM who runs a daycare, loves to crochet, knit and papercraft, and oh yeah, I love my pole dance classes!! we recently held a student recital, and my mother, a super conservative limbaugh listening, AARP member, mormon, loved my performance!

    if you want to stand up for women’s rights to dignity and self-respect, how about respecting the choice to partipate in, and enjoy, a beautiful and demanding sport? Not sure what I think of it being in the Olympics, but it sure as hell beats out Curling, Skeleton, and Skiing & Shooting!

  • Isabella

    Both of the previous commentators have obviously never participated in a pole dancing class or seen it performed live in THIS type of venue. Don’t judge until you have experienced. It is NOT about pleasing men. I take classes where NO men are present. Pole dancing for fitness is incredibly challenging and physically grueling. Of course there is the sensual element to it, but in class it’s about more about self exploration and empowerment. All you have looking back at you are your own eyes in the mirror…. O, and it’s more fun than walking on a treadmill! Now what’s wrong with that?

  • Isabella

    O and men HAVE done it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWxcVyBRecE

    And men playing football suffer concussions and permanent brain damage, so the padding isn’t helping that much.

  • liza

    Cam and keys have said exactly what I was thinking while reading this; I find it pathetic and very depressing – like the clothes (mostly) young women wear today, this is supposed to reflect the “freedom” women have today, rather than the same old-same old: the value of a woman is her body.
    One more thing our capitalist culture has managed to co-opt: the women’s movement.

  • http://www.poledello.com Laura

    loooove the link, Isabella, thank you! what an awesome pair doing Chinese Pole tango style!!

  • Jay

    Great article! The petition has my signature! I have taken the fitness classes and they are SERIOUS BUSINESS, I dare anyone to do it! You never realize how fat your ass is until you have to lift it yourself!

  • Jason

    For those of you are just flaming about how this is pathetic, you are idiots. If boxing or golf or even table tennis can be a sport, then so can this. You need to go see this in person to really understand what it is all about. Those that do this do it because they love it, not because they are practicing to work at a strip club. It is also amazing difficult to do the more advanced techniques and requires a lot of strength and flexibility. AS for the statements about the clothes. Pole dancers can’t wear a lot of clothes because its very difficult to grip the pole when you are wearing clothing from head to toe. They need skin to pole contact to perform. I don’t see you bashing a swimmer for wearing skimpy clothing?! Think about about the other side and the reasoning behind it befor you spout off at the mouth without thinking. So many people have an opinion about everything when in most cases they don’t have a single clue about what the hell they are talking about.

    Oh and FYI, men don’t need women to be half naked or handcuffed to fantasize about them. We can fantasize about a woman in the middle of winter when she is wearing a sumo outfit!

  • Kay

    Explain to me how it is “pathetic and only for the male fantasy” if tens of thousands of women (who don’t compete in this competition) take pole classes on a weekly basis with other women? We take classes with other women, and don’t compete, and don’t let men in the door… we do it because we love it. so where’s your argument now?

  • Becky Schall

    I’ve been doing pole dancing for almost 2 years. This is the only cardio, weight exercise that has kept my interest. I have made great friends and yes it does make me feel sexy. In this world where uber feminism has taken awake historically feminine wiles it is nice to remember that I am woman. That sexiness is shared in class with my female friends but I carry that strength and confidence throughout my daily life dressed as your average girl next door. People who don’t appreciate this can go back to their sensual free lives and stop judging ours.

  • http://polefitnessassociation.com,studiosoiree.com Lizz

    I just loved this article, and I laugh at the ignorance. I am almost too tired of explaining it, and am grateful for these opportunities to really break the stigma, and educate people on this incredible SPORT. Yes, SPORT. And if you don’t believe that, then I have proved my point, you are ignorant.
    There is no other reason why it would be offensive or pathetic to anyone.

    This event was incredible, and the competitors made it what it was. Just so amazing. Kudos on the article, so fun to see represented well, and hear from some of my favorite people on the subject.

    Check out polesports.org for info on the Olympic effort, that WILL happen. polefitnessassociation.com, basically the Pole Professionals Union.

    Best Pole Wishes!

  • JustAGuy

    What is it about people that have the urge to judge what other people do?

    Are they adults? Yes.
    Are they hurting anyone? No.

    So then?

    I suggest you do as I do. If you don’t like something, don’t do it and/or don’t watch it. Let people have the freedoms you enjoy so much.

  • sirus faradi

    please send me a plethora of pictures & images about pole dancing.

  • Anonymous

    Pathetic — exactly. There’s this whole industry of people out there who distort the truth, make up excuses, and devalue excellence. This is just another sad example of talentless people packaging opinions as news and hectoring the public to sign off on it.

    Also, does the phrase “I know it when I see it” sound familiar to you?

  • Carissa

    HA!! Men pole dance as well, in fact- men and women from all over the world participate in this sport. Yes, SPORT. Google is your friend, use it. Seems to me you’re just an ignorant bigot who clearly knows very little about what you’re talking about.

  • Austin

    If you’re in Las Vegas, Stripper 101 at the Miracle Mile at Planet Hollywood has the best pole dancing class around. http://stripper101.com/

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