Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pole Position

A few years ago, I wrote an article for a magazine that never made it past the concept stage, (The magazine that is. The story was completely written). I've actually done that quite a bit. The stories I write never go anywhere, and I (rarely) never see a dime from it. Such a waste. So, since I have this ridiculous excuse for a blog, I figured that I might as well post them here, to remind people that I'm not just a demented man-child with a keyboard. I'm actually a writer and, when the mood strikes me, a competent journalist. Enjoy!

With the requisite morning coffee in hand, I stumbled sleepily, to my computer.  My eyes blurry and crusty from the previous night’s slumber. I began to check my email, as is my morning ritual, (after all, you never know when that all-too-vital email from Amerie will appear, she has to respond to one of my hundreds of emails at some point!)  when an email from my editor caught my eye.
               
 “You want to do a piece about competitive pole dancing?” he asked.
              
  Do I?! Does a bear poop in the woods? Was the Pope a Hitler Youth? Is Susan Boyle ugly? Of course I do! What hot-blooded, straight man wouldn’t?
               
 I cleared the crust out of my eyes and checked the email again. Nope, it’s not an early morning, sleep-induced hallucination. It’s an actual offer to do a story about pole dancing. I must have done something good in a former life.

Images of dark and seedy night clubs populated by beautifully naked and tripled-jointed women, flashed through my mind. Scenes of dollar bill-stuffed, g-string-wearing pelvises, gyrating inches from men’s faces, danced in my head, like sugar plum fairies from the famous Christmas poem.

I immediately and enthusiastically agreed to do the story. After all, it’s my duty, both as a man and a journalist, to share the joy of pole dancing with anybody and everybody who cares to listen. I would be doing the Lord’s work. I just hoped I had enough one dollar bills for practical fieldwork.

After looking into things, my first revelation about the world of competitive pole dancing was also the most shocking: there is no nudity.  None. Nada. Not the slightest bit. This bit of news completely shattered my one-dimensional (and slightly misogynistic) idea of just what competitive pole dancing was about.

THE  EARLY DAYS WERE THE HURLY BURLY DAYS

According to Anna Grundstrom, one of the founders of the US Pole Dancing Federation, even though nobody is entirely sure of its origins, pole dancing can trace its roots back hundreds of years.

“There are many different sources of where pole dancing started. Some say it derives from an Indian dance called Mallakhamb. Other sources say it goes back to the Scandinavians dancing around the may pole,” she said.

Kay Penney, founder and managing director of Pole Passion Ltd., a UK-based company that offers pole dancing classes, parties and promotes the legitimacy of pole dancing as a sport, gives credence to the theory that the may pole could be the ancestor to our modern pole dance.

“The may pole has also been a suggestion where ladies and young girls used to do their fertility dance around the ‘pole’ to symbolize their fertility to males who were the bystanders,” she said. “The exact linage of pole dance is shrouded in mystique, with a certain stigma attached to the dance. There is little written history and until very recently, pole dance has remained ‘underground.’”
                
According to Penney, the first recorded pole dance was in 1968 by “Belle Jangles”, at a strip club in Oregon called Mugwump.
                
“There is however, a suggestion that the art form evolved much earlier in the early 1900s.The striptease dance was added to burlesque shows which featured strippers, including Gypsy Lee Rose.  Travelling tent shows had striptease acts whereby these travelling dancers may have taken inspiration from the Middle East and belly dance as they migrated throughout Europe,” Penney said. 

“In the smaller tents the dancers started to use the pole in the tent’s center to dance around.  These tents became known as the dance pole tents.”
                
POLE DANCING REDEFINED, MINUS THE STIGMA
                
The modern concept of pole dancing that most people are familiar with didn’t get started until the 1980s at table and lap dancing clubs in Canada and the United Kingdom.  It’s gained in popularity ever since, and not just with libidinous men, but with the performers themselves.
                
“Women in countries such as Australia and Canada, realized that dancing on a pole was an art in itself, and a great workout, and took it a step further by bringing it out of the clubs and into dance and fitness studios,” Grundstrom said.
               
 From strip clubs to dance studios, the movement to make pole dancing a legit sport is strong and is growing faster than China’s economy.  Interestingly enough, women are the greatest proponents of taking pole dancing mainstream. With the use of pole dance parties.

In the beginning of this nascent century, pole dance parties were created and designed exclusively for ladies by ladies. These parties were instructed in private party dwellings and were mainly held and organized for fun and fitness for the groups of ladies involved as opposed to titillate the opposite sex, Penny said.   

Women recognized the sheer athleticism required to do complicated and involved pole dancing routines.

The parties were and are about education of the dance form. The art and complex techniques required to do this art form safely and effectively with fluidity and grace demonstrates huge amounts of flexibility, strength, endurance, patience and practice, Penney said.

These pole dance parties whetted the appetites of women interested in learning more about this dance style and led to the creation of pole dance classes at fitness clubs around the world. There, women (and the occasional uninhibited man) could exercise and learn an art form at the same time. 

DARWIN’S THEORY OF EVOLUTION OF POLE DANCING

“Pole dancing is still in a developing stage and just this past couple of years it has grown in various directions. Some focus more on the athletic and competitive aspect, others on a more creative from or artistic expression,” Grundstrom said.

The increasing popularity of these dance and fitness classes led to the creation of pole dance associations, such as the USPDF, created by Grundstrom and her partner Wendy Traskos, both accomplished dancers who discovered pole dancing and were awed by the beauty, grace and skill required to perform the maneuvers. The USPDF does national competitions once a year, as well as smaller regional competitions.

“We wanted to contribute to the standards of the pole community and bring pole dancers together by hosting competitions. The only competitions we knew of here in the US were held in clubs which didn’t seem to fair,” Grundstrom said.

Similar competitions are held in England and other countries by other burgeoning pole dance associations. Although, without an overall governing and regulating body fully established, attempts to bring the sport mainstream hasn’t progressed as fast as it could. It has proven very costly and time consuming, Penney said.

The lack of uniform standards in the community, in terms of judging, scoring and dance moves has hampered making this a completely legitimate sport, but it has done nothing to dissuade athletes and dancers from giving their all in competitions, or when training.

ATHLETES? DANCERS? YOU DECIDE!

The training required to become a competitive pole dancer isn’t for the faint of heart. It demands dedication, commitment and the desire to one day be featured on a box of Wheaties.  Hours upon hours of exercise and training divide the serious competitors from novices just looking to get in shape.

“The current world champion [Felix Cane] trained for four to six hours per day, three months prior to this year’s world championships,” Penney said.

Zoraya Judd, 29, a professional dancer from Salt Lake City, focuses heavily on core and resistance training when she exercises.  Using a regimen given by one of her sponsors, Atlas Fitness, Zoraya hits the gym two to three hours a day, five days a week. 

The resistance training that I do is all based on functionality and core. I don't do anything unless it has direct correlation with what I do on the pole,” she said.

I train Monday through Friday and take the weekends off. Monday through Friday I do resistance training purely for core strength and functionality,” Judd said. “A few weeks away from competition I do heavy training. When it starts to get closer to the date, I do mainly cardio and focus on the pole. Pull ups are a huge part of my regimen. I do three sets of 20, three times per week. My diet close to competition is very much like a body builder preparing for a show: a lot of protein and not much of anything else.”

Judd discovered pole dancing a year ago, at the suggestion of a guy friend at her gym.

For the first few months of me attending pole classes, I was the only girl in an all-male advanced class. I was horrible! But I loved how it challenged me mentally and physically. From the first time stepping into a pole studio I was hooked,” she said.

Much like the other women lured into the visually poetic world of pole dancing, Zoraya was attracted by the grace and beauty of the sport, as well as amount of strength and determination it takes to make the moves look so controlled, she said.

From there, Zoraya decided to compete into whatever competitions she could.  Her first competition (which she also won) was the Miss Pole Fetish Utah, in April of last year. After that, she participated in the United States Pole Dancing Federation West Coast Regionals (try saying that five times fast) and others. Currently, she’s training for the USPDF Pro Division National Championship in March. The competition will be fierce. Scantily-clad women from all over the country will come together to do athletic moves on steel poles that’ll make firemen shake their heads in disbelief.

WHY SUCH SKIMPY CLOTHES?

A question that often comes up is, if pole dancing is about art and beauty and not about giving random men chubbies, then why the provocative and barely-there clothing?

I always make the joke that the better you get on the pole, the less clothes you wear. But the joke stops there,” Judd said. ”When you get into advanced holds and poses your skin acts as a gripping tool to help you remain on the pole. Clothes can be dangerous for that reason. This is also why the costumes for competitions and the dress recommendation for practice is what it is. I think of body building and other fitness competitions where the body is judged. Ironically enough, some of those costumes tend to be even more revealing than many things I've seen in the pole world.”

Besides, competing, Judd has decided to give back to the pole dancing community, teaching classes for women and men. Be it for training, or simply for exercise, her students come in all shapes and sizes and they all enjoy the sport.

“You can compare pole dancing to yoga, pilates and gymnastics. Even watching competitive pole dancing, some of the poses and moves are like those used in professional ice skating, elite level gymnastics and many forms of dance, both modern and classical,” she said.

WHAT DOTH THE FUTURE HOLD? PERHAPS THE ANSWER LIES IN SPONSORSHIP…

With more than 200 pole dancing studios in just the US alone, this sport is done being relegated to sleazy strip clubs (and it will be missed, especially by that clientele.) When you factor in the thousands of participants, here and around the globe, pole dancing is certainly on its way to becoming a legitimate sport. Who knows? Maybe one day soon, we’ll all be able to watch pole dancing on ESPN. Or, if the major proponents in the sport have their way, the Olympics.

I see pole as having the potential to go all the way to the Olympics. There is a large movement trying to get pole into the Olympics. I could easily see it as a category of gymnastics,” Zoraya said. “Pole is already a legit sport, though people need to look past their own false pretenses and see that it is an aerial art. I am an aerial artist and my apparatus of choice is the pole.”

One way to make this dream come true is by the use of sponsorship. Everything from poles, to shoes, to clothes, to makeup and hair spray is sponsored by companies. This sponsorship is a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship between athlete and corporation.

“[Sponsors] help get you to the next 'step'. Without sponsors, the competitor needs to come up with travel, hotel, rental car, entrance fees, costumes, etc. They also help to appear more acceptable. For example, say I have a clothing brand that is widely accepted as a trend. If they sponsor me then people will see me as acceptable due to the credibility of the sponsor,” Judd said.

So basically, the sponsor is the rich and attractive date with the proper connections to get you into the best nightclubs. Sure you can stand like a chump in the line while it’s raining, but wouldn’t you rather just walk straight into the entrance, give the bouncer a terrorist fist bump and sashay into the club? Damn straight you would, and that’s the role the sponsors play.

Combine a clamoring, passionate group of athletes, an exponentially growing fan-base, companies willing to participate in the enterprise and committed leaders and promoters and you could possibly have the next big Olympic sport.

Why not? It’s more interesting to watch than curling.

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