The words “pole dancing” conjure up the image of a smoky, dimly lit bar, a stage littered with crumpled currency and a woman in skimpy attire circling a pole. However, much like other forms of exotic dance, pole work has a past grounded in fitness and strength-building – and a future in the world of well-respected athletics.


Today’s “pole fitness” enthusiasts depend on a fusion of many different dance styles adapted for use with a vertical pole, blended with moves any Olympic gymnast could be proud of. It’s a new fitness trend that has become mainstream, and is sweeping the nation!


Pole fitness can be looked at as a combination of many different types of dance and athletic routines from around the world:


Chinese artists in the 12th century made the vertical pole central to their gymnastic routines. The performers wore full body costumes, and the focus was on the athleticism and strength of the artists, who displayed incredible agility and fitness. Some of the tricks, such as holding the body out at a 90 degree angle from the pole with weight supported by arm strength alone, are still hallmarks of many performing troupes.


Indian pole routines date back over 800 years, and originated in Maharashtra as “Mallakhamb” – which translates to “wrestler of the pole”. As the name indicates, the pole work was a way for wrestlers to train and improve their strength. Pole fitness in India is now a common way for gymnasts and other athletes to train, and (like Chinese pole work) is male dominated, but more and more women are joining the sport.


African tribal dancers are credited with bring sensuality to the pole dance – women would dance on their wedding night around a pole before retiring with their new husband to the bridal hut.


Parisian dancers excelled at burlesque – as featured in Moulin Rouge and other famous venues and acts. Many similar aspects are obvious in both modern pole routines and ring work. Victorian ladies (and men) would dance (fully clothed) with ribbons around the May Pole to celebrate spring – a tradition that travelled to the New World.


Latin dances, such as the tango and rumba, don’t involve a pole – but the careful foot placement, deliberate, sensual moves and flair of these dances also are reflected in modern artistic pole dancing.


Eastern belly dancers also made their mark – again with pole-less dances, but with the sensuous moves that accompany modern pole dancing. Ancient Sumerian dances centered around emulation of the goddess of love, Inanna, who was said to have discarded one item of clothing or jewelry at each gate between her and her lover (the original “strip-tease).


The world renowned Canadian “Cirque de Soleil” gymnasts features many of the same types of moves pole dancers use – only with suspended rings and hanging scarves instead a pole.


The Western art of pole dancing is said to taken form during the 1920s, when women of depression era travelling fairs would entice viewers into the big top and entertain them by dancing around the pole in the center of the tent while waiting for the main attraction. Pole dancing then made its way into early US based burlesque shows and strip clubs, and quickly became associated with strip tease acts.


The Road to Respectability


In the late 1990s, pole dancing was still an activity mostly performed by exotic dancers – but the tide was turning. Women began to view pole fitness as an empowering activity, and “pole dancing for beginners” became a much in demand class. Today there are multiple national and international organizations promoting pole fitness and hundreds of studios across the country offering pole dancing classes.


Today, pole fitness focuses on the physical strength and artistic grace that is innate to pole work. The costumes are often skimpy, but with an eye to convenience, comfort and flexibility (like any other gymnastic sport), instead of eroticism. Huge competitions are held yearly for professional and amateur pole dancers, and the sport has expanded to include men once again. There is even strong support to have pole fitness routines included as an Olympic sport!