On most weekdays, Cristi, 33, works in marketing for a fashion company, a regular 9-to-5 job. But on a recent Friday afternoon, she could be found at Symphony Space doing a split in the theater aisle as a friend pulled back her arms, assisting her in a deep stretch.
She would need that limber spine in a few hours, when she took the stage at the U.S. Pole Dance Championship, whipping herself around a steel apparatus to “Cornflake Girl” by Tori Amos. (To keep her professional life separate, she preferred to use only her first name.)
“It’s a great way for me to de-stress, add some creativity, and all those types of things,” she said, explaining why, five years ago, she got hooked on pole dancing.
The other competitors at this two-day event — 115 in all — had also, clearly, caught the pole bug. Some, like Cristi, work full time in other fields, practicing and teaching pole dance on the side; others make their living in the growing pole dance industry, as teachers and studio owners. Some have backgrounds in gymnastics or ballet; others never danced before attending their first pole class.
But all had been drawn, in one way or another, into the curious hybrid of art, sport, exotic dance and fitness craze that pole dancing has become. Having largely shed its strip-club-only reputation — though as one competitor said, “it’s still a little naughty” — the form has developed a wide following in the past 15 to 20 years, among everyone from people seeking a fun workout to athletes lobbying for its status as an Olympic sport.
And while a handful of dancers would leave the championship with coveted prizes — including a trip to Miss Pole Dance Australia and the titles of Miss Sexy and Miss Trixter — the energy in the theater, as they warmed up and tested the equipment onstage, was more communal than cutthroat.
“Even if it’s competitive, these are some of the nicest competitors — they’re helpful to each other,” said Kellye Janel, an actor, model and makeup artist who would perform that night in the doubles category with her dance partner, Christopher Kyle. Like many of the solo routines, theirs involved feats of propelling and contorting the body around the pole, with the added thrill of one dancer, say, holding the other by the ankles upside down.
Kyle, 27, would also be competing in the men’s division, one of just five contestants in that category. While pole dancing attracts mostly women — many of whom describe it as empowering and addictive — its popularity has been growing among men.
“I know straight men that pole dance now, and that’s awesome,” said Blaine Petrovia, 27, also a competitor in the men’s division. “It feels extremely mainstream.”
Creating a supportive, inviting environment has always been important to Wendy Traskos, the competition’s founder, who established the U.S. Pole Dance Federation (USPDF) in 2008. (The U.S. Pole Dance Championship, first held in 2009 at the now-shuttered Bleecker Street Theater, is the federation’s signature event.) A former gymnast and go-go dancer, Traskos, 47, turned her focus to pole dancing after four years as a fitness competitor with the National Physique Committee, the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the country.
Her experience in that world was “not super awesome,” she said, “only because people were real competitive and not real friendly, so the day of the show wasn’t much fun.”
“In the fitness industry, nobody would help you put Bikini Bite on or anything like that,” she recalled, referring to a brand of body glue. “Everybody’s sitting sneering at you eating their oatmeal or chicken across the room.”
For her own competition — the first of its kind in this country — she wanted to offer a more positive experience, where participants could enjoy the culmination of their hard work while the audience enjoyed a good show.
Since starting her own studio, New York Pole Dancing, in 2005, Traskos has had to contend with the misconception of dancing on a pole as synonymous with stripping — though “if that’s what you do for money, no judgment,” she said.
“If you see pole dancing in a strip club versus a pole performance, they’re two completely different things,” she noted. Still, while some organizations — like the American Pole League, part of the International Pole Sports Federation — align with a sportier image, Traskos doesn’t want to suppress the sensual side of the art form.
“There’s no G-strings, no nudity, nothing like that in our competitions,” she said, “but women have the freedom to express themselves in a sensual, sexy manner if they want.”
Even at its most risqué — or especially, given the challenge of wielding platform heels, as many performers do — pole dancing requires great strength, especially in the core and upper body. A tolerance for the pain of skin gripping metal also helps.
“Pole dancers are masochists,” Kyle said, holding out his callused palms.
“You just keep doing it, and the nerve endings will die,” Petrovia added, pointing out a rough patch on the back of his knee.
But excelling on the pole takes more than brute strength and a high pain threshold. At the U.S. Pole Dance Championship, soloists are judged in five areas: performance; flexibility and extension; difficulty of tricks; smooth and unique transitions; and technique.
At the highest levels, amateur and pro, dancers must integrate several compulsory moves into their routines, making use of two poles, one static and one spinning. (The novice level has fewer requirements.) This year’s mandatory tricks included the twisted sister — a vertiginous inverted split — and the inside knee hang cocoon, a backbend with one leg held overhead and the other clasping the pole.
By the U.S. Pole Dance Federation’s rules, dancers can earn their pro status, a selective honor, only through competing in the amateur division. Jena Clough, 32, a studio owner and mother of two from Cape Cod, was among the seven amateurs anointed pro this year, placing third. The accolade, she said, would boost her résumé, helping her land more teaching and performance gigs.
While Clough’s routine was on the sultrier side, performances across all levels ranged in style and mood, from punk-rock defiance to flowing lyricism. “Pole names” like Candy, Magnetic, Apocalyssa and Serpentia reflected the array of personas. Some competitors built characters and stories with props and costumes — a sparkly lollipop, foil confetti, a long satin skirt and a leather whip all made appearances — while others took a more abstract approach.
Backstage before the two-round pro competition, Joscelyn Perez, from Miami, explained that for her, musicality was paramount. “I want to focus on interpreting the music through my body, evoking the mood of the song,” she said. Sara Joel, from Long Island, said she would be “trying to communicate something, an emotion, and to do really cool tricks.”
Perez, 35, came to pole dancing from ballet and Joel, 48, from modern dance and circus arts. But dance training is not a prerequisite for pole beginners, and neither is the extreme youth that other competitive dance forms tend to value. Svetlana Semenishchevka, who placed first in the pro division, started seven years ago in Miami, at 25, with no major dance or athletic experience. Keith Taylor of Chicago, 26, began at 22; Jill Anne, from New York, started at 40, and is going strong at 50.
While open to older novices, pole sports have begun to skew younger in the United States, as they have in other countries, in part because of the International Pole Sports Federation’s bid for Olympic recognition. At the American Pole League nationals, children as young as 6 can compete in some divisions. Pro competitor Ziva Lynn, 38, who founded a pole dance team outside of Detroit, sees a future there. “I want to teach baby Olympians some day,” she said.
But for others, the pole remains more an expressive than a competitive space. As Taylor said: “What I like about pole is you can do whatever you want with it. One day it can be a sexy release, one day you might be more acrobatic, one day you might just want to dance.”