“It’s essentially just the same as the bar in gymnastics – except it’s vertical rather than horizontal,” says Be Cowan of her chosen sport. It is a fair observation. The act of athleticism on a horizontal bar is a major and respected element of mainstream modern gymnastics. Be athletic on a vertical bar, however, and you are just pole dancing.
Just pole dancing? Not quite. Cowan is just one of a growing number of – largely female – participants in pole sport. Essentially pole dancing with the art of striptease removed, it has grown from a niche dance craze in 1980s Canada to a serious, globally practised sport. Its fledgling international federation the IPDFA has even spent the last few years campaigning for it to be introduced as a trial event at the Summer Olympic Games.
Cowan, an English student at the FU in Berlin, picked it up only a few years ago at Warwick University. “I had experience in both dance and gymnastics, and so I advanced quite quickly,” she says. She is self-effacing, but it would appear to be no mean feat. The physical act of pole sport is, in the words of IPDFA board member Ania Przeplasko “a mixture of weightlifting, jogging and dance”. For Cowan, who usually trains around 6-8 hours a week, it is “an intense form of exercise”.
Exercise is perhaps the only term which covers all aspects of pole. Referred to variously as pole sport, pole fitness and pole dance, the movement is an organic one. Some wish to retain the sexual aspect of it – albeit to be applied in a more emancipatory manner – while others push for a greater focus on the sporting element as a way of detaching pole from the usual connotations.
In Germany, the sport is still cutting its milk teeth on a new audience. In Berlin, only four or five major pole studios have emerged in the last few years, with some tailored more to the traditional, sexualised dance, and others – such as Polesport Berlin – making a conscious move into pure sport.
One of the city’s newest studios is Soulflight, founded only last November by Vietnamese-German dancer Ly Li. In a small, four room block on Lobeckstraße, Li coaches pole dancers from as young as 15, most of whom, she says, have little or no sporting or dance background at all. In the conflict between sport and art, she is caught somewhere in the middle.
“I think it can be sexy and emancipating, and for me it is about dance. I’d love to see it in the Olympics, but I worry that the more organised competition you have, the more it loses its femininity.”
In Europe, though, it would appear that pole sport, as opposed to pole art, is the future. “In the US and Australia it is more advanced, more accepted, and the girls doing it are more open with the sexual side,” says Li, “here, they are more shy, and to be more accepted, it has to be promoted as a sport.”
It is not only in prudish old Europe that pole is beginning to grow as a competitive sport, however. Last month, the IPDFA celebrated its fifth annual International Pole Championship in Singapore, complete with a men’s event. Participation is growing, and public perception is changing with it. “When I say that I do pole dancing, people don’t automatically ask me if I’m a stripper” says Li.
Pole remains relatively far from establishing itself as a major – or indeed Olympic – sport. Its relative youth and philosophical fractions mean that, even as a sport, it is hard to unify under one, international movement. Grading systems, the names of tricks and competition structures differ from land to land, while there remains no official international federation, albeit organisations such as the IDPFA and the PDC do their best to bring as many pole dancers together as possible.
It is also far from lucrative. Most sponsors come from within the pole industry itself, and there is no true professionalism. Most dancers earn their living through coaching or studio ownership.
That is no reason, though, to dismiss this movement off hand. After all, even football had such teething problems only a century ago. Gymnastics, meanwhile, is one of the most widely acknowledged and practised sports in the world. All the pole dancers are doing is repositioning the bar.