There may be an image that pops into one’s mind when hearing the words ‘pole dancer’—a scantily-clad woman in six-inch stilettos twirling to a song by White Snake, collecting dollar bills in her florescent G-String. Of course, that’s not how the art of pole dancing began, nor where it is headed.
Pole dancing originated in China during the 12th Century. Circus professionals, like today’s Cirque du Soleil performers, would use a rubberized (or ‘stickied’) pole made of bamboo, wider and taller than today’s poles. These predominantly male performers were fully clothed in ornate costumes and showcased feats of great strength and agility, including positions still used today, such as ‘the flag’—hanging outstretched at a 90° angle.
Indian culture similarly has pole traditions tracing back hundreds of years called “Mallakhamb,” which translates to “wrestler of the pole.” These wooden poles were used for training and would be slicked with oil, requiring athletes to train nearly nude and barefoot. Playful competition would often inspire techniques beyond standard training, such as running and flipping directly onto the pole.
Fast forward to the American movement. Said to have originated in the 1920s during the Great Depression, traveling fairs would entertain tent camps and shanty towns with Vaudevillian-style variety acts. The Hoochie Coochie dancers, as they were known, used the poles and splints holding up the tent as their stage as they swayed suggestively in front of the crowd, bringing smiles to faces—and earning a few extra dollars in the process.
The movement began to evolve, influenced by belly dancers from the Middle East, as well as French performers of the Moulin Rouge and Latin Tango dancers, resulting in a more exotic art form. This contemporary dance incorporated the striptease, an ancient Sumerian dance used by Inanna, the Goddess of Love, to pass through the seven gates of the underworld; at each gate, she was forced to remove one item of clothing to continue her journey.
Although this ancient, expressive art form developed a seedy stigma in the Western World, the contemporary version is starting to shift away from lowbrow venues and backdoor night clubs. In 1994, the craze started to take shape with the advent of pole fitness classes taught by Fawnia Dietrich, a world-renowned Pole Artist who now operates her own Pole Fitness Studio, teaching classes to thousands all over the world. This opened the floodgates in the U.S. to men and women interested in discovering a new form of self-expression to fit their active lifestyles. Over the next 20 years, the scene would further develop into a thriving “Pole Community” rife with opportunities for athletic and artistic performances alike.
One such company is Flux Vertical Theatre, a Bay Area dance company founded in 2015 that specializes in the diverse art of pole performance, ranging from the risqué to family-friendly. Conceptualized by two runaway circus performers with a lifetime of experience in dance and musical theatre, Leah Marie and Kirsten Gerding, the two joined forces to create a contemporary performance that challenged the modern concept of pole while simultaneously embracing its full-spectrum diversity.
“The initial idea was to create a dance company with a one-way stigma and force people to look at it in a different light,” declares Co-founder Kirsten. “We provide a safe space for people to perform in a way they never felt they could before.” “But we’re not strippers,” adds Co-founder Leah. “We see the pole as an apparatus, a tool. It’s a like dance partner.”
These perspectives are challenging Old World ways of thinking, breaking traditional ways of thinking and elevating the fine art of pole performance. Although the pole will never lose its place in strip clubs, it may soon find a home in the Olympics. That’s right, the International Olympic Committee is currently being petitioned to include pole as a professional sport. We’ll just have to wait and see if pole will finally be given the athletic credit it deserves.