A decade ago, the idea that pole dancing could be an Olympic sport would have been as plausible as suggesting gold medals for shopping.
But this week pole dancing – or pole, as many who practise it would prefer we call it – was officially recognised as a sport and is now able to apply for membership of the International Olympic Committee, as reported in The Times.
The Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) gave pole this historic status following an 11-year battle by Katie Coates. Back in 2006 Katie, from Hertfordshire, founded the International Pole Sports Federation and set up an online petition to make it an Olympic sport.
Now Katie and the ever-growing community of pole enthusiasts are well on the road to achieving that goal.
Sarah, 29, from Bristol started learning pole five years ago. “I’ve always been sporty and heard how it is great for all-round fitness,” says Sarah. “I found a pole dance school nearby and was hooked after my taster class. It blends aerial gymnastics, dance, acrobatics and strength training, and requires huge skill and discipline. I’ve competed in championships and taken part in workshops both here and abroad. It’s a huge part of my life – I’ve even had a pole installed in my flat.”
Though pole dancing may still be closely associated with strip clubs, the public mindset has shifted towards understanding that it can also be a sport without any erotic element.
Celebrity fans including Kate Moss, Rihanna and Kate Hudson have helped lead the change in attitude. A message strengthened by the 2015 social media campaign #Notastripper, which saw devotees loudly celebrate pole dancing and encourage more people of all ages – and genders – to try it.
To prove just how far pole has come in shedding its risqué image, there are pole dancing championships in most UK counties and today many health centres run classes. Fitness First, one of Britain’s biggest gym operators, offers the beginner-friendly Pole Fitness. Samira, 28, from north London goes every week.
Samira says: “I started going a year ago as a fun way to keep fit, and I’ve convinced several friends to have a go. It’s very demanding and has really upped my core strength. On top of that, it makes me feel amazing; strong and sexy.”
Pole dancing might finally be seen as separate from its strip club origins, but the fact that it can help women to feel powerful or attractive shouldn’t necessarily be ignored.
Clinical hypnotherapist and life coach Mindy Gill is not only a big pole fitness fan herself, she also recommends it to some of her clients. Especially those who are struggling with self-esteem issues.
“Pole dancing is body positive and can be very liberating and empowering, and it can really help you to focus,” says Mindy. “I see a lot of people who are stuck in a bad relationship or who can’t get over a broken heart.
“When I suggest pole dancing they often look at me like I’m mad, but I’ve had many who have tried it and never look back. It really can help get people through a difficult time and come out stronger and more confident.”
Olympic authorities will have to look past any talk of empowerment or sexiness when considering whether or not to include pole. And any fear of potential media backlash should be disregarded because other Olympic sports such as women’s volleyball garner provocative headlines about sexualisation but remain included.
However, while there’s no denying that the levels of athleticism, choreography and technical ability that pole dancers demonstrate matches those in other sports, such as gymnastics, the people with the power to include it in future Olympic Games may decide it would be more controversial than it’s worth.
For Katie, who campaigned for over a decade for pole to get to this point, the fight to convince them otherwise is on.
“It's finally an opening for us to achieve our dream,” Katie says. “When it does eventually get to the Olympics – and I know it will – I hope I won't be there with a zimmer frame in tow. It's become a sport so quickly – in just six years – who’s to say where we'll be in another six?
“Pole is as far removed from the world of strip clubs and nightclubs as can be. That still exists and has its place in society, but it's almost like saying BMX riding is the same as Tour de France. While we use the same apparatus – the pole – our communities are different. What we do is for children as well as adults.
"Pole dancing is not like everyone thinks it is, you need to actually watch it to understand.”