Dating back prior to the 12th century, Chinese acrobats displayed a range of skills requiring great strength on a pole up to nine metres in height, laced with rubber. These circus professionals, of the time, would wear full body costumes to avoid friction between the skin and the rubber as they climbed, slid down, stretched and held positions, before flipping or jumping off. Despite being fully clothed, performers would be seen to regularly have burn marks on their shoulders from the friction, and this became a way for others to identify them and have respect for each other within this art form. It was also common to see two or more acrobats performing on the pole at any given time.
Although the Chinese Pole performances are much less fluid than what we see today, there are many tricks like the flag – ‘hanging straight out at 90-degree angle to the pole, using nothing but arm strength’ – that are still performed today.
Over 800 years ago, the Indians developed their own pole traditions, originating in Maharashtra, known as Mallakhamb. This sport was intended to train wrestlers, with the literal translation of Mallakhamb being ‘wrestler of the pole’ (Malla meaning ‘wrestler’ and khamb meaning ‘of pole’). Those training would play competitively on a smooth wooden pole – thick at the bottom, narrow at the top – becoming pole-flip specialists. They would often begin their performance by running and flipping directly onto the pole. These specialists realised the need to wear little clothing, which was inspired by yoga clothes and swimwear, and no shoes to allow their skin to grip better onto the pole.
Mallakhamb requires great precision and agility to perform the movements and positions, developing the performer’s coordination, concentration, reflex and speed, as well as increasing their strength and stamina. It was believed to be beneficial towards other sports as well, such as athletics, horse-riding, gymnastics, judo and wrestling. Although this male-dominated competitive sport wasn’t revived until the late 19th century, today there are popular national Mallakhamb championships in India.
The striptease is believed to date back to myths of the ancient Sumerian times, when the Goddess of Love, Inanna, was seen dancing and removing one item of clothing, or jewellery, as she passed each of the seven gates on her way to find her lover, Damouz. Over time, this form of performing has influenced other exotic dance genres including the ancient Middle-Eastern art form of belly-dancing, Latin-inspired dances (such as the Tango and Rumba), and Parisian Moulin Rouge.
However, pole dancing itself was first associated with a group of dancers known as the ‘Hoochi Coochi’ dancers. The group originated during the American Depression in the 1920s when dancers in travelling fairs would use a lot of suggestive dancing and hip movement, entertaining crowds within the tent, as they danced around the pole holding the tent up.
Following this, the earliest recorded exotic pole dance routine occurred in 1968 as Belle Jangles performed at the Mugwump Strip Joint in Oregon, US. This ‘craze’ took off in Canada in the 1980s, and in the same country, a woman named Fawnia Dietrich initiated the very first class teaching pole dancing to non-performers in 1994, giving birth to the first pole dancing school in the world and various instructional videos that would take this sport into a new era.
Thanks to Dietrich, we entered the modern-day world of pole dancing where the US, Australia, Europe and Asia were quick to adopt this craze with pole dance and pole fitness classes, new studios and academies plus various competitions beginning across the world. Fusing together these centuries-old techniques from the finely-tuned circus skills from the Chinese, the energetic, acrobatic skills from the Indians and the alluring dance skills from the Western World, the modern-day form of pole dancing heavily relies upon fitness, strength, flexibility and endurance.
Although there is still a strong stigma towards pole dancing as being ‘stripping’, this respected role is slowly becoming recognised as a sport and an art form, with various amateur and professional competitions held at various points throughout the year, across the world. Not only is it recognised but it has also been adopted as acrobatic pole by Cirque du Soleil in some of their performances.
With this recognition of pole dancing as an art form, K.T. Coates – a pioneer in the pole fitness industry – has initiated the effort to include pole dancing in the Olympics, which is strongly supported by thousands across the world, including International Pole Dance Fitness Association (IPDFA) founder Ania Przeplasko, highlighting this cause in numerous interviews. Not only are they pushing for pole dancing to be recognised for the Olympics but they, amongst thousands, also believe now is the time for pole dancing to be recognised as a competitive sport. Do you agree?