Pole-dancing has a problem with men. And not the one you’re thinking.
What began as circus sideshow performed by women in the 1920s, found its seedier side in the 1960s and took off as a fitness fad in the noughties is now on its way to becoming a sport. But before the International Olympic Committee will recognise it, “pole”, as its acolytes prefer to call it, needs to attract more male competitors. Just five men took part in the first world pole championships in 2012. In an effort to appeal to the kind of men usually found doing CrossFit or parkour, the International Pole Sports Federation has introduced new, more masculine disciplines like the intimidating-sounding “Ultra Pole”. It’s starting to pay off. Katie Coates, the federation’s president, estimates there are now around 500 top-level male athletes.
A few months ago a friend showed me some men’s pole routines online. I was amazed by the technical skill, artistry and choreography: they seemed more gymnastics than gentleman’s club. I’d been looking for a way to get fit that wouldn’t bore me into quitting instantly, so in a fever of new-year enthusiasm I enrolled on a six-week pole-dancing course with two friends – one male, one female – in tow. When I told colleagues what I’d done, responses ranged from “Do you pay them, or do they pay you?” (I’m less likely to make it rain dollar bills than kickstart a consumer-spending drought) to “Will you be doing it in heels?” (I’m still struggling to find stilettos in my size). So it was with some trepidation that I walked into a south London studio one Sunday afternoon in my skimpiest shorts and a vest that I’d last worn on a beach holiday. Showing lots of flesh, I was assured, is necessary to better grip the metal. I found gleaming poles running from floor to ceiling, a chiselled adonis of an instructor, and, save for my friend, only one other man in the 11-person class.
Our journey to the pole started with an intense bout of stretching before each of us sized up the cold steel. We began with a simple spin, one leg sweeping round while the other stayed planted firmly on the floor. James, the instructor, made it look effortless, the static pole an axis around which he had complete control. When I tried the same thing I brought my foot up, stumbled and found my clammy grip sliding down the pole. Ah. Over the next couple of sessions I concentrated on basic moves – a handstand here, a spin there – but one thing was knocking my confidence. In what is undoubtedly a bad omen for my fledgling career in journalism, I couldn’t climb the greasy pole. One move in particular, the chair spin, confounded me. No matter how hard I gripped, every time I tried to bring my knees into my chest I’d slump to the floor, feeling more like a clumsy firefighter than a sultry seducer. My male friend, a novice like me, took to it frustratingly easily, twirling around me while I floundered.
It was only then that I learned of the sweaty pole dancer’s secret weapon: chalk. After class I bought a cheap bottle of the stuff on Amazon, oddly labelled with a close-up of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel. If Adam had liquid chalk, would he have simply grabbed the divine digit, performed a deft fan kick, transitioned into a cross-legged climb and ascended, sparing humanity millennia of hassle? Who’s to say.
With my hands grippier and my resolve steelier, I went into my fourth week at the poleface with a new attitude. Walking into the studio with Ariana Grande blasting from the stereo, I was determined to manage one good spin and one climb. When the time came I tipped the chalk onto my palms, the tacky liquid turning arid as I rubbed them together. I reached up with one hand, threw my weight into the spin and drew my flailing legs up. For a few seconds I was flying. I came down again with a bump but had, briefly, pulled off a chair spin. I managed to clamber to the top of the pole too, the inside of my thighs screaming as they held me seven feet off the ground. By the end of the class I felt bruised, exhausted and a little bit elated.
James confirms that pole is much more popular with women – they still make up the huge majority of his students, although more men are beginning to show up. Either way, he doesn’t see the balance of the sexes as too much of an issue. “Pole is still being born, and it has shifted massively,” he tells me, pointing out its ongoing journey from risqué to respectable. Pole can be considered a sport, but he notes that many view it as an art form too, and for most people it’s just a workout. Seen this way, Olympic Committee-appeasing gender quotas seem irrelevant.
It’s also, to state the obvious, not very macho. None of the men in my class is straight, while one man who accompanied his girlfriend to her first session sat sheepishly on the sidelines until it was over. I can appreciate why it has a greater appeal to gay men like me. Beyond its focus on style over brute force, pole hasn’t completely shaken its deviant origins. It came from the fringes of society, and for a lot of gay men this feels familiar; we know what it’s like to unite around something others see as taboo. James agrees that there’s something queer about pole; the studio he teaches in only began to attract its first male students after it reached out to a gay men’s dance company.
In my last couple of classes, something (other than my joints) clicked. With practice, patience and quite a lot of chalk the pole became less of an adversary. I looked forward to scrambling up and down what had at first seemed like the north face of the Eiger. I even limbered up a bit; my hamstrings now feel less like they could snap with one wrong stretch. I probably haven’t done much to inch pole closer to Olympic status, but I have signed up for another six weeks. I’m not quitting until I’ve mastered that chair spin.