With her Lucite heels, cheeky schoolgirl pigtails and silky, hot pink
disco shorts exposing admirable curves, the petite dancer is a textbook
picture of urban eroticism.
Nimble, feminine and impressively
toned, she grips the towering pole, launching her taut, muscular frame
with astounding athleticism. She follows with midair splits, more twirls
and acrobatics, spinning in a complete arc not once, twice, but three
times with exacting finesse. Her routine, set to the haunting tones of
The Dresden Dolls' "Missed Me," ends with a barrage of catcalls and the
crowd in rapture -- yet not even a single crumpled dollar bill litters
No, it's not another recession-weary night at Spearmint
Rhino. And Nadia Sharif is not your typical stripper, dancing to
finance future tattoos or a recreational drug habit. In fact, Sharif
isn't a stripper at all. She's an electrical engineer, specializing in
robotics at the petroleum behemoth BP.
She's here on this autumn
night competing in the final round of the third annual California Pole
Dance Championships. And so, unlike the average seedy strip joint in the
sprawling plains of the San Fernando Valley, tonight's venue,
Hollywood's Highlands nightclub, features all the trappings of a major
sporting event. There's a panel of judges, a wholesome 7 p.m. start time
and an audience that shows its appreciation with cheers rather than
singles stuffed into outstretched G-strings.
Which suits Sharif just fine.
"I don't do it for money," she says. "It's just a leisure activity."
the last five years, pole dancing has become less about the male gaze
and more about fitness and competitive sport. There is now a global
network of official organizations and federations, as well as local,
national and international competitions -- and even some organizations
lobbying for pole dancing's inclusion in the 2016 Olympics.
started dancing in 2007 as a hobby. After seeing videos of dancer Felix Cane on YouTube, she realized pole dancing could be a fitness alternative: "I set up a pole in my house with a rail from a closet and just started practicing the moves from the video." She then discovered a pole dance studio, advanced her skill level via lessons and started to
September's championships offered $1,000 to the
first-prize winner. (Sharif, who finished second, took home $500.)
Still, competitions are about kudos more than prize money. Top dancers
really cash in by giving workshops -- as many as four a week, with 10 or
more students paying $75 each -- and doing personal appearances.
has never danced in a strip club. Yet most people react predictably
when she confides her favorite hobby. "When I tell people I compete in
pole dance competitions, they usually assume I'm in strip clubs," she
She doesn't perceive her dancing to be in any way seedy or
taboo: "It really is just like salsa or cha-cha. It's about being strong
Of course, there are those Lucite heels. While many
pole dancers perform barefoot, Sharif chooses to wear stilettos. Even as
she trains for her sport five days a week, she wants to retain its
sexuality: "Just like a ballerina wears ballet shoes, as a pole dancer I
wear high heels," she explains.
The number of pole dancing
studios in Los Angeles is growing. Anjel Dust, also known as Glyness, is
an instructor who runs Sherman Oaks-based studio Anjel Dust
Productions. A dancer for more than 10 years, she is also a key
organizer behind the California Pole Dance Championships.
type of people we get in our classes is increasingly diverse, from
people in their late teens to Valley housewives in their mid-40s," Dust
says. "Nowadays there are very few who are training to perform in a
strip club. It's all about fitness or competitions. There is no longer
the stigma. I think pole dancing is being seen more as an art form."
Wood is the founder of Pole Dance Magazine Online and another proponent
of pole dancing's artistry. A former elementary school teacher who
lives in Maryland, she developed her interest in 2007 after seeing a TV
spot that highlighted the sport as an exercise alternative.
is now the center of the pole dancing scene in the U.S. It has a
dominant presence and is the real trendsetter," Wood says. "It was
initially something taboo, though it is now more about gymnastics than
The U.K.-based International Pole Sports Federation is
the key body lobbying for pole dancing's inclusion in the 2016 Summer
Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro. Wood says she has heard there
will be a pole dancing demonstration as part of the opening ceremony at
next year's Summer Olympics in London.
There's also a Pole Fitness
Association, based in Utah, as well as a group called the United Pole Artists, based in the San Fernando Valley. Its founder, Annemarie Davies, is one of the few involved in the competitive pole dance scene who still performs in clubs, namely the iconic Jumbo's Clown Room in Hollywood. She also teaches pole dance classes. (Annemarie estimates that she spends up to 30 hours a week on a pole.)
She says she started to practice pole moves after working shifts at Spearmint Rhino, when pole dance
studios were unheard-of. "I think as the economy got worse over the last
five years, stripping changed," Annemarie says. "It got more dirty,
and girls were willing to do more than just dance. I decided I wanted
less to do with that side of things."
These days, Annemarie gives
lap dances only to women. She sees pole dancing as a wholesome pastime.
"This sport will be huge during the next 10 years. It's great for
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building self-esteem. Women get to feel sexy, gain confidence and lose a
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Nadia Sharif and Annemarie Davies. It also misidentified the organization founded by Davies. Correction appended at 9 a.m. December 5.
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