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The celebrity-endorsed fitness craze.
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Let’s go for a spin
She sings, she dances, she acts, she makes pole dancing mainstream—is there anything Jennifer Lopez can’t do? American football fan or not, you probably caught wind of J. Lo and Shakira’s stunning halftime performance at the Super Bowl in February 2020. One of Lopez’s segments featured a jaw-dropping pole dancing routine that played homage to her role in the Oscar-snubbed Hustlers.
The athletic feat is just the latest event that is slowly bringing pole dancing out of the strip club and into the Olympics. It’s a return to form; pole dancing’s status as sensual (or sleazy) spectacle is just one facet of its acrobatic history, which more recently includes a celebrity-driven, calorie-burning fitness trend. But we’ll get to that in a minute. For now, clench those abs and try to keep up.
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By the digits
1135 AD: The first mention of Mallakhamb appears in the Sanskrit classic Manasollasa
$129.99: Price of a 45 mm “Pole Dance Pole” at Walmart
491: Calories burned in a one-hour pole-dancing class
494: Most people pole dancing simultaneously
5,000: Competitors in the 25 competitions overseen by the Indian Pole Sports Association
15: Countries participating in the first international Mallakhamb competition
£20,000 ($25,760): Prize money at the Pole World Cup
150: Competitors at the Pole World Cup
3: Homes Jennifer Lopez had poles installed in for her Hustlers training
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An incomplete history
The art of pole dancing can trace its roots, at least in part, back to the Indian pastime of Mallakhamb, in which athletes manipulate their bodies around a stationary pole. Chinese Pole is cut from a similar cloth, but uses two poles instead of one. (You may remember the art from a memorable scene in 2001’s Ocean’s 11.)
Pole dancing came to the US in the late 1800s as part of traveling sideshows, where it was touted as an exotic international dancing style. Pole dancing and burlesque shows were often merged into one performance.
The first strip club pole dancer may have been an Oregonian in 1968; another source has it “purportedly originating in the 1980s in Canadian strip clubs”; a third (pdf) in the “mid-to-late 1970s.” It wasn’t until the ‘90s that pole dancing started to spin back toward fitness, and in the 2000s, it took off as a mainstream form of exercise.
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There are special pole-dancing high heels that provide feet with comfort, additional support, and flexibility. Features include curved insoles and outsoles, padded lining, an angled heel and angled toebox, and a one-piece shank.
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From the type of metal used to thickness and permanence, there are a variety of options available for pole athletes.
Stainless polished steel. The standard pole used for pole dancing, this polished steel version offers the worst grip out of all of these options.
Chrome. Slightly more porous than a stainless polished steel, but not much better, grip-wise.
Brass. Brass offers superior grip, but tarnishes very quickly.
Titanium gold. This finish provides the best grip and won’t fade in color as quickly as brass does.
Permanently mounted. Sturdily affixed to both floor and ceiling, these are the best for safety.
Removable poles. Brackets are permanently screwed into the floor and ceiling, but the pole itself can be removed from the brackets.
Portable pole. Made for easy dismantling and storage, these poles are usually weaker construction and not ideal for spins.
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Million-dollar question: Why do pole dancers wear so little clothing?
Obvious strip-club answer aside, pole dancers wear minimal clothing for the same reason that other athletes do: They don’t want their clothing to interfere with their sport. Skin contact with the pole is extremely important to performing nearly all tricks. Bare arms and legs are a must, and for more advanced tricks, a bare midriff also helps grip the pole and provide friction.
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“I’ve never felt more scared and excited at the same time. It’s incredibly hard, like doing vertical ballet.”
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This one weird trick!
Pole dancing is full of feats that take an Olympian effort to achieve. And they have the best names. Here are examples of eight of the most impressive tricks.
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Science writer and pole-dancing fan Jennifer Ouellette explains the physics of pole dancing. It’s much easier understood than done: “You can get these screeching noises as your skin sticks to the pole, and it burns as you slide down,” a fellow science journalist with a few classes under her belt told Ouellette.