It's a controversial occupation for a woman in India.

[Mallika Kapur | CNN]

At the end of a dusty lane off a bustling highway in a Mumbai suburb, is a very ordinary looking apartment block. Soulful music wafts out of a window. But in a first-floor apartment something very unusual is happening.

Inside Aarifa Bhinderwala’s bright blue bedroom, there isn’t a bed, wardrobe, or table — just four shiny steel poles that stretch from floor to ceiling. Bhinderwala, 28, has been sleeping on a mattress in the living room for years.

From her bedroom, she practices and teaches the sport of pole dancing. It’s a controversial occupation for a woman in India, which still has conservative values when it comes to gender norms.

But Bhinderwala says she isn’t out to shatter stereotypes or defy perceptions.

“I do it because I love it,” she says. “I am a hopeless romantic. Everything I do stems from love.”

“Feelings can’t be a taboo. Then why is sexuality?”

— Aarifa Bhinderwala

Pole position

Bhinderwala’s love affair with pole dancing began three years ago while visiting her sister in Perth, Australia. She saw an advert for a pole dancing class and decided to try it.

“I liked the vibe of the class. The lights, the music, women from around the world, the high energy — it was like a party,” she says. “I found it fascinating.”
After a couple of weeks, she achieved her first inversion: an upside down dance position on the pole. Previously, she had never done a handstand.

For the next two-and-a-half years, while she completed her MA in sociology at Mumbai University, Bhinderwala shuttled between India and Australia, where she took pole dancing courses, eventually becoming an advanced-level pole dancer.”Poling transformed the person inside me, both physically and mentally,” Bhinderwala tells CNN, in between showing off a range of acrobatic moves.

“It is uplifting, empowering and humbling,” says Bhinderwala. “It’s an incredible feeling when you learn to hold and control your own body weight in the air. You walk with a renewed self confidence.”

Bhinderwala started choreographing her own pole routines to a range of music — soul, jazz, old Hindi movie soundtracks. It became an art form.

The bruises and burns -- she calls them her medals for nailing each move."

— Nafisa Bhinderwala, mother of Aarifa

Pole dancing in India

Although the origins of pole dancing can be traced back to the ancient Indian sport of mallakhamb, in which wrestlers train by performing gymnastics on wooden poles, pole dancing in most of the 20th century was associated with seedy night clubs.

Over the past two decades, however, pole — or vertical dance, as it’s also referred to — has evolved into a sport, providing a high intensity workout that develops core strength and requires extreme coordination.

Women, it seems, are taking back the pole and turning it into something positive.

In 2008, Katie Coates and Tim Trautman founded the UK-based International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF) and the organization set about standardizing rules, regulations, scoring systems, policies, and judges training. Today, there are more than 30 national pole championships, a world championship and a coaching and judging framework, according to the federation’s website.

In 2015, the IPSF says more than 2,500 athletes competed in 26 countries to qualify for the World Championships “with a growing number of men and children” taking part. The IPSF says its long-term goal is the inclusion of pole in international sporting events such as the Olympic Games.

Coates tells CNN that she’s never heard of anyone from India competing in pole.

“India is a huge demographic, we would be delighted if it caught on there,” she says.

In Mumbai — a city of at least 18.5 million people — CNN can only find evidence of two pole dancing studios. Bhinderwala operates one, and Shilpa Rane, 44, runs the other.