[Julia May | The Sydney Morning Herald]

All around the country, women in their thousands – and some men and children – are taking classes in what’s known as pole fitness. But is it fitness activity or just another element in the mainstream sex industry? Julia May reports.

The room is a cross between a yoga studio and a nightclub. Pink lights shine against the the whitewashed walls and red down-lights illuminate the floorboards. Of course, there are the mandatory mirrors.

Spaced throughout the room, like shiny silver saplings, are fourteen metal poles. It’s a Monday morning and a beginners pole fitness class is about to begin. Cherie Rafferty, the manager of Pole Divas, in Richmond, will take the class. Her work uniform is a singlet and bikini bottoms with “I Heart Pole” emblazoned across them.

Five young women prepare for the lesson. They wear tight, bottom-grazing shorts – necessary to prevent slipping down the pole – and a couple wear crop-tops. They are all young and toned.  As the music begins to pump and Rafferty leads the warm-up, Victoria Gibson rushes in, wearing flip-flops and tiny bike shorts. This online entrepreneur and mother of two says she’s here to “get my sexy on”.

Family business: Lisa Singh, husband Ro and their daughter Justice at their Vertical Fitness Studio.

The stilettos go on after the warm-up. There are sparkles, straps and huge platform shoes. Gibson’s are the highest, making her look seven feet tall. The women totter back to their poles and the serious moves begin. Between banter about kids and Christmas shopping, Rafferty coaches the women through a range of tricks including the “crucifix hold,” the “tuck spin” and something resembling an excited caterpillar.

She urges the women on as they shimmy up the pole and try pull-ups, backward spins and paralysing thigh-holds. “Keep your knees further apart as you land. It looks much prettier,” Cherie chirps. “Tops of the thighs getting nice and red? Show me those trophy bruises!”

Later, as they try high kicks, she encourages them to  “Give me a big drop-punt, like you’re smashing the footy across the ‘G’.” Hot pants ride up, wedgies are pulled out and miraculously, no one twists an ankle. At the end of the class the women are sweaty and exhausted.

Toned: Cherie Rafferty's pole dancing class in action.

All around the country, women in their thousands – and some men and children – are taking classes like this, in what’s known as pole fitness, or simply “pole”. In the UK and US there are serious efforts to make pole fitness an Olympic event but Australian “polers” haven’t yet reached a consensus about whether it should be classified as a conventional sport or a sexy art form.

So while an Australian Olympic pole-dancing team is a long way off, there’s no doubt that the activity has fragmented beyond its sex-industry associations.

Pole devotees fall into two camps: those who say it’s a sport and point to its ancient, acrobatic history, and those who say it’s an art form; just another kind of dance or a sexy style of gymnastics with a vertical, rather than horizontal, pole.  But there are others who say it’s neither: that pole dancing entrenches women in sexual servitude; that it’s inextricably linked to the sex industry and will remain so.

Split images: Lisa Singh, husband Ro and daughter Justice at their studio.

Kennetta Hutchens, a former stripper and the founder of Pole Divas – one of a burgeoning number of schools around Australia – says sexiness is a crucial part of pole fitness. “You don’t see women starting [conventional] gymnastics in droves, do you? I think there’s a fascination with it, and it makes women feel good about themselves.”

Among the instructors at her schools are former winners and finalists of Miss Pole Dance Australia, the country’s longest-running pole-dancing competition, which started in 2005. While performing feats of jaw-dropping strength and endurance, Miss Pole competitors ooze sexiness: there is glittering lame, leather and stilettos in abundance, and moves include wide-legged, upside-down straddles, body rolls and booty-shaking.

In 2011 a male version, Mr Pole Dance Australia, was launched. This year’s winner was a PhD-holding marine biologist, Chris “Blue Phoenix” Talbot, who only took up pole fitness two and a half years ago and is now considered a professional. Male competitors include former street dancers, circus performers, martial artists, burlesque performers and yoga instructors.

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