March 20, 2009 / 5:48 PM / in 8 years

Strippers losing grip on pole as fitness fans swing in

<p>Jennifer Mayer tries a new trick during an intermediate pole dancing class at Flirty Girl Fitness in Chicago in this file photo from February 17, 2009.John Gress</p>

CHICAGO, March 20 (Reuters Life!) - No corsets. No pasties. No thongs. No garters.

And absolutely no nudity.

Can this really be the future of pole dancing?

The provocative, shaft-straddling burlesque technique popularized by Hollywood movies like "The Wrestler" and TV shows like "Desperate Housewives" is shedding its seedy image and making a play for respectability thanks to a new kind of dancer, drawn to the pole by the athleticism it requires as much as the sex appeal it exudes.

Some, like Porscha Williams, a 22-year-old college student in Chicago, simply see pole dancing as a new form of exercise, a way to make fitness fun but still challenging.

"I'm getting a lot of cardio and a lot of upper body strength from pole," she said on a recent evening after a workout at a studio called Flirty Girl Fitness.

But others are embracing pole dancing, whose roots reach back to a traditional Indian form of agility training known as Mallakhamb, as a competitive sport that is headed for amateur athletics' big time.

"I would love to see this in the Olympics, that would be such a breakthrough for this sport," says Anna Grundstrom, a co-founder of the U.S. Pole Dance Federation.

"But we have a lot of work to do before we get there."

Earlier this month, the USPDF held its first ever pole dance championship in New York City.

The judges were professional dancers and choreographers, not a leering peanut gallery recruited from a nearby gentleman's club.

Only two things remained of the sport's striptease roots: the suggestive songs playing in the background -- and the 8-inch, stilleto-heeled pumps on the dancers.

The latter is a holdover Grundstrom happily defends. Ballerinas, she says, have pointe shoes, pole dancers have come-hither pumps. What's more, they make things harder and more competitive and give the sport a certain frisson lacking in other sports.

"We're not trying to take the sexuality out of this sport," Grundstrom says. "You know, we're not trying to make it gymnastics on a vertical pole. It's still a sensual art form. I know people associate heels with stripping. But we don't take our clothes off."

On a recent evening at Flirty Girl Fitness, an all-girls studio in Chicago's trendy West Loop neighborhood, Rebecca Lee, a trim but quite pregnant 35-year-old trainer, put a dozen or so young and entirely barefooted women through their pole paces.

The studio's pole dancing classes are among its most popular, Lee says. But while the sex pulls them in, it's the quality of the workout that keeps them coming back.

"I give props to the real exotic dancers," Lee says. "They started this art form and I don't know how they do it. In heels? With alcohol? I just don't know."

Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist at the American Council of Exercise, and a believer in the benefits of pole dancing, says Lee and others are right: The sport, no matter what its Olympic chances, is a great way to exercise.

"It's very strenuous," Comana said, "a combination of aerobic and anaerobic depending upon what you're doing. Calorie wise, it's a good workout. It's as effective as 20 to 25 minutes on a treadmill."

Reporting by James Kelleher

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