HONG KONG (Reuters) - Scanty costumes, glitter, grace and athleticism all went on display in Hong Kong this week as competitors vied for the "Ultimate Pole" Championship, hoping to reap renown as the world's top pole dancer.
Once known mainly to strip club aficionados, pole dancing has over the last few years evolved into a popular pastime and way of staying in shape, with devotees promoting it as a legitimate form of dance and acrobatics.
Now in its sixth year, the International Pole Competition brought together 29 of the world's leading names in pole dancing to compete in two categories: Pole Fit, which focuses on fitness, and Pole Art, which focuses on originality and choreography.
"I think probably the hardest thing is finding a balance between strength, grace and flexibility," said Australian Chris Measday, winner in the men's division, who was inspired to take up pole dancing after breaking his back warming up for a gymnastics session.
"I'm not the most flexible guy in the world, I'm not the strongest guy in the world, but I am graceful. Trying to find something that balances and ticks all those boxes is probably the hardest thing."
The competitor with the highest scores in both fitness and art won the title of Ultimate Pole Champion in each of four divisions: men's, women's, disabled, and doubles.
To receive the maximum amount of points, performances need to be well-executed with careful attention paid to the synchronization of dance moves to music. Stress is also placed on energy, enthusiasm and strong stage presence.
Competitors, seemingly effortlessly, bent their bodies around poles and spun their way up them, arms and legs moving with balletic grace.
Australian Deborah Roach, who is missing an arm, claimed the Ultimate Pole title in the disabled division and said she had always loved to dance.
"I actually got into an underground Goth scene in my teenage years because I didn't fit into normal society. I loved dancing the night away on the dance floor, and that led to stage dancing in clubs," she said.
In 2006, inspired by a circus-themed double act she saw at a club she was dancing in, Roach took up pole dancing and aerial acrobatics, and hasn't looked back.
In 2009 she won a pole dancing competition against able-bodied dancers, which spurred her to quit her job in IT, become a personal trainer, get her first prosthetic and learn to ride a bike at age 28.
Other winners said that they had to unlearn habits from their past athletic experiences, such as dropping poses from artistic gymnastics and the like.
And some, like Measday, said they were not above a little sleight of hand -- or body.
"I cheat," said Measday. "I use spin like there's no tomorrow so I look strong."
Reporting by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato