We were approaching our second hour of watching the best pole dancers in the United States "pole their hearts out," in the words of the host of the 2012 U.S. Pole Dance Federation Championship, when one of the dancers executed a risky spinning inversion at breakneck speed with the same piercing sqeeeeaak usually reserved for a 6'9" center pivoting on the basketball court. The judges all but lept from their seats and the crowd, made of up mostly women, roared in approval. The jury may still be out on lapdancing as an art form, but that particular "s-word" had no business being uttered at Symphony Space last night: pole dancing definitely looked like a sport to us.
True, it is a sport in which some of the cliches of erotic dancing still exist (we've yet to see a gymnast trace the path to her nether regions with her fingertips or snap her legs open and shut to an Oleander track—although it couldn't hurt ratings), but the pole-dancing "craze" seems to have largely survived the aftermath of the eye-rolling trend pieces—the sport has at least two trade magazines and a handful of studios in New York alone.
Based on a show of hands, most of the several hundred attendees were pole dancers themselves—the vibe felt like a raucous recital. The dancers' boyfriends clutched bouquets for their significant others and shouts of "You can do it, baby!" were as common as squeals of "You're a legend!"
The professionals—most of whom have their own studios and endorsement deals—competed after the amateurs, and had one 90-second round of compulsory tricks to perform (and compulsory shoes with a minimum of a five inch heel), then an optional round where they could blast Fishbone and get weird.
New York City native Michelle Stanek, who wore the only set of thigh tassels we have ever seen and danced to a "She Drives Me Crazy"-sampled beat, interspersed with jaguar roars, took home the compulsory, option, and overall titles. We'd try to explain her fluidity and grace as she "tore up the pole" (as the parlance goes), but you're better off witnessing the sweet science for yourself.
Here's Stanek doing work at a competition last year.