Dance performances intended for sexual arousal can date back centuries and cross multiple species. The red-capped manakin bird moonwalks across stage-like branches to entice females, while male jumping spiders vibrate and tap their eight fuzzy legs at desired mates (and if the female doesn’t like his dance, she’ll eat him).
Striptease dance involving a pole can be traced all the way back to the 1920s, when women in traveling circuses would pull at their silky garments in teasing fashion and sexily sway while men cheered them on. Some of the women in these “girlie shows,” as they were called, would incorporate the poles that held up the red-and-white striped circus tents into their movement.
The true story of when pole dance first entered the strip club is a bit vaguer than that, with more folklore than tangible evidence to back it up. Multiple sources claim it was dancer Belle Jangles who first used a pole as part of her routine in 1968 at an Oregon strip club called Mugwumps. Little information exists on the dancer and the club, which no longer appears to be in business today.
POLE BECOMES PUBLIC
By the 1980s, vertical poles were installed in strip clubs all around the U.S. and Canada. In the early 1990s, a young, blue-eyed woman with wispy blonde hair named Fawnia Mondey began working at one of those Canadian clubs, complimenting each of her dance routines with a new pole trick or two. By 1994, she was teaching other industry dancers some of her successful experiments.
Four more years went by with pole dance occurring strictly in strip clubs, until Mondey produced the world’s first instructional pole dance video in 1998—introducing the movement to women as a sexy way to get fit.
The instructional video may have sparked the average woman’s interest, but pole dancing didn’t trend in America until around 2000, when actress Sheila Kelley founded S Factor in sunny Los Angeles. Today, the studio bills its teachings as “a sensual movement practice specifically designed for the female body.” Back then, S Factor was known as a dance studio with shiny vertical poles luring in Hollywood celebrities on the hunt for the next fitness craze.
It didn’t take long for reporters to descend on the new fitness routine bragged about by the likes of Teri Hatcher, Debra Messing and more. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey profiled the studio on The Oprah Winfrey Show, with other talk shows like The Tonight Show following suit.
But while celebrities and their fans ate up the new craze, Annemarie Davies, who at the time was working as a stripper in Los Angeles, remembers feeling a different way.
“At the time, to me, [S Factor] was a joke,” Davies says. “A part of me was angry because when I tell people I’m a stripper they don’t even want to talk to me anymore, but then all of a sudden it’s like house moms wanting to act like strippers? It really kind of bothered me.”
Davies says she was not alone in her feelings at the time (though she’s since changed her mind. You can hear more about her evolving relationship and experiences with pole dancing in our interview below), but the world wasn’t waiting for everyone to accept the shift. Women who had the taste of the new exercise that beckoned inner strength, femininity and confidence were hooked. In reality, it was nothing more than a steel apparatus that made them feel this way, but because of what it represented—sexuality without reserve—it became more than a fitness routine. It became freedom.
Annemarie Davies, founder and CEO of United Pole Artists. Photos by Nina Reed and 2014 Sexy Back London Showcase, obtained by and used with permission from Annemarie Davies, along with videos.
AN EVOLVING TREND
Soon more pole studios were cropping up around the globe—most taught by ex-strippers and others by trained dancers—and by 2005, the first pole dance competitions to take place with judges outside of the strip club were held in Amsterdam (World Pole Dance Championships), Australia (Miss Pole Dance Australia), and the U.K. (Miss Pole Dance U.K.).
The competitions were non-nude and judged on artistry, but many of the contestant’s moves were based on instinct rather than standard, as nameless tricks were still being invented.
During this time, retractable dance poles could be found online and at gag-gift stores like Spencer’s (award-winning pole dancer, instructor and judge Steven Retchless says he bought and broke three of those in his early training days), and home poling quietly became a thing of its own.
Josiah “Badazz” Grant, 2015 National Aerial Pole Art Champion and television personality, started out as one of those home polers around 2004 before landing a job as a club performer in Los Angeles.
“I was homeschooled at the time so I was probably dancing 40 hours a week,” he remembers. After hours he’d switch roles from student to teacher. “I’d videotape myself [doing pole tricks], then play back the video and critique myself.”
When he felt confident with his moves, he’d post them to YouTube—the first social media platform that pole dancers had to share tricks with one another.
Davies says YouTube was a “massive factor” in the industry’s growth.
“YouTube was the first time we all got to see each other doing stuff,” she says. “The more people became connected to each other, the more we all learned and the more open-minded we became.”
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
YouTube proved that a community of pole dancers was forming across oceans. It quickly became clear that structure was needed in order for the practice, which many turned to as a creative form of fitness, to become something serious.
Certain organizations formed as a response, including the International Pole Dance Fitness Association (IPDFA) in 2007 and the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF) in 2008. These entities served (and still serve) to educate, improve and extend the sport throughout the world.
United Pole Arists (UPA) formed the next year to increase communication between polers, with live-streamed competitions and articles on the latest industry happenings. The brand also began to market up-and-coming pole products, like grip solution and apparel.
More competitions soon followed, including the first professional pole-dance competition in America, which U.S. Pole Dance Federation held in 2009.
That’s the year pole dancing in the U.S. “really started popping off,” Davies says.