Victoria Holt’s legs are spread wide up in the air. She’s donning a slim top and boy shorts, and spinning wildly on a steel apparatus. A group of similarly dressed onlookers study her body as it maneuvers around the pole with grace. They’re admiring. Appreciating. Learning.

What comes next depends on who’s reading. To the average person, the scene might sound like the start to some erotic escapade. To Holt, it’s just another night instructing at Ecdysiast, a pole dance studio based in Portland, Oregon.

But even with the explanation, imaginations may still run wild. Women clothed in next to nothing, taking turns swinging their limbs around a pole? Sounds like the stuff one would see in a dimly lit strip club, with red stage lights beaming down on shifting female curves.

It would be untruthful to say recreational pole dancing does not sometimes reflect that life. But, as with the profession of stripping itself, a deeper story exists behind the satiny crimson curtains of temptation. It’s no longer a practice primarily done by women for the heterosexual male’s entertainment. It’s no longer a type of movement restricted to clubs.

In the last 20 years, pole dancing has evolved into something else—something that many are still trying to define as it creeps deeper into the mainstream. Something that encompasses all genders, shapes, ages, occupations and backgrounds.

And with the help of social media shedding light on the practice and giving pole dancers from around the globe a collective voice, it’s becoming something louder and less apologetic. Some pole dancers have made moves to get the sport recognized in the Olympics, while others are trying to market it to fitness brands. And then there are hobbyists who just want to be able to share their talent with the public without hearing retaliation or ever-so-prevalent, flat-landing stripper jokes.

Some pole dancers believe the sport has a long journey ahead before it reaches any of these points, largely due to its taboo industry origins. Annemarie Davies, founder of United Pole Artists (UPA), a media and marketing company dedicated to the education and awareness of pole dancing, says the negative comments that follow nearly every one of UPA’s Instagram posts is proof.

“It reminds me of how close-minded people still are about what we do,” she says.

And while some may feel general opinion of the sport is improving at glacial speed, contemporary pole dancing has made some monumental progress in the few decades it’s been around.

The next few chapters chronicle the journey modern pole dance has made from its elusive beginnings to now, with commentary from industry veterans like Davies, who has been pole-dancing for 15 years, and Josiah “Badazz” Grant, who competed in the very first pole competition allowing males. Supplementary video and audio interviews can be found here.

Up next: Early Beginnings