It's Friday afternoon, and 12 people are gathered in a pole dancing class in Washington, D.C. They start warming up in front of a wall of mirrors, music at full blast. At first, it looks like any fitness class with the first 15 or so minutes consisting mainly of ground stretching on yoga mats.
Then they climb up on the poles. Some people twirl around, others fully invert, lifting their legs over their heads.
"I think people think of it as, you know, something that's super easy - but it takes a lot of hard work and dedication," says Devin Simpson, who started taking classes around two years ago. "We put ourselves through a lot, we put our bodies through a lot to do this."
Other students at Pole Pressure agree with Simpson. Devon Williams, CEO of the studio, likens pole dancing to gymnastics — she says it takes strength, flexibility, creativity and a whole lot of training. That's why a lot of people who participate in pole want the activity to gain official recognition as a sport and eventually make it to the Olympics. Katie Coates, president of the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF), is leading this campaign.
"I'm sure that we would actually pull in such a huge crowd, just even people just being interested in what we do," Coates says. "And then once they see it, people are so surprised and so impressed at the level of skill and athleticism that's required to actually do it.They all fall in love with our sport."
Pole has been on "observer status" with the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) — basically the big umbrella organization that oversees official sports around the world — since 2017. This means they're temporarily recognized as a real sport until they work their way up to full membership. Like with any other organized sport, the IPSF oversees rules, regulations, scoring, judging and anti-doping programs for large pole competitions.
Coates says achieving full GAISF membership, which allows the organization to then apply to the International Olympic Committee, could take years — in 2016, sports climbing, skateboarding and surfing were among the new sports approved to compete in the 2020 Olympic games. The Tokyo 2020 committee first submitted the request in 2015, with the goal of including more sports that attract younger people.
And IPSF is on the right track: it's slowly meeting the criteria, which includes having smaller, nationwide federations join IPSF. Recent additions include Ukraine and Mexico, says Coates. This fall, more than 400 people from 45 countries are expected to compete in the 9th Annual World Pole and Aerial Sports Championships in Switzerland.
Although there is a U.S. Pole Sports Federation, it is not currently associated with Coates' group.
Olympic-level or not, people who pole dance in Washington take it seriously — several students in this Friday's class are training for the regional Pole Sport Organization Atlantic competition that will take place in D.C. on March 28 and 29. The competition determines which athletes will qualify for the 2020 U.S. Nationals in the category for Artistic Pole.
But even as it makes progress, pole continues to grapple with negative stereotypes.
"I think we as a society need to get better about destigmatizing the sex work that comes along with pole dancing," says Zack, a student at Pole Pressure who asked that his last name be omitted for professional reasons. "Strippers are a part of our community and we need to accept them and love them — and also accept the athletic side of it as well. We are all one big happy pole family."
Coates says that part of her work is to break down those taboos. And in some countries, she says pole has become completely desexualized as a sport.
"We have children from the ages of 6 through to 17 taking part. And that is our massive growth area," she explains. "So many children are now actually using this as an alternative form of fitness, an exercise and competitive sport other than, you know, things like gymnastics and ice skating."
At Pole Pressure, people who come in for classes range from ages 15 to 65. Gymnastics or ballet can take a toll on the body over time, but Williams says pole offers more longevity, and that's why it draws in people with all different body types.
"You don't have to be in the best shape of your life. You don't have to be the most flexible. You don't have to be all these things because no matter where you're at on the pole, and your level and your movement — there's something for you," Williams says.