March 22, 2010— -- I've seen my fair share of Broadway shows and rock concerts, even the opera and philharmonic. But the other day I attended for the first time a pole dancing competition.
It was an afternoon watching a group of women spinning around brass poles and performing incredible tricks with their bodies.
No, this wasn't some trip to a seedy strip club. It was a national championship competition sponsored by the official-sounding U.S. Pole Dance Federation, which backs pole dancing classes and tries to legitimize the "sport." (Yes, they call it a sport.)
The group, who motto is "the Sleek, the Strong, the Sexy," says five minutes on a pole can tone your body and get your heart racing as well, if not better, than any gym workout in the gym.
"You really want to get up that pole. You're lifting a lot more than 5-pound dumbbells at the gym," explained Wendy Traskos, who co-founded the group along with Anna Grundstrom.
Hundreds of people packed into a New York event space that normally hosts comedy shows, lectures, jazz, opera and other musical acts, It was a pretty large turnout for a midday event.
"Because it's pole dancing," Traskos said. "It's athletic women doing mind-blowing moves."
The moves would have impressed anybody on the dance floor, except these women were dancing 10 feet off the ground hanging onto a pole -- clad in 6-inch heels.
Mina Mortezaie, a 26-year-old marketing professional from Los Angeles who won the amateur division, hung upside down, supporting the weight of her body with just one leg wrapped around the pole . And the other leg? It was bent back behind her head.
It's sort of like Cirque du Solei... just with less clothes.
"It can be addictive," Traskos said. Some people spend up to four hours a day training.
But unlike the strip clubs, she said, "We keep it PG rated."
Grundstrom added: "No nudity. No excessive booty shaking."
Pole Dancing Championships Boast Real Athletes
To give you an idea of the seriousness of this event, one judge's resume includes dancing with P. Diddy, the Los Angeles Laker Girls and -- for the more family-friendly crowd -- performing in The Lion King.
While there were a few gawkers, a good portion of the crowd -- at least one in every three people -- had tried pole dancing themselves and showed up just out of curiosity. They were mostly women from New York and a startling number who had flown across country from California. (Apparently the sport of pole dancing is popular on the coasts but hasn't yet migrated into the middle of the country.)
The event focused on fitness and moves, but there was still plenty of sex appeal.
Kyra Johnannesen, who won second place, came out onto the stage in red and white polka dot stilettos and gave the audience a seductive wink at the end of her first performance.
There was enough shaking and gyrating to ensure that such a workout won't be coming to an elementary school gym class anytime soon.
But the women behind pole dancing are trying to legitimize it as much as possible. Like any other sport, they have amateur and professional divisions, but it's hard to think of it in pure sporting terms, what with the red and blue stage lights constantly flashing.
But the backgrounds of many of the dancers show that their credential are real. For instance, contestant Amy Guion trained for 15 years at a ballet school and has been pole dancing for two years.
"How pretty," one woman sitting behind me said of a dancer's outfit that looked more appropriate for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" than a strip club. But rest assured, there were plenty of outfits that could be described as beyond "skimpy."
The professional category champ, Alethea Austin, won a $5,000 prize, roundtrip airfare to perform at Miss Pole Dance Australia and a gift bag from the event's sponsors.
As the winner of the amateur competition, Mortezaie, who said she trained for two months for the event, moves on the professional ranks and gets a $500 check.
She works full time doing marketing for social media and gaming Web sites, and on nights and weekends she teaches pole dancing classes, a total of six each week.
She said the key to her success was to play off the vibe and energy of the audience and to "just relax."
"I usually have to explain that it's for fitness, fun and not in a strip club," Mortezaie said. "I'm working hard to bring it into the mainstream."