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Pole position: fitness convention straddles the line between sexy and sporty

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Some call it dancing, some call it striptease — but after a decade-long re-branding, more and more women are dropping in (literally) on America's pole studios.

Pole dancing has a lot of names. Some call it dancing, some call it striptease — but after a decade-long re-branding, more and more women who attend America's hundreds of pole studios have dubbed it everything from pole fitness to pole sport to sexy yoga.

The third annual International Pole and Exotic Dance Fitness Convention (or IPEDFC) is plastered with these terms, and dozens more. Almost a thousand pass holders paid between $99 and $139 to be at the LAX Marriott and attend the dozens of workshops, demonstrations and competitions that have taken over its bottom floor.

Heather West is the owner of Luscious Maven Pole Dancing Studio in North Hollywood. She says almost all her students come in thinking they'll be "the only one who doesn't get it."

"I actually had someone say, ‘I was scared it was gonna be girls in high heels smoking cigarettes,’" laughs West. "I was like, where would you get that from? I have all respect for exotic dancers but this is not a strip club. A pole studio where you’re coming to learn is not a strip club."

It's easy, at first, to see the confusion. Pole-dancing took its first stiletto'd steps on the elevated platforms and glitter-strewn walkways of what dancers call "the clubs" — i.e., the strip clubs. There, women do handsprings and backflips onto metal cylinders attached to the floor. They twirl around poles, picking up cash the appreciative audience chucks on the floor, all while supporting pounds of hard muscle using just their arms, butts or thighs.

"I actually worked in this one club in South Carolina that had 30-foot ceilings and poles that went all the way up," recalls Austin Lee, a convention attendees — and a former stripper. "And this teeny little girl would climb up it, upside down, and hang from the ceiling. And I was like… Oh, I wanna do that."

Over the past decade, competitive and performance-based pole-dancing has seen an explosion in popularity as women latch on to the intoxicating mix of obvious fitness bonuses — strength, flexibility, killer abs —with, well… sexiness.

Thousands of dancers from around the world train to perform in international competitions while mostly self-made pole dancing stars produce their own product lines and workout DVDs. At least two magazines have spawned solely to cover pole, and dozens of "pole diary" blogs dot the webosphere.

Over 6,000 participants recently petitioned to make it an Olympic sport in the 2012 games.

As pole dancing (or pole fitness) grows, so does its clientele. The halls of the Marriott are lined with 22-year-old actresses next to 62-year-old grandmas; plus-size pole stars pull-off headlining numbers while international champions stretch outside.

"Since it hit the mainstream and became a fitness thing there are a lot of different backgrounds that people are coming from, that are drawn to it," explains Lee. "I feel like my background is starting to die out – people that were strippers."

There’s even a handful of men in the halls—including 23-year-old Josiah Grant.

"When I dance on a pole, I try to make it as masculine as possible," says Grant. "I’m not dancing around like a ballerina and turning men away. Dudes will see me and be like, ‘Dude, you’re dope!’ I get a lot of love."

Grant started pole when he was 16, practicing in his bedroom and posting videos of his progress up on YouTube.

Girls from the strip club down the street would come show him tricks. But today, he says, the community has "drastically changed."

Lindsey Kimora, a rep with the convention's primary sponsor X-Pole, attempts to explain.

"So bringing it to Crunch gym, running certification programs on how to teach it, making it more known to the public," she says, ticking the possibilities off on her fingers. "Now I think it has the potential to develop into something like Yoga or Zumba."

That might explain the slightly schizophrenic nature of PoleCon, where panels with titles like ‘How The Pole Saved My Life' and ‘Grip Strength Training’ share a board with something called ‘ATL Booty Clap Workshop’.

While she loves that something so many people love is becoming the hot new thing in hip young fitness, former club girl Austin Lee admits to mixed feelings.

"As far as myself, I do get frustrated sometimes when people feel that they need to so harshly distinguish themselves," she admits. "I wanna be like 'Hey, don't forget where your sport came from.' We still wanna wear the sparkly shoes but we…don’t want to do it naked or something?"

Heather West agrees.

"When I first started I would say ‘Hey, I’m a pole dance instructor’ and one of my friends would be like 'Oh, but she’s not a stripper! She’s actually a really great dancer!'" she laughs. "Now, when I say I’m a pole dance instructor, people’s faces light up. There’s a huge respect. Even my brothers are proud of me."

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