Where does pole dancing come from and what is its history? These simple questions often turn pole dance Facebook groups and conversations among pole dancers into a culture war. In this blog post, I use multiple sources to trace the international history of pole and to pay tribute to its foremothers: strippers.
Why am I writing about the history of pole?
There are already some reputable blog posts and articles on pole history, so you may wonder why I’m writing my own. There are a few reasons for that, and the first one is selfish: I wanted one on my blog. I am a history nerd, and I wanted to do some history nerding about my favourite thing and my job, pole dancing.
Another push to write this blog came from the fact that not all my audience is pole-specific, and that they often ask me about the history of pole. Coming from a background blending pole dancing, blogging, public relations, marketing, journalism and academia, I wanted something all my different worlds could read so that they don’t go around believing that pole didn’t come from strippers.
I also realised that pole’s international history matters to me. Many pole dancers know that teaching and experiences differ country by country, and I wanted this post to reflect that. I started pole in Australia, then continued it in Italy, in the United Kingdom and, sometimes, in the US. I was interested in stringing these countries together, tracing the history of pole there (where available).
A word of warning however: I may not have found all the sources or given space to all experiences and perspectives, so if there’s anything you think I should read or add, let’s have a chat! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂
Where does modern pole dance come from?
When discussing the ancient origins of movement similar to pole dancing, PolePedia and a set of polers talk about tribal dances in Africa, about the Maypole dance, about Mallakhamb and Chinese pole. The latter two are the most cited examples by pole dancers who want to build a wall between them and stripping. While these are not the true origins of pole as we know it, they do deserve a mention when we talk about the history of modern pole dance, to show the nature of the debate.
Uses of poles in ancient history
Although a series of tribal and Sumerian dances are rumoured to have used poles, the first well-documented uses of poles to dance and/or perform acrobatic tricks date back to the 12th Century A.D., and can be traced back to Europe, India and China respectively.
The first practice quoted by PolePedia is the Maypole dance, a Pagan celebration of fertility to welcome spring or mid-summer. During the celebration, which spread to Germany, England, and Sweden, women held ribbons connected to the top of a large pole and danced in a circle to wind the ribbon together, to then retrace their steps to unwind it. Before the Victorian era, the Maypole ritual usually included a feast and ended with an orgy.
Mallakhamb, a show of gymnastic strength and endurance around a wooden pole, originated in India around the same time. The term Mallakhamb translates to “wrestling pole,” as the practice was meant to help wrestlers build full-body endurance in the least amount of time. Although it’s a sport mainly performed by men (who did not wear glittery outfits or heels) Mallakhamb is some polers’ favourite way to distance themselves from strippers.
Chinese pole, which in China is known as “acrobatic pole,” also seems to date back to the 12th Century. It’s a practice once again performed by men, who used two rubber-coated poles to perform acrobatic tricks, leaping from pole to pole, and holding poses. The poles’ rubber coating aided grip, but athletes had to wear multiple layers of clothing to avoid friction burns.
According to @divnnvx, it wouldn’t make sense for pole dancing to originate from Chinese pole Firstly the terms used to define Chinese pole and sexy pole are different – sexy pole is known as “steel/metal pole dance” or “dancing with steel/metal pole” – and secondly, the sexy pole we now know and love is a largely women-dominated industry with femme styles of dancing being the most prevalent. Essentially, it’s miles away from the mainly male “acrobatic pole” performers of Chinese pole.
So although these practices are all worthy of note, modern pole dance has little to do with endurance sports performed by men, and a lot more to do with showgirls. This is why the history of pole dancing goes hand in hand with the history of striptease, of Burlesque, of Vaudeville and of sex work.
The Hoochie Coochie dance and “exotic dance” in the United States
The origins of modern pole dance have been traced all the way back to the late 18th Century United States with the “Hoochie Coochie” dance, a term used to describe provocative and sexy dances such as bellydancing.
The travelling “Little Egypt” circuses of the 18th Century were a major source of entertainment in the USA. They featured Middle-Eastern and gipsy dancers who performed inside a circus tent. The Hoochie Coochie dancers quickly realised they could use the pole at the centre of the tent to climb, hold poses and spin around it, in order to impress the public. These dancers challenged gender stereotypes, wearing jewels, short skirts and midriff tops at a time when women wore corsets and petticoats.
According to Kitty Velour, these dances became so popular that they were “imported” into Europe, using white dancers instead of Middle-Eastern dancers. This moment coincides the increased use of the term “exotic dancer”, a term that for many polers and strippers has a racist origin: when the Hoochie Coochie dance came to Europe, Black or Middle-Eastern dancers were suddenly called “exotic dancers,” othering them and distancing them from their white counterparts. Because of this, recently, US-based pole dancer Nadia Sharif and stripper activist Nova Caine raised awareness of the term’s racist origin, asking the pole industry worldwide to find better ways to define dancing in heels.
Vaudeville and Burlesque
In Chrome Chronicles’ article about the pioneers of sexy pole, US-based pole star Jordan Kensley calls Vaudeville the “grandomother” of pole, explaining how, in the early 1900s, sexy variety and striptease shows in the States used elements of comedy and dance.
However, when Prohibition brought the banning of alcoholic drinks and a general focus on more ‘appropriate’ forms of entertainment, there was a ‘moral separation’ between Vaudeville’s offering: “Acts that were deemed publicly appropriate went to the circus (contortion, silks, trapeze etc),” says Jordan, while the sexier side of Vaudeville – namely Burlesque and striptease shows – went underground in speakeasy bars. There wasn’t much space for performers in speakeasies, so they had to perform on bar counters, or on tiny stages, where bar patrons added a pole in order to allow performers to hold onto something (for safety) while stripping.
When Prohibition was over, some performers continued their Burlesque shows, this time out in the open and not just underground. However, table dances using poles had grown so popular because of Prohibition that bar and restaurant owners converted their interiors to allow for sexy dances, with or without a pole. From that moment, according to Jordan, performances crossed over into three styles: Burlesque, circus and pole dance.
First examples of pole teaching in Canadian strip clubs in the 1980s
According to a variety of sources, the 1980s marked a shift in the popularity of stripping, which became a staple of North American culture. We get the imagery of money raining on strippers from US and Canadian strip clubs, because their dollar bills are made of paper (and not metal, like in the UK… otherwise, ouch!).
In a Yes A Stripper podcast episode, Crimson Misty and AM Davies trace the origins of stripping (and therefore modern pole dance) in Canada, and particularly in Vancouver. Because of its lax liqueur licenses and laws at the time, 1980s Vancouver was a haven for strip clubs, where strippers were not only treated as workers – they had agents setting them up for specific club nights.
It was in this environment that club owners realised having good dancers paid off, so the best strippers were hired to teach others the tricks of the trade inside clubs in the 1980s and 1990s. Realising that women outside strip clubs found learning pole tricks appealing, many of these strippers branched out and began teaching from home, or opened their own pole studios.
History of the first pole dance studios and competitions
Contrary to ‘pole lore’, Fawnia Mondey wasn’t the first stripper to open a pole dance studio, although she was one of the first high-profile strippers to teach in Canadian strip clubs in 1994. According to Crimson Misty and AM Davies, Fawnia only stripped for a year or so, and then taught out of a shoe shop in Vancouver in 1998. She then moved to Nassau and stopped teaching for a while but she was, PolePedia writes, the first person to launch pole dance tutorials to learn at home in 2001.
Crimson Misty and AM Davies credit Pole Junkies in Edmonton, by Alena Downs, as the first ever pole studio, opened in 2004 in her basement. One of the best entertainers in Canada, Alena had been teaching bar classes since 2002, winning a set of pole dance titles as well. Pole Junkies then expanded with three more branches and became one of the largest online pole communities, too.
S Factor, the main studio behind Strip Down, Rise Up now “undone” by racism and coercion allegations, followed shortly after, founded by actor Sheila Kelley in Los Angeles. According to Crimson and AM however, S Factor kept themselves separate from pole, marketing themselves as “feminine movement” rather than straight up pole dance or pole fitness.
In the same year, Tracy Gray and Christine Boyer created Aradia Fitness, and opened their first studio in Vancouver. It will become one of the biggest North American franchises. Also in 2004, Tammy Morris opened Tantra Fitness in Vancouver, now another successful franchise with four branches. In 2005, Fawnia Mondey opened her studio, Pole Fitness Studio, in Las Vegas.
Although they often don’t get the same credit, Black strippers during this period pioneered a lot of what we now learn and love, introducing moves and styles that are now some of the most popular in modern pole dance. In 2008 Atlanta, at the legendary Magic City Club, the era of“making it rain” began and records were made or broken by strip club success, accompanied by new moves and by the incorporation of styles like twerk and bounce into pole. AM and Crimson also mention Los Angeles based dancers Natalie Clark, Angel Dust, Josiah Grant as pioneers, some of them the first strippers to travel the world and be paid by companies to teach. X Position, a Black-owned and Black-run studio, opens in LA during this time, with AM being its first white instructor.
2005 also sees the first edition of the World Pole Championships in Amsterdam, with strippers as the main competitors.
Pole and striptease history in the United Kingdom
In Chrome Chronicles Pole’s blog post, Kitty Velour traces the first strip club in England back to the 1950s. It was Paul Raymond’s members’ only Soho club Raymond Revue, which still exists as The Box.
In the 1960s, UK law allowed full nude dances, and Soho was London’s full-blown red light district, with peep shows, strip clubs and a general vibe of sexual liberation.
The 70s and 80s saw the birth of strip pubs in the East End of London, hosting stage shows where showgirls would walk around patrons with an empty pint glass, asking for tips – a tradition that, according to Kitty and to @mistypoledancer’s fantastic Glitter&Garterz video series, still stands. Shows were very theatrical, using props, funky costumes and even wedding dresses.
The 1990s saw the opening of Europe’s first Burlesque school in London, a feat Kitty Velour credits to Madame Jojo, the owner of one of Soho’s most famous cabaret and Burlesque clubs now closed due to gentrification.
Lap dances and private dances became popular later on, but they were very brief and, according to Kitty, the emphasis was still on stage shows. The White Horse was one of the East End’s most famous strip pubs, having hosted Kitty herself, Felicity Logan e Millie Robson. The East London Strippers Collective (ELSC), a stripping trade union, was also born here. Kitty says:
“Although we romanticise the strip pubs, they did have their issues with the management sacking girls for trivial reasons. Most of the girls in ELSC have worked and been sacked from the White Horse (including myself).”Kitty Velour
Like in the USA, the first London pole dance studios started opening in the early 2000s, with PolePeople between Moorgate and Liverpool Street opening in 2003, before its Canadian sisters. In 2005 it’s time for the London Academy of Poledancing in Clerkenwell, now known as London Dance Academy. Both studios still stand, and have been followed by a series of others.
Pole dancing in Australia
I started pole dancing in Australia, at Sydney Pole, in 2016. The popularity and mainstreamisation of pole in Australia, as opposed to what I saw in Italy, the US and the UK, always stunned me. Pole as we know it followed a similar trajectory there as Canada and the US, but it’s somehow way more “out in the open” and less subcultural.
In early 00s Sydney, Bobbi Vivoda, a stripper and pioneer who sadly passed away in 2020, begins teaching pole dance to her colleagues from the Dancers Cabaret on Bayswater Road, in the party and night-time district of King’s Cross. It’s 2002, and Bobbi’s classes are taught in the same room where the club’s bouncers were training.
According to the Australian Pole Dancers Magazine, Bobbi wants to open classes to the public, so the club owner accepts – provided she hands him a percentage of her earnings. After the Sydney Morning Herald writes about her classes, 100 women show up looking to learn how to pole dance. Strippers Candice Leigh and Jamilla Deville join in, giving birth to what is going to become an uber-popular market for pole in Australia.
Still, Jamilla hasn’t, as many people believe, invented the Jade Split.According to AM Davies and Crimson Misty, the Jade Split was created by Pantera Blacksmith, and Bobbi and Jamilla learnt it from Pantera’s video, naming it Ja – De, after Jamilla Deville.
In 2004, Bobbi opens her first studio in Sydney, also launching a series of DVD tutorials. Pole studios start opening everywhere, and in 2005 Bobbi creates and launches one of the most glamorous pole competitions, Miss Pole Dance Australia. The presenter is a drag queen, Maxi Shields, one of the contestants of 2021’s first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. Jamilla Deville is the first winner.
Australia is crucial in the history of pole: it brought us the glamorous showgirl style and gorgeous spinning pole flows, proud stripper pole dancers like Felix Cane, studio owners and trailblazers Michelle Shimmy and Maddie Sparkles, and competitions like Dance Filthy, Pole Theatre and Floorplay.
In Australia, pole dancing felt less taboo – so much that many ‘mainstream’ pubs featured pole shows, and that pole studio showcases, often happening every three or four months, could host up to 500 guests!
History of pole in Russia
Russia is essentially a factory for breath-taking pole dancing. From the flawless Russian heels flow that gives the viewer the idea of watching a dancer fly, to intricate tricks reminding you of gymnastics, Russia claimed its own space in the history of pole.
In a post by Miss Diana Exotic Pole, I found an interview with Russian pole dance pioneer Svetlana Orlova, who was the first to open pole studios in St. Petersburg and who organised a variety of pole dance championships.
Svetlana started teaching pole dance in 2005 at a dance studio called “Vizit”. She says the studio owner showed her a video of Felix Cane, asking her if she could teach that to his clients. She said yes, but realised she couldn’t do much on the pole despite being a professional choreographer – so she hired a stripper to teach her. Miss Diana writes:
Her first teacher was a stripper, of course, and everybody who opened first pole studios in St. Petersburg was coming from the stripping industry one way or another: either working as choreographers or as dancers at clubs.Miss Diana Exotic Pole
Svetlana says pole wasn’t “pole fitness” at the time – they just used to do it barefoot to try and differentiate it from striptease, but learnt from strippers nonetheless. Later, however, pole grew so much in popularity that Svetlana opened her own studio, “Erodance”, in 2007. At Erodance, instructors taught striptease, erotic dance, chair dance and twerk. Olga Koda was also on the team.
In the same year, two more pole studios opened in St.Petersburg: “Magnit” by Julia Irinina, the founder of “Trash” studio and Olga Trifonova’s instructor, and “Blacky” by Ekaterina Romanova. Both Julia and Ekaterina were strippers before opening their studios, according to Svetlana.
In 2008, Svetlana organised the first pole championship in Russia, Miss Pole Dance Russia. The winner was Vardanush Martyrosyan (Varda), with a routine inspired by stripping. In August 2009, Svetlana and Olga Chapman organised Russia’s first pole fitness championship.
In 2012, pole fitness and heels pole became separate styles in Russia, when Svetlana organised the Afrodiziak competition: “Exotic” became a separate category focusing on heels.
Now, the pole industry is trying to move away from the word “Exotic”, but when the conversation about the use of the term inflamed Facebook groups a while back, I remember reading about why the word was chosen by Eastern European polers. Apparently, being “out” as a stripper or being seen to promote stripping was taboo in Russia, so dancers chose the word to describe pole dancing in heels as a ‘shield’ rather than as a nod to the othering origins of the term. I haven’t found the source for this since, so if you can confirm please send it to me!
Still, since this term ‘others’ polers of colour, and since it doesn’t really represent the variety of styles of heels pole dancing, I believe finding a different term is only right.
Pole dance in the rest of Europe
Sources on the history of pole in the rest of Europe and in non-English speaking countries are sparse. I even struggled to find much in my own language, Italian.
What I did find was that Italy was a late-bloomer when it comes to pole, which started being taught in my country only in 2007, in small home studios. The first pole studios or gyms opened in 2009, in Milan, Rome and Bologna. The focus was on what we know as ‘pole fitness’ and on tricks. Pole was, and sometimes still is, very sanitised in Italy, a Catholic country with very conservative morals.
Italy’s first championship took place in 2010 in Rome, endorsed by the Federazione Italiana di Pole Dance and won by Sara Brilli. In 2011, the Federation launched the Italian Pole Championship with very strict rules, inspired by gymnastics. The Italian Pole Dance Contest follows in 2013 but many of these competitions are trick-based.
According to some unofficial sources however – i.e. Italian polers living in cities near American military bases – US-style strip clubs and striptease performances started becoming popular in Italy in the 80s, 90s and 00s, showing a sexy side of pole that wasn’t immediately reflected in the studios and that was inspired by North American culture. Either way, the first ‘sexy’ pole comps in Italy start in 2016, with Exotic Moon, organised by Natalya Ryzhikh from Turin Pole Dance Studio. Exotic Goddess by Letizia Saquella follows in Rome in 2019.
In Germany, former stripper Nele Sehrt started teaching tease dance classes in 2002, and pole classes in 2004. Originally based in Hamburg, Nele taught many current studio owners in Europe.
According to heels legend Jazzy K, pole in Switzerland appeared around 2009, when her original teacher learnt from Nele. “They even had their first teacher trainings in the strip club,” Jazzy says.
I didn’t manage to find much about the history of modern pole in France, Spain, Germany or other European nations. Hit me up if you have anything!
History of Pole in Asia
Most accounts of the history of pole focus on the US, Canada, the UK and Australia and not, for instance, on Asia and Africa. These sources are limited, and were added later thanks to the input of a series of pole dancers, so if anyone has sources from those areas, I’d love to read them!
China (Special thanks to @divnnvx for pointing me to the right sources)
In Chinese culture, performing on stage was usually not seen as something women should or could do. During the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911), women were outlawed from participating in stage performances, and performances like Peking opera were male-dominated, with men dressing as women to perform female roles. Mixed performance troupes eventually came back after the Qing dynasty, but it’s taking Chinese women decades to undo and unlearn traditional patriarchal norms concerning gender expression and sexuality.
But the tide is beginning to turn. Even if performances like pole dance are sometimes still frowned upon, they are growing increasingly popular in China. According to CNN, Luo Lan’s Pole Studio was one of China’s first pole academies in 2005. She has a chain of 24 schools to train pole dancers, and says her students have gone on to open up another 600 studios across China. Jady Chow, who runs Pole Divas, was also one of the pioneers of pole in China.
Some links with the nightlife industry – although not an outright link with stripping – seem to appear in an interview with pole world champion Coco Kehong, who said about taking up pole : “I didn’t have any foundation about dance. I worked as a waiter in a bar. I saw some pole dance show there which interested me.”
Either way, pole’s increasing popularity is resulting in TV appearances and interviews, as well as Chinese athletes competing in World Championships, like pole athlete Fang Yi.
Joshua Paul Dale traced the roots of the explosion of pole in Japan, writing that:
The trigger for this vast expansion was the brief boom, beginning around 2004, of pole dance practiced by Hollywood stars such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Kate Moss, which was covered exhaustively on daytime television and women’s magazines. Pole dance became the latest fitness craze, and the sudden demand resulted in an explosion in the number of studios opened by former exotic dancers turned instructors.Joshua Paul Dale, The Future of Pole Dance
In Tokyo, dancer and teacher Lu Nagata founded the Pole Dance Tokyo studio in 2006. Lu’s apprentice Mai Sato, who won the world pole dance championships in 2009 and 2010, was an instructor at the studio, and worked as the first Japanese aerialist for ‘Love’, one of the Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas.
South Korea (thanks @dark_moonlite for pointing me to the right sources)
Yunjung Kim and Sun-Yong Kwon write that in Korean, pole dance is translated as “bongchom,” a word that “gives an indication of decadence and vulgarity.” This is linked to the fact that most imagery of pole comes from Western sources, which is also why it’s so difficult to find histories of pole from elsewhere. According to Kim and Kwon, gentlemen’s clubs and strip culture are non-existent in Korea, meaning that perceptions of pole are different there.
The first mentions to pole in Korea date back to 2006, when a Korean online news article wrote about how pole dancing had become a type of popular fitness in Australia. In 2007, of the top major broadcasting companies in Korea, MBC introduced pole dancing as a fitness activity taken up by Hollywood A-Listers. Despite these “mainstream” appearances, there was no mention to Korean women taking up pole.
The first South Korean pole studio, Pole Dance Korea, is the first pole studio in South Korea, opened in 2008. It’s the longest-running pole studio that hosts annual performances, regional competitions, and world championships. Now, one of the largest pole studios and franchises in the country is Polers Korea Dance Studio in Seul, owned by Poling Mia.
The history of online pole dance
The Internet and social media have been key to the popularisation of pole dance. From stripper videos circulating on the Web to Instagram, suddenly pole became visible.
With the launch of Instagram in 2010, pole took off: suddenly polers could network with each other and learn or copy others’ moves, pole combos and choreographies. Michelle Shimmy is widely credited to have started the pole dancing hashtag system featuring #pd (pole dance) and the name of a move, an incredible resource for us all to find pole inspiration. According to Aussie dancers who reached out to me on Instagram, the #pd system followed a series of experiments with hashtags, and it followed the much longer and less practical #PoleDanceMove followed by the name of the move. These dancers claim the hashtag system happened somewhere between 2013 and 2016.
Michelle Shimmy is also behind #sundaybumday, one of pole dancers’ favourite hashtags celebrating curves and butt gains that sparked new trends in body positivity.
With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, pole dance moved almost entirely online. Studios closed, and online classes, online tutorials through subscription platforms, workshops, competitions and instructor training became the norm – most likely creating a new pole ‘trend’ that isn’t going away, allowing us to learn from pole stars all over the world from the comfort of our home.
Parallel to this, social media’s censorship of sex work and pole dance continues to affect our industry, starting with the shadowbanning of our hashtags – which Instagram apologised to us for through this blog – and moving to the deletion of our videos for mistaken copyright claims and the outright deletion of our accounts. By erasing our content, platforms are erasing our culture, our network and our learning.
- “The Truth, But The Hole Truth” episode by the Yes A Stripper podcast focusing on the origins of pole
- Kitty Velour’s post on the history of pole
- Kitty Velour’s post on heel bangs
- This post on pole dance styles by Peach Lee Ray
- Chrome Chronicles‘s interview on the pioneers of sexy pole
- PolePedia‘s post on the origins of pole
- This article on the history of strip clubs
- “An oral history of Magic City,” Atlanta Magazine
- My interview with the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC)
- The “Strippers are pissed” episode from the Beyond The Pole podcast
- Vanessa Brecht’s history of the first Australian pole dance studio for the Australian Pole Dancers Mag
- A timeline of pole’s descent into the mainstream in Australia by the Australian Pole Dancers Magazine
- A brief history of #sundaybumday by Michelle Shimmy in Pole Dance Academy’s blog
- My post celebrating my fourth pole dance anniversary
- Interview with Svetlana Orlova by Miss Diana Exotic Pole
- China goes gaga over pole dancing, Sophia Yan for CNN Business
- China’s top pole dancer shows stunts on beach, ECNS
- Interview with Coco Keong by PoleGood
- A research paper by Joshua Paul Dale, 2013. The Future of Pole Dance. The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 2 (3), pp. 381-396.
- A research paper by Yunjung Kim and Sun-Yong Kwon, 2019. “I’m a Poler, and Proud of It”: South Korean Women’s Managed Experiences in a Stigmatized Serious Leisure Activity.