Don’t ask Amy Guion if she’s a stripper. That’s so 2007.

Today, you say, “You must be strong!” or, “My friend does that” when you meet someone like Guion, a professional pole dancer whose clothes stay on.

“That’s the biggest indicator for me that things are different,” she says.

An activity that for years was synonymous with strip clubs, pole dancing is now not only a Groupon-approved alternative to step aerobics for suburban moms but also one that has gone the way of karaoke and cooking: It’s competitive, right down to national anthem kickoffs, sponsors with names such as Bad Kitty, and industry idols including Kyra Johannesen.

“That’s, like, the god of pole right there,” one admirer says.

There’s even a petition for pole dancing to become an Olympic sport.

It’s all on display at the 2014 Atlantic Pole Championships, which brings nearly 200 recreational pole dancers — teachers, nurses and engineers — to the Hyatt Dulles one recent weekend to perform for family, friends and a panel of judges. Winners will go on to compete in a national championship in New York.

What’s intriguing here, and also a little startling, is that the competition features men. And women pushing 50. There’s even a category for children as young as 10. Is this a win for gender equality and anti-age-discrimination, or one more loss for societal standards?

“The goal is … getting people on stage and getting them to be like, ‘Everybody is incredible, and everybody really does bring something to the stage,’ and the more places we can bring that to and spread the love, the better,” says Guion, co-founder of Pole Sport Organization, the host of the weekend’s event.

Of course, who it’s better for depends on your perspective. Perhaps it’s a gain for the kids who don’t take to soccer or glee club. Maybe it’s a carrot for public health advocates looking to lure Americans off the couch. But what does it mean for the pole fitness community when, during competitions, participants are on a stage and perform in front of a crowd, as strippers do?

Maybe it’s better not to ask any questions. After all, says competitor Sam Doblick, pole dancing “is more than what Joe Shmo in close-minded America thinks.”

Pole dancing has migrated from clubs to gyms and now has moved to competitive circuits. Meet some of the amateurs and professionals who are bringing the sport to mainstream America. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Game day

Before a marathon, runners stretch and pin numbers on their shirts. Before pole competitions, participants seal their costumes to their bodies with roll-on glue. That step is insurance against disqualification: Pole Sport Organization enforces a rule against the accidental revealing of “intimate body parts.”

That rule is one of the many things on the mind of Melissa Wolfe, who at 7:30 a.m. is studying her made-up reflection.

“Do I look like I got punched in the eye?” she asks. “It’s not black and blue, is it?”

“No, you’ve got to make it really dark because the lights are so intense,” assures Bessie Badilla, Wolfe’s friend and hotel roommate.

By the way, Wolfe asks, what day is it?

“Sunday — Palm Sunday,” Badilla says. “S---, I’m missing Mass.”

The pull of the pole

“Have fun have fun have fun have fun,” Aileen Senneff, 44, coaches herself minutes before her name is called. This is the mother-of-five’s first competition. “I just want to do my best and not get stressed out and go home and say, ‘That was fun.’ To me, that’s successful,” she says.

Rommel Pierre O’Choa, an actor in New York, is aiming to make a splash so big he can leave Broadway behind and transition fully into the pole profession. Wait, that’s a thing?

“The way to start having a pole career is to start doing competitions,” says O’Choa, 38. “If you do well, people request you for workshops and maybe performances.”

O’Choa was in a “Miss Saigon” touring production for four years. “People always say dancers’ careers end at 30, and I don’t believe that. It’s about how you take care of yourself and how much passion you have, and you can do anything. You can do anything!”

A naval engineer by day, metal singer and pole dancer by night. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Male pattern boldness

Eight men walk into a windowless room with a stage and two poles. Who are these guys? Neither Chip nor Dale.

DaWei Hou dropped out of a biomedical engineering doctoral program in New York to pursue pole full time. The pole is “still an undefined apparatus,” he says. “People say, ‘What is that? What is it supposed to look like? As a research-oriented person, it’s a question that wasn’t answered.” Hou’s routine — complete with a molecule painted on his chest — is meant to convey the scientific principle of energy.

Sam Doblick is a 26-year-old bartender from New York who is drawn to challenges. “My friends said, ‘That’s stupid’ or ‘Why would you do that?’ because I’m a guy and because of the stigma associated with it,” he says. “So it fueled the fire.”

Doblick is dedicating his performance to his late grandmother.

Family vacation?

Bryn Griffin Farinacci road-tripped here with her mom, dad and two brothers from their home town, Chardon, Ohio.

At 16, she’s the weekend’s youngest performer, although the competition is open to “youth” as young as 10. Is that appropriate? Just ask Bryn’s mom, Pidge. “You have to get that image out of your head and treat it like the sport that it is,” she says.

But Bryn’s 11-year-old brother has skipped the show. Pidge says he was “scarred for life” the first — and last — time he saw his sister perform a few years ago.

Phillip Evans hated his job in human resources. So he quit and moved to New York City to pursue a career in pole fitness. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Not your uncle’s Café Risqué

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Sarah Haskins says she is more nervous now, moments before she’s set to go onstage, than when she was deployed to Iraq in 2005. She has crafted her routine to reflect her mixed emotions about leaving the military next March.

One competitor — a stripper-turned-college-professor — pokes fun at the public’s perception of strippers by dancing as a stereotypical one named Candy. She takes offense at the pole fitness community’s rejection of the industry’s “roots.” She also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I think what pole dancing is doing is saying, ‘No, no, no, no. I’m not like that,’ ” she says. “Whereas my goal is to say, ‘Oh, no, I am. And you’re going to respect it.’ ”

Another competitor performs her routine in roller skates, coming off as a shaky but eager-to-please Sonic waitress. One woman grips a plastic gun and pretends to shoot the crowd. One cradles a scarf that appears to symbolize a lost love.

Others channel a more overt sexiness: body-rolling against the pole, air-humping and flashing sultry looks in the judges’ direction. The most advanced climb to the top, then drop, head first, only to catch themselves by squeezing the pole with their legs in the nick of time. Some do splits on the ground, splits hanging upside down and splits against the pole, which raises the question: Where are their bones?

Single white female seeks supportive pole partner

Not every man can say his girlfriend is a pole dancer, but some who do enjoy the perks.

“I’ve got two poles in my basement, which is great,” says Kevin Carter, who installed his girlfriend’s first pole in the laundry room. That was a “fail.” The basement proved better.

“I have one in mine as well,” Eric Dolinger adds. “I can set it up in less than eight minutes.”

For Lee Powell of Richmond, the biggest bonus of a pole-dancing wife is her confidence boost. “We’ve known each other for 20 years, been married for 15, and you can say, ‘You’re pretty, you’re sexy,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” he says. “But it wasn’t until this that she actually started believing it.”

Could she reveal to colleagues what she’d been hiding? (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Professor Pole

Across the Atlantic, Tim Kurz at the University of Exeter has conducted two studies on recreational pole dancing.

“It comes back to the question of: What is it that’s appealing about this activity for people?” he says. “If it’s really just the experiential quality of spinning around a pole and the fitness benefits you get from that, then there’s no reason you couldn’t treat it as some sort of cultural accident that this happened to start out as something that people did in strip clubs.

“But, on the other hand, if there’s something about the sexual cachet that is associated with participation in this, then there’s a risk that if you completely divorce it from that, it will actually lose some of its appeal.”

And the Fort Wayne judge says …

Jerry Fox, 49, is supposed to be home,
in Fort Wayne, Ind., celebrating his brother’s birthday. But after missing his flight, Fox settles into the hotel bar, where he orders dirty martinis and chats with competitors who encourage him to check out the show.

Now he’s in the audience. “Here’s the thing: Americans are ignorant of this particular sport — if you want to call it that,” Fox says. “I wouldn’t call it a sport because I’m a guy.”

But he would call it something else. When he gets home, he’ll tell his buddies, “ ‘You guys go to your gentlemen’s club, and you see pole dancing? That’s not pole dancing, that’s not pole dancing,’ ” he rehearses. “Pole dancing is an art.”

Anna Medaris Miller is a writer and editor living in Washington.

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