The pole vaults into a new role

Wearing a gauzy blue two-piece costume that resembles a circus acrobat's uniform, Laura Martin climbs up an 11-foot steel pole in a move popularly called the "Caterpillar Crawl."

Aggressive and athletic yet fluid and hyper-flexible, she proceeds to blaze through a pole-dancing routine of inverted suspensions, spins and slides.

Hoots and whistles from the female-dominated crowd compete with the live music provided by the rock band Avowed. One woman screams to a friend, "It's just like trapeze!"

Martin, a former exotic dancer, appreciates the comparison of what she does to something other than adult entertainment.

"I want to see pole dancing get away from the stripper connotation," says the 30-year-old San Diego-based performer and personal fitness instructor. "I want people to see it's like any other dance form."

The weekly showcase at Club Good Hurt in West Los Angeles represents the latest evolution in pole dancing's migration from the strip club to the fitness class to the mainstream performance venue. It features Southern California pole dancers performing to live rock music in a setting where, according to show producer Emilee Wilson, there's "no tipping and no stripping."

While pole dancing has been gaining acceptance in recent years as a form of physical fitness -- classes are offered in gyms and dance studios across the country -- there have been few performance opportunities outside of exotic dance clubs for dancers who spend years perfecting their skills and seek professional, artistic recognition.

Though the fact that the dance poles are easily portable and installable on a variety of surfaces point to a range of performance possibilities, Wilson and others say the opposite is true.

"There's just not a lot out there right now so that people can see pole dancing as a serious dance form," says Leigh Acosta, a 30-year-old pole dance instructor, aerial artist and recent performer at the showcase. "I think a lot of people still see it as something scandalous, the way people thought burlesque was scandalous, or belly dancing."

That may change, however, considering that Cirque du Soleil hired a champion pole dancer in January to perform in its Las Vegas-based "Zumanity," and pole-dance competitions judged by dancers and choreographers have sprung up all over the world.

The year-old New York City-based US Pole Dance Federation, for example, plans to sponsor annual competitions and pledges on its website to promote pole dancing as a "sensual and athletic art form."

Locally, there's Wilson's effort to produce an "acrobatic pole show for women who want to perform but not in a strip club.

"What I'm doing is offering women a safe space where they get respect," says Wilson, a 27-year-old actress and pole dancer who used to perform at Jumbo's Clown Room, a Hollywood bikini bar. "Most of the women I met at Jumbo's were really artistic, and none of them had implants. They were there because they really wanted to perform, and performers need an audience."

About 100 people -- with a roughly 3-2 female-male ratio -- packed the red-paneled bar and checkered dance floor area on a recent Monday to watch a lineup of performers that included Acosta, Nicole Williams, a popular local pole-dance instructor, and Mina Mortezaie, whose forte seems to be perfectly executed vertical and inverted split maneuvers.

Mortezaie, 26, trained in gymnastics, modern dance, jazz, ballet and hip-hop before discovering pole dance. "I got addicted to it immediately because it combines everything I've been obsessed with: strength, flexibility, grace."

Though she considered working at strip clubs, Mortezaie has created her own performance opportunities, which have included staging "pole nights" at the Culver City restaurant and bar Rush Street and forming her own burlesque dance troupe that incorporates the pole in its repertoire.

"I didn't want to dance for men in clubs," she says. "I wanted to dance for myself."

For her performance, Mortezaie wore a tiny pink-and-black bikini and sported thigh-high shiny black boots. All of the performers wore bathing-suit-type costumes, a necessity, they say, since bare skin allows them to perform moves that require gripping with various parts of the body. As for their high heels, "every dance has its shoe," observes Anna Grundstrom, the co-founder of the US Pole Dance Federation. "In high heels, you can grip higher on the pole."

As a dancer, Mortezaie seemed to accentuate the sexy elements of her movements. She considers this "empowering," while other dancers, like Martin, favor a less overtly sexual approach.

"I actually try to numb that part down," says Martin, a self-taught pole dancer who cross-trains in martial arts, yoga, boxing and running. "You can't take a woman's natural seductiveness away from her, but I tend to stay away from the shake-your-ass maneuvers."

Acosta, who demonstrates a languid, graceful performance quality in her routines, feels she's "not a very sexy performer" but defends the dancers who are.

"I think it would be wrong to take out the sexual appeal of it, otherwise pole dancing would be nothing more than just stunts and gymnastics," she says. "So much of dance is sexy. I've seen modern dance performances where it looks like the dancers are having sex."

Judith Lynne Hanna, a dance scholar at the University of Maryland, points out that many dance forms contain sensual or sexual elements and were stigmatized at various points in their histories.

Hanna, who has served as an expert witness on more than 100 court cases related to exotic dance regulation, also mentioned examples of highly regarded choreographers such as modern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, who received a warrant for her arrest in 1967 when she presented a dance involving female nudity in New York.

"And then you have belly dancing, which contended with stigmas similar to pole dancing," Hanna says.

Though some people attempt to trace contemporary pole dancing to the traditional Indian sport of Mallakhamb, or pole gymnastics, Hanna says the form really got its start in the 1980s, when strip clubs "became more upscale and elegant. I'm not sure when it became so gymnastic, but at some point, pole dancers became very skilled," she says. "After all, if everyone's doing the same thing but you do something different, you could attract more tips."

Outside the strip clubs, pole dancing continues to evolve, with new tricks and terms being invented and dancers exchanging information by posting performance and instructional videos on YouTube.

"What I call an outside leg hook might be called 'the firefly' in one studio and 'the fireman' in another," says Grundstrom, who mentions efforts to "put a Web page together with names of moves we all agree on."

Grundstrom feels that pole dancing is "in the middle" of significant evolution. "Some people have kept the flowing, circling movements, others are more athletic," she says, noting the recent petition to get pole dancing included as an event in the 2012 Olympics.

"The athletes will see it more as a sport and the dancers as more of an art," she said. "Our goal at the Federation is to make pole dancing credible . . . the more you put pole dancing in other places, the more you change people's minds."

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