Pole Theatre USA Competition Shows Off the Art of a Misunderstood Sport

When it comes to pole dancing, the first image most people have is the seedy arena of a strip club. But that’s not the case with the Pole Theatre USA competition — going down this Friday, May 15 and Saturday, May 16 at the Oriental Theater — where audience members will witness the athletic and artistic nature of this growing sport. Both amateur and professional pole performers will battle it out within the categories of art, comedy, drama and “classique” — which celebrates the activity’s sexy side.

Photographer and pole enthusiast Nina Reed is the organizer of the competition, and is the reason this showdown is coming to Colorado. Over the last few years, Reed has worked to elevate the sport with various pole showcases and events including Pole Theatre USA, which is her latest endeavor. In advance of this weekend's competition — after which one lucky winner will go on to compete in the 2016 Pole Championship Series in Ohio — Reed spoke with Westword about what, exactly, pole theater is all about.

Westword: Why did you want to bring the Pole Theatre USA competition to Colorado?

Nina Reed: I started hosting pole competitions a couple of years ago — I also organize the Colorado Pole Championship, which is a state competition. That will be on its third year coming up in August. Pole theater is a competition that started in Australia and has been spreading all over the world — there are several countries that host it. It's really gotten big compared to a lot of the other pole competitions out there, because the focus is more on performance art instead of who's got the most difficult tricks. It's more about the performance than the sport. 
You're a photographer but you put on these competitions. What is your background with the sport and art form of pole?

I don't have any, really. (Laughs.) I ended up taking pole-dancing classes almost four years ago, and it's one of those things that you just get sucked into. I began helping organize some small showcases locally and my husband asked me one day why there wasn't a competition in Colorado and we figured, well, someone should do it. That's how I started.

There are four themed categories — can you talk a little about each of them and what the audience will see from performers?

Original pole dancing, as most people think of it, is about strip clubs. The "Pole Classique" category celebrates that — many competitions are getting strict on sexually suggestive moves or how much cleavage can be shown. But there are a lot of people who really like that style of dance, so that category will cover it. The "Pole Drama" category is about what you would expect to see at any normal dance show or anything like that — it's about telling a story through a dance. The "Pole Art" category is anything involving other dance styles, from ballet to salsa — anything that can be incorporated in to the pole performance. "Pole Comedy" is self-explanatory — it's about trying to make people laugh.

Throughout all of the categories, you also have a couple of things in common that are taken into consideration — the tricks that people perform and if they are executing them cleanly and the strength and flexibility of competitors. It is dance, but it also has a lot of fitness going into it. We like having the different categories, though, because it just makes it more entertaining for the audience instead of being a bunch of the same performances back-to-back that are all similar.

Where do pole competitors typically come from? Do they come to the sport from other physical disciplines?

We tend to get a lot of former gymnasts, cheerleaders and ballet dancers — people who have grown up competing or performing. Once you get out of college, there is often not a whole lot left and pole dance seems to draw in these people who really like competing and performing and getting creative and putting together these routines. There's also a lot of competitors who have no prior experience before they start taking pole classes — which is interesting to see.

The Colorado Pole Championship, another competition that I also run, is more of a standard pole competition where people are judged on the difficulty of tricks, the execution, whether you point your toes and the musicality of your piece. It's still performance art, but the focus is usually more on how one gets a high score rather than how they entertain the audience.
What is it about the culture, art and sport of pole theater that is most interesting to you?

I just think it's impressive what performers can do. People watch pole for the same reason they watch figure skating or rhythmic gymnastics; it's really incredible to see what the competitors come up with and what they can physically do. I also really like the dance of it — I love dance myself, but I've never trained in dance. In pole, you get to come into it as an adult. Or with something like gymnastics — if you don't start when you're five, you're never going to be good at it.

Initially, I made the assumption that pole theater was a strictly an exotic dancing-related competition — but that is clearly not the case.

Right. That's what pretty much everyone assumes. (Laughs.) There is obviously some of that, too, and a lot of the instructors who started teaching pole and opening studios around the country, that is where they started and first learned their skills. But these days, most people who take pole classes don't also get paid to pole dance — we just spend a lot of money practicing it instead. We get so used to the misconception — once you take pole classes, you know you're going to have to explain it many, many times over. There is obviously some crossover — there are instructors who also dance and dancers who have started taking classes and competing. But in general, especially in competitions, you don't see a whole lot of exotic dancers.

What do you like like about taking the classes and performing yourself?

It's really just amazing to see what your body becomes capable of — when I first started taking pole classes, I couldn't do a single pull-up; I had no upper-body strength whatsoever. The first time you hold yourself upside down, holding your whole body weight away from the pole, I don't know — it's the same kind of feeling I get from finishing a 10K. It's like, wait. I just did that?

If someone wins the Pole Theatre USA championship, where do they go from there?

There are a handful of events happening around North America this year and the winner of each of those qualifying events goes on to compete at the national championship, which is held at the Arnold Sports Festival in Ohio in March of next year. It's been really exciting for us because this year at the national championships we got to share the stage with the main bodybuilding events at the Arnold. It was a huge step up from small competitions around the country to have such a big national venue. The winner in the professional division of Pole Theatre USA gets a spot to compete at those championships. There will be a winner for each category as well as an overall winner, which is the person with the highest combined score. 

Pole Theatre USA swings into the Oriental Theater on Friday, May 15 (amateur) and Saturday, May 16 (professional) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 amateur, $35 professional or $50 for both evenings. For information, tickets and workshop registration, visit the Pole Theatre USA website.

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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies