All photos by Alice Zoo

The Little Girls Who Love to Pole Dance

At the International Pole Sport Federation World Championships, participants compete in a sport associated with sexualizing women's bodies—and the fact that the event draws underage athletes as well has sparked backlash. But pole sport enthusiasts...

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Aug 2 2016, 1:00pm

All photos by Alice Zoo

Eleven-year-old Paige Olson sits in a south London recreational center, too shy to talk. She has clear blue eyes, a matching streak in bobbed dark hair, and feathers sewn onto the bottom of her black stage costume. Her mother, 44-year-old Jennifer Balow—who is raising Paige, her only child, alone—speaks for her when the nerves get too much, which is often.

They've flown here from Tucson, Arizona, so that Olson can perform in the 2016 International Pole Sport Federation (IPSF) World Championships. The competition is in its fifth annual year, with dozens of competitors flown in from around the globe to compete. Olson, I find out, is the current favorite in the ten-person strong novice final: a prodigious talent in a room full of ten to 14-year-old competitors able to defy gravity while whipping themselves around poles four meters in height.

Many are horrified by the idea of pre-pubescent girls swinging around an apparatus more commonly associated with suburban strippers. As a result, the sport has struggled to gain mainstream legitimacy—and the fact that a children's league exists has compounded the controversy. The competitive pole dancing community emphatically insists that pole is not a synonym for "stripping": In fact, the sport requires the level of training and skill more commonly associated with high-level gymnasts or contemporary dance, neither of which are viewed as sexual pursuits. And indeed, the majority of athletes I talk to at the competition have detoured via the world of gymnastics, contemporary dance, or calisthenics en route to pole.

Earlier in the morning, 39-year-old IPSF president Katie Coates—a powerhouse in heels and a pencil skirt—meets me at the entrance to the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to show me around. Coates is at the heart of the pole sport evolution, leading the charge to have pole admitted to the Olympic Games. I tell her I'm obsessed with an online video of her performing to the theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake before segueing seamlessly into the 2002 David Guetta hit "Love Don't Let Me Go." She cringes. "Don't! I wish I could get that taken down."

American supporters. All photos by Alice Zoo

Inside the auditorium, girls mill in national team tracksuits while coaches tighten elaborate, painful-looking hairstyles and apply sticky raspberry lip-gloss. Vintage J-Lo blares on the speakers. Parents are overheard promising their kids new competition gear from the stalls lining the entrance, where the outfits are gaudier and more diamanté-encrusted than a Cher Vegas residency. Were it not for the specialist pole burn treatment center, with a first aider in attendance, you could be at any gymnastics or dance event.

Stalls selling pole sport kit.

For all the glitz, pole sport is—for now—in an uncomfortable position. "There's this misperception that it's sexual," Coates explains, "which means we're unattractive to corporate sponsors. They don't want to take a chance on us." The IPSF is entirely self-funded, and all the athletes and staff work on their own time and their own dime.

Coates tells me she's quit her job to work full-time, devoting six days a week to getting IPSF off the ground. "We all totally believe in what we're trying to do," she says of her team. "That's the thing with pole. It makes you fall so in love with it that you'd give anything up to do it."

If pole sport in general is misunderstood, junior pole athletes are even more maligned. A segment on a recent British TV show discussing whether pole fitness was suitable for children, which included performances from a trio of child dancers, made headlines in the right-wing tabloid press and incited an angry Twitter backlash. Complainants said that pole sexualizes young girls and that the origins of the sport make it unsuitable for underage participators. In response, pole sport associations said we should "celebrate" the future generation of pole sport athletes. Whatever your views, there's huge global interest in children who do pole: this video of eight-year-old Ukrainian prodigy Emily Moskalenko has over 30 million views.

Balow herself has experienced the hostility many pole parents face. "There's some people who will never change their mind on it. They're either extremely closed-minded and they just can't open their minds up to seeing it for what it really is, or they've had something happen in their personal life that's preventing them from doing it."

Paige Olson and her mother Jennifer Balow.

"It's fun," Olson responds shyly when I ask her what she loves about pole. Anything else? "I don't know?" She turns to her mother for reassurance.

"We always try to make a character for Paige's music," says Balow, changing topic. "Today she's a bird. See the feathers?"

I sense that Coates isn't the only one for whom pole is an all-consuming labor of love. Olson trains six days a week, three hours a day. "Between training, home-schooling her, work, and taking care of the house, that's it," Balow sighs. "I have nothing, no time to myself."

Unexpectedly, Balow—an unassuming woman who shares her daughter's almond-shaped eyes—becomes emotional. "When she's on that pole," she says, choking back tears, "it's the longest three minutes of my life. It brings me to tears, I'm so proud."

Annika, pre-performance.

Across the room I meet 13-year-old Annika Winkler from Saxony, Germany. She smiles beatifically as we speak, despite the fact her hair— a mass of interlocking plastic hair elastics basket-weaved across her head—looks agonizingly tight. Her brother, translating, tells me she got up at 6 AM so her coach could spend an hour on her hair. "I want to be a pole sport coach when I'm older," she tells me, "or work in a bakery."

A performance in action.

Before the competition starts, Deb Roach warms up the crowd. Her routine looks like a game of vertical Tetris made more impressive by the fact Roach only has one arm (she was born with a congenital disability). After applause, the first competitor—a slight Japanese girl of around ten or 11—steps out. She clambers to the top of the pole and, with a metallic swoosh, drops the four meter length, stopping just short of the floor.

Every routine has a compulsory floor component that forms part of the final score, and I'm struck by the similarities to rhythmic gymnastics—the hyper-extended limbs, the flared arms, the toes pointed with a flourish. On the pole, she performs slow, graceful rotations which prioritize control: her legs tautly together in a marvel of core body strength. At one point, she balances on the pole using only the nape of her neck and the heel of her foot. The entire Japanese team, including a woman dressed as a geisha with national flags in her hair, cheers her every move and trick.

Zoe Blair.

Thirteen-year-old Zoe Blair, in a tracksuit with glasses and red hair, watches thoughtfully from the crowd. She competed yesterday, but didn't make it through to today's finals, though she seems to be cool with it. "I feel amazing when I'm on the pole. In real life I'm more shy and closed off, but when I'm on the pole I put myself out there. I really push."

The judges read out the scores to a disappointed-looking Japanese team. I ask Blair about her most difficult move. "I can do a rainbow marchenko, but that's not really so hard for me. It's a one-point move, so it should be hard, but for me it's not. I struggle with chopsticks, even though it's a 0.6." According to the IPSF Code of Points, each move in pole is awarded a technical value—the higher the score, the more difficult it is. She pauses, then says seriously, "I just can't figure that one out."

Another performance in action.

Watching the performances fills me with a sense of crushing physical inadequacy, like being forced to enter a fat camp run by Victoria's Secret models. A girl in a bedazzled leotard scuttles up the pole with demonic ease and adopts a praying mantis pose. She points at the crowd, scowls and plummets to an inch from the floor.

I begin to recognize the choreography of pole. Routines commonly start with a dynamic opening section, designed to show agility and flexibility, before the competitor switches to the second pole and into slower moves that show off her strength and control.

Performers

Olson takes to the stage to perform her bird-inspired routine. She defies physics with languid ease, as agile as a modern day Neo and with the weightlessness of the zero gravity heroes of a Chris Nolan film. I spy Balow watching from the side and remember what she said earlier about how Paige's performances were the longest three minutes of her life. At the top of the pole, Olson softens her pose and folds her wings in an approximation of flight.

Performance over, Olson and her mom sit on plastic folding chairs and wait for her score. It's a world record—47.25—better than either of them had hoped. Olson bursts into tears. I notice for the first time that Olson's father has been watching, quietly, from the auditorium. I ask him what he'll do to celebrate his daughter's win.

Adult costumes for sale.

"She loves donuts. I might get her a donut."