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Male pole dancers fight for equality

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Summary of story from the Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2011

Spinning upside down around a tall silver rod here last weekend, an Australian man named Matty Shields stared down a panel of women judges, a mainly female crowd and decades of stereotypes.

He hoped to become a gender pioneer: the world’s first official king of pole dancing.

Shields, 26, was one of the first seven male competitors in the annual World Pole Dance finals in Budapest. He wooed a skeptical crowd with moves like “the body flag,” in which he gripped the pole with his hands and stretched his body out horizontally.

With its roots in strip clubs, pole dancing has been dismissed as a misogynistic playground in which women contort themselves for the viewing pleasure of men.

But lately some women have fought to transcend titillation by rebranding it as fitness. Some have even petitioned the International Olympic Committee to make it an Olympic sport (see WVoN story).

For men like Shields, wresting the pole from feminine hands has become a mission with resistance. At the suburban sports arena that hosted last weekend’s world championships, 39 women competed for singles and doubles titles, compared with the seven men who dared slide onto the pole.

Pole dancing involves moving around a steel or brass pole that is held by the legs or arms, with serious polers training as any gymnast would with push ups, weights and other means of increasing strength.

A few years ago, published reports that British actor Jude Law had taken it up to get fit for a movie triggered a raft of media predictions that men would hit the poles.

But efforts to attract men to the activity have been largely unsuccessful.  “Men are worried about what their mates are going to say,” said Kay Penney, a pole dancing instructor.

But some men say women are trying to ward them off.  “Subconsciously, they don’t want men, because it is something of theirs they can hold onto,” said Timber Brown, a professional dancer in Las Vegas.

Men should have some advantages, instructors say. Their greater upper body strength is ideal for moves like “twisted grip handspring” and “pencil pose.”

Western male polers have long looked with envy to their Chinese brethren performing Chinese pole, a similar acrobatic act whose long history has kept it free of any association with eroticism.

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