Pole Dancing Olympics
On Friday, Pole World News held its inaugural awards banquet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Los Angeles Music Center. The fifth floor was turned into a low-lit banquet of aerial acrobatics mixed with lustful fantasies.
The awards were part of a broader campaign to bring a new level of awareness and respectability to an activity usually associated with striptease. The ceremony was timed to coincide with Women's Empowerment Month.
The great aim is for pole dancing to be officially accepted as an Olympic sport. In fact the evening's hosts were always careful to say "aerial sport" instead of "pole dancing."
But anyone at the Pavilion that evening would have been hard pressed to ignore the sexual character of the activity. There was a decadent feel in the air, like Berlin cabaret in the 1920s.
The awards were hosted by Kym Johnson, blonde vixen performer from Dancing With The Stars.
Think of the evening as the Oscars of pole dancing, only the audience is more exotic. The categories were composed of titles like the "OMG! Hot Damn!" award and "Hot Legs" award. The award itself was a transparent globe of the world atop a stand, inside was the pink silhouette of a pole dancer. Not exactly Olympic committee material.
Sitting at the tables near the stage and in rows of chairs near the back end of the room were a mixture of men in tuxedos, some with a hint of sleeze, women in elegant evening wear, and muscular women in plunging necklines and backless designs exposing snake or vine tattoos. An open bar served wine, champagne or just plain soda.
There was an attempt to give the show an almost mythic quality. A voiceover in the speakers would recite some kind of poll dancing fairy tale involving "the dancers of light who would bring ecstasy to the world." It was hard to take seriously, but then again everyone really came for the real show on the platform.
In-between the awards there were pole performances. The house lights would dim, a neon purple glow would wash over everything and they would appear, like voluptuous Amazons. The dancers would come down the transparent poles on stage, twisting, contorting, and stretching, hair flowing out and shiny heels pointing upwards.
There was absolute silence when guest performer Leigh Ann Riley entranced the room with a performance to Abi Wade's hypnotic song "Hope." The vibe in the room felt like a slow, pagan ritual.
Sheila Kelley, the evening's receiver of the "Prestigious Honor" award, achieved her recognition for establishing the pole dancing industry as a sport or pastime in the 1990s.
"My hopes are that this sport, and the art of pole dance become more mainstream and that the misconceptions about it and the feminine movement become more clear, it's an empowering and beautiful movement," she said.
Fawnia Dietrich, another muscular luminary of "aerial sports" and winner of the evening's "Original Gangsta" award, hoped that pole dancing could shake off its taboo image.
"It's ok if a kid does it whether he's 5-years-old or 8-years-old," she said. "When I was a stripper a lot of women felt it was degrading, especially a lot of feminists. But now it comes down to feeling comfortable with what you're doing, like being comfortable with doing yoga."
But it's hard to wash away the scandalous spirit of this particular sport. At one moment there was Dietrich, licking her award with devilish glee while a man in a tuxedo took a photo with his iPhone. If pole dancing ever wants to be dignified there should be a change in protocol.
The show itself was not without surreal moments. When a Russian dancer delivered a message via satellite, Johnson was informed only people watching on the internet could hear it, despite the feed appearing on the plasma TVs on each side of the audience. After thinking about how to keep the hall entertained, Johnson decided to give the pole a try.
Immediately the audience erupted in a roar of cheers and dancing while suddenly, on the screens, for some unexplained reason, images of the recent Ukraine riots appeared complete with burning streets and someone's head being smashed on the floor. It was a fever dream moment worthy of Dante.
There was one notable absence however, Oprah Winfrey. The television diva was listed as the recipient of the "PWN Media Award" for helping "bring pole dancing into popular light" according to the event program. She did this by inviting Kelley a total of seven times to her TV show over the years.
Pole dancing is of course not just a lady's game. Russian performer Evgeny Greshilov performed a truly cabaret dance dressed as a sailor with a mop as his girlfriend. Greshilov made sad eyes at the mop before spinning, falling and climbing the pole with a skill almost akin to ballet.
Brynn Route won the "Up And Coming Artist Of The Year" award. Earlier she had performed with the dancing group BeSpun dressed in angel wings.
"I was in shock. I was really honored and so flattered, it was really nice to receive that," said Route. She has been participating in the sport for five years and was a creative writer before discovering pole dancing.
"This is how I express myself now," she said.
Zoraya Judd, one of the evening's performers said, "It's a good atmosphere. I get inspired by the strength and control of the pole. I don't miss a day Monday through Friday at a normal gym and I usually perform on weekends. The anxiety before a performance is the hardest part."
Photos by Arlene Karno and Nick Kovalenko