UPPER WEST SIDE — This weekend, pole dancing is moving out of the gentlemen's clubs and into the Upper West Side, as the US Pole Dance Federation Championship comes to performing arts center Symphony Space.
The sport, which has been slowly building in popularity over the past decade, has built a following and is being taught at more than 350 dance studios across the country, according to Wendy Traskos, the co-founder of the U.S. Pole Dance Federation.
"The sport is so new we don’t have names for [the moves]," said Traskos, who also owns New York Pole Dancing, one of New York's first studios, which opened in 2005.
This year's fourth annual competition, which kicks off at Symphony Space at 7 p.m. Saturday, will pit 10 amateur women dancers in the first round and 10 dancers in the professional session.
Traskos describes the pros' routines as "mind-blowing."
"They're tumbling down the pole at 40 mph" and doing "a lot of amazing things," including "spins, climbs and inverts," Traskos said.
The prize for winning the championship as a professional is $5,000 and a free trip to Australia, "the mecca of pole dancing," where they started teaching the skill in the late 90s for fitness, according to Traskos, to compete in the Miss Pole Dance Australia.
Traskos said the public's attitude towards pole dancing is slowly changing.
"A lot of people now have a friend that’s doing it for fitness or they saw it on Oprah," she said. "People tend to have more of an open mind now and associate it less with strippers."
When women, mostly ranging from late 20s through their 40s, come in to her classes they're "really excited to have something that’s just for the ladies."
At the championship, Traskos said you'll find mostly women in the audience, something people might not expect.
Cynthia Elliott, the president and CEO of Symphony Space, said it's not hosting the championship as part of their own programming, but that they allowed the federation to rent their theater for the competition.
"We think they’re terrific, we like them, but they’re not particularly aligned with our programming," Elliott said.
“Pole dancing has a certain reputation, but if you see what they’re doing on the stage there’s a great deal of artistry and athleticism, and it's really quite different from what you might see in private clubs," said Elliott.
Traskos shares this point of view: "Pole dancing is sexy and athletic and we’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable, but we want you to embrace the sensuality of women doing incredibly athletic things."
Plus, she said, "New Yorkers are more open-minded and can take art for what it is," and placing the competition in a theater further strips the routines of negative stigma.