There was a palpable buzz in the air at Tokyo Dome City on Dec. 9 as some 2,000 people — many dressed in their finery as if for the opera — awaited the first competitor’s appearance at the 2010 International Pole Championship.

Where once pole dancing had a sleazy image due to its association with stripping, in recent years it has been reinvented as a fitness activity and a performing art that combines acrobatics and gymnastics executed on one or two shiny steel poles.

Ania Przeplasko, founder of the International Pole Dance Fitness Association that organized the Tokyo Dome City event, said she first saw pole dancing in 1998 when her job as a fashion designer took her to Osaka.

“It was only by chance that I was taken to an amazing show by a Cirque du Soleil-trained Canadian dancer,” she recalled. Afterward, Przeplasko asked the performer to teach her the basics of pole dancing, which she learned in a week. Then, back home in Poland, she embarked on a dramatic career change.

“When I started to practice pole dance, my body changed drastically. I got a six-pack stomach doing just an hour a day, five times a week,” she said. “I realized the potential of pole dance not only as performance but as an exercise, too.”

Acting on that realization, Przeplasko developed pole-dance exercise programs and introduced them to fitness gyms around Poland. Then she decided to go global, and established the association in 2007 in Hong Kong.

Since then, pole dancing as both an exercise regime and a performing art has caught on big time in Japan, Australia, the United States and many other countries.

This year’s third annual international championship featured 28 finalists selected from 156 applicants — 20 women and eight men, from 18 countries.

Among the event’s 11 professional judges was Lee McDermott, head coach of “Zed,” the Tokyo Disney Resort show by Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil.

“I coach Chinese poles as a discipline for Cirque du Soleil, and I know that it can be really hard,” McDermott said, explaining that the Chinese variant uses a pole that’s six meters high.

Asked what he would be looking for during each competitor’s alloted four-minute display, McDermott immediately said, “Originality.” Then he elaborated, saying how technique was crucial, such as making a good “flag” pose with the body extended out at an angle to the pole.

However, Przeplasko later explained that marks are given both for gymnastic techniques called “tricks” and artistic aspects of the performance, such as choreography and “stories expressed.”

Back at the competition, the waiting was finally over for the audience, whose buzz erupted into applause as the first competitor stepped into the spotlight. Fittingly, it was a local heroine, Eri Kamimoto, who had made the cut despite being hearing impaired, and who danced to music on the 3.6-meter-high poles with what appeared to be perfection.

Speaking after her performance, the sixth competitor, Diana Ababii from Moldova, said she first saw pole dancing in Tokyo in 2006 when she arrived here to study Japanese. “I was moved by that performance, in which the dancer was strong, cool and sexy as a woman,” Ababii said. After that, she went off to study and practice intensively before joining the studio of Lu Nagata, Japan’s pioneer pole dancer, as an instructor.

Stressing how strong pole dancers need to be, Ababii said, “I cannot balance upside down on the pole unless I control myself physically and mentally.”

In the competition, Ababii performed to “El Tango de Roxanne,” a song from the film “Moulin Rouge.” Wearing a bright-red costume, she climbed the pole and then turned upside-down with her legs stretched horizontally in the splits. As the violin tune soared, the dancer moved to another pole and, with seemingly effortless ease, posed with her legs stretched parallel to it.

If Ababii’s display was artistic, so too — but overwhelmingly so — was that by Mai Sato, the defending champion.

Saying how she had been doing ballet for many years before she started pole dance in 2007, Sato — the first aeriel female Japanese performer with Cirque du Soleil — said, “By using poles, dancers can express themselves in three dimensions.”

Her performance was themed on a siren, a creature from Greek mythology with a woman’s head and the body of a fish that seduced men and killed them. However, Sato said that in her performance, “She falls in love with one man.”

To tell her story Sato climbed the pole and then started spinning around it, stretching her legs and body out horizontally. Then she held the pole, turned herself vertical and parallel to it with her feet up and head down, and climbed up it before striking a flag pose at the top prior to sliding quickly back down — and somehow managing to stop just above the floor.

But if Sato appeared unbeatable, it turned out she had a rival in Felix Cane, a Brit who’s now Miss Pole Dance Australia.

Clad in a black bikini, the dancer climbed the pole, flung her legs up and started spinning. Then, after glissading down again she crept like a cat across the floor to the other pole, where she performed something like a figure-skater’s Biellmann spin — turning on one foot while holding the other over her head. Of course, Cane was doing it upside-down.

Women didn’t monopolize this final, though, and the first to strut his stuff in the male category was Adam Tan from Malaysia, who appeared carrying a bag and proceeded to stage a short, comic pantomime before he climbed the pole and started striking flag poses. Then when his time was up he left the pole, hugged the bag and walked off. His show seemed to have been the tale of a traveling man.

In contrast, Australian Duncan West’s display was full-on machismo. Doing a somersault as he took the stage, he then tipped his hat before throwing it with abandon. Next, to the earthy sounds of James Brown’s song “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” he climbed the pole and held his body out at a diagonal angle. Among the flag positions West struck was one in which he gripped the pole with his feet while his body was horizontal.

Jumping down at the end, with arms outstretched he lip-synched Brown’s “(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” to the audience — “Fellas, I’m ready to get up and do my thing. I wanna get into it, man, you know” — before doing a backward somersault and exiting as the audience clapped wildly to the beat.

Later, West talked about the concept of his show, saying, “I just wanted to do a good, sort of strong, masculine performance.”

One of the excited audience members, Kazuhiro Terada, said how much he’d been impressed by the male competitors’ athleticism and movement — while “the performances based on themes or stories were intriguing.”

Among the many foreign visitors at the event, Sophia Rofalski from Poland said she’d enjoyed all the displays — “but West’s was the best.”

After all the performances were over, the judges retired to a closed room to decide their verdict. When they returned, all the competitors lined up on the stage.

“It was the most difficult job in my life,” Przeplasko said, before she announced the winners in special creative and fitness categories, such as Men’s and Women’s Pole Art — won by Adam Tan and U.S. dancer Zoraya Judd, respectively — and Men’s and Women’s Pole Fit — won by Chris Measday from Australia and Brazil’s Rafaela Montanaro.

There was applause all round — but then the hall in Tokyo Dome City fell silent as the time came to find out who were the overall champions.

“The winner of the Men’s Division — our ultimate pole champion is . . ” Przeplasko proclaimed before shouting out: “Duncan West from Australia!” There were whoops, cheers and yells from the audience as applause erupted all around.

Speaking after receiving his award, West admitted, “Once it was finished, I didn’t mind if I’d won or lost, because I was happy. So winning was just an extra bonus surprise.”

Then everyone’s attention returned to the final award of the night — that of the winner of the Women’s Division.

“The last title, the winner of the Women’s Division, the ultimate champion for 2010, is . . . ” — Przeplasko said as breath was bated throughout the venue — “Mai Sato, Japan!”

Speaking after her victory, Sato — whose instructor, competition judge Lu Nagata, was barred from voting for her pupil — said she was surprised by her success, as “it was a more severe battle than last year.”

Commenting later, Nagata said that the overall standard of the competitors was higher than last year — along with the sport’s increasing international appeal.

Tina Burrett, a lecturer and political science researcher at Sophia University in Tokyo, who practices pole dance at Nagata’s studio, also noted how international and intelligent the group of women in the studio are.

“Many of the teachers speak two, three or four languages,” Burrett said. “The Japanese people in the class are very much interested in seeing people from different cultures, and the non-Japanese are interested in our country.”

As to why pole dancers appeared to have such an open international mindset, Burrett suggested that people needed to be open-minded to accept it as a sport.

“Some people have a stereotype of pole dancing being connected to the sex industry or entertainment industry. So if a person says, ‘I am going to be a pole dancer, regardless of what the world thinks about it,’ they have to be quite a confident person,” Burrett said. “And confident people are normally very good at accepting other people.”

Whether that’s it in a nutshell, or not, it is a fact that there were five times more people in the audience at this year’s International Pole Championship than there were at the event in 2009. And surely that points to pole dancing being on the up and up as both a performing art, an exercise regime — and a spectator sport — in Japan.

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