The Washington Times - May 24, 2010, 02:40PM

For three days last week the Gaylord National Convention Center was overrun with women in sports bras and short shorts. Some of them were barefoot, others were shod in the platform-and-six-inch stilettos common to the wardrobes of much of the world’s exotic dancer population.

In one of the center’s grand ballrooms, two to a stage, approximately 40 women writhed, spun and hung upside-down from the 20 or so silver poles taking up floor space.

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But these women – and at least one man – weren’t working a stripper symposium. It was the First International Pole & Exotic Dance Fitness Expo, a three-day series of workshops, demonstrations and talks by pole fitness industry - yes, it’s an industry - experts. Teaching the above-mentioned workshop was Australian pole dance competition winner Amber Ray, who shortly after leading the class in a warm-up stripped down to spandex Daisy Dukes, rhinestone-encrusted heels and a crop-top. (Somewhat ironically, a portion of the convention proceeds will go to the National Federation of the Blind.)

The workshop attendees didn’t seem to need a whole lot of instructing. In a series of gravity-defying poses, almost all the dancers in the room at one point or another suspended themselves horizontally, flipped upside down or executed straight-legged splits while dangling from their poles. But those we spoke to talked only of how empowering they found the activity - nevermind that they were describing a sport that requires skin-to-equipment contact and so mandates the most minimal of clothing while one does it.

“I have a PhD in the psychology of human movement,” said New York resident and conference attendee Maria Kwiatkowski, who came to the Washington area for the weekend solely for the event. “I just love the movements of pole dancing. I took it up after I started weight training and I noticed that it helped with the weight training and the weight training helped my pole dancing. It’s changed everything” about exercise, she said.

Fellow New Yorker and friend Jackie Hopson, a handbag designer, said she took up the sport three-and-a-half years ago as a way to start exercising.

“I Googled ‘pole dance,’ started taking classes and I fell in love with it,” she said. “It’s changed my mind, my body – it’s changed my soul.”

Perhaps Obama and his change mantra would have fared better in pole dance than in politics.

Tavon Hargett, the sole male at this particular session and an instructor at Washington’s Pole Pressure studio, said he refused to be put off pole dancing by the widely held perception of it as a women’s activity. (We wonder whether it is the thousands of North American strip clubs that have for decades featured only female dancers on poles that can be blamed for leading society to make such an outrageous association.)

“I started about a year ago, and when I saw it for the first time it was artistic and beautiful. It was never anything dirty,” Hargett said as he stood before a room full of women - many of whom appeared to be sporting only underwear and high heels - displaying their barely-covered groin areas with utter ease as they flung themselves onto poles. “Once I realized it was predominantly female I was already in love with it.”

To be fair, advanced pole dancing is no easy feat. An average-size woman burns about 400 calories an hour doing it, making it comparable as far as sweat-induction goes to high-impact aerobics and jogging - but infinitely more alluring. Perhaps its surge in popularity in recent years, to which the increasing number of pole dance studios cropping up in metropolitan areas are a testament, will become strong enough to get it on the Olympic roster.

That’s a real effort on the part of pole dance enthusiasts. In mid-May a petition pushing the issue, “The Get Pole Dance Accepted into the Olympics Petition to International Olympic Committee,”  had more than 4,700 signatures, and there is even a Facebook group called “Petition to Get Pole Dance Fitness in the 2010 Olympics.”