Seven years ago, KT Coates could hardly get a local gym to take her seriously when she propositioned the idea of teaching pole dancing classes for exercise. Today, she and a small but dedicated team of pole sports enthusiasts are campaigning to get the sport into the Olympics.
"I went to so many gyms and they said I was disgusting. They shut the door on my face," she recalled.
Coates got involved in pole dancing on a whim — as a struggling actress and dancer in the U.K. in 2003, a friend brought her along to try pole dancing, and she caught on quickly, immediately recognizing that the activity was closer to a sport than it was to stripping. From there, she went from gym to gym, until one pioneering studio in her local Hertfordshire agreed to let her teach a class. From there, the classes expanded to other gyms and even some gym chains, and Coates eventually opened her own studio, called Vertical Dance.
Then came YouTube.
In 2006, Coates' husband posted a video in which Coates performs a five-minute pole dancing routine, starting with music from Swan Lake and ending with David Guetta's club hit "Love Don't Let Me Go." The video has 3.5 million views — not a paltry number for a clip from 2006. Coates, who now makes a living teaching pole dancing instructors looking to get certified, said the now-outdated video now makes her cringe, as the sport's top competitors are, today, more impressive.
Though she doesn't like to watch it anymore, she said the video was essential in garnering interest and appreciation for the sport.
The sport was gaining followers as it grew, but there was still tons of stigma, in that people weren't able to Around the same time the video started going viral, Coates launched an online petition for pole sports to receive Olympic recognition. "I was so fed up with people looking at me like I was a stripper," she said. "Prople weren't honoring our athletes, annd I thought the highest accolade was to be an Olympic sport. I thought no one would sign up, but suddenly thousands of people did."
The petition caught the attention of Timothy Trautman, a software anaylst for the Veteran's Association, who started a pole dancing studio in Salt Lake City. Trautman got to organizing, founding the International Pole Sports Federation, of which he is now President. Coates is the Executive Vice President.
"I did it because these women are incredible athletes. They have such grace and elegance and they absolutely belong in the Olympics. But we do fight the stereotype that it's for strippers." Trautman said. Though Trautman has practiced the sport and led classes, he's not an active participant. There are men who compete, but the sport, he said, is 80 to 90 percent female. According to Coates, men have become more interested recently. "First it was housewives, then gay guys, then straight guys, and now, even kids." A studio called Little Spinners has attracted attention for offering classes for kids as young as three. But it's only natural that a range of people (even kids) would take up the sport, as the U.K. now has over 300 studios that teach pole dancing, according to Coates.
The sport is certainly gaining recognition — Trautman says interest in the sport has doubled in the past six years. And it's also shedding some of its strip club-related image as the IPSF prepares to host a world championship where the emphasis will be on athletics. But the road to getting your sport into the Olympics is a long one. To get into the Olympics, sports need to demonstrate global interest by establishing an international federation that holds world championships. Eventually, they can draft an official petition for consideration by the International Olympic Committee.
Over the past year, the IPSF has written bylaws and official rule books, and they've organized the first World Pole Sport Championship, which will take place in London on July 19 and 20, just days before the Olympics start. There have been pole dancing championships around the world, but not ones organized by the IPSF with the goal of attracting Olympic attention. The hope is that Olympic officials in town for the games will take notice.
"We want to show them that we want to be part of it," Trautman said. "It was a strategic decision to be there at the same time."
After the championship, which will include competitors from 25 countries, the IPSF will work on hosting more global competitions and demonstarting to the International Olympic Committee that their sport is Olympic-worthy. "I've written to every Olympic official I can find," Coates said. But there's still a ways to go — they don't expect to get consideration until 2020.
Whether or not the Olympic bid is a successful one, Coates and Trautman say the sport's transformation over the past few years has been astounding. "I used to be too embarassed to tell people what my job was. They used to think I was a stripper," Coates said. "Now they think it's great."