Pole Dance, Me, and the One-Armed Champion

The first place winner of this year’s International Pole Championship, was Australian pole dancer Deborah “Deb” Roach, age 29, who gave the top performance with only one arm.

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Dancer, photographer, and instructor, Ania Przeplasko *, founded the International Pole Dance Fitness Association in 2007. She is also my close friend. Ania took the photos for the cover of my first book, pro bono. Over the years, I’ve watched her turn competitive pole dancing from something that was treated as a semi-ribald joke into a serious sport and performance art. When the second International Pole Championship was held here in Tokyo in 2008, she asked me to be one of the judges. Please pardon my lack of objectivity here.

At one point during the competition I judged, Ania and I went over every single of the over fifty judging criteria  -- verticality, inner thigh gripping strength, balance, grace, etc -- and ended up in a heated debate about how many points to award sexiness in the Pole Art category (which is separate from the Pole Fit category). “Pole dancing” may still conjure images of the awful film Showgirlsbut “pole dance” has become a legitimate performance art and sport over the last six years. I once tried to survive a class in pole dance that Ania taught—it required pull-ups, push-ups, leg raises and more grueling exercise and upper- and lower-body strength than anything I ever tried. Fortunately I received an early reprieve from her instruction when, attempting to flip turn upside down, I received a pole to the crotch with such great force that I slithered down to the ground and huddled up in a ball. I left chastened and resolved to never again cast aspersions on the athletic prowess of pole dancers.

Which is why I was in a bit of awe when I learned that the first place winner of this year’s International Pole Championship, held in Hong Kong, was Australian pole dancer Deborah “Deb” Roach, age 29, who gave the top performance with only one arm. “My mates really helped me out and it required a lot of determination,” Roach told me after her win. “And, of course learning to master the one-armed pull-up, which is not so easy. But what I’ve learned from pole dance is that anything is possible. If you break the dance down to individual movements, and topple the challenges one by one, it can be done. There are many challenges in life like that. ”

Roach won the disabled division, which will probably be renamed next year. “There is now serious talk of making pole dance an Olympic sport, so they’ll probably change the name to para-pole," she said. "As for me the name doesn’t matter at all. The chance to compete under any title is a joy.”

Ania was delighted with Deb’s victory. “She’s one of the most upbeat contestants I’ve ever met. She’s a great person and amazing pole dance performer.” Ania hopes Deb’s inspirational performance while inspire others to compete in the para-pole division in the future.

Deb, when asked to explain the difference between pole dance and pole dancing, explains: “High heels, a G-string, and asking blokes for a twenty dollar bill,” she says laughing. “Generally, the strip club version of pole dancing I like to call ‘sexy pole’ and the sports version ‘fitness pole’. The emphasis on the dance aspect is ‘pole art.’ Most people don’t know the difference and are still a little shocked when I tell them I’m a pole dancer,” she says while smiling.

When I told Deb about my misadventures in her field, she was fairly amused. Deb, for obvious reasons, had great difficulty learning to pole dance as well. Most of the standard moves were conceived for people with two arms. “Learning to climb up the pole was the toughest. I have to pull myself up by one arm while adjusting my legs," she says. "The first tricks I learned were jump up positions—where you leap from the ground on to the pole and whip around with your thighs”

Deb notes that the laybacks and the layouts—that is where you climb up the pole and let go with your hands and hold yourself up by your legs at varied angles—were not that difficult.

“The inversion moves, where you climb up the pole and hold on with your hand while turning upside down—those were very hard—hellish,” she says. Working with her friends Missy and Susy Q, Deb created an exercise regimen of assisted chin-up and lat-building exercises that let her do vertical pull-ups and within two years had achieved an amazing degree of pole fluidity.

Deb says that lacking an arm may not allow her to do movments that others can, but there are some advantages. “It certainly is a differentiator. I do stand out, ya’know.”

Deb was born with only one arm which made her feel out of place in mainstream society but found a home and friends in the alternative club culture of Australia in her teenage years. Her interest in pole dance started with a wild night of dancing with friends in in steam-punk/goth dance club in Australia in 2006. She was awestruck by a circus-themed pole dance performance there. It got her interested in attempting to do what many thought was impossible for a one-armed woman.

“I had always loved to dance. Pole dance inspired me to find more discipline in dance.”

She began seriously training in 2007 and after roughly 18 months, in 2009—she won a pole dance competition with no disability division. It inspired her to quit her office job and become a full time personal trainer. She got her first prosthetic afterwards.

Deb is working as a physical trainer and currently in training for cycling in the Paralympics after having learned to ride a bicycle at age 28, last year. And of course, she continues to pole dance.

“I was stoked to win this year, but the victory was just icing on the cake. It was a joy to share the stage with the best pole dancers in the world. The best night of my life.”

* Yes, it’s true: Ania Przeplasko, the founder of the International Pole Championship (IPC) is herself Polish aka a Pole. The men I know who have made the obvious quips to Ms. Przeplasko discovered two things in short order: 1) pole dancing and kick boxing are spiritual cousins, and 2) Polish vodka really burns when thrown in your face.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.