Up and down the pole

Observations on the new aerobics

The father of a friend of mine is a welder. He used to make his living doing things to scaffolding, but has recently gone into a more lucrative and rapidly growing line of business: he makes dancing poles. One of these can be found in the flat of another friend, a woman in her early twenties who won a made-to-measure pole in a pole-dancing competition at a nightclub after taking classes in her spare time.

Pole-dancing, you see, is the new aerobics. Or the new yoga. Or the new Pilates, or whatever form of exercise was popular before pole-dancing (I'm not au fait with these things). It is no longer an activity solely associated with Soho clubs and £20 notes being stuffed into suspender belts. Rather, it is an exercise activity for "nice girls" who want to learn something different in the evenings, make new friends and get fit. As my friend with the pole in her living-room told me: "Pole-dancing is great fun. It is about the only exercise you can legitimately do in high heels while drinking a glass of wine. The more advanced you get, the more upper-body strength it requires and you tone muscles you never knew you had.

"What was just a bit of a laugh has given me the motivation to get fit - I even do press-ups every night in order to get myself around the pole once a week."

Poles have even been introduced to that pillar of the British high street, Yates's Wine Lodge, whose chief executive, Mark Jones, said earlier this year: "We don't employ pole dancers, but these [poles] are very popular with customers."

That everyone, not just those working in erotic nightclubs, can enjoy pole-dancing is almost a return to the origins of the dance, the maypole. The maypole was originally a pagan symbol of fertility, though it came to represent the coming of sunnier months that would allow the planting of crops. Dancing round the maypole was a time when people from different social classes mixed together - and through this it also became something of a day of protest against authority. The association with innocence - little girls wearing white and carrying flowers - was the result of Victorian rebranding.

Only in the late 20th century was the pole reclaimed from the chaste Victorians and used by women for the gratification of men. "Some men's perception is that, if you pole-dance, then you are automatically a stripper, and if you are a stripper then you are automatically a bit of a slut," says my pole-dancing friend. "No, we do not do it naked!" she insists. But she still doesn't want to be named.