TOKYO, (AFP) - Pole-dancing may have started in the smoky backrooms of adult-only bars -- but now performers have lifted the velvet curtain on what they say is a sensual art form and a great workout.
After modern belly-dancing took the world by storm, pole-dancing is the latest craze for women who say they do it for their own enjoyment, not that of men drooling over their fleshy curves in strip joints.
To be sure, in pole-dancing 2.0, the artistes do keep some of their clothes on, and the new family-friendly form owes as much to circus acrobatics and gymnastics as it does to the seedier red-light variety.
"The sport has two streams," said Tina Burrett, a spokeswoman for the International Pole Dance Fitness Association, speaking at the sport's third international championship held in Tokyo on Thursday night.
"One is associated with the stripping and sex industry, but I think today the more dominant stream is actually connected to fitness."
Burrett said that "the reason why it has become so popular with a lot of women is that, not only does it allow someone to express their sexuality, but it's actually an incredible workout too."
"One has to be able to hold one's body supported with just one limb. It requires stamina as well. A five-minute performance may seem very short, but actually it requires an incredible amount of energy.
"The dancers have a fantastic physique: incredibly muscular but at the same time curvaceous and feminine."
Burrett, a 33-year-old political scientist, said that to her and many other modern women, pole-dancing is not exploitative but liberating.
"There are women in my class who are doctors, lawyers, diplomats. So I think the image of pole-dancing is changing. We do have some way to go, but I think we are becoming a sport that is associated with strong, confident women."
But not just females have latched onto the pole craze -- the reinvented version is proudly equal-opportunity.
Duncan West, an Australian who won the male category this year in Tokyo, said he is self-taught in "Chinese pole" -- a form that he said hails from that country's ancient circus tradition.
"I'm not sort of a natural performer," he said, adding that supporters had helped him "overcome a lot of shyness... and to just try to have fun and put my crazy tricks in -- but without doing anything too silly."
Asked whether everyone at home supports his passion, he confessed with a smile: "I do get a hard time for that... especially the guys at work, but you know, I can handle it, so it's not too much of a drama."
In faddish Japan, pole-dancing already has a cult following.
"Pole-dancing is popular in Japan now," said this year's female winner, Mai Sato, who performs at the Tokyo shows of Canada's Cirque du Soleil.
Asked whether pole-dancing is becoming a real sport, she flashed huge fake eyelashes, flexed her arm muscles and exclaimed "Yes, definitely!"
Once the ceiling may have been the limit for a pole-dancing show -- but now, say its fans, it's the sky.
Burrett even sees a day when pole-dancers may strut their stuff at the world's ultimate sporting event.
"If things like shooting are considered to be a sport that can be in the Olympics," she said, "then I really don't see why pole-dancing can't."