The University Sport CentreLouis Ashworth

Despite having seven hundred and fifty people registered to their mailing list, Cambridge University Pole Sports (CUPS) did not appear at the Freshers’ Sports Fair this year. In fact, they have not been present in any year since their establishment in 2016.

Although CUPS is recognised as a society, the University refuses to recognise it as a sports club. This is just one of the many challenges facing pole athletes trying to legitimise a sport which is frequently tabooed due to its heavily sexualised reputation.

Natalie Singhal has been practicing pole for three years and is currently Competition Secretary for CUPS, having joined last year as a fresher. Throughout our conversation, we time and again returned to the same point: "I’d like to be referred to as an athlete," she tells me.

Pole has been recognised by the Global Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF), yet CUPS and the University have come to an impasse over its recognition: while sports with similar skills such as trampolining, gymnastics and dance are recognised as University Sports Clubs on their website, pole is nowhere to be found.

The University has not responded to Varsity's request for comment.

Pole includes a wide range of competitions, from those which are more performance and dance-based, to those which are almost entirely physical, such as that established by the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF). Natalie explains that in the latter, "everything you do has very exact points, it’s very much like a gymnastics routine," and looking at the IPSF Code of Points, I am struck by the accuracy of the stipulations regarding technique and style which are required for the athlete to score highly. Not only this, but a range of rules are included which limit the sexuality of the sport, from music choice to the discreteness of costume.

Yet, it’s hard to find legitimacy in a sport which has often been automatically associated with strip-clubs and sex workers.

"Although CUPS is recognised as a society, the University refuses to recognise it as a sports club"

Natalie herself initially struggled with this reputation, saying that "I used to think it was degrading to women". However, her mother, who believed it would help with strength and stamina, encouraged Natalie to take part. Despite being taught in the dance studio where she had been practicing dance for years previously, she claims she experienced a certain shyness about starting pole.

Her confidence was affected by the overshadowing stereotype that she was "just trying to be sexy". She often felt the need to justify her engagement with pole in a way she never felt with dancing or trampoline.

Outside the dance studio, performances were difficult. Not only were there the usual nerves, but members of the public would attend competitions just to ridicule the athletes and performers. It is completely unjust that an athlete in performance should feel so sexualised and targeted by the public.

Natalie, like the sport itself, has learnt to overcome these preconceptions. While pole has evolved to become more athletically inclined, Natalie thinks that its sexual connotations remain a strong part of the identity of the sport and she thinks "that side of it is very valid as well".

Pole, for her, represents a reconciliation between many aspects of her sporting identity – encompassing strength, artistic expression and empowerment by embracing her sexuality. The sport, while being female dominant, is also widely practiced by men. The IPSF competitions include male categories, which Natalie tells me are very popular.


Mountain View

Football is in crisis – but not in the way some may have us think

CUPS is representative of all the different aspects of pole. Every year, the club participates in the Inter-University Pole Dancing Competition (IUDPC), an inclusive competition for both men and women. Athletes compete in a range of styles  from athletic performances to those which are more artistic and resemble dance.

Cambridge will also host the second Varsity Pole competition this year in Easter term, allowing athletes to engage in the Cambridge tradition of attempting to outperform our closest rival, Oxford.

"I never felt like an athlete before, but with pole, I do"

These competitions have been sustained by the huge growth in the sport’s popularity in recent years. The society immediately took off following its inception in 2016, initially registering seven hundred students at the Freshers’ Fair. This year, it has proved to be so popular that there are three beginner’s classes running each week. There is no pre-required experience, and anybody looking to improve their strength and flexibility is free to come along.

Considering the prejudice the society faces, it is encouraging that such a niche and empowering sport is beginning to make such a dominant appearance at the University. Its success in spite of the inherent obstacles confirms that there is certainly more to it than initially meets the eye.

As we finish the interview, Natalie tells me, "I think that’s part of why I love pole, because I was never a sporty person at school… I never felt like an athlete before, but with pole, I do."

It seems to be a disappointing mistake on the behalf of the University to fail to recognise the potential of an emerging sport like pole, perhaps naively blinded by a preconceived reputation which simply does not hold true.