From Pole to Pole: The History of Pole Dancing and Fitness

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This post is just a bit of fun after a very long week. Recently another PhD student and I decided to branch out a bit and do something a unconventional and fun, so at the start of the year we started taking a pole fitness class at a local dance studio. And before anyone asks, we wear gym clothes and it is nothing that you would see in a strip club. Pole can be a sport; a combination of dance, gymnastics and body-building and it is part of the International Body Building Association. But it got me thinking that there must be traditions behind the idea going back into my favourite subject: Ancient History. Lo and Behold I was correct.

So let me introduce you to the origins and traditions of pole fitness just because I can.


Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport which is made up of gymnastics and poses undertaken on a vertical wooden pole or rope. The word Mallakhamb comes from the terms ‘malla’ meaning a ‘gymnast’ or ‘man of strength’ and Khamb meaning ‘pole’. Essentially it translates as ‘pole gymnastics’. The earliest records of the sport come from the twelfth century when it was mentioned in the Indian classic Manasollasa written in 1135 AD by Somesvara Chalukya. In the Manasollasa it is called by an earlier form of the term ‘Mallastambha’.

Mallakhamb lost popularity over the centuries before being the subject of a revival in the early nineteenth century in India. It was revived and recorded by Balambhatta Dada Deodhar who was the fitness instructor of Peshwa bajirao during the reign of Peshwas. Nowadays, twenty-nine states in India participate nationally in competitions demonstrating three main types of Mallakhamb; hanging, rope and fixed Mallakhamb. Also forms of Mallakhamb are predominantly male and was originally introduced as a supporting exercise for wrestlers in order to develop and maintain concentration, speed and flexibility. Modern studies have even begun to appear showing the benefits of the sport to health and strength. P.Nande explains for instance that it causes a decrease in body fat percentage and an increase in lean body mass.

The video below shows just how much skill and strength is required in Mallakhamb. It also demonstrates the types of moves that are performed in pole fitness. This video is not sped up…which is a bit scary actually…

Chinese Pole

Chinese Pole is an amazing feat of strength and gymnastics which is today associated with the likes of Cirque du Soleil. It dates also to around the twelfth century in the literary evidence with it being performed by circus professionals using 3-9m tall poles laced with rubber material. The rubber material is not always used because it had the potential to cause painful friction burns. Yet again Chinese Pole is predominantly male activity and hence friction burns would be even more painful to certain areas. Full body costumes were and are worn often by performers requiring even more skill on the behalf of the performer.

Chinese pole is still a popular sport which is often performed with at least two participants or many more. They display climbing, sliding, stretching and holding positions with acute strength usually performed with two poles. Performers hop from pole to pole displaying gravity defying tricks.

Just watch the link below. If you thought Mallakhamb was amazing, this is just ridiculous!

European Pole Dancing

Image from A Little Pretty Pocket-book
Image from A Little Pretty Pocket-book

The western world had its own types of pole dancing with influences from Druid, Pagan and Roman traditions. The most famous of these is Maypole dancing which dates back in the record to the twelfth century as well. Maypole dancing was essentially a pagan celebration of fertility (hence the pole as a phallic symbol).

It was performed by young girls performing circle dances around a pole decorated with garlands of flowers and emblems. The younger girls involved danced in the inner circle while the older danced in the outer circle, all holding ribbons. The dancing itself involved circular steps which allowed the ribbons to intertwined and plait round the pole and then be unravelled while the girls retraced their steps. The festival, in which the maypole dance was performed, marked the beginning of the pastoral summer or Beltane. It is also connected to the Roman worship of Flora and the festival of Floralia which was celebrated at the same time.

The Ancient Greek’s also had their own form of maypole like dancing in the Daphnephoria. Eutychius Proclus discusses the pole in the Daphnephoria in his Chrestomathy written in the second century AD:

(74) This is the daphnephoria: They wreathe an olive-wood pole with laurel-branches and colourful flowers, and on top of it they fasten a bronze ball, and from this they hang smaller ones. And, onto the middle of the pole, they attach purple fillets of wool, and put them around a ball smaller than the one at the top. And they wrap around the [bottom] end-parts of the pole with saffron-dyed material.
(75) To the people the highest ball represents the sun (with which they also associate Apollo), and the one lying beneath [represents] the moon; the hanging balls [represent] the planets and stars; and, indeed, the purple fillets [represent] the yearly cycle – for they even make exactly 365 of them.
(76) A boy with two living parents starts/leads the daphnephoria; and his closest relative holds up the wreathed pole, which they call the kōpō.
(77) And the daphnephoros himself follows and holds onto the laurel, with his hair let down, wearing a golden crown, bedecked in bright clothing down to his feet, and shod in epikratides; a khoros of parthenoi accompany him, holding out sprigs in supplication [and] singing hymns.
(78) And they escort the daphnephoria to the temples of Apollo Ismenios and Khalazios.

(Translation provided by my dear friend A.Cox from Sydney University)

African Pole Dances

There is little information on the history of pole dancing in Africa but it certainly existed in some forms. Tribal rituals in certain areas involved betrothed women dancing around wooden poles as a type of fertility dance. Again the pole represented a phallic symbol with the connection to fertility.

Panjat Pinang (Pinang Climb)

Panjat Pinang is a traditional game played in Indonesian which was introduced in the era of Dutch colonialism as a form of entertainment. It is essentially a climbing game performed at events like weddings using traditional areca nut trees. Participants compete to climb the poles to reach a variety of interesting gifts. It is also performed as a way of celebrating Indonesia’s Independence Day when the pole is covered in oil or lubricants and young men are invited to climb and compete to reach the prizes at the top.

Influential Origins

Obviously western pole dancing is largely associated with exotic dancing which has its roots far bar in ancient history. The exotic dance dates back to at least ancient Sumerian times when dances like that of the seven veils was used in association with the goddess of love Inanna. The dances were used to tell stories as a form of interpretive dance. The dance of the seven veils for instance represents the seven gates which Inanna had to pass through to find her lover and partner Damouz.

Pole dancing also has influences in Belly-dancing and Latin inspired dancing such as the Rumba and the Tango. Nowadays it still relates to the ancient forms as a hybrid dance and fitness form.

Want to see what modern pole is like as a hybrid of all these historical and international influences? Just watch the video below of the amazing pole fitness and art champion Oona Kivela:

Holey Cranium Batman! The Archaeology of Trephination

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When I woke up this morning I had one of my unfortunate and very painful migraines, oh my! Pain pounding in my temples and the feeling of a truck’s worth of cotton wool being pressed into the back or my eye balls. Not fun, day ruined. But it got me thinking, not for the first time, the prehistoric people had definite method behind their madness. Trephination has been practiced since, well who knows when, but we have evidence for it from as far back ad 6500 BC! When one suffers from headaches sometimes it feels like if you could just relieve that pressure all would be good. Don’t go drilling holes in your head please but do listen to one of the many medical traditions which links the ancient to the modern periods.

Trephination from the 15th Century The Cure of Folly, by Hieronymus Bosch

Trephination (AKA. Trepanning or burr holing) is a surgical intervention where a hole is drilled, incised or scraped into the skull using simple surgical tools. In drilling into the skull and removing a piece of the bone, the dura mater is exposed without damage to the underlying blood-vessels, meninges and brain. Trephination has been used to treat health problems associated with intracranial diseases, epileptic seizures, migraines and mental disorders by relieving pressure. There is also evidence it was used as a primitive form of emergency surgery to remove shattered pieces of bone from fractured skulls after receiving a head wound, and cleaning out the pools of blood that would form underneath the skull.

Evidence for trephination occurs from prehistoric times from the Neolithic onwards. The main pieces of archaeological evidence are in the forms of cave paintings and human remains; the skulls themselves from the prehistoric times. It is the oldest surgical procedure for which we actually have archaeological evidence. At one site in France, burials included forty instances of trephination from around 6500 BC; one third of the skulls found at the site. The percentage of occurrences though here is fairly high and percentages largely differ between sites and continents. It is from the human remains found at such sites that we know that the surgery had a fair survival rate. Many skulls show signs of healing that indicate that the patient lived for years after the event, even sometimes having trephination performed again later in life and again surviving the experience.

Skull with multiple trephination holes showing signs of healing from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

From pre-Columbian Mesoamerica we find evidence on physical cranial remains in burials in addition to iconographic artworks and reports from the post-colonial period. The occurrences are widespread throughout South America, from the Andean civilisations and pre-Incan cultures such as the Paracas culture in Ica in South Lima where burials show signs of trephination, skull mutilation and modification. In Mexico, Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, archaeological evidence dates from between 950 and 1400 AD. The earliest archaeological survey from the American continent published is from the late nineteenth century when the Norwegian ethnogapher Carl Lumholtz performed surveys of the Tarahumara mountains. Lumholtz’s publications were the precurser to documented cases from Oaxaca, Central Mexico and the Tlatilco civilisation.

From Europe in the Classical and Renaissance periods we have evidence of trephination from archaeological and literary sources; including within the famous and essential writings of Hippocrates and Galen where it is termed in the Greek ἀνάτρησιζ. One thing that strikes one when dealing with evidence from both America and Europe is just how widespread this technique was and how it appeared as a major surgical technique on both continents independent of influence and association.

The Hippocratic Treatises make mention of trepanning in the chapter on the injuries of the Head, which states:

‘For a person wounded to the same . . . extent . . . will sustain a much greater injury, provided he has received the blow at the sutures, than if it was elsewhere. And many of these require trepanning.’

Galen also makes mention by explaining the technique of trephination and the risks involved to the patient:

‘For when we chisel out the fragments of bone we are compelled for safety to put underneath the so-called protectors of the meninx, and if these are pressed too heavily on the brain, the effect is to render the person senseless as well as incapable of all voluntary motion.’

Much of the archaeological evidence from Europe for trephination comes from south-western Germany dating to as early as the stone age. But the cranial evidence for the procedure is widespread throughout Europe; Ireland, Denmark, France and Italy in particular. And there is considerable evidence from Russia and China. The early documents from classical Greece and anthropologist’s observations of pre-modern people in Peru has shown that the people involved had a knowledge of the risk involved in the procedure. Publications detailing the technique from Mote Alban conclude that there was a process of non-therapeutic experimentation for some time which explored the use of different techniques and sizes of burr hole.

Han and Chen have completed a particularly interesting study of the archaeological evidence of trephination in early China. They looked as six specimens from five sites ranging from 5000-2000 BP which showed cranial perforation in prehistoric China. The earliest skull analysed by Han and Chen was the M382 Cranium from Fuikia aite, Guangrao, Shandong. M382 was the skull of an adult male of the Dawenkou culture which shows a hole which was 31mm at the widest point. Evidence of healing shows that the patient recovered and lived for a considerable time before he later died. M382 was radiocarbomn dated to around 5000 BP. Han and Chen bring up one particularly interesting hypothesis to why trephination was performed: to obtain bone discs from people alive or dead for protection from demons. This would suggest, if correct, that in prehistoric China there was a cohabitation of ideas concerning human and supernatural intervention in association with illness and disease.

Incan Skull

What we can conclude about trephination is that this ancient surgical technique was astonishingly widespread and was practiced on the living and the dead in association with head trauma and for other reasons including the spiritual and the experimental. The cranial evidence which appears is from a range of patients of different ages and sexes, showing that the operation was performed on men, women and children. Evidence of healing and multiple burr holes indicate that there was a survival rate and some were even operated on repeatedly. But some skulls show us the risks of the operation as well. Some skulls uncovered have had evidence that the procedure was abandoned mid-operation as the trephining is incomplete.

It may seem a strange thing that this technique was used throughout the world in different places and periods unrelated to one another. But there is a logic in the way a wish to relieve pressure may naturally lead to trephination as an accepted answer. After all, in theory trephination works, and in some cases in practice. This is why the technique is still used for multiple reasons in modern medicine. For instance, trephination is used in some modern eye surgeries such as a corneal transplant; it is just termed differently as a form of pseudoscience called a craniotomy. It is also modern in modern intracranial pressure monitoring and in surgery for subungal hematoma (blood under the nail) because one can also refer to trephination in reference to the nails and other bones.

Well there you go, there are my pearls of wisdom for the day. Trephination. Oldest surgical technique supported by archaeological evidence. Still used today. That’s pretty cool 🙂 And my headache is better.

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Recommended Reading:

Han, K., and Chen X., The Archaeological Evidence of Trepanation in Early China

Lisowski, F.P. 1967. Prehistoric and early historic trepanation. In Don Brothwell and A.T.Sandison (eds.), Diseases in Antiquity, pp. 651-672. Springfield: Charles C Thomas.

Oakley, K.P., W. Brooke, R. Akester, and D.R. Brothwell 1959. Contributions on trepanning or trephination in ancient and modern times. Man 59 (133):93.

Piggott, S. 1940. A trepanned skull of the beaker period from Dorset and the practice of trepanning in Prehistoric Europe. Proceedings of Prehistoric Society n. s. 6(3): 112-132.

Wehrli, G.A. 1937. Die trepanation in fruheren jahrhunderten. Ciba-Ziho 91:15-22.

Wölfel, D.J. 1937. Sinn der trepanation. Ciba-Ziho 91: 2-6.

A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History

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After finding out that an average of 30 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease every day in Australia I started to wonder how long humans have known and dealt with the disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system resulting in decreased motor skills due to the death of dopamine-generating cells. Symptoms include tremors and rigidity, gait, slowness in movement, cognitive issues, sensory and emotional issues, sleep problems and depression. With over 80,000 people in Australia living with Parkinson’s, it is almost certain that you know someone affected by it.

Mucuna Pruriens Bak

The oldest surviving reference to what could be Parkinson’s is in the traditions of Ancient India, with the treatment of the disease in the ‘Ayurveda’, an ancient system of medicine dating from around 5000-3000 BC. Gourie-Devi explains in his ‘Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease in ‘Ayurveda’: Discussion Paper’ that the neurological disorders in the Ayurveda are thought to be due to an imbalance of ‘vata’. Parkinson’s is believed to be what is described as kampavata which bears a strong resemblance to the clinical features of Parkinson’s. The Ayurveda’s description of kampavata includes tremors, stiffness, depression and a depletion of movement. The Ancient Indians prescribed a number of drugs to battle the symptoms of the disease, some of which scientists have come back to review today. These include the root of Withania somifera, the seed of Mucuna Pruriens Bak, Root of Sida Cordifolia and the fruit of Hyocyamus reticulatus. In recent years, the experimentation with Mucuna Pruriens Bak has resulted in significant improvement in trial patients. This is recorded in Vaidya Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease with the Cowhage Plant – Mucuna Pruriens Bak.

The Chinese appear to be the next to make descriptions suggestive of Parkinson’s Disease. These date to around 425 BC. Zhen-Xin Zhang (2006) asserts that traditional Chinese medicine recommended an antitremor pill which is still used to this day in the traditional sphere. He suggests that based on the evidence provided by Zhang Zihe, in the first recorded case of Parkinson’s Disease in the manuscript Ru Men Shi Qin, the disease was first described in China around 2400 years ago.

Nestor and Telemachus

There are several references to ailments that are very similar in symptoms to Parkinson’s in the Ancient Greek literature. We cannot for certain say that these were Parkinson’s but the similarities suggest that the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans had knowledge of similar ailments and the known symptoms. Homer tells in the Odyssey that King Nestor suffers from symptoms which are typical of Parkinson’s and hence can no longer compete in athletic contests. Erasistratus of Keos describes in the third century BC a freezing that occurs such in Parkinson’s when he describes ‘paradoxos’: a type of paralysis which effects a person when walking by making them stop suddenly and being unable to continue, which wears off after some time. Dioscorides also mentions in his Materia Medica that beaver testicles are helpful in the treatment of lethargical problems, tremblings and convulsions alongside neurological and diseases of the nerves, when prepared with vinegar and roses. Celsus describes a similar ailment in his de Medicina Octo Libri and Galen is often said to give the first definite definition in his description of disorders of motor function. Galen, in his On Tremor, Palpitation, Convulsion and Shivering even distinguishes between the different forms on the basis of their origin and appearance.

The Byzantine period and following Medieval period saw the likes of Paul of Aigina (625-690AD) and Ibn Sina (980-1037AD) who provide further discussion of ‘shaking palsies’. The first definitive study of Parkinson’s Disease in Western medicine though is ascribed to its namesake, the English doctor James Parkinson. James Parkinson published a detailed description in An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817.

There is unfortunately a limited awareness of Parkinson’s Disease in modern society. If you would like to find out more about Parkinson’s for yourself, family or friends, then please go to which provides information, support, helplines and ways you can help.

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