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:

The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code

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It is a common idea in modern authored histories of the Olympic Games that Theodosius I literally abolished the Olympic Games through specific edicts.  Was this the product of historians projecting the laws of Theodosius on such a prestigious event and hence claiming direct prohibition, or did Theodosius really literally ban the Olympic Games in his edicts?

Theodosius I

The idea that Theodosius I literally banned the Olympic Games is firstly discredited by there being no direct references to the Ancient Olympic Games in the Theodosian Code.[1]  The Theodosian code was based on the enforcement of the Christian faith and on the ideologies of Christian dogma.[2]  Spivey explains that “There was nothing in the Christian faith that actively underminded the practice of athletics.”[3]  An assessment of this suggests that Theodosius I would not have paid particular attention to athletic events, such as the Olympic Games, when authoring his edicts but rather to the ideas and activities that surrounded the ‘pagan’ faiths which governed such events.

Theodosius I was the first emperor to “prohibit the whole established pagan religion of the Roman state.”[4] Hillgarth comments that by the time of Theodosius the church was a part of the “political and social structure of the oppressive empire.”[5] It was necessary for Theodosius to prohibit the traditional pagan practices in order to fully establish his dominance over the empire.  Young explains that around 391AD Theodosius issued an edict “that all pagan temples be closed.”[6]  These edicts against the worship of the pagan/Ancient Greek faith led to the decline in many areas of traditional Greek life such as the Olympic Games.

Despite the debate, the title of the ‘Olympic Games’ continued to be used elsewhere after the decline of Olympia.  Downey asserts that the “Olympic Games at Antioch must have ranked among the most important of the local festivals of the Roman East.”[7]  The idea that the title was adopted by games at Antioch and continued throughout the time of Theodosius’ edicts suggests that the Games at Olympia as an event were not prohibited; otherwise events that carried the name elsewhere would have been inclined to dismiss the title and the associations surrounding it as a heresy.  However, the Games at Antioch were not prohibited until the early sixth century AD long after the Theodosian code had been established. The Olympiakon stadium itself was still in use till the sixth century.


Theodosius I banned the pagan practices associated with the Olympic Games and made Christianity the primary religion of the Empire for a number of reasons.  Greenslade comments that “Theodosius…crowned the work of Constantine,”[8] attempting to create a unified Empire “with a unified faith.”[9] Theodosius attempted this partly  in the hope that his laws would decrease the pagan religions and standardise Christianity.  Theodosius was also subject to the Judaic and monotheistic ideas of Christianity.  Williams and Friell explain that the new Christian regime inherited the “jealous, militant monotheism of Exodus, as well as pre-eminent Judaic concern with the law.”[10]  The pagan religion was hence a heresy.

Though Theodosius does not target the Games specifically, his laws contributed to the eventual downfall of the Games at Olympia due to the prohibition of pagan practices.  It appears that this point can be held as a source for histories blaming Theodosius for the prohibition of the Olympic Games.  Downey assesses that the laws affected the character of the Games but, though many pagans such as in the letters of Libanius saw the Games as unaltered, the festival could no longer be seen as in honour of Olympian Zeus and lost some of their traditional Greek identity.[11]  Fowden specifies that the “externals of the pagan cults were dismantled.”[12]

Hillgarth explains that Theodosius I banned the use of areas of pagan worship such as temples and sanctuaries in XVI, 1, 2 (380).[13]  Theodosian code cites that “their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches,”[14] and that all pagan sites of worship should be abandoned in sight of the law and the new Christian dogma.  Young explains that the focal point of Olympia was the sanctuary of Zeus and the “renowned temple of Olympian Zeus.”[15]  The Olympic Games focused significantly on becoming closer to the gods, to be the very best, and the sanctuary was an important and essential part of this ancient Greek ideal.[16]

Reconstruction of the inside of temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Sanctuary of Zeus played a significant part in the Olympic festival as seen through the excavation of hundreds of votive offerings in and around it.[17]  However, with the introduction of Theodosius’ code in the late fourth century, important sanctuaries and temples were forced into closure, including that at Olympia.  Finley explains that the edict “was followed at Olympia almost immediately by the conversion of one of the more suitable buildings into a Christian church, and it is unthinkable that the games were permitted to coexist with a Christian community and Christian worship.”[18]

Theodosian code states that “no person at all, of any class or order whatsoever of men or of dignities,…shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city.”[19]  As much of traditional Greek festivities and Games included sacrifice to the gods as a key aspect, the prohibition of such acts would have had a direct effect on events such as the Olympic Games.

The extent of sacrificial activity at Olympiacan be seen through excavations of the altar in the sanctuary of Zeus.  Over the many centuries of use the Altar became a mound containing large deposits of bone and ash left by offerings to the gods.[20]  Sacrifices were especially important to the worship of Olympian Zeus as he was “hekatombaios – deserving of a hundred oxen.”[21]

Archaeological evidence suggests that not only did Theodosius I not literally ban the Olympics, but that his edicts weren’t completely complied with at Olympia.  Young explains that though Theodosian law prohibited the use of places of worship such as the sanctuary of Zeus, Zeus’ temple and his Olympic Games may well have lasted beyond the 391 edict and into the fifth century.[24]  Archaeological evidence in some cases wouldn’t date the end of the Ancient Olympics at Olympia to Theodosius I at all but rather a significant decline, the termination of the Games being attributed to the time of his successor Theodosius II. Hillgarth also assesses that the edicts of Theodosius I were not complied with, and uses as his evidence the stricter later laws being set out by succeeding Emperors, “culminating to the threat of the death penalty in 435”[25] years after Theodosius I’s reign.

The idea that Theodosius did not literally ban the Olympic Games is also supported by the circumstances under which the 293rd Olympiad of 392 did not take place.[26]  Koromilas assesses that the decline of Olympia’s Games was not due to Theodosian law but rather to the sanctuary no longer existing, and that there were several factors apart from the expansion of Christianity over a long period of time which led to its downfall.[27]  Young agrees with this assessment, stating that Olympia had become inhospitable and was subject to earthquakes, floods and the flight of barbarians.[28]

In most modern histories the prohibition of the Olympic Games is attributed to the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century.  However, this theory is largely discredited through the study of Theodosian law.  Theodosius I did not ban the Olympic Games specifically but rather the pagan practices that were associated with them.  Theodosius evidently did ban the pagan practices that were associated with the Games in response to Christian dogma and the desire to create and control a unified empire under one religion.

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[1] Young, D.C., A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Cornwell, 2004), p.136

[2] Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (New York, 2005),  p.204

[3] Ibid., p.204

[4] Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), p.45

[5] Ibid., p.46

[6] Young, op.cit., p.136

[7] Downey, G., The Olympic Games at Antioch in the Fourth Century AD, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.70 (1939, p.428

[8] Greenslade, S., Church and State fromConstantine to Theodosius (London, 1976), p.30

[9] Williams, S. and Friell, G., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (London, 1994), p.47

[10] Ibid., p.47

[11]Downey, op.cit., p.434

[12] Fowden, G., Bishops and Temples in the Eastern Roman Empire A.D. 320-435 (1978)

[13] Hillgarth, op.cit., p.46

[14] Theodosian Code, XVI, 1, 2, (380) in Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969),, p.46

[15] Young, op.cit., p.60

[16] Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4

[17] Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21

[18] Finley, M.I., and Pleket, H.W., The Olympic Games (London, 1976), p.13

[19] Hillgarth, op.cit., p.46

[20] Spivey, op.cit., p.131 – the deposits are an important indication of the sheer number of sacrifices that were conducted over a long period of time

[21] Ibid., p.131

[24] Young, op.cit., p.136

[25] Hillgarth, op.cit., p.45

[26] Koromilas, M., On the Stadium (2004)

[27] ibid

[28] Young, op.cit., p.137

War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games

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‘War Minus the Shooting’, is what Orwell in Spivey’s ‘The Ancient Olympics’ states as being what serious sport amounts to.  But, can this be said to be the sole idea behind competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, or did competition amount to more?

Competition at the Olympic Games was not just about ‘war minus the shooting’ especially since one of its key bases was in religion.  By competing, athletes were attempting to become closer to the gods.  Spivey asserts that in Greek Myth all the events that appeared at the Olympic Games during the eighth and seventh centuries BC were first participated in by gods or heroes.[1]  This suggests that by participating in these competitions, the athletes were striving to reach what those gods associated with those events, represented. Spathari explains that the competition and training was essentially an attempt to attain and evolve physical, intellectual and spiritual powers.[2]  In striving to perfect their physical and spiritual wellbeing the Ancient Greeks believed that they would follow the path which led to the divine.

Tampa 86.35. chariot race. Photograph courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Excavators have uncovered evidence of altars in and around the sanctuary of Zeus in the form of ashy deposits, which could be attributed to the seventh and eighth centuries, along with a number of votive offerings.[5]  The Olympic Games were primarily a religious festival and the competition was a way of worshipping the gods: primarily Zeus who came to Olympia in the tenth century with the Eleans.  It is also argued by such as Sansone that “all sport is a ritual sacrifice of bodily energy”[6] suggesting that the competitor and competition at Olympia doubled as both a dedicator and a dedication.

Early competition in the Olympic Games also held associations with the heroic ideal.  Competition at Olympia was in part a means to gain attributes of the heroic ideal as set out by Homer.  Tyrrell assesses that one of the most important aims of competition at the Olympic Games was to become the best of men.[7]  Tyrell’s assessment is backed up by Homer’s statement “always to be best and superior to others”[8] (Iliad VI 208), which was transformed into an idea that became the essence of competition in the Ancient Greek World.  It became a purpose of competition to achieve this superior status amongst your fellow competitors.

Heroic poetry had a very significant role in competition in Ancient Greece and in particular at the Olympic Games.  The competitive ethos within these texts influenced the people’s ideas of what was important in life and how these ideals could be achieved.  This heroic poetry expresses that fame, honour and glory are the most important things to strife for, and this was an idea internalised by ancient Greek society to the extreme.  Competition at events such as the Olympic Games was the only way one could achieve the glory only otherwise gained in war.[9]  In this way the Olympic Games could be viewed as “war minus the shooting,”  but not in the sense which Orwell refers to.  Spivey notes that Homer can be assessed as a great influence on competitive ethos throughout the whole of society due to becoming a “set text for school children, a poet whose lines were widely known and often quoted.”[10]

Tyrrell explains that the ancient Greeks admired and “strove to emulate the values of the Homeric warrior,” [11] chief among these values being his arete, his valour. The Iliad and the Odyssey illustrate the shame culture in Ancient Greece and the Homeric values of honour and fame.  This competitive ethos was internalized from the heroic poetry, and competitions such as at the Olympic Games were a means of achieving what all Greeks desired, kleos (κλέος) and arete (ἀρετή).  Homer’s account of the funeral games of Patroclus demonstrates the quest for kleos (fame/glory) and arete (valour) though athletic competition.[12] When Menelaos and Antiochos are arguing over the prize of second place in the chariot race, essentially they are arguing for their kleos and to retain their arete.  Homer’s account of this event illustrates the importance of these values to Greek society in the ferocity of the arguments of these two characters.[13]

Tyrell asserts that the “study of Greek athletes begins with the warrior’s arete because in many ways his values continued to impel men to pursue through athletics the glory no longer obtainable in war.”[15]  During the eighth and seventh centuries BC the quest for individual honour was forced out of war by the introduction of the hoplite form of fighting.  This suggests that the quest for honour moved to other “competitive areas”[16], among them the athletic contest.

Good strife being born of “a coupling between Zeus and the night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth…nurture desires for wealth and fame.”[18]   Due to the popularity and influence of this idea worded by Hesiod, it can be asserted that competition at the Olympic Games was not only about “war minus the shooting,” but a means to create this good strife.  Spivey assesses that Homer and Hesiod “established and exemplified the principle of positive strife”[19] and promoted contests and challenges as the “necessary trials of all creative endeavour.”[20]

Discobolus (Discus Thrower), Roman copy of 5th C Greek statue from the British Museum

Orwell believed that competition was bound up with “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”[21]  Though in many ways competition in the Olympic Games does reflect the acts of warfare, it was also about friendship and unity of states and a reflection of the individual and society. Eusebius asserts that Iphitus consulted the Delphic oracle and introduced the Olympic festival in response to the concern for wars, and he proclaimed a truce for those involved in the Olympic Games.[22]  Homer in ‘The Odyssey’ demonstrates that rivalry ceased to be hostile and became friendly competition as the character of the Odyssey’s games is the same as that attributed to the Panhellenic games.[23]

An assessment of competition at the Olympic Games suggests that spectators did not just see competitions as mindless violence, but as a reflection of themselves and their emotions.  This idea can be seen clearly in the ancient term ‘Olympiakoi Agones’ (Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες) meaning the ‘Olympic Games’.  Agon which is the Greek word for contest is related to the English word ‘agony’ and is hence a reference to the contest being a reflection of one’s emotions in relation to Olympic competition.

The idea of “war minus the shooting” though is by no means unprecedented in relation to competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh century BC at least. [24]  Spivey states that sport was a “sublimated form of human aggression, a channelling of the biological instinct to fight.”[25]  In other words, though the competition’s main purpose was the quest for honour and glory, the desire for which was the result of the internalisation of competitive ethos from heroic poetry, the platonic essence of athletics was an act of mimicry of fighting.  This relation to the mimicry can be seen in eighth century black figure pottery where the sports illustrated, such as wrestling and hand to hand combat,[26] can be rationalised as a set of drills for “infantry fighting” in later centuries.[27]

From the analysis of the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC we see that competition did not just amount to “War Minus the Shooting.”  Competition was not only the mimicry of war acts but was seen as a religious dedication and was concerned with trying to achieve a status close to the gods and divinity by trying to be the best of men and participating in events associated with the gods. Though later on in the seventh century, competition did reflect many of the acts of warfare, it was first and foremost a quest to gain and retain honour and hence considerably more than “War Minus the Shooting.”

[1] Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (Oxford, 2005), p.4

[2] Spathari, E., the Greek Spirit of Competition and the Panhellenic Games, in 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.16

[3] Vergil, The Aenied, Penguin Classics (Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight), (Oxford, 2006), Book VI

[4] Ibid., Book VI

[5] Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21

[6] Golden, M., Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1998), p.17

[7] Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4

[8] Homer, Iliad, Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, Book VI 208

[9] Tyrell, B., op.cit., p.2

[10] Spivey, op.cit., p.15

[11] Tyrell, op.cit., p.2

[12] Homer, op.cit., Book VI – Presentation of the prizes for the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus

[13] Ibid., Book VI 208

[15] Tyrell op.cit., p.2

[16] Ibid.,  p 8

[18] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

[19] Ibid., p.5

[20] Ibid., p.5

[21] Ibid., p.1

[22] Eusebius, Chronicle, p 193

[23] Homer, Odyssey 8.97-253 – Odysseus in the tenth year after the Trojan war stays with the Phaeacians and participates in athletic contests as a guest of the Phaeacians.

[24] Eusebius chronicle – shows that events that emulated war like activities only start to occur around 708BC with introduction of wrestling and the pentathlon later followed in the early seventh century BC by chariot and boxing competitions.

[25] Spivey, op.cit., p.2

[26] 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.18

[27] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

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If you liked this post you may like to read The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code