The organizations regulating pole fitness and pole sports have been on a 10-year journey of self-discovery, trying to disassociate themselves from their more exotic beginnings.

In the early 2000s, pole-dancing underwent an abrupt transformation from purely exotic purposes into a competitive sport and popular form of exercise. The physicality of the activity translates well into the world of fitness, with the clothes staying on and the routines becoming more athletic than seductive. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan and Carmen Electra have all publicly proclaimed the benefits of pole sports—Electra even has her own line of pole sports products. Yet anything to do with exotic dancing remains a combative subject for those both for and against. Some say it is degrading and disrespectful to the performers; others claim that it’s just another way to make a living and even an outlet for self-expression.

Around 2008, organizations like the International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF) and the Pole Sport Organization (PSO) came along, bringing with them further legitimacy. (IPSF operates on a global scale, PSO holds competitions across the U.S. throughout the year.) Rules and regulations were drafted and competitions became structured and consistent. Like the Olympic gymnasts who inspire awe across the globe every four years, pole sport competitors must possess much athleticism, strength, poise and mental toughness to compete on the professional level. The Global Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF) notes that competitors are skilled in not only the art of pole-dancing, but share the strengths and technical prowess usually associated with ballet, yoga and gymnastics.

Like any professional sport, pole fitness is not without risks. For example, the Basic Invert, a common position, requires competitors to be completely upside down—feet up, head down—without much more than their grip and core strength keeping them from slipping and falling either on their head, neck or spine. While serious head injuries are exceedingly rare, it’s not uncommon for competitors to sprain wrists, have inflamed rotator cuffs and sustain muscle injuries in their legs, shoulders and backs.

The sport can be enjoyed by a variety of competitors—young, old, men, women and/or trans. Performance styles and disciplines vary and competitors are separated into categories of age, skill level and competition type. PSO has age categories split into Junior 18-29, Senior 30-39, Master 40-49 and Grandmaster 50 years old and older. Skill levels range from 1-5 and Professional. The competition category—Championship, Doubles/Groups, Dramatic, Entertainment, Exotic, Floorwork, Qualifier, Showcase or Showcase Plus—determines what skill levels are allowed to participate.

Each category and skill level requires competitors to demonstrate particular moves and techniques. For example, skill levels 1-5 are allowed to compete in the Dramatic category, in which the contestant is judged on their artistic interpretation of a set musical routine. Those who compete in the Qualifier category must have reached the Professional skill level and are judged mainly by their technical executions of moves and techniques.

IPSF similarly groups competitors by age: Novice 10-14, Junior 15-17, Seniors 18-39, and two Masters categories 40-plus and 50-plus. The United States Pole Sports Federation host competitors as young as seven years old—a point of contention for some who oppose the sport.

Pole sports advocates celebrated last October when the GAISF granted the sport the ever-coveted designation of “observer status,” the first step for a sport to become an official member. If pole sports are accepted for official membership, advocates will be able to set their sights on the most coveted competition in sports: The Olympics.

Shannon Burbridge, owner and operator of Aura Aerial & Yoga in Atlantic Beach, a training facility for pole and yoga fitness activities, said she isn’t sure exactly how far pole fitness is from actually becoming an Olympic sport. She also says that there has been some backlash to the idea. “There’s still a stigma associated with it. I guess there are some people who are not excited to see that.”

Student Carol Cullen is a member of the Aura Aerial team heading to North Carolina on Feb. 17 to vie for National Championship spots and assorted prizes in a PSO event. While it is a point of pride to represent their studio on the national level, Cullen and Burbridge said that their pride is somewhat tempered by outward opposition from those not involved in the sport. This stigma of sexualization, of stripping, says Cullen, makes some reluctant to even admit to being part of the community. Like other advocates, she takes issue with the prejudice of those who view the sport as an extension of exotic dancing, albeit with more clothing and no stuffing $1 bills in G-strings. Although the majority of the Aura Aerial group has the support of their friends and family, Cullen said, “Some of our own community and members of our studio won’t tell their own parents because they feel embarrassed and they don’t feel able to share it with their loved one.”

Nevertheless, throughout the world and within the local community, studios like Aura Aerial, Bittersweet Studios—another Jacksonville pole fitness group that regularly competes—and even the University of North Florida are helping to make the discipline gain acceptance within the world of sports. Aura Aerial is an active contributor, collecting donations and fundraising for local charities like B.E.A.M. and Bosom Buddies. Last March, UNF hosted the third annual United States Pole Sports Federation Championships, during which more than 60 competitors, both men and women, ranging in age from 7 to 50 years old and older, took a spin around the pole for their shot at glory. Regardless of obstacles, the sport shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s about the dramatic, the performance and the athletics,” Cullen said.