Pole dance national champions from over 10 countries arrived in Hong Kong on 26 November on the eve of their world championship event. A new category for the over-40s was introduced in 2015 called the Masters, whose current champion is California native, Greta Pontarelli, who said she took up the sport seven years ago for health reasons.

The 65-year-old former dancer and gymnast said she was advised by doctors to take up a weight-bearing exercise after her mother and younger sisters were diagnosed with osteoporosis. She said although her first class was gruelling, she didn't give up.

She said: "It's immensely challenging at time. But you have to use your challenges as learning blocks. And you have to find out, OK, what will my body do? Because I look at these young girls and they have taken this sport to a whole new level. And I think, OK, my body is not going to twist itself into a pretzel at this age. And some of the strength that's required, I don't have. I have pretty decent strength but not nearly enough to do some of those moves.

"But I thought, I could always be more artistic. I thought I could always give my heart and leave a little bit of my heart on the stage. So you find those things that you can do and like anything in life, you work on those things. And I tell everybody that. Don't look at some of those videos and think, oh my God, it's so hard I can't do it. Find out what you can do and do it at your own level."

Change in perspective

Australian competitor Deb Roach was born with one arm and is representing the disabled category in the championships. The pole dance artist, circus performer, and fitness instructor, said there was a big community of disabled people she wanted to represent.

She said: "So I started pole dancing after seeing a doubles routine in a night club that really blew my mind. And I went up to these girls and I was like, wow, your physicality is so amazing, you're so lucky to have both of your arms, and to pursue this kind of sport.

I think the more of the schools that are coming up and the more of these competitions happen, the stigma, slowly kinds of fades away
- Vee Lea

"And they said to me; 'what have you tried?', and in that very instant, my complete world perspective as someone with a disability and had been a network engineer and very cerebral, changed from being very disconnected in my head from my body thinking I can't be part of that world, to the questions, what if? And yeah, eight years ago that exploration of my body of 'what if' my body could do those things started. And I don't think I'll ever give it up."

Organiser Vee Lea said she hoped international competitions such as this would help change preconceptions of pole dancing, frequently associated with strippers and other salacious activities. She said many pole dancing clubs are cropping up in previously conservative countries such as Vietnam and mainland China.

She said: "I think the more of the schools that are coming up and the more of these competitions happen, the stigma, slowly kinds of fades away. Because as the public comes to more events like these, they understand the amount of skill, strength and training required, much like gymnastics and acrobatics. And even cheerleading and things like that. And that it is an actual dance sport. And even if the stigma is still, if there is still stuff happening with pole dancing in other countries in that sense. This form of pole dance fitness is different from that."

Competitors from countries including Argentina, Australia, Finland, Japan, UK and the USA are in competition for 11 world titles in five divisions: mens, womens, doubles, disabled and masters. The International Pole Championship was founded in 2008 by Ania Pzeplasko, who is a supporter of the International Pole Sports Federation lobby for Pole Dance Fitness to be recognised as a sport by the Olympic committee.