The International Pole Convention swings into town this weekend at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach.

It’s not what you think, the International Pole Convention.

The pole dancing convention founder, Jessalynn Medairy, 27, is so used to the questions, she answers them before they’re asked: “There’s nobody here that would be a stripper or an exotic dancer.”

“Pole dancing to me is all fitness,” she said.

But here on the floor of the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Friday, it was clear that pole dancing exists uncomfortably between two worlds: the athletic and the exotic.

There’s the world we all know (or know of), with thumping music, dollar bills and age restrictions. And then there’s this new one, which is kind of like yoga with tattoos.

Friday began the fourth annual convention, the only non-competitive assemblage of a budding industry. It is composed of workout studios, accessories dealers and even niche insurance companies. Medairy has brought her company’s flagship event to West Palm Beach twice, and she has been to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., her hometown.

She started pole dancing at 19 for fitness. For inspiration and new moves, she turned to YouTube, where stars of the sport post their videos. Wanting for camaraderie in her passion, she booked a local hotel and invited her YouTube stars to come.

That informal, inaugural event has grown into a business, with corporate sponsors like Bad Kitty (pole wear fashions) and Foxy Kleen (“removes dirt, sweat and body oils from all surfaces of fitness equipment”). Daily admission is open to anyone for $59.

“When I first started, people would say, ‘You’re doing what to work out?’” Medairy said.

Now, she says, there’s growing recognition and less taboo. The women — the few hundred attendees were almost exclusively female — arrived with gym bags and outfits only a couple degrees more risque than you might find at a spinning class.

There are industry groups, such as the U.S. Pole Dance Federation, which says it hosted the first professionally scored competitions in 2008. Before that, “competitions were often held in clubs, where the applause of a crowd determined the winner.”

Now it’s more sport, and there’s even a movement to get pole dancing into the Olympics.

As testament to its athletic pull, the convention this year attracted a man from Brussels named Thomas Dechaufour, 27, to lead training workshops.

He tells you he is not a pole dancer. He’s a “Chinese pole artist,” which involves taller poles and more clothing, because the poles aren’t polished metal and can burn. He attended one of the world’s top circus schools in Belgium.

Can he juggle?

“Pfff,” he says. Unicycle, too.

He once made a pole dancing video, though, because a company in London paid him to do it. And that caught the pole industry’s attention. They’re always looking for new moves.

They’re always looking for new venues, too. And here’s where the adult industry inevitably comes back into the picture.

Before the rise of fitness dancing, the only public poles required you to be naked to use them.

That’s why Chelsea Creech, 21, of Cocoa Beach, says she became a stripper.

“The only place to do it was a strip club, so I started there,” she said. But she says that soon she will leave that game, when she and a friend open up a pole dance studio and she becomes a trainer.

Many exotic dancers, Creech said, want a place to dance and practice outside of work. The nearest similar studio is in Orlando. In addition to those looking for “an alternative exercise routine,” strippers would be their clients.

Mark Culp, of Chicago Heights, Ill., has carved out a niche in the insurance industry for such studios. This is really his website: insurance4poledancers.com. They’re endorsed by the Pole Dance Community, a British industry association founded in 2009.

On Friday, as the first performances kicked off the three-day convention, a celebrated dancer named Michelle Stanek took the stage.

She swung around the pole in a small, black two-piece and shiny high heels. To the pulse of a burlesque tune, Stanek demonstrated gymnastic flexibility, strength and grace. She carried a sparkly cane.

Then at the end of her routine, she removed her top and revealed pasties.

“If I had a dollar,” the emcee said, “she’d have it.”

The International Pole Convention runs 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Palm Beach Convention Center, 650 Okeechobee Blvd.

Admission is $59 and parking is $5.

bwolford@tribune.com, 561-243-6602 or Twitter @benwolford


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