How history’s weirdest sport became the world’s #1 bachelor party entertainment.
Ordinary objects often have fascinating stories. Take the stripper pole. Right now we associate it with barely-dressed young ladies gyrating what God gave them (or a plastic surgeon did) for dollar bills stuffed in their G-strings.
But how did sliding up and down a pole become a component of erotic dancing? To find the answer, we need to travel back to 12th century India, where at competitions and festivals you could see muscular men hauling themselves up onto poles. This was “mallakhamb,” a training regimen for combatants that grew into a sport of its own. (The term comes from a combination of the Hindu words for “pole” and “wrestling.”)
The level of muscle development needed to compete in mallakhamb is intense. Performers have to be able to hoist their body up using arms or legs, and position their torsos parallel like a flag before twisting and gyrating into numerous other poses. It’s incredibly grueling, with few opportunities to rest.
Mallakhamb declined over the centuries, but was revived in the 1800s by Balambhat Dada Deodhar, the personal trainer of Baji Rao II, the last peshwa of the Maratha empire. Deodhar saw the utility of the pole in strengthening and toning core muscles, and when India entered the British colonial period the sport gained popularity as a way to hold on to tradition.
As India opened up to the outside world, the art of mallakhamb began to spread. But it would need to fuse with some other global traditions and American horniness to become the pole dance we know and love.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was middle America’s introduction to the world beyond, featuring the first Ferris wheel and exhibitions from dozens of nations. One of the most popular was “Street in Cairo,” a replica of an Egyptian thoroughfare featuring a bazaar, donkey and camel rides and one very special attraction.
Her name was Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, but she went by “Little Egypt.” Throughout her act, she’d slowly shed scarves to reveal more and more of her body. Her exotic belly dancing introduced a whole new way to expose female flesh to lusty Americans, and an apocryphal story tells that she once gave Mark Twain a near-fatal heart attack with her performance.
Little Egypt popularized what came to be called the “Hoochee-Coochee,” a dance “neither of the head or the feet” according to one contemporary observer. It spread rapidly through the United States, replacing the can-can as the naughty dance du jour .
In the early days of the 20th century, before the advent of broadcast media, traveling circuses made a bundle drifting from town to town presenting entertainment. The center of the circus tent was held up by a tall pole, which was the perfect venue for performers to strut their stuff. In between acts, hoochee-coochee dancers would keep the crowd attentive.
These circuses also often featured “fakirs,” men of no uncertain physical ability from India who swallowed swords, doused flames with their mouth and lay down on beds of nails without harm. That level of body control is exactly the kind of stuff that mallakhamb trains you for.
Like a bee bringing pollen from one flower to another, the pole art of mallakhamb was learned by the hoochee-coochee dancers, who started incorporating elements of it into their routines. It served as a stand-in for the male body, the dancers suggestively gyrating and grinding against it.
Circuses eventually shifted towards more family-friendly fare as exotic dancing got more and more suggestive. Dancers took the stage in burlesque shows, interspersed with comedians and musical acts. In the 1930s, local governments started banning the striptease, which drove the ladies further underground.
The 1960s saw a resurgence in the art, with Carol Doda’s legendary topless performance at San Francisco’s Condor Club ushering in the modern age of exotic dancing. Poles were already present in many bars and lounges as support for the ceiling, so it was only natural that old-school circus burlesque moves came back in fashion.
Through the 1980s, as a more athletic look for women came into fashion, erotic pole dance started hearkening back to its mallakhamb roots. No longer was it enough for a stripper to simply rub up on the pole — flips, splits and hoists were now in play as a way to get extra dollars tucked in the garter.
Do modern strippers know they’re practicing an art form from 900 years ago? Probably not, but they’re certainly doing it proud.