This is not your pervy uncle's pole dancing -- with leering men stuffing dollar bills into g-strings of topless women grinding on a stage to Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me."
Once relegated to two-story fire stations and dimly lit strip clubs, the vertical pole has found a home in the suburbs. This weekend's North American Pole Dance Championships and Great Midwest Pole Dance Convention at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles will draw gymnasts, dancers, moms looking to shed some baby weight, older women looking for girls-night-out fun, local fitness experts, dance instructors and elite performers, including the male pole dancer who won last year's title.
"That's the challenge, to break that stigma people have," says Sarah Ritzman, who, with fellow pole-dance instructor and performer Caroline Patel, owns Tiger Lily Vertical Fitness and Dance in Geneva. "We're making people realize there's more to it than that. The more people see it, the more public it becomes, the more people take it seriously."
A 33-year-old wife and mother from Montgomery, Ritzman says she discovered pole dancing seven years ago after the birth of her second child. Her husband, Mike, suggested it.
"He's a thoughtful guy, so I'm sure he didn't do it just for selfish reasons," says a chuckling Ritzman, anticipating the reaction. "I had two very young children and I needed some kind of activity."
She wanted something to help her get back in shape, something to give her a night out with other women, something that would be fun.
"I soon realized it was more than that," Ritzman says of pole dancing. "I makes me feel accomplished. I got confidence. And I became very strong and limber."
Fellow owner Patel took ballet lessons and gymnastic classes while growing up in West Chicago, and she performed as a cheerleader and on the dance team as a teenager. Like Ritzman, Patel, mother of three, took her first pole dancing class while looking for an outlet.
"I had the best time," recalls Patel, 38, who lives in Aurora. "The next day my legs were sore, my core was sore, my hamstrings were sore, and I didn't have a hangover."
Patel and Ritzman say they will perform a pole-dance duet on Saturday night at the convention that is part playful, part sexy and always athletic, and that lives up to their studio's motto of being a place "where strength and sensuality bloom."
The convention, which runs Friday morning through Sunday afternoon at Pheasant Run, 4051 E. Main St. in St. Charles, is open to the public. For ticket information and a schedule, visit midwestpoledancing.com.
A $65 daily ticket gives access to vendors, workshops and performances from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., with special performances and competitions starting daily at 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Hosted by Midwest Pole Dancing in Chicago Heights, the event is expected to attract more than 600 fans to see 55 competitors (including those in the master's division for those older than 40) and shows by 20 elite performers, says organizer Mary Ellyn Weissman.
While the convention does feature a "sexy chair dance contest" and a "Bad Kitty fashion exhibition," workshops also include a presentation on insurance issues for pole dancers, nutritional information and a session with a doctor on "preventing back issues."
"It is that kind of wide variety," says Weissman, owner of Empowerment Through Exotic Dance studios in Chicago Heights and Frankfort.
"Pole dancing is one of the few things people get into at an older age. With this, we have women who are starting in their 40s and 50s."
And then there is 26-year-old Josiah Grant, a California gymnast who performs around the globe as a pole dancer. Grant became the first male to win North American Pole Performer of the Year at the 2013 convention with his routine to a Prince song.
"I love doing it. It's a really good workout," says Grant, who is known for athletic and graceful routines. "I'm a daredevil. I like gymnastics."
Once synonymous with nudity and sex, pole dancing is more like the artistic, acrobatic performances of Cirque du Soleil today, says Grant. While acknowledging that a fit, scantily dressed man maneuvering around a pole can be considered erotic, Grant says, "I'm just an entertainer."
"It doesn't have to be sexy," says Patel. The studio has taught young women who work as exotic dancers, but it also boasts a 62-year-old pupil who drives two hours each way twice a week to take classes at the Geneva studio.
"Some of them aren't crazy about the upside-down tricks," Ritzman says of her pupils. "Usually getting them in the door is the hardest part."
The pole-dancing that she embraces stresses camaraderie and confidence in a positive, supportive environment, she says. The suggestion that guys might yell "Take it off!" to one of the pole dancers she teaches is beyond her imagination.
"Oh, no way," Ritzman says. "We'd kick their butts."