TOKYO (AP) - Zoraya Judd says there is nothing she would rather do than pole dance. She's one of the best in the world at it and someday, she says, there might even be a place for her talents in the Olympics. (Scroll down for photos)
Riding a wave of popularity that has transformed a striptease genre into a cleaned-up and clothed version for fitness clubs around the world, Judd and dozens of the world's top pole dancers -- male and female -- gathered in Tokyo this week for the International Pole Dancing Championships, a premier event in the budding sport.
As always -- the championships are in their third year -- it was a colorful field.
Along with Judd, of Oren, Utah, who was named the Pole Athlete of the Year 2010 by the American Pole Fitness Association, the competitors Thursday included Ana Marie Garbo, the 2008 world champion, who got her start dancing in night clubs in Manila; Chris Measday, of Australia, a competitive trampolinist who found the pole after breaking his back in five places; and Loic Lebret, a dance teacher at the prestigious Centre de Danse du Marais in Paris.
Japan's Mai Sato defended her title as the women's champion, and Duncan West of Australia won in men's. This year also had a disabled division, which was won by hearing-impaired Eri Kamimoto of Japan.
"There is a tremendous amount of talent here," Measday said. "It says a lot about where our sport is going."
Pole dancing's destination, organizers hope, is the Olympics.
Hong Kong-based Ania Przeplasko, founder of the International Pole Dance Fitness Association, said efforts are underway made to make pole dancing a "test" event for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016. Pole dancers had tried to get on the schedule for London in 2012, but were too late to make a serious bid.
A wide range of sports aspire to join the Olympics, but few are able to reach those heights.
To be included on the Olympic program, a sport must be approved by the full assembly of the International Olympic Committee. Last year, golf and rugby sevens were added for the 2016 Olympics, while baseball, softball, squash, karate and roller sports failed to make the cut.
Organizers said Thursday's championships marked a major step forward for sport pole dancing. The competition was held in a large arena near the Tokyo Dome, the Japanese capital's main sports stadium, with competitors from countries ranging from Malaysia to Moldova.
Performers got four minutes and two poles about 12 feet (three meters) tall to show what they could do. Stiletto heels were checked backstage, and rules required outfits be "dignified and appropriate for athletic competition."
But even its most devoted followers admit pole dancing as a credible sport has a long way to go.
Measday, the Australian men's entry, said that compared with Olympic-style gymnastics -- which he was heavily involved in before he broke his back -- pole dancing has a rather disorganized judging system and a pool of competitors with highly developed skills but widely varying styles that don't easily lend themselves to unified scoring systems.
"We still don't even have names that we all use to talk about certain moves," he said.
Turning pole dancing into a sport also raises concerns among many aficionados about how much of its trademark sexiness and suggestive creativity should be given over to the kind of precision and mainstream look that would be needed for the Olympics.
"To be honest, I think it is still too sexy for the Olympics," Judd said. "I think it would be great to be included. I think we deserve that. It's very physical. But the Olympics are still a long way off. And I think the girls who like their high heels should be able to continue to do what they want to do."
Judd noted that she still feels enough stigma reagrding pole dancing that she introducres herself to new people as an "aerial artist."
"And then I say that the pole is my apparatus," she laughed.
Garbo, the Philippines' entry and 2008 champion, said she is satisfied with being an entertainer first, athlete second.
"I just want to make people happy," she said, wearing a bikini covered in white feathers and with angel wings. "But I like the Olympic idea. I think it is good that now we pole dancers aren't just seen as strippers."