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Natasha Wang Wins United States Pole Dancing Championship

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POLE DANCING CHAMP
Natasha Wang is the 2011 U.S. Pole Dancing Federation national champion and is working hard to get people to recognize the activity as a legitimate sport. | Mike Quain

Pole dancing is on the rise as a form of fitness, but calling it a sport may still be a stretch.

Or is it?

The women behind the U.S. Pole Dancing Federation would certainly disagree. Ever since 2008, the group has been working hard to transform public opinion of pole dancing from an acrobatic performance done by scantily clad women in strip bars to a more legitimate sport, on par with ice skating or gymnastics.

The organization held its third annual national championship April 29 in New York City. 11 of the country's best and brightest pole dancers competed for a $5,000 prize and the honor of being the best at performing their craft.

And while only one woman -- in this case, Natasha Wang -- could be selected as the top professional champion, USPDF co-founder Anna Grundstrom said that just having a sanctioned group is a win for all the ladies who take up pole dancing personally and professionally.

"The reason we started the U.S. Pole Dancing Federation is because there was no credible organization in the United States for pole dancing," Grundstrom told the New York Post.

Wang, for her part, is proud of the achievement and ranks it as one of the biggest highlights of her life, albeit with a caveat.

"It's up there, but I haven't had children yet," she told AOL Weird News.

Although pole dancing is often associated with strip bars, some claim the practice bears its roots in the Chinese circus. USPDF co-founder Wendy Traskos insists pole dancing is more akin to jazz and ballet than bumping and grinding, and blames ignorance for the sport's negative image.

"The definition of stripping is taking something off, and these women are not doing that," Traskos told CBS News. "They're coming out in their outfits and you do have to have your skin exposed in order to stick to the pole."

Michelle Stanek, who won the prize for top amateur pole dancer, agrees that stripping is stripping and pole dancing is pole dancing and never the twain shall meet.

"I totally separate pole dancing and stripper clubs," said Stanek, who has a background in modern and contemporary dance. "They're two totally different things. I don't have anything against dancers in clubs, but I've never been a stripper."

Stanek's Dad, Donald Stanek, is proud of his daughter and thinks other women -- and men -- should consider the sport.

"It's wonderful exercise and good for the core [muscles] and men and women of all ages," he said.

Wang won this year's championship title with a routine based on the hit movie "Black Swan," earning her a standing ovation.

"When I saw the movie, obviously it really spoke to me," said Wang, who does not have a professional dance background. "I'm very meticulous and almost driven to the point where I'm going crazy to try to make everything perfect, so I could just relate to it."

Although pole dancing routines are as elaborately choreographed as any other dance sequence, Wang admits she kept her passion for the sport a secret from her coworkers at a Los Angeles-based publicity firm until she started gaining recognition for her performances.

Luckily, they've provided as much as support as the pole she uses for her routines.

The big win not only netted Wang $5,000, but she also won an all-expense paid trip to Australia to perform at Miss Pole Dance Australia 2012.

While not at the top of the dancing pole, Wang acknowledges that with great power comes great responsibility.

"I do see myself as a role model, and I think that it helps that I'm older -- 35 -- and have no dance experience and I work a regular job, never worked in a strip club," she told AOL Weird News. "It's a hobby for me, so I think in terms of being a role model, it's easy to portray me as an everyday person."

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