Photos: Ultimate Pole Dance Competition

Photographs by Jolie Ruben

Six finalists, including two New Yorkers, competed in last night's Ultimate Pole Dance Competition at the Highline Ballroom. As we watched the girls warm up backstage (holy limber!), we realized that very little about this sport is precalculated. In fact, a dancer can count on only three things, and must wing it till everything else falls into place:

(1) The pole cleaners
After each gravity-defying performance, three designated "pole techs" in knee-high black patent boots and butt-hugging plastic shorts climbed onto the stage, shimmied up the poles and slid slowly down, alcohol-doused rags in hand. "It can't be greasy," says pole tech Seraphine Naeymi, also a dance instructor at Chelsea's S Factor. "It's all about restoring traction. Every part of the body has to get a good grip." She also explained why, to our mild horror, one dancer was splashing her stomach and thighs with hand sanitizer: "Oh, she's just eliminating body oils."

(2) The pole
"It's my energy source, my empowerment—whenever I dance, I feel like a vampire, otherworldly, like I have powers no human should have." That's Alethea Austin, a tattooed finalist from Los Angeles. And she's serious about that pole; she turned to dancing as physical therapy after a car accident.

(3) The music
No matter how you dance—slow and sensual, with writhing floor action or a high-energy whip around the metal—the moment the houselights dim and the dancer appears on stage, the music controls everything. "All I have to do is hear it, and I can see the routine in my head," says finalist Marlo. "I picture exactly what I have to do next." (In her case, next involved gyrating hip-hop madness.)

All said and done, those three constants added up to one big win for Barbara Dial, another instructor from S Factor (and the only contestant to take the stage barefoot). "I chose not to wear heels, so that I could feel with every line of my body when I performed," she says. Her routine, coupled with a blaring Marilyn Manson soundtrack, stole the show. Dial went home with $10,000 and a pendant from Jacob & Co., and we went home and rubbed our bodies with hand sanitizer.—Shayna Courtney