Caracas, Venezuela • Children pedaled around on tricycles at a playground in Caracas, while joggers ran past on a winding pathway, then slowed down and paused to gape at the unfolding scene on a recent morning.
Next to the concrete playground, a young woman in tight shorts and an athletic top gripped and climbed a vertical pole, holding her muscular legs out from her body and doing the splits while holding herself in place.
Pole dancing may have started out in strip clubs, but since the 1990s, it’s become an all-ages exercise and sport phenomenon the world over. Now, it’s hit the streets and at least one playground in Venezuela, a country that’s made beauty and fitness a cult and minted more Miss Universes than any other except the United States.
The public emergence of pole dancing would seem a natural for this flesh-obsessed country. But its new visibility has stirred controversy and tut-tuts from some who say such behavior should remain out of public sight. Meanwhile, the sport was featured in an exhibition event held in London last month ahead of the Olympics, with some lobbying for its inclusion as an official sport.
Elba Moya, a 76-year-old nurse in Caracas, said she frowns on the idea.
"That’s a bad spectacle for children," she said. "That should be for nightspots and the places where it has to be."
Dancers such as Franleska Garcia, a 28-year-old business manager, said they hope to turn around such attitudes in a country where Catholic-inspired social conservatism remains alive.
"We wanted to lift the taboo," Garcia said. Pole dancing "isn’t sensual. What we do is fitness. It’s acrobatics."
Venezuela was a relative latecomer to the sport, which started drawing a following four years ago while also coming into fashion in other Latin American countries such as Chile, Peru and Colombia. Now, some 10 gyms and schools in Venezuela offer classes in pole dancing.
Garcia and eight other women started a "street pole dance" initiative about three months ago, with their performances drawing the attention of the Venezuelan press and the disapproval of some readers, who posted online comments criticizing them for performing in public around children.
During a recent practice, interior decorator Jesus Echevarria paused to watch while keeping an eye on his playing kids. If anything, the roots of the sport and its current incarnation didn’t faze him.
"It has an impact on people the first time they see this kind of sport," he said. "But afterward people are amazed."
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.