Students listen to pole dancing instructor Dragon (L) during a beginners class at the Las Vegas Stripper University, in Nevada.
Pole dancing may conjure up images of men in seedy clubs leering at semi-naked women, but it has a growing following in the United States as a way to keep fit -- and even aspires to be an Olympic sport.
The sensual dance form began to appear as a variant of aerobics or "step"-type workouts about a decade ago, changing its name to "pole fitness" to distinguish it from the erotic nightclub version.
Since then, some 500 pole dancing/fitness studios have sprung up across the country, and it is often difficult to determine which ones are purely fitness and which ones have elements of erotic dance.
"They are almost always both in a studio and very few studios differentiate," Claire Griffin Sterrett of Vertical Art & Fitness magazine said, adding she had seen women as young as 14 and as old as 72 on the pole.
"Many fitness routines feel dull, repetitive and stale," she told AFP in praising her sport's "incredible fitness benefits."
"Pole dancing provides a physical challenge that keeps your mind and body engaged. I also think that women are finding great pleasure in the sensuality of the movement."
While Griffin embraces the sensual aspect of pole dancing, noting that women are attracted to the pole precisely for this reason, others prefer to distinguish it clearly from the sexually charged version.
Intent on improving the routine's reputation, the Pole Fitness Association stresses that it's also an activity for men and celebrates pole fitness as a "rigorous, tasteful and athletic art."
"Over 50 countries worldwide take part in lessons, workshops, conventions, expos, competitions and teacher training," said an online PFA petition for pole dancing to be included at the Olympics, like parallel bars for gymnasts.
"This is an international sport that both men, women and those that are on a low income can take part in, unlike sports such as horse riding, sailing and snow-based sports."
But the division between sexually provocative dance and acrobatic exercise routine is not clear cut.
In Las Vegas, the number of pole dancing academies has grown in recent years, fueled by the permissiveness for which the Nevada gambling mecca is known.
For tourists visiting Sin City, pole dancing is a great attraction, be it sport or dance.
"Vegas is when people explore themselves," said Angela Phoumiphat, who runs the Las Vegas Stripper Poles Dance school, one of many offering pole dancing classes here.
In a studio with wooden floors and mirrored walls, a group of women of all ages, shapes and sizes practiced with 15-foot (4.5-meter) poles.
"We thought it'd be fun. I am on a three-day vacation and it's the perfect thing to do in Sin City," said Erin, a 28-year-old Canadian human resources professional. "I think my husband will definitely like what I pick up here."
She planned on practicing at home using chairs.
Her compatriot friend Rhonda, 44, said she took the class for exercise.
"It's something different, but anyway I will definitely use it in my sex life," she said.
First lesson: take a scarf, walk slinkily up to the pole and encircle it with the cloth. Holding the material by both ends, turn around, arms over head, and rub it up and down the cold metal by raising and lowering your body.
"Keep your walk slow... go slow, go around the area, pull away. Hold on. If you're smiling and laughing they will love you. Smile so they know you are also enjoying it," said the instructor, who asked not to be named.
"Remember, we are not in a hurry, take your time. Your number one tool: visual stimulation. Make eye contact and keep it."
While pole-dancing may have a growing following, feminist critics are less than impressed.
Patty Bellasalma of the California National Organization for Women dismissed pole dancing's popularity as "symptomatic of a consumer-driven society that constantly reduces women and men into objects."
"This latest fitness craze is just the newest version of the Madonna-whore, where mostly white women are told they can spice up their love life by "˜playing' the whore for the supposed delight of their lover, and have rock hard abs in the process," she said.
"Pole dancing not only perpetuates the objectification of women, but does so through a lens of white privilege, since the only women in this society given the choice to play a whore are middle class and white."