When Diana Gamez’s former co-workers found out that she moonlights as a pole dance instructor, she quickly became the subject of office gossip. Her former boss, believing the rumors, even asked for a private show.

Some of her students at Awalim, the dance academy where she teaches classes, have also made the wrong assumption. Several have asked Diana which bar she works at or where she does stripteases. They are always surprised when Diana explains that she is a specialist in international commerce who only does pole dancing for exercise.

“We associate pole dance with striptease and burlesque shows,” Diana explains. “It hasn’t been until recently that it has started losing its sexual stigma and become a sport and a type of exercise.”

Although relatively new in Colombia, pole dancing for fitness has a considerable following worldwide. At least a dozen countries have their own national competitions whose winners compete internationally, showcasing impressive feats of flexibility and coordination more akin to gymnastics than exotic dance. These athletes even lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the inclusion of their sport in the 2012 Olympics.

In Colombia, pole dance classes are growing in popularity. Last year, the city of Medellín hosted the second Miss Pole Dance Colombia competition. In Bogotá, aspiring pole dancers can take lessons at several academies.

Diana’s classes attract a variety of women, none of whom are strippers. “I have students who work in congress, who are lawyers, doctors, I even had some girls from the German Embassy,” Diana explains.

Although she has had students as young as seven and as old as 60, the majority of her regulars are in their late 20s and early 30s. While the college-aged women who attend her classes are generally more interested in choreographing a show for their boyfriends, the older students see pole dancing as a way to stay in shape.

“You work with your own weight so you get toned very quickly,” Diana says, explaining the health benefits. “Apart from the fact that you do physical exercise, pole dance requires a lot of mobility and a lot of coordination.”

On a recent Saturday morning, five new students and one regular were practicing on the poles in Diana’s studio at Awalim. Florence and the Machine played softly in the background followed by Amy Winehouse crooning about bad behavior.

The new students rehearsed a stylized pole dance walk while Diana, dressed in a black and orange sweatsuit, walked around giving them tips and showing them how to avoid wrist injuries.

Ana María, who has been taking pole dance classes for a year, was practicing a routine that incorporated chair dance. Wearing a purple tank top with the words “Pole Dance” spelled out in sequins, she adeptly spun down the pole with only her knees gripping on. Then she attempted an “invert,” a more complicated move in which dancers slide upside down with their legs wrapped around the pole.

Although Ana María does pole dancing mainly for the health benefits, today she was rehearsing for a special anniversary celebration with her husband. The new students also seemed drawn to this type of exercise for a combination of the physical benefits and sex appeal. “We became interested because it’s a new type of sport,” said first-time student Deinis. “It’s also sensual, so maybe at some point it could be used to seduce someone.” Her two companions laughed, agreeing that pole dance is both very sexy and a very good workout.

Although undeniably athletic, it’s hard to separate pole dance from its sexual stigma. For many people, images of women spinning lithely around metal poles are indelibly linked to striptease. The sport’s growing popularity may help to change this, however. Pole dancing as exercise has a large enough following to warrant a selection of fitness poles on Amazon.com’s “Sports and Outdoors” section and a slew of other websites dedicated to pole dance fitness wear.

Diana would like to have a pole in her home to practice, but the only rooms in her house with flat roofs are social spaces. She jokes that although its image is changing in Colombia, this sport hasn’t yet become sufficiently mainstream to put a pole in the middle of her living room.

Awalim Dance Academy / Cra 7 No. 50-20, local 201.