The first and last time I wrote about "pole dancing fitness" was in January 2009. I'll be frank. I walked away from watching a class thinking that it was a fun fad that was destined to fade away, though I didn't pass that judgment along in my story.

Well, I was wrong.

Today, the Charleston area has five pole fitness studios, two on Savannah Highway and one each in Summerville, Hanahan and Mount Pleasant.

For the uninitiated, pole dancing has been associated with burlesque shows and strip clubs for most of the last century. Few, however, know that the roots of pole acrobatics date back at least 800 years to the Indian sport of mallakhamb and later to the Chinese pole. Ironically, it was men, not women, who performed gravity-defying tricks using vertical poles.

Within the last 15 years, pole fitness has emerged from those dark corners of the modern world when women tapped into the fitness benefits of the strength and flexibility required for the acrobatics involved with the pole. The element of sensuality, many admit, didn't hurt the cause.

Studios popped up, some franchised and branded, and competitions were held.

Five years later

A couple of weeks ago, Inversions Pole Fitness owner Lisa Gaultney suggested it was time to revisit the subject. She had read my story in 2009. At the same time, she was struggling with depression after her father died and turned to pole fitness for an outlet.

"Pole dancing helped me overcome it (the depression)," recalls Gaultney, who also works as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

She loved pole fitness so much that she became certified to teach and then opened her studio in 2011.

Today, the studio, near Charleston National in Mount Pleasant, offers between 13 and 20 classes, seven days a week, drawing clients from across the Charleston area.

Other studios include three Goddess Dance Studio locations and Amorous Dance Pole & Fitness.

Whoa grandma!

While pole fitness by no means rivals the popularity of other group fitness venues in the area such as CrossFit, yoga, barre and indoor cycling, it has an equally dedicated band of devotees. And they run the gamut from single women in their early to mid-20s to grandmothers approaching 70.

Romona Montillo is one of two women in their 60s who take classes at Inversions. Granted, the 68-year-old grandmother of two has been active in fitness all her life and integrates two classes a week into a regimen that includes yoga, Pilates and Zumba every week. Yoga, she admits, remains her favorite activity.

But Montillo says pole fitness has played a key role in building her strength in the past two years.

"I'm not doing this other than to keep my body strong and to satisfy my need for fun," says Montillo. "I think when you stop playing, you die. So let's play a little every day."

Fit mom

Annie McGee, a 39-year-old mother of two, ages three and six, grew up as a dancer in Charleston, enjoying jazz, tap and ballet until college. She worked out by running, indoor cycling, doing step aerobics and P90X videos, but nothing satisfied her hunger for dance-based exercise. Zumba didn't do it.

In the fall of 2012, she saw a special on Living Social for pole fitness and tried it.

"After the first class kicked my butt, I was hooked. It was the perfect combination of dance and fitness and more challenging than I ever expected."

McGee, more so than Montillo, still battles the judgmental stereotyping by female peers and says that many of her fellow pole fitness friends won't talk much about it outside of the studio.

"It's a constant challenge," says McGee of battling the stigma, which seems to be fading. "The only thing I'm shocked about (taking pole classes) is that I haven't met any strippers yet."

McGee adds that it's interesting how people's attitude toward pole fitness changes when the pole is horizontal, such as in barre, and when it's vertical.

Mom-to-be

Lauren Saunders, 27, is expecting her first child, but is still taking pole fitness with the permission of her physician.

"I'm not the most workout-motivated person," admits Saunders, adding that working out at a health club is not for her.

Like McGee, Saunders fell in love with pole fitness after the first day and has been going to classes five nights a week for nearly 10 months.

"My husband loves it, too, because when I come home from class, I'm always in a good mood."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.