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Meet the national champion pole dancer who lives in Richmond

January 21, 2018

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Melvin Sanchez has worked as a dancer and gymnast for most of his life.

But about five years ago, on a break from a rehearsal with Dogtown Dance Theatre in Manchester, he found his calling when, on a lark, he jumped onto a light pole and started doing tricks.

A friend watched, stunned, and insisted he sign up for a pole dancing class.

“I went and I just fell in love with it from the very beginning,” he said.

Now 41, Sanchez won two national titles and competed in two international competitions organized by the Pole Sports and Arts World Federation, most recently last month in Lichtenstein.

In videos of his winning performance, he dances dramatically around the pole before leaping on, wrapping his arms around and spinning.

Pole sports is a relatively new field that, yes, is distinct from the pole-related performances that more typically take place in dark clubs.

Sanchez, who describes himself as a pole athlete, said it took him a little while to get over what he initially perceived as a stigma surrounding his new-found pursuit.

“People just think you’re twirling around on a pole, stripping,” he said. “That’s what everybody thinks at the very beginning.”

And when he installed a pole at the gym where he instructs gymnastic in Ashland, people wondered. “Everybody said, ‘What is this pole doing here?’”

Sanchez said he doesn’t worry about it anymore.

Pole sports combines elements of dance with gymnastics. At competitions, the athletes are judged both subjectively on the beauty of their performance and on their ability to perform required moves; for instance, the ability to hold a perfect split on the pole for two seconds.

Sanchez won his first national title in 2015 and again in 2016. At his first competition in worlds in 2016, he came in fourth.

Late last year, as he rehearsed in Ashland ahead of the 2017 world championships in Lichtenstein, he said his goal was to improve the artistic elements of his performance.

“This routine is about struggle and pain and finding yourself and finding your faith through the struggle you’re going through,” he said. He wore custom purple and gold trunks he said were inspired by the Catholic Church.

“I’m trying to tweak this climb,” he said, before mounting the pole and climbing up, legs first, spinning.

He slips and gets frustrated. “It’s slick already.”

The poles, he said, can be temperamental. And poles made of different materials have different properties, he said. His least favorite material is brass, which he said almost feels powdery, making it hard to grip.

Reporting back after the world competition in late December, Sanchez had bad news: He came in eighth in his category.

“Remember what I told you about pole materials?” he said. “The pole at the competition was brass and that hurt me. One of my skills is a one-handed spin. And you have to really grip it. Once you feel you’re slipping down, it’s hard to make it up.”

But Sanchez said he’s not going to let it get to him. Now, he said he’s turning his focus to the 2018 national championship in September.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I came in eight in the world. I’m motivated. Tired. Trying to get better every time.”

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