By Katie Harris
When Val Philpott started pole dancing a year ago, she was sick.
The Christchurch woman had just been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, and had recently lost her best friend to cancer.
"It got to the stage where there was no more medication that they could give me," Philpott says.
Her doctor recommended trying exercise to reduce her severe bowel symptoms.
"I'm not really a gym kind of person so I started this [pole dancing]."
Before starting pole dancing, Philpott thought she was dying. But, one year on, she's happier, healthier, and looking to compete in her first competition this year.
Philpott is not alone. She is one of many in a growing community of pole dancers who have found solace in the sport.
Fellow pole dancer, and retired psychology professor, Glynn Owens said he wasn't surprised that people have benefitted psychologically from pole dancing.
He said although other forms of exercise could be just as good, there were specific features about pole dancing that could help with certain issues.
"Pole is going to make you strong and it's going to make you confident," Owens said.
He said, through pole dancing, participants learn to cope with setbacks.
"The pole community contains everyone, even little decrepit old men like me," Owens said. "It contains people who are round, who are thin, people who are tall, people who are short.
"There is a space in there and a whole mass of people who are supporting them."
Each pole dancer noted community as a key element in the pole world. And when you visit a studio, you can feel it.
Altitude pole director Karry Summers has experienced the community feel of pole dancing first hand. Over the past nine years, she's worked with pole students from many different walks of life.
She said the mental benefits come from a combination of community, confidence and the feeling of accomplishment.
"You stop focusing on what your body looks like and it's more about the skills you can achieve."
Summers said some of her dancers come after break-ups when they need to "do something for themselves".
"You see them transform into the person they deserve to be."
For Philpott, pole dancing has meant more than just fitness - it's given her life back.
"I've never been to a place where every single person will build you up instead of tearing you down."