Stefany Gravley’s father was aghast when she announced that she was taking up pole dancing.

“Can’t you still be a nurse?” she recalls him pleading. “I said, ‘Not as a career, Dad. As exercise.’ ”

The Bloomington resident, who had been a gymnast in high school, was hopping on one of the latest — and hottest — fitness trends.

The mere mention of the term pole dancing still draws more than its share of snickers from the uninitiated who associate it with strip clubs, G-strings and dirty old men in dirty old trench coats. But it has become one of the fastest-growing exercise regimens among women — and, yes, some men — who are drawn to the way it merges a reliance on balance and coordination with a strenuous upper-body workout.

“I was huffing and puffing up there,” said Gravley, who had just wrapped up a routine. Although it had lasted only three minutes, it seemed like a lot longer to her. “It’s not easy when you’re spending the whole time pulling yourself up with your arms.”

She was one of 40 contestants who competed last weekend at the first ever Minnesota Regional Pole Competition.

Note that the word “dance” was not part of the event’s title. That wasn’t an oversight. Participants prefer to use terms like “pole fitness” and “pole sport.” There are those who focus more on syncopated movement than physicality, but they describe it as “pole artistry” or “performance.” Some call it simply “poling.”

“There’s definitely a stigma” attached to the term pole dancing, said Joetta Wright, an actress who got some teasing when she started taking classes 14 months ago. She responds to the critics patiently. “I like to softly remind them to think of this as gymnastics. This is athletics.”

Tournament organizer Angie Lofquist saw the daylong competition as a big step toward creating a new image for the endeavor.

“We’re trying to legitimize this as a sport,” she said.

The competitors did wear skimpy outfits, but not to be titillating. When you’re trying to support your entire body weight with the crook of your elbow, it’s nice to have a little assistance, so the competitors covered their arms, legs and abdomens with a tacky substance that helps them stick to the pole. After each routine, volunteers shinnied up the poles with rags to clean them for the next competitor, a task that often took a fair amount of rubbing.

For many of the participants, the competition was almost a sidelight. They relished the chance to get their pastime some recognition.

“It’s becoming much more mainstream,” said Elijah Ebbenga, who finished first in the men’s category. “Yes, I won, but I didn’t really go into this looking at it as a competition. To me, it was a chance for the pole community to get together and geek out over something we love.”

Ebbenga, a massage therapist, has been poling for about 18 months, but it’s been on his mind a lot longer.

“For two years, I wanted to do this so bad, but it took me that long to work up the nerve,” he admitted. “Now I’m so glad I did. As a kid, I did gymnastics. Then I took up jazz dance, and I studied martial arts. This is wonderful because it brings together all of that training — [strength, movement and precise execution].”

Watch your head

At the tournament, contestants were separated into categories ranging from novice to elite. An elaborate set of rules outlined the difficulty of the moves allowed in each level; for instance, novices had to keep their hips below their shoulders. Intermediate competitors could go upside down, but they had to retain at least three points of contact with the pole.

Lest anyone still think this was only for wimps, the rules also outlined a concussion protocol should competitors fall off the bar and land on their head. (None did.)

The level of experience also was reflected in the smoothness of the performances. By the end of their routines, some of the newer polers were struggling, their arms and legs trembling as they fought against gravity for one more inversion. One of the hardest parts about poling is making it look easy, Ebbenga said.

“It hurts a lot,” he said of the muscle strain, “but you have to make it look easy, and that’s part of the magic of it.”

John Healy, whose company Market Direct was helping promote the tournament, likened poling to extreme sports such as freestyle snowboarding in which contestants are judged on both the flair and difficulty of their maneuvers.

“It’s a mix of art and sports,” he said. “I compare where it is today to where the X Games were 20 years ago. Perceptions are starting to change. The sport is gaining a following among the general public.”

When asked what drew them to poling, the participants’ answers often included “empowerment” or “confidence building” and “achieving levels of physical activity I didn’t know I was capable of.”

Lofquist, a nutritionist who was a yoga instructor before making the jump to poling, wasn’t surprised by those responses.

“I’ve been teaching this for five years,” she said. “It’s so empowering; the changes in people’s lives are so dramatic, much more so than with any other fitness training I’ve seen.”

Stuck on poling

Wright, the actress, signed up for lessons to prepare for a role at the Mixed Blood Theatre’s staging of “Pussy Valley.” The show came to the end of its run, but her enthusiasm didn’t.

“It’s the most addictive thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “You’re practicing, trying to conquer a move, and suddenly you do it and it’s like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that!’ It turned into a very unexpected passion.”

As poling gains a wider following, specialists are cropping up, said Brittin Leigh, founder of Frestyl Fitness, which has studios in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Mankato that are aimed exclusively at the poling community.

“All the studios are different,” she said. “Some focus on, say, strength. We’re closer to yoga and Pilates. And we all get along. We send students to each other depending on what they’re looking for.”

Leigh started pole dancing six years ago, while she was in California getting a Ph.D. in statistics.

“I never got teased in California, but as soon as I got back to Minnesota, I started hearing jokes about working in a strip club,” said Leigh, who spends her days doing social network analysis.

“I’ve never even been to a strip club. I probably should go to one to see what’s going on.”