Pole dancing is growing in popularity in China, where it's regarded as a good form of exercise with an image far removed from the sleazy activity associated with seedy nightclubs in the West, as Sun Xiaochen reports.
Few people who enter the main studio of Luolan Pole Dance School in the heart of Beijing's Central Business District are likely to be immune to the energy of the students' sensual, elegant movements.
Amid the thrilling beat and the squeak of flesh on metal, more than 20 scantily clad young women propel themselves vertically on 4-metre-high poles, swinging upside down, arching their backs, and extending their legs while holding the pose with power and grace.
It's called the "Batman stunt", according to their male instructor Yan Yulin.
Then, following a series of spins with their legs wrapped around the pole, the dancers dash down to end the routine with a brake clamp that stops their bodies 10 centimetres above the hardwood floor.
"It's really physically demanding, and requires strength, flexibility and stamina. I don't think anyone would relate it to erotic striptease or similar performances ever again after watching our practice session," Yan said. The school claims to be the first institution of its kind on the Chinese mainland.
Once dismissed as a sleazy and disreputable feature of seedy nightclubs in the West, pole dancing has shaken off its bad reputation to become a positive fitness regimen in China. It's also seen as a promising career choice, and a small, but growing, number of bodybuilding businesses are using it as a basic tool of their work.
Luo Lan said the school, which was founded under her name in 2006, is operating at full capacity, with more than 100 students from across the country.
Now, she's planning to expand the facilities to cater to the growing demand from forward-thinking urban youngsters for pole fitness workouts.
"An increasing number of people are accepting pole dancing as a fitness regimen, rather than an erotic floorshow. Public perception is shifting toward the positive. It's a far cry from years ago," said Luo, who began to learn pole-dancing techniques via online videos in 2005, while trying to get back in shape after giving birth when she was 37.
She recalled that when she organised the first national contest in Beijing in 2007, some critics complained that she was running illegal, obscene shows, an allegation that forced a handful of contestants to shun post-contest interviews to avoid being exposed to their families.
Song Yao, an accomplished pole dancer who graduated from Luo's school in 2010, kept her training secret from her parents in her native Sichuan province for two years.
She only owned up after she came in second in the China Pole Dance Championships in 2011 and the resultant publicity made it impossible to conceal her profession.
"My parents are a traditional couple. They wouldn't approve of such sensual practices," she said.
Despite the disapproval of seniors, pole dancing has a better reputation in China than in Western countries.
"Actually, a lot of Chinese people haven't heard of pole dancing, because they don't have strip clubs in China. When pole dancing first arrived, most people just respected it as a new form of exercise, with no seedy connotations," said Cicilia Yang, the Canadian-Chinese owner of the Cat Dance Studio, which offers pole-dancing courses.
Any raised eyebrows in China are more likely to be prompted by the skimpy costumes than the dancers' suggestive movements, but Luo said the outfits are designed to meet the technical demands of friction between flesh and metal rather than for any sexual intent.
Moreover, sexually provocative moves are strictly banned at competitions held in China, where a clear line is drawn between serious contests and titillation.