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.Future investment
Having started in a shabby 160-square-metre gym refurbished at a cost of just 16,000 yuan (S$3,460), Luo's school has now grown into a chain business with more than 20 franchised studios nationwide, earning an annual profit of more than 500,000 yuan.
For beginners, a month of classes costs 6,800 yuan, while a three-month, senior-level training programme costs 16,800 yuan.
Despite the relatively high tuition costs, compared with classes in ordinary gyms, most of the students are committed to bearing the financial burden and learning the routines as an investment in their futures amid predictions of a surge in popularity.
Huang Chuan'e, from the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, is a regular at the school. She graduated from the beginner and primary training courses in 2013, and was recently one of nine students who signed up for advanced classes.
After graduating from Chongqing Technology and Business University in July, Huang, 22, opened her own pole-fitness club in Zhongshan, Guangdong province. Now, she wants to fine-tune her skills via the course in Beijing so she can better coach her own students.
"The demand for well-trained pole-dancing talent has really soared, even in the smaller cities. More people are taking it up as exercise, or to lose weight and get a good figure, but we are short of coaches," said Huang, whose well-toned physique, including several bruises on her legs, makes her stand out in a crowd.
Driven by the nascent market demand, the wages of pole-dancing teachers, and the cash rewards they receive for commercial performances, have been rising, thus luring more young people to set a career goal on the pole.
However, the lack of a united industry association has emerged as an issue for a number of clubs and schools who are keen to form a healthy sector with unified standards and pricing policies.
"We've sensed a tendency of blind competition on low prices," said Song, who runs her own 300-square-metre studio in east Beijing's downtown. "Some shortsighted clubs only consider their own needs and offer tuition fees that are much lower than the average. That's affecting the quality of training."
National title controversy
The lack of unity in China's pole-dancing industry was highlighted by a recent series of disputes over the legitimacy of an alleged "national team" and a "national championship".
At the end of 2014, the formation of a new "national team", which will train to compete at the 2015 World Pole Dance Championships in Beijing in April, prompted heated debate about whether the title should be used by a club squad without authorisation from the national governing body for sports.
Yuan Biao, the leader of the 18-strong squad and founder of the China Pole Dance Sports and Training Center in Tianjin, started sending his elite dancers, including Meng Yifan, a well-established female pole artist, to compete in the WPDC in 2012 under the title of the "Chinese national team".
The move prompted complaints from rival club operators, who claimed it was a trick to attract customers by claiming a distinguished title as their own.
Li Xue'er, a pole-dancing teacher at the Aobangshangwu Dance Training Center in Beijing, said: "Foreign dancers participated in the WPDC under their own names, while Yuan gave his dancers 'national' status. It's neither fair nor reasonable."
Luo Lan was also critical of Yuan's move, saying that a team can only be called "national" if it's obtained the approval of the General Administration of Sport of China.
"In China, not even the 'national champions' are exclusively organised by one entity, let alone the concept of 'national teams'," she said.
The eighth China International Pole Dance Championship was held in Beijing at the end of last year. it was jointly organised by Luo's school and the US-based International Dance Challenge as the China qualification round for the IDC finals, and featuring more than 300 dancers.
However, the China Pole Dance Championships, jointly staged by Yuan's club and the World Pole Dance Federation, is currently recognised by the Chinese authorities as the only qualification event for the World Pole Dance Championships which are authorised by the WPDF.
"Pole dancing hasn't been listed as an official sport or sports dance by the GASC, so there are no State-recognised national teams," Yuan admitted.
"Because my club is authorised to host the qualification rounds of the WPDC, widely recognised as the most-prestigious pole-dancing event in the world, the dancers we drafted should be reasonably considered to be representatives of China," he added.
However, the General Administration of Sport of China denied that pole dancing would be included in its event-management system in the near future.
"Although the fitness value has been widely recognised, pole dancing remains a niche event and has a limited number of practitioners," said Zhang Na, an official at GASC's mass sports administration centre.