From the Erotic Domain, an Aerobic Trend in China
BEIJING — Clad in knee-high leather boots, spandex shorts and a sports bra, Xiao Yan struck a pose two feet off the ground, her head glistening with sweat and her arms straining as she suspended herself from a vertical pole.
“Keeping your grip is the hardest part,” she said. “It’s really easy to slide downward.”
Ms. Xiao, 26, who works as a supermarket manager, is one of a growing number of women experimenting with China’s newest, and most controversial, fitness activity: pole dancing.
“I used to take a normal aerobics class, but it was boring and monotonous,” Ms. Xiao said. “So I tried out pole dancing. It’s a really social activity. I’ve met a lot of girls here who I’m now close friends with. And I like that it makes me feel sexy.”
A nightclub activity mostly considered the domain of strippers in the United States, pole dancing — but with clothes kept on — is nudging its way into the mainstream Chinese exercise market, with increasing numbers of gyms and dance schools offering classes.
The woman who claims to have brought pole dancing to China, Luo Lan, 39, is from Yichun, a small town in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China. Her parents teach physics at the university level.
“I’m not good at science like my parents. I’m the black sheep of my family, in that sense,” she said.
Ms. Luo said she struggled in 20 different occupations — secretary, saleswoman, restaurateur and translator among them — before deciding to take a break. She traveled to Paris in 2006 for vacation. It was there that she first saw pole dancing.
“I wandered into a pub, and there was a woman dancing on the stage,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Ms. Luo, who quickly discovered that pole dancing for fitness was popular in America, realized that if she could take away the shadier aspects of the erotic dance and repackage it into an activity more acceptable to mainstream Chinese women, she might create a Chinese fitness revolution. Here was an exercise that would allow women to stay fit and express their sexuality with an unprecedented degree of openness and freedom.
But she remained keenly aware of the challenges in a society where traditional values dictate that women be loyal, faithful and modestly dressed.
Upon her return to Beijing, Ms. Luo invested a little under $3,000 of her savings to start the Lolan Pole Dancing School. She placed advertisements in a lifestyle newspaper and called friends to get the word out.
Slowly, young women trickled in to take a look.
“People here have never seen a pole dance, and for that reason they don’t associate it with stripping or women of ill repute,” Ms. Luo said. “I knew if I could give people a positive first impression of this as a clean, fun, social activity, people wouldn’t just accept it, they’d embrace it.”
Before long, Ms. Luo was contacted by several magazines. In March 2008, Hunan Television, a nationally broadcast network, invited her and a group of her students to perform on a talk show.
“Most of the people in the audience had no idea what this was,” said Hu Jing, 24, an instructor at the Lolan School. “They just thought it was fun and clapped afterward.”
Since the broadcast, pole dancing for fitness has spread through China. The school now has five studios with plans to open six more this year. A rival pole dancing school, Hua Ling, opened half a year after the Lolan School.
Pole dancing’s move onto the fitness scene, however, has been a rocky one. Many Chinese, who disapprove of its sexual movements, consider it unruly and licentious.
“Five years ago, this wouldn’t have been permitted,” said Zhang Jian, 30, a manager in an interior design firm. “I think this is just a fad, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for women.”
Ms. Luo said she had received prank calls and plenty of criticism. “I’ve been contacted by many people who don’t like what we’re doing,” she said.
But those who embrace pole dancing for fitness are a snapshot of urban youths whose values are changing from those of their parents.
Although China has no state religion, study of Confucianism and Taoism, two conflicting philosophies that underlie much of modern Chinese thought, is mandatory in China’s education system. While Confucianism emphasizes achievement and propriety, Taoism stresses the unseen strengths in being humble and, in some cases, being perceived as average.
Although Jiang Li, 23, a pole dancing student, studied both philosophies in school, she said she could subscribe to neither.
“A lot of people expect Chinese women to be subdued and faithful, that we should marry and take care of kids at an early age,” she said. “But I don’t think that way — I want to be independent. I’ve been studying traditional Chinese dance for many years, but this is totally different. I feel in control when I do this. If I learn this well, I feel I can be a superstar. I want to be a superstar.”