In a converted
high-rise apartment, a young Beijing woman is cheered by fellow students as she
inverts her body against a steel pole to master the "Iguana", a difficult move
performed by Daryl Hannah in the opening scenes of 2000's Dancing at the Blue
Iguana, a film about six LA strippers.
Shaking its blue image, pole dancing
has become a fitness phenomenon as it spreads through Chinese cities.
[Jiang Dong/China Daily]
At a special event in Shanghai, an energetic male-female duo of expatriate
dancers performs under a glitter-strewn stage. On twin poles, they execute a
seamless series of aerial tricks, spins and flips, drawing gasps from the
These are new faces of pole dancing in China, a fitness phenomenon striving
to shake its blue image as it spreads through the cities. This weekend, the
country's first open pole dancing competition will be held, further boosting its
local profile as hundreds of women - and some men - sign up for classes.
Luo Lan says she brought pole dancing to the Chinese mainstream in 2006,
when she opened the Lolan Pole Dancing Club in Beijing. Just one year later, Luo
has branches across the country and is hosting the competition in the capital on
The exotic blend of dance, gymnastics and acrobatics is now also taught in
Shanghai, Nanchang, of Jiangxi Province, Suzhou, of Jiangsu Province, and
Guangzhou, of Guangdong Province.
And while moral crusaders claim this is a form of corruption imported from
the West, some overseas pioneers of pole fitness are turning to China's ancient
tradition of acrobatics as they fight the stigma of association with the sex
Pole dancing had been the domain of nightclub strippers since the 1970s, but
emerged - with clothes on - as a popular form of exercise, performance art and
competition sport. In 2003, it was trumpeted by US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey
as a new celebrity workout, and schools have since opened across the United
States, United Kingdom, Europe and Australasia in response to demand for classes
with an artistic and athletic focus.
Devotees say it is a fun way to achieve total body conditioning in an
encouraging, usually all-female environment. While other dance forms may focus
on perfect technique, the emphasis is more on personal style and expression.
Modern pole dancing echoes the feats of strength and coordination featured in
Chinese pole, a specialist act of the country's acrobatic troupes in which
performers - usually male - climb and tumble between tall, coated poles.
Acrobatic art in China dates back 2,000 years, and is respected both
domestically and internationally.
Pole dancing's sensual aspect is part of its appeal for many students, who
tell China Daily they like "feeling sexy" and enjoy the "girly atmosphere" of
But the UK's Vertical Dance director KT Coates, who launched the world's
first fitness industry-accredited course for pole instructors, says her style
is, "completely de-sexed and acrobatic".
Coates is planning a new
instructional DVD featuring, "Chinese pole and pole dancing combined",
incorporating the concentrated holds and strength of the former with the
spinning grace and flow of the latter.
Luo Lan says she brought pole dancing to the Chinese
mainstream in 2006, when she opened the Lolan Pole Dancing Club in
"I understand that Chinese pole has been documented thousands of years ago,
whereas pole dancing has only been around for roughly 120 years," Coates tells
"I believe that they have the same foundations, but with Chinese pole it is
very strict and regimented, and with pole dancing it is far more open to the
interpretation of the dancer. Having studied both, there are so many moves that
are the same.
"I am beginning to use a lot more Chinese pole in my routines, as it is great
for building strength, which is what pole fitness is all about," she says.
Beijing's Luo Lan says pole dancing here has, "nothing to do with sex".
Rather, it is a "healthy and positive" way to exercise, while also improving
students' self-image. Luo aims to "promote pole dancing in China" through this
month's inaugural competition, themed "fitness and fashion", which is backed by
the Asian Bodybuilding Federation. Entrants are encouraged to display their
technical skill and "creative flair".
In Shanghai, Australian Jacqueline Davis is leading the city's new pole
scene. The 24-year-old dancer launched an event at the I Love Shanghai bar,
where she demonstrates moves and teaches interested patrons. She also leads a
new class at the Soul Dancing studio.
With compatriot Chris Measday, Davis recently performed with Jazz du Funk
International Dance Company. The reception was "awesome", and Davis says pole
dancing's local popularity has "exploded" in the past month.
"Although pole dancing has been associated with stripping, in the current
day, it is really taking on a life of its own around the world. There are
competitions that are purely pole dancing, where you can't strip. If you strip,
you lose," she says.
With increased exposure, pole dancing is evolving into a legitimate art, to
some extent mirroring the historic development of other dance styles, including
waltz and even ballet. Characterizing the progressive nature of performance art,
these forms were maligned until social values of the time caught up.
"How can it be corrupting anyone? It is just a form of dance," Davis says.
"Like acrobats or gymnasts, we use the pole as a prop for flips, spins,
climbs and holds. Its sensual side is also seen in salsa, tango, belly dancing."
The small percentage of men taking up the activity further challenges the
perception that pole dancing merely serves the voyeuristic desires of men.
Chris Measday, 25, was a gymnast but switched to pole after breaking his back
in several places, ending his high-level career in 2003.
"It gives me a fantastic workout without being too heavy on my joints. The
pole is a lot of strength and core strength, and aerobic as well, without
damaging muscles and bones," Measday says.
A departure from eroticism, his style is instead a display of muscular
"We have these two different sides of what pole dancing can be, and it does
show the acrobatic or gymnastic ability it takes to put on a good show," Measday
KT Coates concedes there is "still a big stigma attached to pole fitness" but
says acceptance is growing.
"I did think that maybe pole dancing was going to become a fitness fad, but
that was four years ago and it is getting stronger than ever. I believe that in
10 years time schools will be teaching this in PE (physical education) lessons,"