September 8, 2008

Outwith: Fitness Craze That’s Taking Pole Position in China


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."

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," Xiao said. "So I tried 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 West, 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 south- east China. Her parents teach physics at university.

"I'm not good at science like my parents. I'm the black sheep of my family, in that sense," she said.

Luo said she struggled in 20 different occupations - secretary, saleswoman, restaurateur and translator among them - before deciding to take a break. She travelled to Paris in 2006 for a holiday. It was there that she saw pole dancing.

"I wandered into a pub, and there was a woman dancing on the stage," she said. "I thought it was beautiful."

Luo, who quickly discovered that pole dancing for fitness was popular in the West, realised if she could remove the shadier aspects of the erotic dance and repackage it into an activity more acceptable to mainstream Chinese women, she might create a fitness revolution.

Here was an exercise that would allow women to stay fit and express their sexuality with an unprecedented degree of 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, Luo invested a little under GBP 1,500 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.

"People here have never seen a pole dance, and for that reason they don't associate it with stripping or women of ill repute," 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."

Pole dancing's move on to the fitness scene, however, has not been a smooth one. Many Chinese, who disapprove of its sexual movements, consider it subversive 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."

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.

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.

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."

Originally published by JIMMY WANG IN BEIJING.

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