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.
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."
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.
....Upon her return to Beijing, 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.
....Before long, 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.