Soaring for Stardust: Pole Dance and Body Positivity in China
Updated: Apr 3
Written this summer for a popular China-focused media group and later not accepted for publication, this piece looks at pole dance in China as a form of accessible fitness for everyone and how it contributes to a positive self-image. Because this article focuses on a form of dance and exercise that is surrounded by gender and sexual stigmas, male pole dancers and the current shift in public perception are also discussed.
Update (04/03/2021): After months of revising and editing, a new version of this piece has been posted on NüVoices' website as a NüStories magazine contribution. Heavy editing was done by NüVoices' editor-in-chief. See the NüStories magazine posting here
When you think of pole dance, what do you think of? For most, it’s probably dimly lit clubs and the objectification of the feminine body for a buck, but in fitness centers and dance studios around the world, the paradigm has been shifting to a more positive depiction: Pole dance as fitness. Pole dance as body positivity.
First showing up in China’s fitness community less than a decade ago, pole dance studios and aerial fitness centers can be found all over the country. In recent years, pole dance –sometimes referred to as pole fitness or pole sport—has been picking up speed in many Chinese cities as an accessible fitness option for all. Annette, co-founder and a certified pole dance instructor at Skyline Dance Lab in Beijing, when asked via WeChat about the current status of pole dance in China, concurs. “It’s an emerging niche sport…” she says, “[a] decade ago, there were only a few professional, competition-driven pole training facilities nationwide. Now you can find, not only in 1st-tier cities but also in 2nd/3rd-tier cities, more and more commercial studios like ours where people come for a fun workout.”
A fun workout indeed, but strenuous and demanding. As the Global Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF) defines it, “[pole]…requires great physical and mental exertion, strength and endurance are required to lift, hold and spin the body. A high degree of flexibility is needed to contort, pose, demonstrate lines and execute techniques.” The students at Skyline Dance Lab couldn’t agree more. “Pole dance is really great. Because pole dance requires physical strength, flexibility, and carries a little bit of danger, you need to really concentrate all your attention…,” states Alisa, a doctorate student in economics and a partner in a Beijing consulting firm who prefers to go by her English name, “studying [pole dance] the process has a sense of achievement similar to 打怪升级,” she continues. 打怪升级 ( dǎ guài shēngjí ) refers to the feeling of accomplishment and the wealth of knowledge and skills you receive when leveling up in a video game after beating monsters, emphasizing your sense of satisfaction and newfound mastery.
In the real-world, being able to gracefully execute a pole dance move while being suspended in the air also incites a similar sense of accomplishment, mastery, and even self-assurance. As has been identified in academic journals, books, Master’s theses and mass media articles, pole dance has a direct effect on how an individual sees themselves, their body and self-confidence. “Yes…[I’m] more confident,” explains Yoanna, an office worker who prefers that her English name be used and has recently started attending Pole 101 at Skyline. She attributes this newfound confidence boost partially to the community, “[when] you're surrounded by a group of brilliant, …independent-minded women, it's easy to become more positive and to progress.” Other students agree, describing how the feeling of accomplishment while pole dancing accompanies them throughout their daily lives, and helps them become more comfortable in their own skin. “From my point of view, this makes me feel good and that is enough,” Alisa declares, “I feel like pole dance brings with it a positive attitude and has benefits that I implement while doing other things.”
Pole novices aren’t the only ones asserting pole’s positive influence on self-esteem. Professional pole dancers in China have equally voiced these sentiments during interviews. For instance, Sun Jian, a construction worker gone pole dance powerhouse from Guangzhou, acknowledges in an interview done by ArrowFactory Doc, an independent Chinese media outlet, that pole dance has helped him realize his self-confidence and instills in him a sense of accomplishment. He hopes that pole dance can one day become a commonplace sport in China and actively promotes the reformation of old biases about pole dance as simply vulgar and obscene.
With its origins in the heterosexual sex industry, pole dance, especially when it’s choreographed dances in 7-inch heels, has embedded stigmas. Namely, that it oversexualizes the feminine body by demeaning it as an object for men’s whims. But, similar to how many minority groups have redefined derogatory terms whose original intent was to harm them, the rise in popularity that pole dance is receiving in pop culture has begun to change public opinion. “Pole dance has gained more exposure on social media or mainstream media,” explains Annette, “videos or pictures of pole practice are not uncommon on local social media such as Red or TikTok. Pole performance can be seen on talent shows.” In a Mamahuhu video where three of its comedians experience pole dance firsthand, Coco Ke Hong, an internationally renowned Chinese male pole dancer, agrees, stating that, because of more exposure, pole dance is being recognized more for its difficulty rather than just being pigeonholed as raunchy.
Students at Skyline have also noticed an apparent shift in perspective among their social circles. Both Alisa and Yoanna can recount the reactions they receive from their friends and family when posting videos and pictures of themselves practicing and, in Yoanna’s case, the anxiety it can provoke, “when I’m ready to share video of myself practicing online, I’m still a little nervous, especially allowing my parents to see, will they say it’s not good[?] But the truth is, instead, there is appreciation. A lot more people think that this looks really cool.” Wang Yuan, a financial worker in her early forties who has been studying pole at Skyline for over a year, believes the widening of the populace’s horizons when it comes to pole dance indicates something more systemic than just millennials liking videos and pictures on social media, “this ought to be an indication of social progress.”
Along with the reexamination of pole dance as taboo in the public sphere, the judgment that pole dance is only for women has also been upended with more and more men trying pole dance and getting hooked. Li You, a software engineer and one of the few male students at Skyline Dance Lab, described his initial reaction when his wife, a pole dance instructor herself, tried to convince him to give pole dance a try, “at first, I refused, thinking this isn’t an exercise that is suitable for men. Later, her brainwashing was successful.” Since succumbing to his wife’s encouragement over a year ago, Li You has seen improvement in both his physique and sleeping habits.
Li You isn’t the only one who initially perceived pole dance as unbefitting for men. As Sun Jian explains in a video interview with Inkstone, a China-focused news source, many men first deem men pole dancing as unconventional and bizarre. But with a third of Sun Jian’s students being male, and more and more men signing up for intro classes at studios all over the country, this notion of pole dance as an exclusively women-only club is being overturned.
Among many reasons, these shifts in public opinion can arguably be credited to how prolific pole has become as an athletic, competitive sport. Every year China hosts numerous competitions at the national and, occasionally, international levels. Internationally, pole as a competitive sport currently holds Observer Status with the GAISF. After achieving Membership Status, pole sport has the potential to become an official Olympic sport. But, since its inception in China, pole dance has been treated and trained for as if it has already obtained Olympic status, with members of a national team diligently training round-the-clock and subjecting their bodies to excruciating pain in pursuit of becoming more flexible and nimble.
The golden rule with pole dance is if the move hurts and will give you a nasty bruise –a pole kiss, you’re doing it right. Jokes aside, even with the physical aches and pains, the full-body cardio workout and self-love mindset that pole dance helps cultivate is invaluable. With more and more people from all walks of life trying their hands at pole dance all around China, preconceived notions in the collective consciousness are diminishing, allowing for the artistry of this gravity-defying fitness option and dance style to shine through. The sky’s the limit.