Pole dancing is more associated with sleazy nightclubs than classy theaters. But this May 17 and 18, enthusiasts will have the chance to see a solid hour-and-a-half of pole dancing, fully clad, in the Tianjin Grand Theater.
Last October, the formation of a "national pole dance team" drew a lot of amused press attention. The nine-people troupe led by Yuan Biao, a member of the World Pole Dance Federation and the organizer of the China Pole Dance Championship, represented China at the World Pole Dance Sport Fitness Championship (WPDSFC) in Switzerland for the first time last November.
But with no prizes at the championship for China, the media went silent after the initial fuss. And although the team had been selected from among pole dancers in national level competitions, it was not an official organization and had not been authorized by the General Administration of Sport of China.
This May, this same dance team with new members, as well as other performers selected from previous years' contestants in the China Pole Dance Championship, are taking their next step to change the public's impression of pole dancing by putting on a "real" performance in the theater. A total of 26 professional pole dancers will appear.
Three years ago, Meng Yifan, now 28, became the first Chinese contestant to be invited to the WPDSFC. In the same year, China had its first formal national pole dancing competition. Meng then had the idea of bringing pole dance to theater to change people's impressions of the art.
"My impression was that the public would only accept dances that can be performed in theaters," said Meng. But getting that done took three years for Meng and her counterparts.
"We basically had nothing at that time. No performer, no stage. But now, at least we've got some talent," Yuan told the Global Times.
Since 2010, pole dancing has become something of a craze in China's gyms. According to Yuan, there are thousands of pole dancing training centers in China now and around 400,000 people involved in the activity, teaching or taking classes.
The troupe hopes to develop pole dancing as a serious artistic industry after this show is done. "There should be a stage other than nightclubs for pole dancing," said Yuan.
For Meng, there are three stages to develop pole dancing, including 'the dance,' 'the tournament' and 'the art.' She explained that the most basic element of this activity is simple dance poses, which is 'the dance' part. As the poses get more difficult and require more strength, it becomes a tournament or sport like gymnastics. The last step is to make it a formal performing art with careful design of the dance, storyline, emotions and other stage aspects.
"We are at the second stage, competing with our skills in championships. What we want to produce is pole dance drama with artistic qualities," said Meng.
The members of the troupe are trying to promote pole dancing in their own way. Since late last year, several team members have participated in a variety of reality TV shows.
Pole dancers Song Yao and Liu Yan appeared on last year's China's Got Talent where they performed a special pas de deux on pole.
Yan Shaoxuan, the leading male performer in the dance team, also participated in The Dance and the Voice where dancers borrow music from the popular reality TV show The Voice of China.
On April 18, Jiangxi TV's Indepth Observation also broadcast a special show about "why a 61-year-old nanny started pole dancing." The lady, surnamed Sun, loved dancing when she was young. Since folk dance, yoga and Latin dance could not stir up her passion, she ended up falling in love with pole dance.
Yuan sees the increased attention from media as a sign of the market's opening up. Although the development of pole dancing started late in China, the main gap lies in the skills of top performers. "It would not influence the fact that we can also add drama to our performance," said Yuan.
In fact, these pole dancers' participation in different TV shows and comments like "enough skill, not enough emotions" from judges made them realize that being 'watchable' is crucial if they really hope to attract bigger audiences. That's why they've also invited Meng Chunjiang, a stage actor at the Tianjin People's Art Theater, to be their acting coach.
The dance drama, named Fairies on the Pole, has three main parts to include different styles.
The first act is a free style performance with a series of poses similar to those dancers would perform in championships, displaying each dancer's personality and life.
The second act is inspired by the traditional Chinese romance Butterfly Lovers. The dance focuses on the romance between two lovers after they turn into butterflies.
Meng emphasized how dancers are adding more Chinese elements to their performance in portraying Butterfly Lovers. The choreography combines poses from Chinese minority dance and classical Chinese dance.
The final act tells a story of a young lady searching for her disappeared mother. The plot continues to focus on pole dancers' struggles in life.
The young pole dancer in the story is supported by her mother although she faces discrimination and pressures from everyone else. When her mother mysteriously goes missing, she almost loses her mind.
Talking about the simple and realistic storyline, Yuan said that their consideration was not to create anything too complicated for the public. "Pole dancing can be sporty and also artistic, which goes against many people's prejudices. We just want people to understand pole dancers' love for the art," he said.
Meng Yifan told the Global Times that they are all worried about whether the show will succeed, but were sure it was worth trying.