Deng Jun has traveled 1,700 kilometers from home, leaving behind husband and two young sons. Her mission: To learn pole dancing in the Chinese capital. Two weeks into her classes at Lolan Pole Dancing School, which claims to be the first such institution on the Chinese mainland, Deng's arms and legs are decorated with bruises. Some add a touch of brown to the red-and-black tattoo on her left upper arm. She's in the dance studio five hours a day, six days a week, mastering moves like "pole-climbing technique" and "pole descent dance". She is committed to this grueling routine for at least the next four months, and she has already spent 10,300 yuan or $1,600.
"I had children at a young age, and now that they're older, I'd like to make something of myself," says the 27-year-old who is married to a businessman in Guiyang, capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou. Once Deng earns her pole dancing credentials, she plans to return home and open a pole dancing school.
"I believe it will be popular among those who want to be professional pole dancers and those who want to lose weight," she says between puffs on her cigarette during a break. "I've already lost 3 kilograms within just 10 days."
Deng's bid to establish an identity outside of wife and mother is, interestingly, tied in with pole dancing's rising popularity in China as a career, a fitness regimen and a hobby.
At 19, Jin Yun became so enthralled with both the creativity and strength required in pole dancing - which she discovered in a local gym - that she lied to her parents about why she was heading to the national capital.
"They thought I was going to Beijing to take makeup classes," says Jin, who used to work in a beauty salon in her home province of Zhejiang.
She knew her folks would never approve of her plan to become a pole-dancing teacher.
"They think pole dancing is too sensual, that the outfits are too revealing But I really like pole dancing." Jin's words trip over each other in her eagerness to convey how the dance has changed her life.
"It can give you a better figure, increase your confidence and charm, and make you healthier and more beautiful."
Despite disapproving attitudes from the student's parents, pole dancing appears to have a more favorable reputation in China than it does in the West, where it's closely associated with strip clubs.
"Most people here haven't even heard of pole dancing," says Cicilia Yang, the Canadian-Chinese owner of Pussycat Dance studio, which offers pole-dancing classes. "For them it's just a new style of dance they regard it as just another dance or sport."
Head shakes and raised eyebrows from the Chinese may be attributed to pole dancers' skimpy costumes and suggestive movements, says Sigrid Ekman, a Swedish-Norwegian pole dancing aficionado who's been in China for three years.
"In China it doesn't have the same connotation that it does in the West." And Ekman says she only gets the question, "Do you work as a stripper?" from fellow foreigners, never from the Chinese.
This perspective largely explains why pole dancing has entered the Chinese mainstream within the past five years.
To gain experience performing in public, Jin Yun and some classmates joined The Hilton Zeta Bar's annual pole dancing contest in March, co-sponsored by their school, Love Show Dance Vocational Training Institute.