Women in Singapore are embracing pole dancing

Rob O'Brien
A pole dancing teacher conducting a class at her dance studio.
STR | AFP | Getty Images

This tiny island nation of 5.4 million people is known for being meticulously managed. On a continent of charmingly chaotic mega-cities, Singapore is a polished showpiece of tidy office towers, sleek shopping malls and infrastructure that actually works.

The government tends to keep a tight rein on anything that might disrupt its finely kept veneer. Earlier this year it tried to ban three children's books perceived to promote homosexuality, but backed down after an online uproar. A local film called "To Singapore, With Love," about political exiles, was labeled a threat to national security and banned in September. Earlier this month the city-state banned shisha tobacco.

In this context the quiet rise of exotic dance would seem to be ground-breaking. But across the city dance studios are starting to install 38mm brass spinning poles. Pole dancing, it turns out, is taking off in the conservative capital of Southeast Asia.

In a shop-house near Singapore's business district, a group has gathered to see a routine from the renowned Australian pole dancer Michelle Shimmy, who is in town to launch a local franchise of her Sydney-based Pole Dance Academy (PDA).

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One of the Singapore dance instructors, Salmah, steps up to introduce her "Ghetto and Sass" class. "I do the booty work around here," she says. "I know people say we're conservative, but this is sexy, it involves gyrating and a lot of hip and thigh work. … It's like twerking, although I'd rather not call it that."

Four new pole dancing studios have opened up recently — among them an Italian franchise, Milan Studio — all looking to cash in on the growing interest in pole dancing. Many gyms in Singapore are now offering pole dance fitness classes as an alternative to yoga and pilates.

"Pole [dancing] has increasingly become a norm among women here in Singapore," says Sueann Tan, co-owner of the new PDA studio. "I don't think it's because we are getting less conservative as Singaporeans, but rather, that people are starting to understand that pole dancing is moving further away from its 'stripper' roots."

Most of the new pole dancing additions have been founded by students of Bobbi's Pole Studio, Singapore's original pole dancing destination, located next to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

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"Pole dancing has grown and its image has improved a lot over the years," says Singapore's pole dancing matriarch, Linna Tan, founder of Bobbi's. "But this growth is good, it expands the market. The more studios we have here in Singapore the more it brings the sport up."

Tan trained in the UK and Australia and partnered with the Australian-owned Bobbi's to bring pole dancing to Singapore in 2006. Bobbi's has a database of 4,000 dancers, more than 700 of them "active." Until recently its oldest member was 74. It also reserves pole space for a group of cancer survivors called the Pink Spartans.

Tan says the new popularity is mainly because of the fitness benefits of pole dancing as well as a desire to "feel sexy" among Singaporean women. Those who are taking it up are mostly working professionals, students and expat moms.

But Singapore is not known as a shining beacon of self-expression, even among its neighbors. The island's young men and women are so career-oriented that for years the government has run campaigns urging them to date, have sex, and reproduce.

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Pole dancing hasn't been caught in the government's crosshairs to date, although setting up shop wasn't easy for Bobbi's.

"We had difficulty renting this place. The church almost got us evicted, but we stood our ground and told them 'we are not a strip club,'" Tan says. "In the beginning I tried to keep it within the fitness theme, but the truth is that pole dancing is very sexy … not 'dirty' sexy, but it can be naughty and sensual."

Even today, Bobbi's has to keep its blinds down at all time. But "now it's much better [than before]. The girls come here and have a good time, then they leave," she added.

Although a few extra pole dancing studios don't necessarily mean things are loosening up in the city-state, dancers say that young Singaporeans are more confident, vocal and less inhibited than previous generations.

"It's always been there," says Penny Pun, a student of Bobbi's. "It's just not very mainstream. In America you get encouraged to be very independent and to express yourself freely, but that's not so much the case here."