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.