BEIJING, June 10, 2007 (AFP) - Tummies undulating and hips twitching, Wen Kexin's belly-dancing students shimmy through a dance that seems to shake off decades of Chinese inhibition.

"Open up! Like a flower," Wen calls out over the chime of jangling "coin" belts as she leads about a dozen students through a series of hip-loosening pelvic thrusts.

By promoting belly-dancing mainly as a fitness activity, Wen is also tapping into a greater curiosity about sexuality among Chinese women that is seeing racier foreign dance forms like flamenco and even pole-dancing gain adherents in China.

"For many Chinese women, their bodies are like a blank space. But belly-dancing is like a key that unlocks their sexuality and helps them discover their bodies," said Wen.

She has no trouble finding students.

After opening her first studio in Beijing in 2004, the former pop singer who never quite made it to the big stage now has 22 outlets of her Wen Kexin Dancer Club serving more than 1,000 students in several cities.

Those students, mostly in their 20s, have lived in China's more open modern era rather than the much more austere first few decades of communist rule.

Paying about 60 yuan (eight dollars) per session, they sign up to express their sexuality and maybe even improve their sex life, Wen said, ideas that would have been unheard-of in years past.

"Some of our students are even sent here at the urging of their husbands," she said.

Xu Chuan, 25, had been an accountant for four years when she first witnessed belly dancing a few months ago.
She soon quit her job, adopted a wavy hairstyle, and travelled to Beijing from Zhejiang province, more than 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) away, to learn from Wen.

"I saw it on television and was completely captivated by it. It frees you," said Xu.

She is now one of dozens of students training under Wen to become instructors themselves, planning to spread the gospel by opening a studio back home.

"There is definitely a big market for it there," Xu said.

The popularity of such clubs are a sign the country is loosening up, said Lu Ying, a women's studies professor at Guangzhou's Sun Yat-Sen University.

"Society is more open now, so different trends can gain wider acceptance, especially by urban white collar women who can now lead more colourful lives," she said.

Such changes are also winning a growing clientele for Luo Lan, who teaches students to pole dance, best-known as the province of striptease artistes, at another studio in Beijing.

A former IT employee, Luo first saw pole-dancing at a nightclub during a trip to France in 1999. Since opening her Beijing studio in 2004, she has expanded to two other cities. Outlets in two more cities are planned.

Part of the draw is finding friends with similar ideas about expressing their sexuality, says Luo, 39.

"It's a way to find a circle of friends that they can perform for without feeling embarrassed," she said.

One of her students, Laura Liu, said she was drawn to pole dancing because it was a strenuous exercise, but also because it "is a way to be attractive".

"Plus I can learn how to please my husband," Liu, aged in her 30s, said after writhing around one of several brass poles bolted to the ceiling and floor of the studio.

Apparently it is working. When her husband, who hadn't yet seen her in action, balked at paying 5,000 yuan (650 dollars) to upgrade her membership, she brought him by the studio to watch.

He handed over the money that day.

Moreover, he has since paid to have a pole installed in their home.

"It's not just to stay fit, but to have fun. I want to start having private parties," Liu said.

Yet entrepreneurs like Wen and Luo tread a fine line between promotion and flying under the social radar of what is still a conservative country.

In promoting her product, Wen declines to use the Chinese words for "belly dancing", which carry an overtly sexual ring in China, opting instead for "slender waist dancing".

"China has come far but remains very conservative. The authorities who approve these things would not accept 'belly dancing'," she said.


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