Chinese dreamer swaps army for pole-dancing
Gong Yifei swapped life as an armed police officer for a precarious career as a pole-dancing trainer - and he wants pole-dancing to be respected as an art.
If you take pole-dancing seriously, two little rooms tucked away on the top floor of a shopping mall in Beijing are where you train.
Apart from a few scantily-clad women, there is little to suggest this is the headquarters of China's first and biggest chain of pole-dancing training centres, the Luolan Pole Dancing Club.
Step inside and you see a forest of steel poles. A few women are warming up. One person stands out. He is the only man in sight and his name is Gong Yifei.
"I'm 24 years old and have loved dancing since I was a child," says Mr Gong. "But lessons were out of the question. I only began as an adult after being mesmerised by an online clip posted by Luolan."Battlefield to pole
Before taking the leap into the world of pole-dancing, Gong Yifei led a life that could not have been more different.
With no training as an artist, he joined the military, the People's Liberation Army, aged 18 and from there the military sent him to train with the armed police force.
There he showed enough potential in hostage rescue to earn a promotion to squad leader.
He says his decision to abandon the battlefield for the pole baffled many of his dance teachers.
He believes that if he had told his friends, they would have been dumbfounded. In contrast, Mr Gong's family has been surprisingly supportive.
Training at an advanced level is extremely rigorous and requires discipline.
The students spend the first hour stretching before devoting another to building strength. The next half hour is easier, as they work on their own ideas for dance moves.
Only after two-and-a-half hours does a choreographed routine begin.
After that, it is back to working on building strength, flexibility and practising specific manoeuvres on the poles.
The students finally call it quits at half past eight in the evening.
Those who are serious follow this regime for five days a week for a total of four gruelling months.'Accept and respect'
Gong Yifei is nearing the end of his training. He has already stumped up nearly 12,000 yuan ($1,750; £1,125).
"I love how pole-dancing has toned my muscles and improved my sense of rhythm," he says.
"There's no reason to think men are in any way inferior to women when it comes to dance. Especially when it comes to pole-dancing, where masculine strength is as vital as feminine flexibility."
Although training clubs like Luolan are springing up across China, pole-dancing is still very much seen as a risque novelty.
Mr Gong blames narrow-minded prejudice for the public image of pole-dancing as an erotic performance suitable only for sleazy joints.
He has no plans to perform in public - there is too much prejudice and a very limited market for male pole-dancers. Only a few gay bars in big cities use male performers at all.
But he is not letting this get in his way. He and his classmates are working towards greater things.
Their aim is to become certified coaches to hand on their skills to other enthusiasts.
Mr Gong does not think he can make a career out of it. At the moment he depends on his family for money. He knows he will have to find a day job to supplement what income he can generate as a part-time pole-dancing coach.
But he has no plans to return to his former life in the security forces, even though he is proud of what he trained to do.
And he says he sees no reason why people cannot find beauty or merit in pole-dancing.
The genre has given him a voice and freedom he never had - to use how he moves to show exactly how he feels.
"One day, maybe I'll become a part-time coach. I'll help more people understand what pole-dancing is," he said.
"I hope more people can learn to accept and respect the art of pole-dancing."