RIYADH (AFP) — When yoga teacher Nada took up pole dancing, the reaction in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia was both fierce and swift, and she has struggled to weather the fallout ever since.
He was told by his family and friends in the capital, Riyadh, that the grueling form of the exercise – a test of strength and coordination involving acrobatic movements on a vertical bar – was “so bad”.
Pole dancing as a sport has been tainted by its association with the seedy strip clubs and burlesque houses often depicted in Hollywood films.
Undeterred, Nada took the class she signed up for at a local gym a few years ago, in part to break that stigma.
The 28-year-old believes she has made progress, at least within her own circle of friends.
“At first they said it was inappropriate and a mistake,” she told AFP. “Now they say, ‘Let’s try’.”
But Nada’s insistence on being identified by her first name only suggests that she and other Saudi dancers still have work to do.
WIDER PUSH FOR PARTICIPATION
For many years, notorious restrictions on what Saudi women could wear and where they could work also limited their opportunities for physical recreation.
However, the promotion of women’s sport has recently been used as part of a broader push to open up Saudi society and project a softer image to the outside world, despite the continued crackdown on activists and dissidents.
Last month, the Saudi women’s national football team played Bhutan in their first home games and a women’s premier league is currently in the works.
Authorities are also working to increase women’s participation in golf, a traditionally male-dominated sport that is growing in popularity nationwide.
Against this changing backdrop, at least three gyms in Saudi Arabia spotted an opening and started offering pole dancing lessons.
“I feel like more attention has been paid to pole dancing because it’s something new and girls love to try it,” said May al-Youssef, who has such a gym in Riyadh.
FEELING GOOD IN MY SKIN
Pole dancing enthusiasts say the activity’s bad reputation must have come from abroad as alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia and there are no strip clubs.
A pole dancing student in Riyadh said she was “not at all ashamed” to try it.
“It’s my personality, I would say. I’m not ashamed to embrace my sexiness, my femininity. I’m not ashamed of anything as long as I don’t hurt others,” she said.
But she acknowledged that not everyone would be happy with it and agreed not to describe her experience unless she could remain anonymous.
The only reason she quit, she said, was because pole dancing turned out to be so physically demanding – much harder than it looks on screen.
“I realized it wasn’t my thing,” she said. “It takes a lot of muscles, a lot of strength to be able to do that.”
Gym manager Youssef hopes the physical demands of pole dancing will be reflected in the photos and videos she posts on Instagram.
She believes that compelling evidence of benefits can be found in transforming her clients.
“Over time, they seem to love their bodies more,” she said. “You say to yourself, ‘I feel good about myself’.”