Daring to dance: one Hongkonger’s journey from cooking school to male pole dancing
Leon Yee says was an introverted teenager before he found the little-known sport
Four years ago, Leon Yee says he was a fat, introverted, video-gaming teenager who was training to be a chef.
Now 23 years old and standing more than six foot tall in a pair of skyscraper heels, he works as a professional pole dancer in Hong Kong and is brimming with confidence.
“When I’m dancing, it feels like flying,” he says. “It feels so right to do something that everyone says is wrong. But you know it’s healthy.
“Four years ago, I wasn’t like myself today. I was a typical Hong Kong teen. I would stay at home playing video games, eat junk food – I really didn’t care about anything. I just shut myself out and I would doubt myself. I thought I was just another fat gay kid. When I picked up pole dancing, I thought maybe this was my moment for personal growth.”
Yee, who was born in Hong Kong but undertook part of his schooling in Vancouver, Canada, was introduced to pole dancing by a classmate at his cooking school. And after taking classes with Melody Rose, a two time Hong Kong pole dancing champion, he abandoned his culinary career and started training to become a teacher of the craft.
“When I saw the teachers I was blown away. I was not expecting what I saw,” he says.
“Coming into the performance, I still had that stigma. When you think of pole dancing, you think of Las Vegas, and stripping and even worse, hookers,” he added.
“But to my surprise, I thought it’s kind of like circus. It requires so much strength and co-ordination. I was happily surprised.”
Forms of pole dancing have been part of circus performances around the world since the early 20th century, but it only began to incorporate elements of burlesque in the late 1960s and then striptease in the 1980s throughout the US and Canada.
Yee now teaches regular classes for Melody Pole Studio, which has more than 3,000 students across the city, and is making a name for himself in the relatively small world of male pole dancing.
He enjoys dancing to old rock songs, heavy metal and pop, such as Judas Priest, Metallica and Slayer, and his idol is American pole dancer Steven Retchless, who reached the semi-final of television contest America’s Got Talent in 2011.
“Anyone can do anything on the pole,” he says. “It takes a lot of strength. It is a good, sexy fitness.”
Yee says there are no gender limations when it comes to pole dancing. And on top of that, his newfound high-energy career path allows him to eat exactly what he wants, when he wants – except for red meat and chicken, which he does not eat for “ethical reasons”.
But public perception of male pole dancing is still shaky.
Yee, who realised he was gay when he was 11 years old attending a Christian international school, says he faces some prejudice when he tells people about his profession and that people often assume he is also a stripper or even a sex worker.
Despite the preconceptions, he thinks Hongkongers are becoming more accepting of people who challenge gender stereotypes.
“Pole dancing is a feminine sport,” he says. “I think people are more accepting of the fact that there’s a lot more queer and LGBT people, especially in Asia.
“You have Taiwan which is being very progressive. You have Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia which have always had a third gender and different kinds of gender expression, and it’s coming towards central Asia more. People are understanding pole dancing as a fun and physically demanding sport.”
Yee’s mother, a Korean translator, and his father, a Hong Kong-born taxi driver, are quietly supportive of what he does.
“I can’t say they are extremely, 100 per cent supportive. My mother and father are more like, ‘Oh, if it makes you happy’,” he says.
“They were not raised religious, but I can’t say they’re not conservative to a point. It is more of a quiet support from them. They are just letting me do my thing.”
Long-term, Yee hopes to use his dancing to benefit society, such as promoting LGBT issues. And he sees himself doing what he loves well into his older years, perhaps until his 60s or even 70s.
Top tips for keen pole dancers
1. Commit to your confidence. It’s all about believing in yourself.
2. Don’t forget to dance sexy once in a while.
3. Stay hydrated and moisturised when off the pole so your skin remains healthy and ready to grip when you are dancing.
4. Check out other pole dancers on social media for inspiration
5. Stretch daily. Have two or three heavy stretch days throughout the week to speed up your progress.
Why give pole dancing a go?
● Pole dancing is a high-intensity workout that burns calories fast
● It helps you build up your stamina
● It will improve your mobility and flexibility
● It works all of your muscles and improves blood flow, making it good for your heart
● It can improve your sense of balance and co-ordination
● It helps to strengthen your core and your back muscles
● It boosts your metabolism so you burn food faster
● It will give you better overall body confidence