JINGDONG, China (AFP) — Sporting skimpy outfits and glistening smiles, the Chinese women dancing here could be cheerleaders for any US sports team. Only the colourful fans and "nunchakus" chain sticks give them away.
One month before the Beijing Olympics, hundreds of Chinese women are flocking to a gym in the suburbs of the capital to learn how to jump, flip and cheer for the tens of thousands of spectators who will attend the Summer Games.
Cheerleading is a quintessentially American tradition but has become more and more popular here, thanks in large part to the phenomenal success of US basketball among China's youth, who are not shocked by scantily-clad dancers.
Olympic organisers, working hard to make these Games the best ever, have embraced the dance teams as a colourful way to keep spectators happy during breaks in play in basketball, beach volleyball and some of the other sports.
Some of the women are professional dancers, while others come from dance schools around the country.
Training sessions will run until July 27, but last week, the women working out in Jingdong, an hour's drive from Beijing, learned from some of the best -- the cheerleaders for the Super Bowl runners-up, the New England Patriots.
"They're a lot like Americans -- they use pompoms, they do flips," says 20-year-old Patriot dancer Corie Mae Callaluca, every bit the picture of the stereotypical cheerleader with long blonde hair and blue eyes.
When the Patriot squad launches into one high-energy routine after another during a demonstration, their Chinese students watch with wide-eyed admiration and envy.
For 22-year-old recent university graduate Pei Qiyu, working out with Callaluca and her teammates was a great pre-Olympic confidence builder.
"We're quickly learning this new skill. Our sessions with foreign cheerleaders this year have really been a great way to learn. We like their style, and what we're learning from them," Pei said.
"Cheerleaders are not yet a big deal in China -- it's just starting to catch on," she added.
Pei is one of 600 Chinese cheerleaders who have been training for months, many of whom have also honed their skills during the "Good Luck Beijing" Olympic test events in Beijing over the past year.
Organisers are hoping that the "laladui", as they are known in Mandarin, will enchant spectators with their signature Chinese style, mixing elements from traditional Peking opera into more typical hip-hop US routines.
"We use a lot of moves and props from Chinese folk dances, like fans," said Pei, who will be on the floor entertaining the crowd at the Olympic basketball venue.
Pei says she hopes the Olympic cheers will help spectators learn more about traditional Chinese dance.
For Callaluca and the Patriots, the training sessions are both an exercise in cultural exchange and in marketing -- the US National Football League opened an office in September last year.
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