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Strip Down Rise Up - Love It or Hate It?

Written by Fiona Perso

I may be a bit late to this bandwagon, but none the less I have jumped on and ridden it over the bumpy, pothole ridden road. Our main protagonist is Sheila Kelly, a former actress who fell in love with pole dancing while preparing for a movie role. She also has a history of anorexia and self-harm.

I’m going to chuck in a trigger warning here for those among us who have suffered from sexual abuse and rape, because a lot of the women we see in this film have and it’s openly discussed.

Sheila runs a pole studio called S Factor, which operates very differently to any pole dance studio I’ve even been to or heard of. They run 6 month programs for women only which consists of learning the more sensual side of pole dancing with some basic level beginner moves. The class sizes are large, there’s two or three people per pole and the spectators act as the cheer squad for those participating. There are no mirrors, this is not about the technical side of pole dancing at all, this is dancing to reconnect with your body and feel empowered by embracing your own sensuality. There is a huge focus on body image shame and the low self-esteem that accompanies that. The women attending the classes are all struggling with self-love, this is what has brought them there. They’re seeking a way to find themselves again and to be able to look at their bodies differently. We meet a lady struggling with the recent loss of her husband, a woman how has danced  her way through cancer, and a whole barrage of women who have experienced sexual assault or rape, including a former gymnast who was sexually abused by Larry Nassar at the age of 15. If you don’t know who Larry Nassar is check out Athlete A, it’s a powerful and damming documentary exposing those in high level sport who are willing to sacrifice young girl’s bodies and mental health for pieces of melted down metal.

Each S Factor class seems to start with all the women sitting in a circle talking about their feelings and why they’ve decided to attend the class, what they’re hoping to get out of it, and there’s lots of crying. Some of these women have been through truly horrible experiences and the emotions run high. And just as I was thinking that some of these women really should seek professional counselling services, low and behold Sheila and her team do work with a consulting psychologist which I think demonstrates that they’re taking their duty of care to their students very seriously. All but one of the ladies we start the X Factor journey with really embraces it and sees it through to the end. Amber was not a fan of the two hour crying fests prior to classes and the breaking point for her was a night when the ladies gathered at someone’s house for a night of drinking, crying and dirty dancing. For her it was all a bit too much and she bowed out.

We do venture into the world of pole outside of S Factor. We meet Amy, a studio owner and pole dance competitor. Here’s a studio that focusses more on technique and competition preparation. There’s no love ins before class and every student has their own pole to work with and get the most out of their classes. Amy shares her backstory and we discover that in addition to being an attorney, she spent 6 months in the adult porn industry in her younger days. A short lived career that continues to follow her years later as people recognise her and comment on her Facebook about her porn alter ego etc. And while she’s not ashamed of her brief dalliance with the adult industry, she is tired of it continuing to be what she is defined and judged by.

We meet a pole dance instructor whose husband is ashamed of her pole dancing, he’s very conservative and religious and doesn’t like her sharing any of her pole dancing on social media. Much to my viewing delight this wonderful lady makes the decision to live her life the way she chooses and defies her husband’s wishes to hide a part of her life which brings he so much joy and starts posting her pole dancing on Instagram. The marriage ends to thunderous applause, mostly from me.

Back at X Factor there’s some more spiritual healing going on when Shelia brings 3 men to the studio and invites the women to enter their space and interact with them in a safe space. This involves a lot of hugging and crying and while I’ll admit to finding it all a bit strange, some of the women, especially those who have experienced sexual assault did admit to finding this process cathartic. It allowed them to be around masculine energy without fear and to feel that they were in control. There are a couple of other S Factor experiences that to me felt a little bit weird and cult like, Body Whispering and Body Reading, which are more one on one sessions with Shelia where you dance and she basically cheers you on and encourages you to release your inhibitions and fears etc. But maybe this speaks more to my own experiences and what I would be comfortable doing than the actual sessions themselves. We all experience trauma and healing differently and we must all be able to explore different ways to heal. I take my hat off to these women, they’ve made themselves truly vunerable. They’ve faced their fears and their shame and for the majority they do seem to have done some healing.

We hear from Jennyne Butterfly, one of the best and well known pole dancers in the world. She discovered pole dancing in an exotic strip club and decided to teach herself the art. In 2012 she joined Cirque Du Soleil and created the Dirty Diana act on a curvy pole for the show Michael Jackson ONE. She spend 5 years performing with Cirque before moving on. She’s appeared in music videos, movies, magazines and billboards and she has a slew of pole dancing competition titles to her name. I mean if you’re a pole dancer you’re probably familiar with her work already and if you’re not then do some Googling and prepare to be amazed.

Did I love this doco, no. But I have to admit that could be because it didn't really resonate with my personal experience with pole as much as I had hoped it would. The S Factor experience is something entirely different and not something I'd be very likely to take part in.

What I did like about this doco were the different stories of the side characters we were introduced to and that it showcased that pole dancing can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It doesn’t have to involve actual group therapy sessions to be therapeutic. It’s a way to reconnect with your body and explore what it’s capable of in a safe environment. It can help us to start appreciating our bodies for what they can do physically, instead of just always being concerned with what they look like. Which in today's society is a monumental effort at times. It’s fun, sexy, fitness, empowerment, self-expression, competition, and most of all its community. 

Happy poling, Fi xoxo

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