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Netflix's 'Strip Down, Rise Up' (imperfectly) reclaims pole dancing from the patriarchy

Loving ourselves can feel like a radical act, especially now — but it is a critical one.
Image: Strip Down, Rise Up
For all of the women featured in "Strip Down, Rise Up," pole dance is so much more than a fitness classNetflix

“Love your body.” It’s a (seemingly) simple proposition. Your body has carried you for the whole of your life. It has brought you through trauma, stress, crisis and daily wear and tear without complaint. But from birth, most women are bombarded with messages that tell us to catalog our failures using airbrushed and photoshopped perfection as a guide. The very act of looking in a mirror without shame can feel radical in a world that has weaponized feminine eroticism to silence women. Given this reality, made worse by a pandemic that has eroded mental and physical health, Netflix’s new documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up” feels especially well timed.

This means unlearning the conditioning that teaches women to see all pleasure, all joy, and all self-love through the lens of the patriarchy.

For Sheila Kelley, owner of S Factor dance studios, the “war to help women reclaim themselves” begins with acknowledging a culture that prioritizes the masculine gaze and masculine desire. This means unlearning the conditioning that teaches women to see all pleasure, all joy and all self-love through the lens of the patriarchy. And practically speaking, it means using the art of pole dance to learn how to love one’s body all over again. The women who come to Kelley's studio are all different ages, sizes and races. Some of them bring deep-seated trauma to the class, some are just looking to shed a bit of baby weight, and some are looking to learn a new skill.

On its face, pole dancing doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to divest from the patriarchal gaze. There is a pervasive narrative that sex work is degrading to women, forcing them to cater to male fantasy and lust. But while preparing for a role as an erotic dancer, Kelley discovered that there was power in reclaiming this specific form of expression. For her, the act of being unapologetically open with her sexuality and acknowledging her “feminine body” was anything but degrading. And while she is quick to point out that she is not a sex worker, the parallels are not lost on her. Pole dancing is a feat of athleticism, yet she and her children lost friends when she began teaching it to other mothers in her neighborhood. The idea of a woman finding joy in her body, rather than shame, was simply too taboo.

For others in the documentary, however, the lines between pole dancing as a sport and pole dancing as a part of sex work are not so distinct. Amy Bond, owner of San Francisco Pole and Dance, has been on a journey of reclamation since she ran away from home and the strict boundaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 19. When Bond first came to Los Angeles, she quickly ran out of money and turned to acting in adult films to make ends meet. She doesn’t feel shame about her past, but that doesn’t stop strangers from trying to force shame upon her. Undaunted, Bond is now a renowned pole dance competitor who teaches others to “rediscover their relationship with their bodies.”

Sadly, the documentary spends little time discussing sex workers and the role they have played in the popularization of pole dancing. There is no mention of those who sell sexual fantasy or gratification to make a living, which feels like a glaring oversight. After all, it is sex workers who revolutionized the art form. They create the tricks and “flash” that make competitors like Bond so popular, getting little to no credit for the trends that sweep through pole classes.

Due to this oversight, the documentary’s aim of highlighting feminine empowerment falls flat. And it suggests that the narrative of power and agency is only available to a specific, nontaboo group of women. This is especially disappointing because the opportunity to positively frame sex work in documentary film is so rare. Too often these stories are given a traumatic treatment or conflated with trafficking, flattening the lives of complex women. The agency of sex workers is equally important and it deserves equal screen time.

It is sex workers who revolutionized the art form. They create the tricks and “flash” that make competitors like Bond so popular, getting little to no credit.

Despite this glaring omission, the documentary does give equal screen time to the stories of students and teachers. In doing so, the documentary frames all of the women as equal participants in the same journey of self-discovery. This is a nuanced choice, but it is one that subtly reminds the viewers of the struggles that all women share in reclaiming their bodies and agency. No one woman is more advanced or more deserving of love and grace than another; rather they are all co-conspirators in the shadow war Kelley claims to be waging from her dance studio.

One student in particular, Patricia from S Factor’s New York studio, stands out. Patricia has been attending S Factor classes for eight years, but she remembers her first classes vividly. In the documentary, she describes feeling like she was crying without the physical act — a rare opportunity for emotional release as a Black woman working in corporate environments. It’s an important moment, because conversations about the subversive nature of loving your own body seem to rarely address the ways that race can inhibit the process. Patricia addresses this intersectionality directly, referring to the parallel tropes of the “strong Black woman” and the “angry Black woman.” For her, S Factor is a space to be unrepentantly emotional without feeling constricted by social expectations and stereotypes.

In the same vein, Evelyn, a student at S Factor’s Los Angeles studio, sees these classes as an opportunity to address the emotional upheaval she’s repressed since her husband’s death almost two years ago. As the documentary follows her story, Evelyn has her first “ugly cry,” tied to feeling unsexy and incapable of intimacy. Later we see anger as she learns that her husband had offered words of praise and love to his mistress, but not her. And then, we see joy and elation as Evelyn achieves her stated goal of “climbing the pole.”

Then there’s Jenyne, a former Cirque de Soleil performer who left college to focus on pole competition after seeing a performer in a gentleman’s club. And Jenn, a master teacher and event director for S Factor who says she stopped loving her body at 13 and doesn’t feel the same love for her body that she preaches to her students. Janelle, pregnant with her second child and terrified of losing herself in motherhood, breaks down in heaving sobs during a floor exercise, overwrought by the experience. Megan, a former gymnast with Olympic aspirations who is too ashamed to say the word “vulva” after enduring years of abuse from the disgraced doctor, Larry Nassar.

For all of these women, pole dance is so much more than a fitness class. It is a community, equally committed to one another and themselves. They are a family, looking for affirmation and love as they rediscover their bodies and the power of femininity. They are a movement, changing the ways women see, feel and talk about their bodies in direct defiance of a world that would have them hide themselves away. A year of forced isolation, perpetual stress, ever changing norms, upended structure and increasing food insecurity has caused untold and immeasurable damage to our bodies, yet they persist in carrying us through. Loving ourselves can feel like a radical act, especially now — but it is a critical one. “Strip Down, Rise Up” shows us all the power in taking on that journey.