Polar Opposites

Two women who together helped bring the pole-dancing fitness craze to Orange County could be headed to court

Like many women when they first start, Lim was stunned by the amount of quick cash she earned. She began focusing intensely on the girls who made the most money and what it was that they did in their dancing, their gazing, their walk, to earn such big tips. She began to imitate them. She noticed that subtle things like the slight arch of her back or an upturned shoulder would grab men's attention and earn her more money. She made eye contact and wore a longhaired wig.

"It was what I did to make money to get my daughters back, and that's it," she says. "I didn't drink; I never stayed late—I blocked it out as soon as I got home." Within weeks, she had made enough money not only to pay for the lawyer, but also to place a security deposit on a townhouse and buy a used car. Her ex-husband was perplexed by her sudden wealth. He hired a private detective and discovered that she was dancing. Lim did her research and found out she could not lose custody of her children for working in a topless bar. Still, she felt ashamed and couldn't bring herself to tell her young daughters what she was doing. "For a few years, I told them I was a cocktail waitress," she says.

She eventually won full custody, moving them into the townhouse her stripping had paid for. Her daughters learned from their father about Lim's secret source of wealth sometime later. "They were mad at me," she says, her eyes filling up, "for the divorce, for . . . for everything." She then took her daughters to see the movie Striptease, about a working-class mom who is forced to strip. "I told them why I had to do it," says Lim. "I told them that's what I had to do to get you back." And then she told them she never wanted them to do it. "I was older when I did it. I had a strong religious foundation. The things that were there, that were offered, I did not take because I wanted to get out of it intact."

The money was hard to give up, and Lim found herself making promises to herself: She would make enough money to launch her makeup business, then she would quit. But there was the loneliness. The men. The dank cigarette smell. The pungent late-night alcohol breath of her customers. The grabbing. The end-of-the-night propositioning for more than just a lap dance. The exhaustion.

In 2001, after dancing for six years, Lim decided she'd had enough. She moved to Laguna Beach from Arizona to be near the man she was dating. For some time, however, she had noticed something else: Her body had changed. She was fit, she walked with more confidence, and she felt sexier. And she kept thinking about the mirrors, how when she noticed herself in the club for the first time after months of taking notes on the best dancers and teaching herself, "I was mesmerized by my own body," she says, "by what it could do."

*   *   *

Lim remembers the day. It was Dec. 31, 2004, and she was having dinner with her boyfriend. He told her he was amazed by how comfortable she was in her own body, how sexy and sensual she was. Lim remembered the mirrors and the dancing and her own transformation. "I said, 'Maybe I can teach women how to be sensual and sexy,'" she says. "Then their husbands wouldn't have to go to the clubs to see other women."

She began designing logos and doing research. She watched the Carmen Electra striptease video. "She's very beautiful, but it was all wrong. She wasn't sensualat all; she was too aerobic," she says. "Women want to feel beautiful, and they're not taught how to do that with their own bodies." She played with names and concepts and became driven by what seemed like a way to redeem herself for having danced in strip clubs all those years. "I did more research, and I saw that they were doing it in London and New York—and I was very excited to bring the buzz to the women of Orange County."

She claims she came up with the concept of "Sexercise, Exotic Dance Lessons for Everyday Women." She would launch a "studio without walls," by renting out spaces from different studios. She would teach varying levels of exotic dance—lap dance, floor work, pole work and sensual walking—with names like "PoleNastix" and "Lapcersise." She applied for trademarks. She was energized. She said she'd found another, broader reason to justify her years of work in the clubs. From what she could tell, no one was yet doing this in Orange County.

Of course, the trend had already been kick-started by actress Sheila Kelley, who became mesmerized by the movements in 2001 when she had to pretend to be a stripper for a film role. "I had no idea my hips could do what they could do," she says. "And my ass had no idea what it could do."

Unable to shake the verve and confidence she'd gained from learning exotic and pole dance, Kelley decided to teach a few preschool moms at her house. In six months, she had 70 women as students, with more knocking on her door. "It was astounding, like tapping into an artery of something that needed so badly to be tapped into," she says.

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