In the dim studio of a small gym in an alley off Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, the women in Edith Aboul-Hosn's exotic-dance class cheer one another on. One woman climbs the polished pole jutting out of a small stage in the middle of the studio floor and swings one, then both legs around it before spilling like syrup onto the floor. The dancers don six-inch stripper stilettos and teeny shorts. They swing their heads and whip their hair across their faces; they pull themselves up the pole and descend, spread-legged, in impossible, upside-down arabesques.
This is Aboul-Hosn's advanced Thursday night pole- and exotic-dance class. With slow, bass-heavy music playing in the background, Aboul-Hosn twists herself up, then upside-down, flipping up her skirt and flashing teeny pink lace shorts. The girls clap and smile. "We're all shapes, all sizes," one of Edith's students, a college adviser, says. "I don't talk negatively about myself anymore." She hesitates to give her name, but says she fell in love with the course when she and a group of girlfriends came to the studio for an evening of classes during a friend's birthday party last November.
Several of the women in Aboul-Hosn's Exotic Divas class tonight are also instructors for her traveling classes—private and studio all-girl affairs for women around Orange County who want to play pole for one night or take ongoing classes. Aboul-Hosn is 24, with blond highlights dancing through her long hair. She's buxom and thin. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Aboul-Hosn came to the U.S. as a teenager with her parents. Both when she dances and when she speaks, she maintains a half-smile, half-smirk and a slightly raised eyebrow—a look at once hard-to-read and tantalizing.
Aboul-Hosn says she knows just about everything there is to know about exotic and pole dance. She says she was the first in Orange County to teach such classes, long before they were popular or mainstream. Aboul-Hosn says she has never worked as stripper. She says her own dance background helped her out when she taught herself the pole tricks that would later evolve into her classes.
Her business has grown steadily, nearly matching the larger pole- and exotic-dance fitness trend that has swung into the mainstream with celebrity endorsements in the past several years. Within the past year alone, several exotic and pole fitness studios have popped up in Orange County. Actress Sheila Kelley, of the famed, Los Angeles-based, Oprah-endorsed S Factor, opened her first studio in 2001 and now has schools opening nationwide. S Factor opened a Costa Mesa location last year and has plans for two more in Orange County.
As optimistic as Edith Aboul-Hosn is about the staying power of the pole-dancing fitness trend and her own part in it, when she hears a certain name from her past, her half-smile fades and her talking speeds up. "Oh, no, no, no. Please don't even write about that person," she says. "That woman tried to destroy my business."
That woman's name is Leda Lim, who insists she was the one who first introduced exotic dance to Aboul-Hosn and to Orange County. And Lim wants to tell it to a judge: Just last week, she returned to town to file a lawsuit against Aboul-Hosn—for the second time this year.
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The suitcase is spread open on the queen-sized bed in Maria Leda Victoria Lim's Travelodge hotel room. Lim filled it only with papers, stacks and stacks of them, that now cover the bed, the floors and the small table looking out onto the little lawn outside her room. Some are slightly crumpled around the edges. They are organized only in makeshift piles with various handwritten labels. Lime-colored brochures and computer drawings—a smooth logo sketch of a woman's crossed legs in stiletto heels, another of a woman hanging delicately from a pole—are spread among the piles. One word emerges repeatedly among the stacks: "Sexercise."
If there's one thing Lim is certain about it's that she hatched the concept of an exotic-dance class for women in Orange County and brought it to Aboul-Hosn's doorstep more than two years ago. Most of the paper in the room, she says, is her evidence of this. She's just returned from a short stretch in her former hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, where she contemplated whether to move forward with a lawsuit she filed in January. Before going to Arizona earlier this year, she was living with her fianc in Laguna Beach. Her pursuit of the lawsuit has strained their relationship, Lim says; although they still talk, they've taken a "break," she says.
The lawsuit alleged that Aboul-Hosn breached their contractual business-partnership agreement by cutting her out of the deal and running off with Lim's concept. Lim was seeking $5 million in damages, according to court records. The court papers were never served, however, and the case was dismissed in May because Lim never appeared in court. Lim says she was reluctant to go forward, but after weeks of contemplation, she returned to Orange County last week with plans to re-file and move forward with the suit next week.
"I'm ready for a fight," she says, looking around the hotel room. Her eyes widen and water, nearly lost beneath a thick layer of peacock-green eye shadow. Lim isn't young or glossy. The petite Filipina wears her shock of black hair down to her waist, which makes her look, at first glance, much younger than her 46 years. Beneath her veil of makeup, though, her face is tired. She's a mom with two grown daughters—one just around Aboul-Hosn's age.
"I need to correct a wrong that was done to me," she says.
Ever since she got divorced some 15 years ago and has been on her own, Lim has been busy with this or that business idea—makeup lines, glamour photography for women, dance classes, DVD lines, even a women's foundation—only a few of which have ever materialized. When she speaks about them, though, her voice becomes higher, determined. Her passion manifests in the form of disorganized piles and dozens and dozens of URLs she's purchased online. The idea she's most attached to is the one that emerged, she says, after years of working as an exotic dancer.
* * *
Lim's first time in a bar also happened to be the first time she danced in a topless strip club in Phoenix. "I had never been to a bar—34 years old, and I had never been to a bar," she says, alluding to the strict Mormon values that had characterized her upbringing and her marriage. Lim's Catholic mother converted to Mormonism after a missionary knocked on their door in the Philippines. Lim was 10 and converted along with her mom. She came to the United States to attend Brigham Young University in Hawaii, where she met her Chinese Mormon husband.
"I got the shock of my life," she says of the strip club. "At first, I saw the bar. Then I saw these women walking around topless. And I started shaking." She was sent in a bikini costume to sit among the men to take her turn onstage when she was ready. Eight hours went by. Still, she hesitated. "I was glued to my seat," she says. But she noticed that the women's garter belts were growing fat with bills. She remembered why she was there: She needed the money for a lawyer. Recently divorced, she was preparing to fight for the custody of her daughters and was only eking by with a few odd jobs.
"I finally went onstage. I was shaking, and I was hot because I was humiliated," she says. "I said, why would I do this? Why do I have to take off my top for me to be given money?" She stood with her hands against the wall onstage and her face turned away from the men. "I cried and cried for a long time," she says. Then she heard her daughter's voice, remembered the money and the lawyer, and slowly began to move. "I made $100 that first night," she says. With only a couple of weeks left before the court date, she worked double shifts every night.
Months before that first dance in the strip club, Lim had been struggling to make ends meet. The newly divorced former housewife had no job skills. The $5.50 per hour she was making at Sears and the bit of child support didn't suffice for long. She handed her daughters over to her husband, who had joint custody, just before she lost her apartment. Soon after, she lost her car and took brief refuge in a battered-women's shelter. She didn't see her daughters for a year and a half because her husband had moved them and, she admits, because she was ashamed at having nothing to offer them. She got work as a traveling makeup artist and attempted to launch a small glamour-photo business for women at a fitness club. After about a year and a half, she reconnected with her daughters and found out her husband was seeking full custody. "I said, 'I have no money,'" she says. "I said, 'God, if you really exist, show me a miracle.'" She gave God a "deadline."
The miracle came in the form of a strapping Brazilian woman who walked into the fitness club late one night, just before the "deadline" was set to expire. Lim recognized the woman from a doctor's office and remembered overhearing that she was a stripper. "I thought, oooh, a stripper. How terrible. She must be a whore," she says. "But she was so tall and confident and very, very sexy." The two women started talking, and Lim told her she had no money for a lawyer and was set to lose custody of her daughters.
"She said to me right away, 'You have no problem; your problem is solved,'" Lim says.
"She said, 'You're going to be a stripper.' I said, 'Oh, no, no. What will my family say? What will my friends think?'" But out of desperation, the next day she went to the Brazilian woman's house and learned her first moves—the same ones she would attempt for the first time in the topless club a few days later.
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.
She opened her Los Angeles studio in 2002 and now has 4,000 registered students in studios in New York, Chicago, California and Houston. She's been featured on Oprah a half-dozen times, and S Factor usually sells out its first sessions when it comes to a new city. Kelley copyrighted some of her moves and says the sensual, seven-level workout she's developed is unique, but grounded in striptease and pole dance. At any of her cozy, spa-like studios, students don S Factor tees, microshorts and G-strings. "When you do the movement for yourself, you are no longer the object being watched, doing it for another," she says. "When that happens, you become a participant. You are now the perceiver and not the man."
In Orange County in 2005, Lim began to approach studios with her concept. One of the studios on her list was From Mind to Body in Costa Mesa, owned by a woman named Edith Garcia Aboul-Hosn. According to Lim, the studio offered belly-dance, hip-hop and burlesque classes, but not exotic dance.
* * *
Aboul-Hosn says her foray into the world of exotic-dance classes started about five or six years ago, when students in some of her other dance classes began asking for something sexier. "So I brought a pole in," she says. She then taught herself how to do tricks, with the help of her husband, over the course of six months, practicing for six hours a day. She says she was slow to market the course because it didn't yet have widespread appeal. But students responded, including her mom at one point, and she decided to dump all of her other classes—belly, burlesque, hip-hop, reggaeton, serpent—and switch to exotic-dance classes exclusively. She now teaches private and group classes and has produced a few DVDs, including one in Spanish. A box of tie-up shorts and tanks in the corner of the studio stamped with the logo "From Mind to Body" are testament to her own ambition within a booming trend.
"Maybe if [studios] start popping up on every corner, I'll be the one on every corner," says Aboul-Hosn, not worried yet about the few studios in OC she's competing with. She's also going international. "We're beginning classes in Mexico in a few months," she says. "I want to have franchises." Her relative youth, she says, has been the thing that's most worked against her while building her business. She's careful when she speaks, pronouncing her words meticulously, her accent nearly undetectable.
In April 2005, Aboul-Hosn says she hired Leda Lim to help with her ongoing pole- and exotic-dance classes at her studio. Aboul-Hosn had just had a baby, and she needed help a few days a week because she was breast-feeding, she says. "We did, like, a little contract at the beginning because she was going to take over for three months," Aboul-Hosn says. "And she was like, 'I wanna call the classes Sexercise,' and I was like, 'Okay, whatever.'"
Later, Aboul-Hosn says Lim also wanted to rent space. "She just came to our studio, and she wanted to rent space from us, and she ended up just teaching some of my students and teaching her students," she says.
Things fell apart when Aboul-Hosn returned in July. "When I came back and said, 'Okay, I'm ready to teach,' she just, she didn't want to leave. She was like, 'These are my members. I taught the classes and this and this and that.' And I was like, 'You can't teach anymore because I'm going to start teaching.'"
Lim says her first meeting with Aboul-Hosn was exciting. "When I explained my concept and the idea of exotic dance for everyday women, her face got bright," she says. Lim was impressed with Aboul-Hosn's ambition and drive at such a young age and says they hit it off. Soon, they were talking about a partnership, Lim says. They planned to hold Sexercise classes at Aboul-Hosn's studio and split the profits 50-50. The copy of that partnership contract, which is in the court file of Lim's initial attempt to sue, was signed by both women on May 11, 2005. It indicates an agreement of a 50-50 split and a partnership term of five years. There is no mention in the contract of a three-month contractual hiring term for Lim.
In mid-July 2005, Lim's Sexercise classes were featured on the cover of SqueezeOC and in the Daily Pilotas the first of their kind in Orange County. There was little mention of Aboul-Hosn in the articles. A photo of Aboul-Hosn in one of Lim's classes was the centerpiece in the SqueezeOC article, but she was credited as the owner of the studio and Lim as the creator of the exotic-dance classes.
After they received the press, business picked up, says Lim. But around this time, things also began to unravel. Lim says she believes the press coverage the classes received deeply disturbed Aboul-Hosn. "The reason they don't really talk to me or interview me is because it was her course, her little thing," says Aboul-Hosn. "It wasn't really about From Mind to Body." Copies of the SqueezeOCand Daily Pilot articles, with Lim erased and featuring only the picture of Aboul-Hosn, now appear on Aboul-Hosn's pole-dance website.
"She got upset; her husband got upset" after the articles, says Lim. "They said that Edith could teach the classes herself. They asked me for the key to the studio. I tried to retrieve my pole and my stuff, and they called the cops saying I stole the students' credit cards," she says. "I was very upset because I trusted her."
Aboul-Hosn says she fired Lim because Lim got too attached to the studio and wasn't teaching the way Aboul-Hosn wanted. "We fired her because she did many things and made many poor decisions that were adversely affecting my business," Aboul-Hosn wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly. When she asked Lim to leave, Aboul-Hosn says, "she started taking out stuff from my studio, like forms and chairs and stuff that I brought in for the classes." She said the forms contained students' credit-card information, so she called the police and threatened to file a restraining order.
"It was ridiculous," Lim says. "Those were my Sexercise students; I had a right to have their forms." Students who were caught in the middle of the melee are reluctant to talk about what happened. A former instructor, who was there at the time and spoke on condition of anonymity, says she remembers a pole being first brought into the studio around 2005. She also says she believes Aboul-Hosn was teaching some form of exotic dance before then.
Lim returned the forms to a police officer after she made copies of her students' forms, she says. Aboul-Hosn says Lim was forced to return the forms by a police officer after Aboul-Hosn had notified the police. Aboul-Hosn e-mailed the Weekly that her lawyer may have a copy of the police report from the incident but that he will not release it since the disagreement may become a legal matter.
Aboul-Hosn says that despite her ongoing exotic dance classes, when she fired Lim, the 40 or so students they shared followed Lim. In December 2005, Aboul-Hosn sold the studio, she says, because she preferred to rent spaces for a kind of "moving studio" and not deal with the overhead of owning a full studio. She also asked Lim to return the $10,000 she had given her as an investment in a joint makeup-business venture, which both women confirm Lim returned.
Because of the confusion caused by the sudden change in name and the student forms, Lim says, she lost most of her students and had to begin again, renting a space at Avant Garde, and then moving to a studio on Bristol Street in Newport Beach, where she taught classes through 2006. Unsettled by what she felt was a breach of contract, Lim decided to get legal advice from a lawyer about filing a lawsuit.
"I thought this case had some teeth," says Pam Buckner-Davis, a lawyer in Long Beach who prepares documents and gives legal advice to clients who can't quite afford their own lawyers about whether or not they should pursue their cases. "The main thing is that she had a trademark for the concept itself," she says. (Sexercise does appear in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database.) "The core concept was hers." Buckner-Davis doesn't know if the $5 million Lim is seeking in compensation will be feasible, but she does believe there's a case here.
Aboul-Hosn says she only recently filed for the trademarking of her studio name and her dance course, Exotic Divas, as well as the DVD collection she has issued.
Lim filed the suit in Orange County in January, but the papers were never served because she was waiting to serve both Aboul-Hosn and her husband. She also wasn't sure whether to go forward with a suit after close friends and colleagues urged her to let it go and when she realized she couldn't afford a lawyer. She went away to Arizona to think about her next steps before deciding this was something she needed to do for the sake of her reputation, she says. "Deep inside my soul tells me I'm a coward if I don't do this," she says. "Before [Edith] met me, she had nothing to do with exotic dance. I started it from scratch. I taught her how to dance, taught her my curriculum," she says. "She was a 23-year-old girl."
Aboul-Hosn says she chose not to pursue legal action in an effort to spare Lim and to make her go away. "She makes up all these things in her head." Aboul-Hosn says. "She makes up all the stories. I never even learned anything from her. I never even took a class from her. She didn't even know how to dance." She says Lim was in breach of contract because after she fired her, Lim chose to continue teaching under the Sexercise name, which, Aboul-Hosn says, is prohibited under the contract's non-compete agreement.
"If Leda decides to take any legal action, we have plenty of damning e-mails, documents, logs, etc., sitting at our attorney's office just ready to be opened like Pandora's box," Aboul-Hosn wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly. "The reason why we haven't pursued this legally is because we want to move on from this negativity, and not create more."
* * *
Although Lim and Aboul-Hosn no longer speak, both are still intensely passionate about what they teach and why they're doing it. It is hard to know who really was first in Orange County. A former student of Aboul-Hosn's, Melissa Montero of Newport Beach, says she remembers exactly when she first started taking pole-dance classes. It was late summer 2002, and she had recently broken up with a fianc. She signed up for a belly-dance class at Aboul-Hosn's studio. She remembers peering into a pole-dance class after the belly-dance class. "I was kind of intrigued," she says. "It wasn't like now, where it's kind of a cool thing." She signed up and said she studied with Aboul-Hosn for two years.
Another student, Caroline Posada, studied with both instructors in 2006. "[Leda] was really good at teaching body movements, how to be more comfortable with your own skin. She had a lot of sense of sensuality that she taught to you," says Posada. "But she wasn't really good at doing tricks or at the technical side of the pole." Posada says Lim would pop in a DVD when it came to more complicated pole tricks. She found Aboul-Hosn's studio and said it was more in line with the complicated pole work she was eager to learn. She stayed on and is now an instructor.
OC Pole Fitness owner and instructor Collette Nicole, who has created her own fitness and exotic-dance workout, knows and has good relationships with both Lim and Aboul-Hosn. She says she is grateful to Sheila Kelley and to Leda Lim for paving the way and pushing exotic dance into the mainstream. "Leda was really the first," she says. "She did it from having really been there, from seeing how men responded, seeing how it made men feel, seeing the curiosity of other women when she told them about it," she says. "Then she saw some good in it that everyday women could benefit from. [Lim] was the visionary that had started this here, but she didn't quite have the financial backing. Then she did this partnership that didn't go very well."
"Edith has also worked very hard to build her business," Nicole says.
Although Aboul-Hosn maintains that the two women were never particularly close, the split seems to have initially torn at both of them. In an e-mail dated Nov. 20, 2005, Aboul-Hosn wrote what seemed like a final plea before the e-mails became much more hostile and formal between them both. "You are like a mom to me," she wrote. "I am really sad. . . . I loved working with you, and I want you to write back, and I want us to be partners again. . . . You and me are better than any man we've had in our lives, and that is what I liked about you."
Aboul-Hosn acknowledged sending the e-mail, which Lim included as part of her lawsuit.
Aboul-Hosn says the situation with Lim is not the first of its kind since she started her company. She says she recently dealt with a similar issue with an instructor she was much closer to. It's an unfortunate side of the business, she says. But she has kept on with her studio's growth, which has expanded to five cities in Orange County, and she's sticking with her plans to begin classes in Mexico City next month. She says that more than anything, she wishes Lim would just disappear.
Lim rasied the $400 to re-file the lawsuit, but she needs more than that to pay for a lawyer. She taught classes at a new studio throughout 2006, but she didn't make much of a profit to offset her rent and costs. Although her studio is closed, she says she is still teaching private classes. To pay for the re-filing of the suit, she admits that she had to resort to dancing again in a Phoenix strip club a few weeks ago.
"I felt like crying," she says. "I'm looking at my knees, and they're wrinkled. One guy asked me last night, he said, 'How old are you? You must be 38, right?'" He then told her she didn't have to dance and could just sit and talk with him. A friend of Lim's in Phoenix has said he will help with her lawyers' fees, she says. Thus far, she has not had to dance in Orange County.
"I created this because I wanted to help women," she says. "But sometimes, I feel so defeated."
For photos from several county pole-dance classes, see our slideshow.
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