Exotic Empowerment

Lynn Ho sits in a big dark room with just a flicker of red light for mood. She's talking about the chemical engineering master's she's working on at UC Irvine as she slips into a fluffy gossamer skirt, a G-string and six-inch stiletto heels. Finished with her warm-ups, she's about to climb one of the four gleaming 10-foot poles at the S Factor studio in Costa Mesa.

This is pole-fitness land, where women are addicted to whatever it is that goes on behind closed doors in dimly lit studios and work out, exotic-dancer-style. “It's like peeling off layers of your life,” Ho says. “Coming here is a big release.” The classes, she says, have not only made her feel more confident, but have also helped her get out of bad relationships. She's now an instructor for S Factor.

Some of the women in the class, as well as women who attend other studios—a local college criminal-justice professor among them—say it's still tricky to go public with their names and talk about the physical and psychological elements that make exotic dance such an empowering discovery for them. Their friends, students, family members, and the public in general, still don't know quite what to make of the workout style.

“The taboo is: This is what strippers do,” says actress Sheila Kelley, whose S Factor studio helped push striptease and pole dance for fitness into the mainstream. “You don't ever get past [the taboo],” she says. “You have to reinvent it.”

Her approach includes the branding of her multilevel course as a safe place for women to “play,” several appearances on Oprah, and a class roster that includes celebrities such as Teri Hatcher. Her studios are comfortable and yoga-like, with fresh water and fruit on hand and fragrant flowers in the bathroom. The only clues to their striptease and exotic-dance roots are the saucy items for sale—high stiletto heels, G-strings branded with the “S” signature, sexy little skirts and microshorts, and, of course, the gleaming floor-to-ceiling poles in the dance room.

“I think it's very important that pole-dancing for fun is still not stripping for money,” says anthropologist and former stripper Katherine Frank, who edited the book Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance. “That leap from playing at being a stripper, or pole dancing for exercise and for one's self-esteem and confidence, to actually being a stripper, is still quite large. The real taboo is not the dancing, but taking money for the production of private, erotic moments,” she says. She believes women may feel a sense of empowerment because they're “breaking all of the rules of modest femininity in a safe environment.”

For Collette Nicole, owner of OC Pole Fitness in Aliso Viejo, it's about combining sensuality with fitness. She markets her course as a way for women to regain their sensuality. “I knew a lot of my students would be moms,” she says. “I'm a mom. I know where the trouble spots are.”

A couple of church-group leaders in her class were nervous when asked if their names could be printed. “I keep my heels in the trunk—my daughter doesn't know yet,” said one of the women about her teenage daughter. She laughs, looking down at her liptstick-red stilettos.

Laura Dose, a 41-year-old mortgage-company owner, attends S Factor. She says she now tells people about her pole-dance workouts because she doesn't think she should feel ashamed. “I have never been so toned, so strong or felt better about my body,” she says. Dose installed a pole in her bedroom. She also wasn't shy about telling her teenaged kids about her satisfying workout. “I made it a nonissue,” she says.

“My Thai family knows, but they don't understand,” says Jen Thongnoi, a recent graduate of Chapman University and S Factor student. “I'm first-generation, and when I say I pole dance for fun as a woman, they're like, 'What?' But they see the change in me; they see my confidence as a woman.”

A 25-year-old student in Edith Aboul-Hosn's Exotic Divas course gushes about the confidence the class has given her. But when asked for her name, she's reticent. “Until it becomes more mainstream, it's not going to be accepted,” she says, opting not to give her name because, she says, she's a manager for a car-rental company, and what would her co-workers think?

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