Strip Down, Rise Up is a Netflix documentary released this weekend, exploring the healing power of pole dancing, particularly among abuse survivors. As a pole instructor, survivor, academic and blogger I was excited about it – it had the potential to address experiences I felt on my skin. However, I found Strip Down, Rise Up incredibly problematic. Here’s why the doc is pissing off many pole dancers – yours truly included.
What Is Strip Down, Rise Up?
Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michèle Ohayon and made by a crew of mostly women, Strip Down, Rise Up observes a group of women’s beginner pole journey, mainly guided by celebrity instructor Sheila Kelley but also featuring other studios and pole dancers across the United States.
The premise of the documentary is that shame and rejection of female sexuality, and unrealistic standards of what we expect from women both physically and morally, can be fought by embracing erotic dancing – but as “fitness”.
Warnings and Disclaimers
Every time pole dancing goes “mainstream” – whether that’s through a celebrity performance or a piece of entertainment – somehow something goes wrong. It is, of course, great to see the art that I love so much being recognised as something meaningful. But, more often than not, that meaning becomes an incomplete, biased version of what pole really is.
Pole dancing is one of the most nuanced things I’ve ever done, and because of that, any documentary is likely to not give the full picture of our industry and community. I am also fully aware that certain aspects of the doc might have not gotten air time even if they were discussed, as Amy Bond, owner of San Francisco Pole and Dance, explained in an interview. Because of all of this, I am not writing this review of Strip Down, Rise Up having been disappointed by the doc for not covering absolutely everything. What I am doing however is writing a review from the perspective of someone what has found healing from abuse and self-confidence through pole dance, and who finds the documentary deeply problematic.
This post comes with a trigger and content warning about sexual abuse, weight loss and mental illness. Needless to say, I’m also going to spoil a lot about Strip Down, Rise Up so if you want to watch it before you read my review, go away now.
Strip Down Rise Up’s Missed Opportunity To Address the Complexity of Pole and the Male Gaze
Pole dancing can be very sexual: most of our moves are inspired by strippers who gave tricks their name, who gave us the showgirl aesthetic and the fab shoes we know and love. Strippers opened the first pole studios, and it’s thanks to them that many of us have discovered pole dancing as a way to be in touch with our own sexuality. Because of this, addressing the complexity of the male gaze in pole needs more than a couple of lines using pole to sell confidence.
Strip Down, Rise Up essentially says: “We removed the male gaze by making something erotic like pole about fitness” and that is not it. Dancing around the pole can be fitness, but trying to remove the stigma attached to stripping and sexuality by making it look like a sexy workout is not going to make people stop judging.
The truth is, it’s all more complex than a documentary tidbit. Yes, I dance for myself. Yes, pole is hard and it’s a feat in terms of physicality, strength and power. But when many of us perform – for friends, on a stage, at competitions etc. – we are also putting on a show. That show can be sexy, and it can be something we do to be watched, because being seen is a human need. For some, dancing for the male gaze and making money from it can be empowering. For others, it might not be. Others still may be ambivalent about it.
Rather than “removing” the male gaze from pole, from performances and from the story, I would have liked Strip Down, Rise Up to address its complexity, and how different people engage with it. Instead, there was an elephant in the room: the women were dancing “for themselves”, but they were being watched by the documentary makers (who were women) for the doc to go on Netflix (and be seen by everyone), and at some point they were dancing for actual men brought into the studio too. So what is the difference between dancing for the male gaze and dancing for yourself in front of the male gaze?
As I have explained on this blog in the past, gauging people’s reactions about being a pole dancer is for me a powerful tool to understand whether I want them around or not. People who understand that I can be both my awks self and overtly sexual, sometimes filthy in a very stereotypical way, are the people I want in my life. So perhaps a discussion that explored the nuances of sexuality, of who created certain myths, aesthetics and behaviours, of who those are for and whether they can be reclaimed without offending its creators would have been more interesting and relatable for me.
The Missing History: Strippers and Pole Stars
Talking about what pole can do for women without showing the sheer power of the people who have made pole their career felt like a missed opportunity while watching Strip Down, Rise Up.
During the doc, I found myself wishing there were more interviews like those with Jenyne Butterfly, showing more of the pole / stripping and performing links rather than the sanitised studio version of pole as a controversial hobby.
While this documentary seemed to be more about what pole can do for women who haven’t yet tried it, glossing over its pioneers and its stars – and also its men or gender non-conforming folx – is a miss for me.
When I first took up pole I wasn’t thinking about whether it’d be ok for me to do it, or about where it came from: I was just trying to stay afloat, and a lot of the beginner women who start pole in this documentary were probably in the same boat. But as instructors and as more experienced pole dancers we have a duty to share the knowledge of pole’s roots.
Instead, most mentions to sex work felt judgemental in Strip Down, Rise Up. Pole dancing was separate from stripping. There were many comments about people being asked if they were strippers, or if they were dancing at a club, and their horrified reactions. All I got was major #notastrippervibes – when they could have at least said: “No, but pole comes from stripping and we own our hobby / sport / art to strippers, and sex work is work. Bye.” Or, as Adrie Rose put it:
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.Adrie Rose via NBC
As pole dancers we owe it to strippers to respect and cherish pole’s roots. If you want fitness, go to an aerobics class.
Pole and Survival
I found Strip Down, Rise Up was at its most problematic in its portrayal of abuse, survival, mental health and their relationship with pole dancing.
I myself am a survivor of sexual assault and emotional and physical abuse. I myself have found love of my body and the ability to embrace sex and sexuality again through pole.
However, it’s deeply worrying to see stories of abuse being almost dragged out of women. It was deeply uncomfortable to see women going through trauma being made to sexy dance in a circle after very intimate conversations about what type of abuse they were subject to. I don’t know if the humanity was lost in the editing, but Strip Down, Rise Up almost portrays pole dance as a rape recovery process. It is not that simple, and I speak from experience.
Survival is a journey. It’s a process of self-discovery and recovery. It can be – and it will be – deeply uncomfortable. But I genuinely feel sorry for the women who took part in this documentary who had their traumas aired out on Netflix and weren’t given the chance to own their own narrative, for the purpose of the documentary’s saviour role in positioning pole as the answer. I found pole as my answer, I elaborated it myself. No one imposed it on me, and I do not impose it on my students or on other survivors.
Survival comes from the fight that you put up within. Not from culty talks in a circle and enforced sexy dancing.
Strip Down, Rise Up and the Problematic Mental Health Angle
Similarly to the portrayal of survival, I found seeing so many women being pushed to share their trauma in this jarring format very disturbing. The beginners pole class in Strip Down, Rise Up felt culty and not in a good way.
Pole *can be* a bit of a cult because we love it so much that it becomes our life, but it is like that because we discover so much about ourselves in those classes. Not because the instructor challenges you to sit in a circle and share your traumas on day one.
Do I, as an instructor, try to build my students’ confidence and tell them how beautiful they are no matter what the world wants them to look like? Yes. Do I try to get my students to share their traumas with me? No! It’s massively triggering, for me and for them. My classes are a safe space where everybody can tune into their bodies and lose themselves in dance. I am not a qualified therapist and I will not ask my students to share their trauma with me unless the want to (and unless I’m ready to hear it).
When I was healing from an abusive relationship and sexual assault, taking up pole kept me sane and gave me my mind and my body back. I still have anxiety, PTSD and depression and pole dancing saved me – but not because my instructors made me share my trauma. They simply created a safe space. Everybody then explored their relationship with their body and trauma naturally. Also, a lot of us (me included) go through therapy. Because that’s how you deal with things.
I don’t know if the circle and tears were for the camera’s benefit, but the experience felt like forced trauma display to me. The fact that the person who was “just there for pole class” and who had no trauma to share quits makes the Strip Down, Rise Up approach to pole more of a problematic “tears for views” entertainment technique than something that most pole dancers experience.
Weight and Pole Fitness
Discussions around weight loss in Strip Down, Rise Up also bothered me. A lot of women in the documentary mentioned wanting to lose weight – which is something we all feel at some point (thanks for nothing, the patriarchy) but that the best people in the pole industry have removed from my being and from my values.
Pole to me is the celebration of strong, not skinny. It’s the living proof that if you can put on a show you have won. It’s about being the best version of yourself, not confirming to an unrealistic beauty standard.
A lot of my pole students come to me asking for weight loss and six-pack advice. And I always say: I’m not a nutritionist, I’m a pole instructor. I can teach you how to do moves and how to get stronger and how to dance. But to me, you are amazing the way you are and I don’t want you to come here thinking: “I’ll be skinny if I do it.”
Hearing some pole dance instructors in the doc tell women looking to lose weight: “Ok, you can lose 14lbs each month and reach your weight loss goal” felt deeply disturbing, particularly when the pole dancing I grew to love celebrates all body types and doesn’t encourage weight loss.
A Confusing Angle
While I’m extremely glad that pole dancing is getting attention and being talked about, I’m extremely worried of the effects of this documentary on our industry. What if people stop coming to class because they expect to be forced to share their traumas this way? What if this documentary jeopardises the important conversations we need to have to rid pole dancing of some of its slut-shaming, #notastripper tendencies by bringing in more people who want to distance themselves from strippers?
We all have a right to our own story and the women in this documentary have had powerful, traumatic experiences. It’s not them that I have a problem with. It’s the angle and the overall narrative, that seems to use these women to prove a point about pole’s worth with one foot in, one foot out of a nebulous sexual space.
Strip Down, Rise Up feels like a documentary that wants to talk about pole and sexuality without talking about where that sexuality comes from. It’s almost like saying: provided that you use pole and sexuality to heal, you’re free from the stigma. But actually, the stigma will always be there if we don’t strip (pun intended) ourselves of the judgement encouraging us to portray what we do as an interesting hobby without knowing or cherishing its roots.
Talking about pole dancing is inevitably complex: particularly now during the pandemic, it feels tone deaf to not address the difficulty of strip clubs being shut, the exclusion of strippers from pole and the fact that, in the eyes of tech corporations, we are all in the same boat of risky people to censor. Because of this, and for all the above reasons, I found Strip Down, Rise Up deeply problematic.
If you want to read more complex accounts of pole and its relationship with its origins and history, read below:
- Kitty Velour’s history of pole
- Kitty Velour’s history of heel clacks
- Peach Lee Ray’s post about pole styles
- Chrome Chronicles’ interview with exotic dancing pioneers
- My interview with the ELSC
- Beyond The Pole’s “Strippers are pissed” podcast episode
- My four-year pole anniversary post.