Why Strippers Are Upset About Netflix’s Pole Dance Documentary

Strip Down, Rise Up follows women healing through pole dancing, but strippers told BuzzFeed News it lacks the critical context of their voices.

A new, emotional documentary on Netflix delves into the world of pole dancing, but some women who dance as a profession rather than a hobby or sport are taking issue with it.

Strip Down, Rise Up follows both newbies and diehards who pull tricks on poles, sometimes for fitness, sometimes for competition, or in the case of the main group of students, as a raw journey of healing from trauma. But current and former strippers, including one who can be seen in the film, told BuzzFeed News they felt their profession was erased from the Netflix documentary.

In response to the criticism, director Michèle Ohayon said the film was meant to show how some women use pole dancing for empowerment and transformation, rather than examine the industry at large.

“This in no way minimizes or excludes the experiences of strippers. It is simply a different focus on the pole community,” she said.

However, the strippers feel the lack of representation of their work is indicative of a larger issue of stigmatization of their work within those who pole dance, the hobby rather than the profession.

The documentary speaks to several women who engage with pole dance for different reasons but centers on a group who signed up for S Factor. Created by Sheila Kelley, S Factor is a studio class where women are encouraged to use erotic movement to connect with their feminity and empower themselves. Those who sign up learn to do pole tricks and are encouraged to wear outfits that make them feel sexy, as well as the platform heels typically worn by strippers. This is all done without mirrors and without the presence of the male gaze, so participants can find eroticism on their own terms.

Not including the history of stripping is a problem said April Haze, a 24-year-old stripper in California. Particularly, she felt the voices featured in the film framed strippers as complicit in the oppression of women. Kelley, for example, speaks of how she started S Factor, and how she “knew I had to separate [pole] from this male gaze” to create a space for empowerment.

“To think that we’re just complicit, it’s kind of really disrespectful to us and just takes away our autonomy, which a lot of people want to do all the time,” said Haze.

“I feel like she framed it in a way that we are victims of the male gaze almost. And it’s like, No, I use the male gaze to empower myself and reclaim my sexuality. You can go ahead and do that by yourself in a room with no mirrors. I’m going to go ahead and do it on stage.”

Haze said that to engage in hallmarks of stripping, like the tricks and the shoes, without acknowledging its roots is just appropriation.

“Myself and a lot of other strippers think that if you want to take the time to get on the pole, wear heels, dance sexy, and reclaim your femininity and sexuality, you should be able to do that while respecting and supporting sex workers and strippers,” she added.

In response to accusations of appropriation, the S Factor spokesperson said the company is “a feminine movement practice is proudly inspired by movements and techniques popularized by strippers and sex workers in the modern era, and we share it openly.”

They added: “S Factor is committed to elevating all women inclusive of age, shape, size, ethnicity, and occupation. Women who choose to work in the sex industry are supported, elevated, and celebrated as any other woman would be.”

The documentary, released on Feb. 5, comes at a fraught time for strippers, Haze said. COVID-19 has forced the closure of clubs across the country, and concurrently sex workers are facing expulsion from social media platforms. Haze said strippers and sex workers are also often targeted by law enforcement, adding to the stigma and danger of this work.

“So to see women who don’t really have anything to risk by pole dancing, like, joking around and then distancing themselves from strippers, it just feels really disrespectful,” she said.

Filmmaker Ohayon told BuzzFeed News in a statement that she has “enormous respect and love for the entire pole community, including strippers and sex workers, without whom this form of pole dancing would not exist.”

“My film tells a very specific, character-driven story about how sensual dance and pole can be a tool for women to find their own pleasure and expression, away from the male gaze,” she said.

In addition to Butterfly, who says in the film she was inspired by a stripper to get into pole competition, Ohayon notes the film also features Amy Bond. Bond, a former sex worker and pole instructor and competitor, says in the film that pole is an industry built by women and people want to learn a craft that originated with strippers.

“My intention in making this film was to shine a light on female empowerment through sensual dance, to show survivors of abuse who reclaim their power, and to illustrate how some women use sensual movement as a form of healing and transformation,” said Ohayon.

“My intent was not to make a film about the history of pole, per se, but rather to focus on a small segment of a much larger community. And my hope is that it starts a broader conversation and the beginning of a mainstream recognition of how powerful pole dancing and sensual movement can be, inclusive of all voices.”

That sounded interesting to Alyssa Aparicio, 31, a former stripper who now works as a pussy empowerment coach, helping women to embrace their bodies and sexuality. She signed up to be part of the S Factor class for the documentary in 2018 but ended up discontinuing classes halfway through filming because she was frustrated with the lack of stripper representation (although she did not discuss this in class). She is seen in the background of the documentary but is not featured as a speaker.

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