How Netflix's Strip Down, Rise Up promotes body positivity, female empowerment through pole dancing
Women all over the U.S. are rediscovering themselves with a little help from a stripper pole.
A group of such women gave cameras an unfettered look into their personal journeys towards healing through sensual motion in the new Netflix documentary Strip Down, Rise Up, available now to stream in its entirety. Viewers are offered a fly on the wall perspective into what brings someone into a studio like Sheila Kelley's famous S-Factor, where women from all walks of life let their inhibitions free.
"It's all about trust," Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michèle Ohayon tells EW about navigating cameras in such private spaces. "Creating a safe environment for the subjects to be able to open up their hearts and be vulnerable, not only in their own journey but also with cameras and lights on them. It's a challenge and an act of bravery. I chose to bring a small, all-female crew when filming the class because many of their issues were related to sexual assault and the male gaze. I wanted the subjects to feel comfortable. Some of my crew had to leave the room at times because the stories and overwhelming emotions that surfaced hit home so closely."
Kelley, who is currently working in Canada alongside her husband Richard Schiff, featured more than 10 women who signed up for a six-month retreat where they learned to work the pole in search of reconnecting with their sexuality while releasing trauma.
"For the last 20 years, every type of woman has come through my doors and I welcome them with open arms," Kelley explains. "I've had this incredible opportunity to witness such beautiful and profound transformations where they realize there's a whole other way to live in this world and it all starts with the body. The body holds all the riches and all the keys to the kingdom of our lives. Once you reclaim your body and your indigenous, organic movements, there's a ripple. It can help heal relationships, your trials and tribulations, and your career. I've had this experience personally, so to be able to share it is incredibly exciting."
The group featured in Kelley's circle is made up of everyday women, your friend, your family member, or your neighbor, baring their soul in an effort to heal themselves and hopefully help others along the way.
"The emotions in this documentary are so powerful. I didn't expect to cry as much as I did," Kelley adds. "I was just so moved by the bravery of every single woman. They didn't know what they were getting into and they signed up trusting me, this crazy actress lady. [Laughs] Then I put them in six-inch heels and lead them to a stripper pole. I'm so proud of their transformations and to see how much their lives have changed for the better."
One of the women in Kelley's class is Megan Halicek, a former professional gymnast who accused former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, Larry Nassar of sexual assault when she was a minor. Nassar was convicted after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. He was later sentenced again after pleading guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault and sexual assault of minors.
"I'm still in awe of Megan's bravery. For her to come to that class to reclaim her body after it was stolen by a pedophile, how incredible is that?" she explains. "I feel so f—ing honored to have been able to guide these women and to have created a pathway for them back to their own wholeness. It's so beautiful that they shared this with the rest of the world. It's so brave."
Kelley also opened up about the positive impact pole dancing had on her life, sharing insight into her marriage and how it improved the relationship.
"There are things in the film I'd never disclosed before, and Richard and I had a long conversation about that. We've been together for 31 years while in Hollywood, and it's been an incredible journey. He's a lot like his character Toby on The West Wing, there's a bit of an irascibleness to him. I never quite understood the dynamic of our relationship because I didn't own the sexuality of my erotic body. Once I did the movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana, I had the same experience these women did in the documentary. This led to a major transformation and revelation that my erotic body had more fire than I realized, and my fire liked his fire. This major shift happened when I sat back and owned myself as a woman, both erotically and emotionally. It changed the entire dynamic of our relationship."
Ohayon discovered the power of pole dancing after taking a class at Kelley's studio herself. The rest, as they say, is history.
"I took a pole class with my daughter, and I was humbled by the strength it took to lift myself up on the pole. Even though I've been practicing yoga and dance for 30 years," she says. "I was hooked and wanted to explore more. I tried different studios and came across S Factor, where they start the class in a circle and every woman shares why she wants to explore sensual movement. The shares were so moving and honest that I decided that the stories around Pole are deeper than what we perceive them to be and deserve to be told.
Ohayon continues, "I started an extensive research and found the women I wanted to focus on, making sure that every issue, background, shape, and color is represented to the best of my ability. I found it extremely empowering to watch the transformation of the women, shedding pain and shame, in order to reclaim and accept themselves and their raw beauty."