I touched the third rail of my own feminism this week. At S Factor studio in New York City I took a pole dancing and other sexy dancing fitness class. For long time I have drawn a bright red line between the varied and embarressing fitness trends I am willing to try and the scary world of sex meets exercise. I do not belly dance and I do not pole dance because there is enough pressure on women to be sexy in every other sphere of their lives. Do they really have to look sexy while they sweat too?
My friend has become a little obsessed with S Factor and convinced me to come, promising that it would resonate with my ecstatic dancing origins. I basically decided to do this so I could tell you about it, so let’s say it is my first attempt at stunt journalism.
At the studio I encountered enthusiastic women of all ages and shapes walking around in cheap lingerie. They adjusted their garter belts and stripper heels before class. I was shocked. Costumes!? No one told me there would be costumes. I thought this was very promising.
But then class started and we entered a very dark room with lots of ominous lazy boys around the edges and poles in the middle. We did a solid hour of what I can only describe as sex Pilates. Basically you do all the normal moves but you touch your hips a bunch while you do it and writhe around with your butt really stuck out as you transition between moves. This also was kind of great. Why shouldn’t you feel pleasure in your own body while it is doing amazing things like butt lifts?
When we got to the main event–the pole–I was mildly warmed up and ready for action. And I want you all to know I did a GREAT job. The teacher and my seasoned friend said so. I wrapped my legs around that alcohol-sanitized pole and spun around. I totally get why this is a trend. It is actually not that physically difficult and it is incredibly fun to move horizontally in the air. The instructor charmingly yelled “Woo PHYSICS!” Agreed.
Unfortunately we ended the two hour class with a strip tease dance (sans stripping because it was only an intro class) and a little talk about the “mission” of the studio. Here’s the thing, they kept emphasizing that this is all about how you feel about yourself and moving only for your own pleasure, but the entire form of this kind of dancing just evokes this absent but looming audience who is probably male. Is it worse if the implied audience is a stranger (ala sex work) or your husband? Probably the latter. And its not just for you, because the teacher is watching you and apparently at higher levels you classmates watch you. There is also an advanced lap dance class, and my friend and I were super curious whether the other ladies would be weirded out if some non heteros participated in this pantomime of sexuality.
This video pretty accurately captures the experience–dimmed lights, really soothing pep talks and lots of thigh stroking.
The strangest part of the whole experience is the length everyone went to to clarify that this is not like those real strippers. “We are not sex workers” might as well be their motto. Which is icky, because if you are going to steal a whole form of expression from a group you should at least admit your admiration for their work. I kept thinking, this is like when frat boys slap each other in the locker room (popular culture tells me this is a thing). The fake sex work dancing is actually a way to police the boundary between good and bad women. Good women do this kind of dancing for themselves, and ironically they pay a ton of money to do it for themselves. Not like those other women who get paid to do it.
But to be fair, if I had a ton of money I might take the eight week introductory session. I really liked spending two hours doing a kind of movement that was supposed to work on how you think about your body, rather than trying to change your body. Also I liked all the 50 year old women (including the teacher) talking about reclaiming their erotic selves while modeling Frederick’s of Hollywood-type lingerie. They all seemed like very liberated next level ladies of habit.
On a final note, the fitness/self-actualization idiom of pole dancing is actually very distinct from the growing competitive pole dancing world, which is about as sexy as rythmic gymnastics. At least the fitness version doesn’t neuter the whole thing.