Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Strip Down, Rise Up’ On Netflix, A Documentary That Highlights The Healing Power of Pole Dancing

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When Jennifer Lopez performed on a pole to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in 2019’s Hustlersthere seemed to be something of a bump in mainstream interest in pole dancing. In Strip Down, Rise Up, now streaming on Netflix, we get a peek behind the curtain at the real life people who pole dance for any number of reasons; competition, athleticism, eroticism, empowerment. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michèle Ohayon shines a light on just how healing this simple piece of metal can be. 

The Gist: Strip Down, Rise Up opens with a montage that tells us about how finding the erotic body can heal women from shame and trauma and all the other ugly stuff we hold onto. Celebrity instructor Sheila Kelley (who also happens to be married to The West Wing star Richard Schiff, who makes a brief appearance in the film) has dedicated years to helping women reclaim themselves at her studio S Factor, where she teaches pole and erotic dance. She wants people to step into their power through movement, to expose shame to the light of day and let it go. We witness a group of two dozen women embark on a six month journey with Sheila, and they’ve all got stories; there’s Evelyn, a widow still processing her late husband’s affair, Megan, a survivor of infamous gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s horrific abuse, there are women who have struggled with body image issues, self loathing, sexual assault, sexual identity. And they’re all here to take this terrifying journey.

When we’re not spending time with the amazing women at S Factor, we’re introduced to Amy Bond, a competitive pole dancer and pro bono attorney who owns two studios in San Francisco. She’s all about helping people realize what their bodies can do, and shedding all the shame she experienced as a Mormon and later as an adult film performer. Elsewhere, we meet Jenyne Butterfly, a Cirque du Soleil performer who turns her pole performances into graceful art. All these stories – those of the women at S Factor, in San Francisco, and in Las Vegas – all combine to create something profoundly moving, a story about what it means to reclaim one’s body by taking hold of the pole.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Strip Down, Rise Up follows a formula we see in a lot of documentaries – a hybrid-vérité style, if you will – but it feels pretty singular in its goals and subject matter.

Memorable Dialogue: There are so many moving pieces of wisdom shared with the women on the S Factor journey, but I found myself immediately jotting down notes during the scenes that dealt explicitly with shame: “Shame will hold you prisoner, but really all shame wants is to come into the light and be let go.” It was so moving to watch these women break free of their shame over the course of the documentary. 

Sex and Skin: That’s kind of the beautiful thing about Strip Down, Rise Up; it finds the magic of skin and sexuality and eroticism. It’s all about encouraging women to take it all off and reclaim their bodies in the process, so yeah, there’s a lot of skin, and a lot of talk about sex.

Our Take: It is remarkably rare to watch anything that puts a spotlight on the female form without immediately noticing the male gaze. This is not the case with Strip Down, Rise Up; director Michèle Ohayon worked with a mostly-female crew, and it shows. This is a film that finds the beauty in women of all shapes and sizes, a film where the camera lingers on the female body not to objectify it, but to show us what it’s capable of. When these women step into the room at S Factor, they remove their clothes and all the baggage that comes with existing in a female body in this world. And it’s breathtaking. We witness catharsis in real time, whether it’s a 50-year-old widow letting an ugly cry rip, a pregnant woman performing a dance and breaking down in full body sobs, a woman living with lupus cutting her hair and letting go, or a gymnast and abuse survivor finally getting in touch with her body again. There is so much trauma in Strip Down, Rise Up, but it doesn’t feel exploitative – it’s all part of the journey. That said, the journey is not for everyone, and one woman, Amber, quits the course; she didn’t sign up for all these feelings, or letting loose the way these women choose to.

Strip Down, Rise Up occasionally veers close to infomercial territory with its focus on S Factor and Sheila Kelley – I mean, I was definitely sold – but even when it feels like promotion, the film’s big heart is still obvious. These aren’t perfect people with perfect methods or some one-stop-shop to self love, and a lot of the process is uncomfortable. But that seems to be what makes it so rewarding. I loved that we alternated spending time with the S Factor women and with Amy in San Francisco and Jenyne in Las Vegas. Seeing the different ways these women have all embraced the pole in their lives only further colors a fascinating story. For someone like Amy, climbing the pole is just another day, but for many of the women at S Factor, it may be the final goal. Ohayon doesn’t compare all of these different uses of pole dancing to one another; instead, they’re all treated as valid and equally important. It’s not how you use the pole, but how it works for you. And we see it work in a myriad of ways in many people’s lives. (I personally am counting down the days until its safe to make a fool of myself in a pole class. Don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling the same way).

The thing I loved most about Strip Down, Rise Up is that it’s not necessarily about one method of empowerment at all. It’s about women rebuilding their homes in the bodies that have so often been stolen by others, about learning what it means to feel confident and excited in your own skin. No two stories are the same, and they’re not linear or predictable, either. But that’s what makes them so affecting, and why Strip Down, Rise Up succeeds.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Strip Down, Rise Up is an uneven but powerful piece of filmmaking, a moving examination of women from all walks of life and how self love and confidence can come from unexpected places.

Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.

Stream Strip Down, Rise Up on Netflix

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