Wednesday, April 28, 2010


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Women and Their Erotic Power

The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers.  Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves.  Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.

Last year I rewrote a chapter out of my thesis called “Women and Their Erotic Power” and sent it to S Factor magazine to be published.  Since then, I have not really revisited the topic (except briefly in my review of the play “The Why Factor”) and I think it’s high time.  If you managed to make it through my last article without your eyes rolling back in your head, then some of this might seem familiar.  If, however, you got to the first quote and quit (and I can hardly blame you), read on!

            In past blogs, we have talked about how there is a huge moral stigma associated with sex in the United States.  Female sexuality in particular has suffered from cultural oppressions such as the pervasively negative view of “The Whore”.  As a result of this oppression, many women are often forced to choose between either repressing the full expression of their sexual feelings and desires or openly expressing their sexuality and being criticized or shamed for this behavior. 
We have also talked about how sexuality is primarily experienced in the body.  While there are a number of ways to explore sexual repression in women, few of them address the body.  When one is to be “embodied” (present in their body both emotionally and physically) the exploration of sexuality can be significantly deepened and many of the underlying psychological issues related to sexuality and the body can be healed.  (This, by the way, was the core argument of my thesis for my MA in psychology). 
Finally, we have introduced the idea that dance can be an excellent way to explore sexuality and embodiment, particularly erotic dance.  The rising popularity of all-female erotic dance classes could be driven by any number of needs:  the need to feel something forbidden, to reclaim a lost part of one’s self, or simply to feel sexy.   Whatever the drive may be, the result is almost always that women are experimenting with reconnecting to a deeply feminine, primal place.  This place is where erotic power resides.  In this article, the importance of a meaningful connection to erotic power, as well as its implications for a healthy female psyche will be explored.

            In order to understand the erotic and how important it is for women to feel connected to it, it might be helpful to discuss the ideas of several female authors who have defined this primal female place and written about it.  Audra Lorde wrote an essay called “Uses of The Erotic”.  (She would probably have a heart attack if she knew I was using her essay to defend erotic dance, but then again, it doesn’t seem like she knows a thing about mind-body psychology.)  In her essay, Ms. Lorde gives us a brief history of the word “erotic”: The word “erotic” comes from the Greek word “Eros”.  “Eros” literally means the personification of love in all its aspects.  “Eros” comes from “Chaos”, and “Chaos” is the personification of creative power and harmony.  These two definitions – love and creative power and harmony- are key to defining the erotic. 
Lorde believes that erotic power, (which lies within each of us, male or female) is a very feminine and spiritual place.  It is rooted in the power of being, the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.  She goes on to say that erotic expressions that are superficial (that is, representations of sexuality that lack any sense of connection to our deeper, sensual selves) have been encouraged in our society. This is because they are comfortably interpreted as a symbol of extreme femininity or, alternatively, as signs of female inferiority.  However, true erotic power demands that we be in touch with our deepest longings, rather than shying away from them.  Lorde defines the erotic as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feeling.”  In other words, the “erotic” serves as an internal guide.  It acts as a bridge between our conscious mind and our most chaotic, subconscious emotions. It asks us to look at what we are choosing to do in our lives, but also to examine how we are feeling when we are in that moment of doing.  What Lorde is describing is a type of internal “knowing”, based on feelings and non-rational knowledge.  She asks us to consider the phrase:  “It feels right to me”.  This, she says, is an acknowledgement of the strength of the erotic as a form of true knowledge.
            Unfortunately, women have come to distrust this power that rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.  The erotic has often been misnamed, and is often times used against women.  It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized.  For this reason, women turn away from their erotic power, and as a result it is rarely regarded as a legitimate source of power and information.

Another woman who writes about the erotic (but gives it a different name) is a psychologist by the name of Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  Estes trained as a Jungian analyst and has studied both clinical psychology and ethnology (ethnology is the study of groups, tribes in particular).  She has done extensive research of wolves, and in her book Women Who Run with Wolves she draws strong comparisons between women and wolves:  Their common traits as well as they ways in which they have both been misunderstood and persecuted.  Her name for women’s connection to this deep internal knowledge  (or erotic power) is “The Wild Woman”.  Estes argues that when women are disconnected from their wild psyche, they suffer.  To find themselves, therefore, they must return to “their instinctive lives, their deeper knowing”.  Estes has a novel approach for teaching her work, which is primarily through story-telling.  This allows her to bring alive various myths and archetypes that embody the Wild Woman.  She argues that connecting with this wild nature does not mean coming undone, changing everything, or going crazy or out of control.  In fact, she teaches that joining with our instinctual nature means quite the opposite. It means to “establish territory, to find one’s pack, to be in one’s body with certainty and pride regardless of the body’s gifts and limitations; to speak and act in one’s behalf; to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing; to rise with dignity, and to retain as much consciousness as possible.”   Interestingly, this description of the joining with the wild woman is quite similar to Lorde’s description of connection to erotic power. 

Estes also describes, in women’s words, some of the symptoms that arise when a woman is disconnected from her wild psyche, her internal guides: “feeling dry, fatigued, depressed, frail, confused, gagged, muzzled, unaroused, frightened, weak, without inspiration, without animation… without meaning, shame-bearing, chronically fuming, stuck, uncreative, compressed, crazed…powerless, blocked, overprotective of self…inability to pace one’s self…to be self-conscious…to fear to venture by one’s self or reveal one’s self, fear one will run on, run out on, run down, cringing before authority, humiliation, numbness, anxiety…afraid to bite back when there is nothing left to do…sick stomach, cut in the middle…becoming conciliatory or nice too easily…superiority complex.  These severances, she says, are not a disease of an era or a century, but become an epidemic anywhere and anytime women are captured, anytime the wildish nature has become entrapped. 

In one chapter of her book, titled The Joyous Flesh, Estes talks about the body as a vehicle for reconnection with a woman’s wildish nature.  She describes the body as a “multilingual being” that speaks through color, temperature, its subtle movements, and its internal sensations such as a leaping heart or a pit in the stomach.  She argues that the importance of the body lies not so much in its appearance, but in its vitality, its responsiveness, and its endurance.  A woman who constantly must monitor her body and its form is robbed of her joyful relationship to her given form.  Estes encourages women to take back their bodies by ignoring the popular ideas about what constitutes happiness and the oppressive obsessions with body shape.  Taking your body back means not waiting or holding back, not restricting your appetite for anything - sex, love, work - because society tells you that you are too hungry, but instead living your life full throttle and with tremendous joy.  The body, once reclaimed, becomes a tool for gathering information and a source of strength, joy and knowledge for a woman, rather than a source of shame or embarrassment.  The purpose of the body and what constitutes a healthy body, says Estes, is that it responds; it can experience a spectrum of feeling, work as it was meant to, and it is not permitted to be anesthetized.  In her own unique way, Estes is describing a form of embodiment.  She beautifully illustrates a connection to a deeper knowledge within a woman that is possible for every woman, a knowledge that could also be described as erotic power.

This knowledge, this erotic power, can be deeply threatening to some people.  Lorde argues that one reason why the erotic is so feared is because it empowers women; it becomes a lens through which women scrutinize things, which forces women to evaluate what is important to them honestly and in terms of its meaning in their lives, rather than settling for the convenient and the conventional or the safe.  She echoes Estes’ concerns about living on external guides rather than from internal knowledge and needs.  She warns that we should not ignore these “erotic guides”, lest we conform to certain societal structures that are not based on human need.  She also agrees that when a woman begins to live from the inside out, and is in touch with this deeper knowledge within her, she begins to be responsible for (and is therefore able to reclaim) herself.

Through these teachings, we can begin to see how connection with not just the body, but with the erotic, the wild woman, that deeper knowledge within is both deeply nourishing and essential to the healthy psyche of a woman.  A woman’s authentic connection with her erotic power requires her to be embodied.  That is, it requires her to feel all the sensations in her body as they arise, along with the inherent emotional notes that accompany these sensations, and it demands that she consciously acknowledge them.  Embodiment also requires that we be able to listen to our body’s experience and notice the areas that are numb or aching, as well as the areas that are open and filled with pleasure.  Sexual embodiment demands that we engage in the sensual pleasures of our bodies, acknowledge the accompanying fear and shame and let it go. 

It seems that one of the most effective ways for women to gain an authentic connection to their sexuality and their erotic power or potential is through working directly with, and through the body.  Because dance is an avenue for working with the body, and because it is inherently sexual, it is a natural tool for helping women to achieve this connection.  Specifically, because erotic dance is overtly sexual, for centuries it has served not just as an entertainment venue for men but as a way for women to express their inherent erotic power to each other, to the gods, and to themselves.  Unfortunately, it has also been subverted into a practice that exploits women and encourages shallow representations of extreme femininity and of the act of sex itself. 

But what if the movements of erotic dance, the art of the striptease, were removed from the public venue and put in a different environment—an all-female one?  How would this change it?  This is exactly what is happening across the country with the widespread popularity of all-female exotic dance classes, and the result thus far has been nothing short of a modern-day female awakening.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interview with Sheila Kelley

This week, The Pole Story sat down with Sheila Kelley, the founder of S Factor Movement, to find out what her studio is all about and how she sees pole dancing helping women.  But first, a little background:

Sheila Kelley is a passionate voice for the advancement of women in the world.  She is an esteemed actress, author, filmmaker and dancer.
 When she starred in and produced the film, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, she needed to prepare for the role of "Stormy" by learning how to striptease and pole dance.  As a result, her body became long, lean and fit.  She decided to take her knowledge of ballet, exercise and exotic dancing and combine them into the most effective fitness dance workout ever devised for and about women - S Factor. 
 "S Factor was born when I discovered my sensual power and the best body of my life while preparing for my role as an exotic dancer." says Sheila.  "My life changed so profoundly just from moving in this organically feminine way that I’ve dedicated myself to sharing this extraordinary Journey with other women." (from S Factor website)

1.      You have built the largest and most well known pole dancing company in The United States.  S Factor has 7 locations across the country and many devotees.  At a time when pole dancing is exploding and new studios are cropping up everywhere, what do you think sets S Factor apart? 

What sets S Factor apart from pole studios, yoga studios, from Pilates studios or any other form of workout is the groundbreaking S Factor technique of movement, which is a choreographed series of flowing curved movements that are seamlessly combined together to form the S Factor workout.  Each class within the classic journey series of 7 levels has several elements, one of which is the pole. When you call S Factor a pole dancing studio, well, we do teach pole and we love our poles, but there is so much more within each class.  In fact this coming year we are introducing 2 new elements to the upper level classes.   Watch out world for another mind-blowing experience in the form of challenging the status quo!

2.  S Factor focuses on the emotional journey of their students in class as well as the fitness aspect.  Why do you feel that it is important for women to get in touch with the emotionality of the dance?  What happens?  Why did you decide to include this as part of the S Factor curriculum?

My passion in life is helping women find their S. Whether it’s on the pole, in a chair, on a mat on the floor in their S movement or at a board meeting surrounded by men in suits.  Seemingly simple goal, right?  Women have come a long way from shutting down their bodies out of fear of objectification and fear of judgment but not so far that they feel safe and entitled to the beauty that is their feminine S-ness.  I started S Factor in 1999.  What happened to me when I discovered this side of myself the side I call the Erotic Creature, is my entire life shifted into Technicolor overdrive and I have not stopped reaping the benefits since.  I found my body truth in movement as a fully realized, sexually alive woman and what I have gotten back is completeness and all the universe has to offer. 

2.      You have taught women like Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart (Martha!!)  to S walk, to hip circle, to let their sexy sides come out to play.  In your opinion, what is the biggest barrier that women face in terms of embracing their sexual side?

Teaching Oprah the S walk, hip circles and peel off on her show in 2003 was one of the most enlightening moments in my life.  First off, it set the world on fire and helped blossom what is becoming a beautiful new fitness trend and global industry!  But personally what it did was show me that the moment is now for the advancement of the feminine into her rightful place in her body and in the world.   
Now seven years later getting Martha Stewart to move into her S through hip circles and pole playing was another monumental moment in history. Here’s a woman, a cultural icon, who is synonymous with the word “conservative” moving her body sensually and with great joy!  Then to top it off she jumps up to the pole and takes a fun swirl and almost flies into the “Half-Pint” pole trick!  Yes, oh yes, the world is changing and that change is very, very good. 
But there are still many barriers.  In this journey, women are up against thousands of years of social conditioning to get their bodies back.  Fear is the greatest of these barriers.  No matter how many other women they see playing in the field of their femininity, like Oprah and Martha during my visits to their shows, the majority of women have been conditioned through social morays, religious beliefs, traditions and cultural boundaries to keep their bodies locked and shut down.  Fear is an ugly friend to have yet so many women carry it around with them wherever they go.  The funny thing is, once a woman confronts this fear and actually walks through the S Factor doors, sits down on her mat and begins to move it is almost as if the fear just evaporates.  Instantly!  That is how organic this movement really is.  I find that miraculous transition truly inspiring.    

3.      The word "empowerment" is used quite a bit in reference to pole dancing.  What do you think makes this movement so empowering for women?

 Any movement that allows a woman to live fully in her body and her sexuality without shame is going to empower her.  Whether you are into pole dancing for fitness, for self-improvement, for self-expression, or to titillate a lover, the fact that you are playing around a pole, (which no matter how hard the world tries to deny it or ignore it, is a phallic symbol to the male eye) is going to provoke the feminine in any woman. 

 6.  What is the major difference between what happens at S factor studios and what happens in a strip club?

At a strip club a woman in encouraged and paid to sell her body visually.  She is paid to arouse customers.  She is performing for the benefit of someone else and is exploiting her body to make money.   Any way you look at it she is undervaluing her body.  No matter how much money a customer pays her, she is underselling one of the great natural wonders of the world, because the value of the female body is priceless. 
On the other hand, at S Factor, a woman is learning to express the authentic nature of her sexuality and her wondrous beauty.  She is being allowed to explore the natural inclination her body has to move into her curves with truth, muscle, emotion and individuality. Ahhhhh…..pure bliss.  Oh yes and there’s the P-O-L-E, too!!!  Playing on the pole is akin to what I imagine it would be like to fly on the soaring wings of a phoenix.

7.  If you could do one thing for women, what would it be?

S Factor!!!!  (Smile.) I’ve already created a movement technique that I love.  I believe it is fun and inspiring for any woman who gives it a try. What I would like to do next is expand the S to include more facets of women; S retreats, S clothing, S forums, S for teens, S road trips, S books and DVD’s, etc.   I would like to continue to help women create our own culture.  And, because I am a professional provocateur, of course I would like to continue to push the boundaries and what is considered ‘appropriate’ feminine behavior.   I’d like to turn other sexually stereotypical icons on their heads and re-assign them for the benefit of the feminine.  Touché!

 8.  Is there anything else you would like to add?

I love having you, Claire Sterrett, in class!  Watching your Erotic creature come out is no less than wow, holy heck and hallelujah!  Can’t wait for next week.

Thanks Sheila!  I'm looking forward to it too!  

*Please note that the opinions reflected in Pole Story interviews do not necessarily represent The Pole Story's views

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dancer In The Dark

I danced blindfolded today.   A silk tie was wrapped around my head two, three times, and tied in a knot.  I was led by my hand to the dance floor and instructed to lie down on the hardwood.  I remember feeling acutely aware of my limbs, and the sensation of my feet on the floor, which felt so strange after dancing the last song in 6-inch stilettos.  And I also remember being aware that I had no idea where anything was around me – not my classmates sitting on the bench, not the poles, not the overstuffed chair where we did our lap dances.  I had been turned in a circle several times before being asked to lie down and a vague dizziness was still fluttering around my temples. One of my teachers gave a last minute instruction to my classmates, who were watching me from the bench: “Remember ladies, no cheering for the blindfolded dance - just silence.”  Oh.

Alice in Chains came blaring through the speakers.  “Heeeeeyyyyaaa IIIII ain’t never coming home…” My body started moving, pushing against the music.  “Breeeeeeaaaathe, Claire!”  A teacher’s voice floated across the room.  I tried to take a breath in and realized that I hadn’t exhaled in a while.  I pushed hard, arching, twisting, extending, asking, begging to be heard, to be felt, to be seen.  I felt exposed, deeply vulnerable, and my heart was splitting inside my chest.  My blindfold fell off early into the song, but I kept my eyes firmly shut, determined to keep that achiness in my heart alive, determined to move from that place, determined to make the world feel my pain, the pain that poured out of every finger tip, the grief that came every time I arched my back open, splaying my legs, pushing my ass back.  I was dancing out my loneliness, my feeling of immense isolation, my rage at the stupid bitch of an ex-girlfriend, who, five years later, still couldn’t figure out what a boundary was, the plasticized Barbie who cut me off in her Mercedes this morning, the boyfriend who could never in a million years be everything that I wanted, because nobody could.  I was dancing out my anger at my own destructive impulses and my conflicting need to keep them close, to burn it all down.  I was dancing out my insecurity, tangling it up with my strength.  I pulled from the earth into my body.  I wanted to shake the ground with my anger so you could feel my power and be terrified.  At the same time I wanted to throw my head back, arch my chest, open my soft belly and legs and invite you in.  I wanted you to reach out to me, to see me – all of me - all the contradictions, all the confusion, all the beauty, all the awkwardness, all the pain and joy, all the rage and vulnerability.  I wanted you to feel it with me, to see that it was real and true.  At one point in my dance I remember wanting to connect with something, anything- a pole, a chair, someone’s foot. I wanted to feel another person close by; I wanted to know where I was.  I crawled, slowly, feeling each muscle fiber, every sensation in my body, for what seemed like eternity and found nothing but empty space.  Accepting the solitude, I slid my belly back onto the floor, dancing out the rest of my song.

The vulnerability in dancing blindfolded is not just the sense of disorientation, but the absolute silence and solitude that accompanies your dance.  There is no one to push against, to flirt with, to torture, to impress, to be embarrassed by.  There is just you, and your body, and the music and the movement.  By the end of the dance, I was emotionally raw.  I could feel the tears pushing up through my throat.  My teacher sat down with me, as she always does after we dance.  “How was that?” Very emotional, I responded.  “Did you see the story?  The heartache?", she asked the class. I can’t remember exactly how it went, but the next thing I knew, I was climbing back up into my head, talking, talking, and talking.  My teacher stopped me.  “I don’t want to you to talk.  I want you to stay in that emotional space.”  I suddenly became aware of just how resistant I was to that vulnerable space at that particular moment.   How truly letting my body take over (for today anyway) had meant letting all of that vulnerability come out.  In the past, my dancing has let the torturing, vengeful, dirty, angry side of me out.   That is a part of me, of my sexuality, so I don’t think it will ever disappear from my dancing.  But today there was another part of my body and my psyche speaking to me.  The part that wanted to be touched and held and loved.  The part that felt immense sorrow and loss. The part that was terrified of being alone but even more terrified of being let down.

I was the last to dance, and so class was over.  As I got quiet and moved back into that vulnerable place, the tears spilled out.  I got hugs from my classmates.   Dancing is hard sometimes, said one of them.  Indeed.