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Interview: Michele Ohayon Discusses ‘Strip down, Rise Up,’ Pole Dancing, and Her Wishes for Women

After having the opportunity to view Michele Ohayon’s new heartfelt documentary Strip Down, Rise Up, I also had the amazing chance to interview the director. The documentary helped change the way I view my own body, and inspired me to reject negative feelings that I may have felt prior to watching it. I had about 1,000,000 questions I could have asked Michele, and I was so lucky to have any amount of time to spark an insightful and emotional conversation. Check it out below:

Kendall Tinston: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today. It really means a lot to me because Strip Down, Rise Up really meant a lot to me.

Michele Ohayon: Oh, thank you so much.

KT: Of course. First things first, how did you decide to create a documentary about pole dancing and S Factor?

MO: So, I didn’t know anything about pole dancing but I went to a class with my daughter and I really loved it and I continued checking out different studios and I stumbled upon S Factor. What was different about S Factor is every class starts with a circle and in the circle every woman is sharing why they’re there and I noticed that there was a lot more of an emotional reason as to why they wanted to do pole dancing or sensual movement. I was blown away by every woman who had a story and every body had a story. That was kind of a light bulb moment and I thought: You know what? There is a movie here to be told about almost like an underground community, or as Sheila says a “fight club for women” where women express themselves beautifully in an all-inclusive, safe environment where they can just be themselves and reconnect with their femininity. I wanted also to show other parts of pole which are more athletic, sport, art, competition. I mean, pole is being considered to be an Olympic sport. I wanted to highlight that as well and show the contrast between the basement kind of feel of S Factor with more of an emotional journey there to the other studios that are more show oriented with mirrors, competition and technique and so on. So that’s how it came about, and then I pitched it to Netflix and the rest is history.

KT: Awesome. Did you go into the documentary knowing exactly who you wanted to interview and which studios you wanted to include? Or did different pole dancers and studios arise as you were making the documentary?

MO: So, both. I did extensive research and I talked to a lot of studio owners from this one in LA to the Bay Area to New York, and I had 40 candidates that I did pre-interviews with and of course I couldn’t make a movie about 40 people. I had to choose women of all walks of life and all ethnic and body types so I could represent as many women as possible so women that see the movie can identify and go, “Oh, Evelin is like me” or Amy or Megan or Allison. I understand that because this is what I’m going through. So I narrowed it down to eight but then when I started filming Jenyne Butterfly, who is a big star in Vegas, it took me a long time to reach her and she had accepted my invitation to join the film. So we added her, she was a late addition, and a beautiful one because she’s such an artist. So because we’re shooting cinema every day and things unfold as you film, sometimes characters and subjects emerge that you did not expect. For example Jen, the teacher with the red hair, I was not going to follow her at all, but she came to me and she said, “Michele, I can’t really heal other women as a teacher if I don’t heal myself, and I am broken inside. So I need to go on my own journey, which starts with weight loss and get to the core of it,” which was her sexual trauma. So that happened surprisingly throughout the film and we included her story because it was so poignant and so telling.

KT: You really did a wonderful job including so many different women with so many different stories.

MO: Thank you, I’m glad it comes across.

KT: Do you still keep in touch with any of the women in the class such as Evelin, teachers such as Sheila, or any other dancers such as Amy?

MO: Everyone. First of all, the S Factor beginner’s class has their own Whats App group and I’m in it, so I’m in touch with all of them. Evelin, I’m in touch with because she’s just such a dear person and we’ve been in touch the entire time. She also had COVID and recovered and now she’s doing press. Sheila, yes, Amy, Allison, everybody in the film. The pole family is a beautiful, supportive family and I was just very lucky to be welcomed and to witness the support that they have for one another whether its S Factor or other pole studios, or even studios that did not film. They have this immense support which is why I wanted to call the film Strip Down, Rise Up because you strip down the layers, not only clothing but also emotional layers, and then you rise up together. Like Sheila said, we all have to rise together. One woman rises, now the other one rises. That’s what I’m hoping will happen with this film and otherwise.

KT: Absolutely. What is your favorite emotional moment from the documentary? There were so many emotional moments to choose from.

MO: For me, the most rewarding part was watching the transformation of the women that I was filming from day one. Watching Evelin walk into the room and Megan walk into the room and other women who literally had no idea what they were getting into, they were honest and open to share their trauma, and then to watch the transformation as we filmed for six months. Watching them blossom every class and go through all the roller coaster of emotions: joy, sadness, elation and then back down, like life, it’s up and down. Watching them finish class and graduating and feeling so much better about themselves and the way they look, as well as of course watching Amy get second place in the competition was a great moment for her.

KT: I know you said earlier that you had the idea to make this documentary because you took a pole class. While I was watching the documentary it was obvious to me that the experience was different for each woman. What was that experience like for you and what did you gain from the classes?

MO: I took the classes more for research to kind of feel what it takes to really climb the pole, and also I took a couple of S Factor classes to understand what sensual movement means. I’ve danced most of my life and I’m a yoga practitioner so I am into fitness, but this is very different, and just moving to the music really awakens emotions. It also depends on the kind of music you put on. Every time I move—I don’t do it often because I’m more of a yoga person—I feel that there is a reconnect to my body, and it is very powerful. When I was filming, it allowed me to have a deeper understanding because I was doing my own practice to have a deeper understanding of what the women were going through. It is such a release. Especially if I have a stressful day and at the end of the day I put music on and I move, and I have a pole in my yoga studio now, I don’t usually get on it, but I really think sensual movement as I witnessed both on myself and others, is a very powerful tool to reclaim your feminine power.

KT: And what was striking to me in the film besides watching women release their emotions while pole dancing was when Sheila would tell them to simply let their emotions out and cry openly. It hit me that I don’t think I’ve ever done that in my life as a woman and what a release that must be.

MO: Yes, and also doing it in such a supportive environment where everybody is vulnerable, truthful and authentic. That really helps, so you don’t do it by yourself, or in a therapy session one-on-one, that you really have a community around you that genuinely wants you to heal and succeed. It’s a very powerful feeling to do that within a community of supportive women.

KT: I can only imagine. The documentary expresses a lot of wishes for women. Whether it be embracing one’s body, rejecting shame, reclaiming confidence, or acknowledging that sex workers deserve basic respect. What is something that you wish for women of the world or for people in general? What do you hope will be taken away from Strip Down, Rise Up?

MO: First of all, what I wish people will take away from the documentary is seeing sensuality of women in a different way, that it is ours to have and to own, that if we want to dress in a certain way that doesn’t mean we are inviting anybody to touch or assault us. I want men to also understand and listen and see what women are going through every day, everywhere in the world. The listening and learning is extremely important. It can inspire people to start moving and reconnecting. I’ve gotten amazing reactions from both men and women on Instagram, for example men saying, “I want to get in touch with my femininity so I can understand my spouse better. There are a lot of things I learned from the film that I’m going to deal with and hear my spouse in a different way.” So that is amazing for me to hear. I also think that, in the most practical way, we sit all day and we don’t move. I think any kind of movement that reconnects you to your body; it doesn’t have to be pole dancing, any kind of movement is a must for all of us to release whatever issues we’re having. And of course in terms of sex workers and strippers, strippers invented not the actual pole dance but the sensual pole dance moves. They are the pioneers. There’s nothing wrong with stripping or sex work. I want people to understand that it is a line of work that should not be looked down upon and there is an art to it as well.

KT: Of course. Again, thank you so much for your time, Michele. I think this documentary will open a lot of eyes and minds. It meant so much to me and I know it will mean a lot to others who watch it. I will absolutely recommend that anyone and everyone watch it.

MO: Thank you so much. I did want to add because I didn’t stress this enough: it is for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re fit or just starting, or what body type you have. It will help women see themselves and the beauty that they have no matter what they feel about it or what other people say, or the voices inside them. I urge women to try just to move in any way and love themselves just the way they are.

Make sure you check out Strip Down, Rise Up on Netflix, regardless of your sex, body type, or any misconceptions that you may have about pole dancing. It is impossible not to feel any number of emotions after watching these amazing women tell their stories. If you want to check out S Factor and their classes, their website is http://www.sfactor.com.

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Written by Kendall Tinston

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