Working the curves

CAREERS AND ED: Pole-dancing classes graduate from the stripper cliche

Pole dancing classes have become increasingly popular in recent years, and strippers aren't the ones getting schooled. Lawyers, doctors, social workers, stay-at-home moms, even postmenopausal women with gray hair are turning to a turn around the pole to learn more about their bodies and their sexuality. From group classes at gyms to private lessons in home studios, pole dancing can be now learned at any comfort level.

Once a week, eight to 10 women gather in the small, dimly lit, mirrorless classrooms at San Francisco's S-Factor (2159 Filbert, SF. 415-440-6420, to learn pole tricks, stripping techniques, and lap dances. "We like to say that you're teaching your body a new language," says Deb Arana, an instructor at S-Factor. "You need to slow down, think into your curves, play in your girly skin." The classes start with warm-ups based on core strengthening, and moves incorporate yoga, ballet and Pilates.

Each class builds on the one before, and by week three women get to wear their six-inch stripper heels. "Some women are confident enough that they will just carry their heels while walking down the sidewalk or riding the bus, while others tuck them away in their bags," says Arana. "Its amazing to see the changes in the women by the end of the class. I'd say 99 percent are not dancers, but they can flow and move in such a graceful way because the routines are so intuitive."

But perhaps the more significant learning experience comes from the personal and spiritual growth that occurs in the sessions. The small S-Factor classes, which usually have less than a dozen students each, become tight-knit communities. Positive reinforcement from classmates helps women to try new moves, and they encourage one another to take their dancing to a higher level.

Women take the lessons in order to identify with their sexuality as much as they do to get physical exercise. "I thought that the main complaint I would hear would be about being overweight," Arana reveals, "But it's actually women coming in saying 'I don't feel sexy, I've never felt sexy.'<0x2009>"

That attitude changes over the course of the class. "Women become conscious of their feminine and sexual selves," says Arana. "It's not just because we're giving them new moves, but because they're comfortable in their own skins."

"Pole dancing becomes an addiction and a way of life," she explains, a surprising note of conviction entering her soothing, honey-tinted voice. "It's such a journey of self discovery."

S-Factor, whose classes are offered nationwide and bills itself as "the original striptease and pole-dancing-inspired workout," was started by actress Sheila Kelley, who found an intense sense of empowerment in the dancers she watched while researching a role in the movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000). She claims to have started the S-Factor workout to share her newfound physical and emotional state with other women.

Carrying six-inch heels on the bus and learning how to wrap your legs around a pole properly in front of several people is not for all potential pole dancers, though. One-on-one lessons in personal studios can be arranged in San Francisco as well. A former exotic dancer who calls herself Cheri (and who now maintains a career as an economist) runs private lessons out of a classy, modern studio in a quiet residential neighborhood. There is no indication that pole dancing takes place in the unassuming light blue building.