With the lights dimmed and the music bumping, I scanned the room to take in the sight of five or so cold, metal floor-to-ceiling poles. My stomach flip-flopped as I started my "sexy walk" up to one of the poles. And my inner monologue reminded me to slow down, run my hands over the curves of my body and drag my toe behind me as I walked. I'd been instructed: Grab hold of the pole with both arms high above your head. Continue your sexy walk around the pole.
Now it was all-or-nothing time. I hooked my left calf on the pole and mentally crossed my fingers, hoping I would make it all the way around. Mid-spin, I threw my head back seductively and felt my hair whip around sexily with me.
No, this wasn't an "exotic dancing" audition. I was one of about 20 women participating in an introductory class of Sheila Kelley's S Factor, a combination of ballet, yoga and, yes, pole dancing.
Although S Factor is known for its fitness benefits, I wasn't there for the workout. I came for the sex ‑- or rather, sexual curiosity. Several years ago, I went to a highly regarded strip club in London, mostly just for the bragging rights. But while I was there, I became enthralled by the way the dancers could move their bodies. I, of course, have absolutely zero rhythm ‑- but still, I wondered what it would be like to possess such carnal power.
When I walked into actress and S Factor founder Kelley's New York City studio, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be sleazy? Would I feel fat?
The women in my group were wearing yoga clothes and looked to be in their late 20s to early 30s ‑- but apparently an almost-80-year-old woman has been "S-ing," as it's called, for years. And the room looked like a cross between a yoga studio and an upscale spa. Plush yoga-type mats lined the wood floor, and soft lighting created a soothing sanctuary vibe. Two things caught my attention: the poles, obviously, and the mirrors ‑- or rather, the lack thereof.
I would later learn that the reason there are no mirrors is so you don't judge the way you look. My original assumption was that to be an "S Factor girl," one had to possess a gorgeous, perfect body. After all, celebs such as Teri Hatcher and Lisa Rinna were some of the first to promote it.
But as Kelley explains, S Factor allows women to fall in love with their bodies the way that most men fall in love with women's bodies. Women are constantly critiquing themselves, and having no mirrors, says Kelley, makes the statement that "you're supposed to look just like you. You are your perfect icon."
And it was true: Without the mirrors, I didn't find myself worrying as much about whether I looked fat or was doing a move correctly. I focused, as we were instructed, on the way the movements made me feel. I was conscious of the way my curves felt as I dipped into a series of hip circles, and the way my back arched as I tilted my head back and looked toward the ceiling.
The beginning of the class felt much like a yoga or Pilates class. As things heated up, however, I was a little taken aback. Although it was part of the reason I went to the class, I wasn't prepared for such overtly sexual behavior. We were encouraged to run our hands over our breasts if it felt right and slap our asses if we were feeling sassy.
The two-hour class consisted of a warm-up/workout and then pole exercises. The instructors taught us how to walk and move in a way that would accentuate our shape. The main trick they taught us was a "simple" spin that looked much easier to perform than it was. I barely made it all the way around the pole the first time I tried, and my legs were constantly getting tangled together. Half an hour later, though, I had it down.
Learning the pole was as much about the women in the class showing our support for each other as it was about getting the trick right. In fact, as we cheered each other on, I realized this wasn't about my love handles or lack of rhythm ‑- or even men. It was about women loving our bodies and bonding over our sexuality.
Kelley compares the experience to men who connect over a football game. "It's about celebrating each other's beauty and power," she says. "We're giving women a venue for it. But instead of scoring a touchdown, they're scoring a hip circle."
Kelley started S Factor out of her California home in 2001 after seeing the benefits of the movement while preparing for her role as a stripper in the movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana. She says S Factor is just for women, and she's the first to admit that on top of the fitness and self-esteem benefits, it's also good for your love life.
"I had new moves my husband couldn't believe," she says.
S Factor is supposed to bring out your erotic inner self. The seven levels of the program incorporate props such as stripper shoes and outfits for women to play with to help draw out that aspect of their personality, Kelley says.
After only the intro class, I had a sense of just how powerful it could be. I wasn't about to run out and audition at the Scores strip club or anything, but weeks later I still find myself doing my "sexy walk" as I'm getting dressed, or running a pointed toe up the opposite leg while I'm lying in bed.
And every time I look at the pole on the subway, I'm tempted to perform my spinning trick.
For more information about S Factor, visit SFactor.com.