On a recent Saturday afternoon, Amy Bond was walking home from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market with her husband when she saw something that caught her eye.
Accompanied by her mother, a 16-year-old girl was attempting to climb onto a street pole and perform a gravity-defying move known as the "human flag." Widely recognized as an advanced technique in fitness and pole-dancing communities alike, the maneuver requires individuals to hoist themselves onto a steel beam with their arms, using their core strength to suspend their body sideways so it is horizontally parallel to the ground.
Bond, who is the owner of San Francisco Pole and Dance , quietly observed as the girl tried – and failed – to hold up her body in order to execute the move.
"Of course, I come walking by and I'm like, 'Oh wait, you're doing it wrong. Let me show you how to do it,'" Bond says with a laugh. "And five minutes later, both she and her mom were doing human flags from the side of the street sign."
In the newly released Netflix documentary, "Strip Down, Rise Up," the camera closely follows Bond and her students as they prepare to compete in the Golden Gate Pole Championships, the regional competition for professional and amateur pole dancers in the Bay Area. But rather than titillate viewers, director Michèle Ohayon peels away any misconceptions they might have about the intimate, acrobatic art form by showing how it can be used as a meditative, healing practice for those who take part in it.
At S Factor – a pole-dancing studio in Los Angeles led by actress Sheila Kelley – students are also preparing to “embark on a six-month journey where they'll reconnect with their bodies through sensual movement." For Evelyn, a 50-year-old widow and a mother of two, learning to pole dance encourages her to find purpose and self-confidence as she grapples with the recent death of her husband. For Megan, a talented gymnast, it's a means to reclaim her body after undergoing years of sexual assault at the hands of Larry Nassar, the ex-famed doctor for the USA Gymnastics team.
Another student, Sally, confesses that she decided to take up classes simply so she could find strength and feel beautiful after undergoing a cancer diagnosis. Meanwhile, Patricia discusses some of the discrimination she faces in the workplace, and her frustration with her inability to confront it for fear of the stigma of being labeled as the "angry Black woman." We later learn she is also grappling with a childhood molestation. For her, pole dancing provides a release.
"Strip Down, Rise Up" was shot by a crew of all women, and that perspective feels palpable in the film's nuanced interpretation of a sport that's often hypersexualized or viewed as something that only feeds into the male gaze. But over the past decade, Bond believes that the conversation surrounding pole dancing has shifted drastically.
"One of the questions that I used to get a lot was, 'Oh, so you're a stripper?'" she said. "A lot of the sensual movement style that is incorporated into recreational pole dance comes from foundational movement developed by strippers, but they're not the same thing. And now, the thing people often say is, 'Oh my God. I have a friend who does that, and it looks really hard.'"
With the rise of pole dancing as an exotic fitness craze, dancers and athletes from all experience levels have developed an interest in the trend. Some people come for the high heels and the sensual choreography, while others pursue it as an intensive, strength-building sport highly grounded in gymnastics. And that's what Bond loves about it.
"It's so many things to so many different people. You don't have to look a certain way to try it. In fact, you don't have to change your body in order to get good at it. I mean, not to be a show-off, but these are my arm muscles," she says, flexing her biceps for me over Zoom. "The number one thing people always say is, 'Oh, I could never do that, I need upper body strength.' But I couldn't even do a pull-up when I started pole dancing. I got upper body strength because I pole danced."
Unlike Kelley's studio, Bond's classes are open to male and gender non-conforming students. Among them is Michael Pope, who has a simple purpose for showing up:
"I've never been in shape or felt sexy," he says in the documentary.
For that reason, Bond says welcoming students of all backgrounds is integral to the mission of her studio.
"I think a lot of the time, men are seeking the same thing women are, which is an outlet for expression and an outlet to feel good in their bodies," she said. "And I almost wonder if men are given fewer opportunities in the world to feel good in their skin."
Still, Bond thinks the art of pole dancing continues to be misunderstood – even within the community.
"There's some tension between people who really want to distance themselves from the stripper roots, and people who really want to celebrate them," she said. "Personally, I'm more in the camp of hey, let's honor the fact that these movement styles came from strippers and we owe them a debt in the fact that they don't get to go post all their stuff on Instagram and celebrate it. They have a job that marries the hardest parts of blue-collar work with the hardest parts of white-collar work. It's highly stigmatized and often kept secret for fear of protecting their own lives."
As a former sex worker, Bond can attest to this personally. The youngest of seven children in a strict Mormon family, she recounts in the documentary how she ran away from home to Los Angeles at the age of 19 with a desire to become an actress. That didn't quite work out, and the $2,000 she had saved up for the trip swiftly dissipated.
However, she later learned that she could make more money doing nude modeling than she did being a waitress, and eventually turned to porn for six months. Her income helped put her through four years of community college before she eventually transferred to UC Berkeley and later, law school in Boston. Now, in addition to operating her own pole-dance studios in the Bay Area (she opened another space in Oakland in 2019) she is a pro-bono family attorney.
"I know how it feels to have to hide your former profession because other people don’t like it," Bond said during our conversation, admitting that she avoided the internet for at least a decade after she left the industry and continues to be harassed by online trolls. "It was like my dirty little secret. But I want to say, I had a largely positive experience working in porn, and I really wish that we all could acknowledge that sex work is work and move on. Pole dancing as recreation has definitely evolved into different styles, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also celebrate where it came from."
It was during a cold winter in Boston that she discovered pole dancing for the first time. It may have been in the basement of a Gold's Gym, but for Bond, it felt like a haven.
"As soon as I touched the pole, I was like, 'Oh, I love this,'" she says in the documentary, her eyes wide and bright. "When I'm on the pole, I'm flying. That's crazy."
It's worth noting that the filming of "Strip Down, Rise Up" occurred prior to the pandemic, and the realm of pole dancing now obviously looks quite different. While Bond's students used to perform at local venues ranging from Grace Cathedral to the Stud, they found themselves trying to figure out how they could continue to pursue their hobby safely from their own homes.
Meanwhile, Bond was faced with the task of keeping her studios open, which was no small feat, considering the rent at her San Francisco studio racks up $11,000 alone. Luckily, she was able to work out a deal with her landlords, and PPP loans helped cover the rest.
"Honestly, if it wasn't for those loans, I'm not sure my businesses would have survived," she said.
But the community she's helped cultivate continues to thrive in virtual "pole jam" sessions, and as of last week, her San Francisco studio was given the green light to book one-on-one private lessons. Bond looks forward to the day she can lead full classes again, but in the meantime, she hopes "Strip Down, Rise Up" will shed some light on the industry and encourage newcomers to try it out.
"(Director Ohayon) really captured what it is we're trying to build here," said Bond. "It's not about looking sexy… it's about the connection that we create with each other around our weird obsession with a 45 millimeter piece of metal. And she just got us from the very beginning."
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