Viewing pole dancing from a fresh new angle, Michèle Ohayon’s Strip Down, Rise Up is an illuminating documentary in which diverse women find a salve for their trauma.
It’s exceedingly rare to see any depiction of pole dancing in popular media that doesn’t also feature house music, men throwing bills, and some neon lighting. Everything from Hustlers to Starz’s (admittedly excellent) P-Valley has viewed the pole pastime in this same gaudy light, so it comes as quite a surprise that there are none of these things in Strip Down, Rise Up, which is now streaming on Netflix.
Far from men throwing money, there are scarcely any men at all in this slightly overlong and too wide-ranging documentary feature, which candidly follows a couple dozen women, all students of celebrity pole dancing instructor Sheila Kelley, through their getting-to-know-you introductory classes. But the women, too, are atypical, or at least many of them are, which is part of the point. Sheila’s classes are not for the stripper archetype, but for women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, attitudes, and cultures; all are united by a degree of damage and trauma that strutting about in platform high-heels is sure to help with. And, by and large, it certainly seems to.
You couldn’t say whether it’s pole dancing specifically or simply the act of women getting together and healthily sharing their anxieties and traumas that does the trick, but I don’t suppose it matters. The dancing is, at least in part, a metaphor anyway, a symbolic representation of casting off doubt, embracing sexuality, and healing myriad wounds. One assumes that Ohayon herself isn’t all that interested in making a distinction between pole dancing and group therapy anyway, or identifying the line where one begins and the other ends, if such a line exists at all. Strip Down, Rise Up has the tone and enthusiasm of an advertisement, and doesn’t bother to offer any downsides or contrary perspectives.
This might be a problem for some, but it wasn’t for me. The focus being on the women and their issues, almost all of which are gendered or were inflicted upon them by men, as is to be expected, helps to create a similar atmosphere in the viewing experience as what one might imagine was in the room at the time. The only downside is that there are too many women with interesting stories and nowhere near enough time to unpack them all. No sooner has a victim of disgraced Olympic doctor Larry Nasser identified herself than she’s shunted aside in favor of a Cirque du Soleil aerialist. The feature would have benefited from a tighter focus.
But the point is clear, and the overall, empathetic message difficult to argue with. Where it counts, Ohayon knows that replicating the evenly-distributed attention of the classes in the filmmaking itself is truest to the point. This is a space where everyone can fearlessly be themselves. We could always use a few more of those.