Not-So-Empowering: This Hollywood Pole Dance Studio Reportedly Caused 'Direct Harm' to BIPOC Women

·3 min read
Sheila Kelley of S Factor
Sheila Kelley of S Factor

“Girl Power” with an asterisk is weak.

True and sincere women empowerment movements should be inclusive and maintain equity—and it should certainly not thrive on the commodification of Black and brown bodies. The erasure and harm that occurs due to white woman-led femininity and feminism is something we’ve thoroughly covered at The Root—and it’s a tale as old as time.

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The old tale has resurfaced due to a recent exposé of Hollywood dance studio S Factor, via The Hollywood Reporter. The studio, founded by “feminine embodiment leader” Sheila Kelley, takes a “sexy fitness empowerment movement” approach to its healing-focused classes and sessions (though the company cautions “S Factor and Sheila Kelley are not licensed psychotherapists and do not provide mental health or medical care”). S Factor eventually garnered mainstream attention and success, gaining support from celebrities such as Vivica A. Fox, Eva Longoria and Kate Hudson. Hell, it even got the Oprah stamp of approval on her previous daytime talk show!


Sheila Kelley S Factor Sexy Pole Dance on Oprah! / Sheila Kelley S Factor - Global Events (YouTube)

However, what has been revealed under that “empowering” veil is a history of alleged cultural appropriation, exploitation, re-traumatization, racist practices and more.

THR’s Gary Baum, Katie Kilkenny and Rebecca Sun further report:

Conditions at S Factor came to a head last June, when a number of teachers in the Southern California studios, including several long-serving faculty members, departed the company. The immediate cause of the reckoning was one that befell many brands across America in the summer of 2020.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, S Factor’s Facebook account posted a letter from Kelley expressing solidarity with the Black members of its community. A former longtime S Factor teacher, Ronda Haralson, commented on the post: “Don’t make a statement because you feel you ‘have to.’ Make it because you are truly dedicated to changing your own racist practices.”

Haralson, who is Black, was referring to what she and others say was a culture of bigotry, microaggressions and appropriation, exacerbated by a leadership resistant to reform. “After years of reporting incidents, I would be silenced or quieted. No action was taken, not only from Sheila, but from other staff members or teachers,” she says.

“Strippers, who are predominantly Black and brown women and LGBTQIA, elevated pole dancing to an art because they survive on sex work,” former teacher Dwana White noted. “And now that pole dance is being commodified by the predominantly white ‘wellness industry,’ its origins are being erased and whitewashed while also reinforcing the patriarchy and misogynoir: the idea that women—Black women—who strip for money are not deserving of respect, but women who do it for ‘fitness and fun’ are respectable because they don’t need to do sex work to survive.”

Last summer, the company attempted to address the ongoing issues by holding a corporate town hall meeting. However, following the unproductive meeting, eight teachers who identified as BIPOC and white quit the company citing, “a long history of harmful actions on the part of Sheila and corporate...around equity and inclusion as well as direct harm done to BIPOC women.”

“There were aspects of [the S Factor practice] that could have been unbelievably positive if it had been truly inclusive of sex workers, Black and brown bodies, fat bodies, differently abled bodies, all women and femme-identifying peoples,” White said. “That would have been revolutionary, but that wasn’t the culture or message being promoted.”

Kelley has stated that the instances of appropriation at her studio were “absolutely unacceptable.” “I feel like I finally get what Ronda Haralson was trying to say to me...I was just a little bullheaded,” Kelley said. THR also reports that the S Factor sent an email to students in April confirming that the studio is conducting an “independent audit” of its curriculum and working with diversity, equity and inclusion experts to…do better.