S Factor's Sheila Kelley on the importance of 'reclaiming your feminine body': 'Sexuality and eroticism is something we tuck away'

Actress and S Factor founder Sheila Kelley on the importance of movement and feminine embodiment. (Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Actress and S Factor founder Sheila Kelley on the importance of movement and feminine embodiment. (Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

You probably recognize actress Sheila Kelley from her film and TV credits ranging from L.A. Law and Singles to Lost, Gossip Girl and, more recently, The Good Doctor, in which she's appeared in a recurring role opposite real-life husband Richard Schiff. (The couple of more than 30 years have two grown children.)

Kelley's buzziest screen credit of late, however, is the 2021 Netflix documentary Strip Down, Rise Up, which showcases her work as the founder of S Factor, the celeb-endorsed wellness sensation that seeks to empower women through pole work and sensual movement. It's a practice Kelley first discovered while researching a role as a stripper for the 2000 film Dancing at the Blue Iguana. More than 20 years later, she continues to lead retreats and seminars — including the upcoming "Strip & Rise" six-month online series starting next month — as a feminine embodiment leader who encourages women to tap into their own eroticism.

"I think the most mentally healthy thing I ever did was to integrate my eroticism back into my wholesome everyday life, because it created wholeness and kills shame," Kelley tells Yahoo Life of her "beautiful, emotional journey" with S Factor. "It literally crushes shame — you can't have any shame left when you integrate your sexuality and your eroticism back into your body and your everyday life. It's powerful and you don't have to pervert it, you don't have to overdo it or overexpose it. You just let it be part of you."

Here, she opens up about the importance of connection and shares how a Charles Dickens quote changed her life.

For those who haven't been to an S Factor class or seen the documentary, how do you define feminine embodiment?

[Laughs.] It's hard, because it's not a concept people think about. Sexuality and eroticism is something we tuck away somewhere in the dark corners in our culture, in our world, in our own bodies. We've tucked it away. It's a feminine movement that integrates the erotic, the emotional and the soulful through your own body, through each woman's body. It's reclaiming your feminine body with your eroticism and you're emotionality intact and expressing your fullest potential of self through your body. If you practice S Factor, you will go to the end of your days feeling like you have lived completely. You're not gonna regret a thing because you will have moved your body every single day to the fullest extent of her pleasure. If you speak to someone that hasn't done S Factor about pleasure for the body, they'll think "orgasm." But if you ask somebody who has done S Factor, "How do you find pleasure in your body?" they'll say, "I twist my shoulder and I turn my spine and I touch my arm"... Every single part of living in the body can be a pleasure-filled experience.

What works for you in terms of prioritizing your mental health?

I think mental health is something that is coming more into the forefront of people's minds, especially after COVID. COVID was really challenging to everybody, and I think isolation was part of that challenge — at least it was for me. I was really, really conscious about not being too isolated and being connected to people I deeply love. We work all over — me, Richard and the kids — so we decided to quarantine together and go through the pandemic together, the four of us. So it was incredibly uplifting and a really powerful connection, which I teach.

I teach movement, but I also teach a feminine lifestyle, and one of the geniuses of the feminine is connection. I didn't realize at the time how important focusing on connections would be, but then I saw a lot of friends and colleagues really suffering from being isolated. Not hearing anybody except for the TV or the social media, not really feeling anybody's presence. And I think we underestimate how powerful it is just to be [around] energetic people and bodies in a room together, feeling each other's breaths, feeling each other's heartbeats, regulating your body to their body. It's so beautiful, and we forget about that. So that's a big thing for me, is connection.

And then obviously I'm an embodiment advocate. I feel like we, as a culture globally, just disconnect from our bodies. We live from our armpits up — we're texting or on social media with our thumbs and our fingers and our brains — and we forget about moving the body and what happens when you move the body, all of the ... feel-good hormones released into your bloodstream, pumping through every part of your body. So movement is huge. I do my S Factor movement every single day. I dance every single day. I go out and ground myself; being outside in nature is another huge thing. It's a huge, energetic, regulatory process that I do. I just love being out in nature, hearing birds, feeling the wind, breathing in deeply, dancing, doing my S Factor outside. ... To me, mental health is body health — they're so connected.

Kelley says her studios' mirror-free approach was inspired by her learning to strip without her glasses. (Courtesy of S Factor/Dwight Vallely)
Kelley says her studios' mirror-free approach was inspired by her learning to strip without her glasses. (Courtesy of S Factor/Dwight Vallely)

S Factor is your personal movement practice, but it's also your business. Do you set boundaries to separate your teaching from your personal enjoyment, to keep those moments sacred for yourself?

When I teach, I'm focusing my attention outward. I'm doing a lot of digital teaching right now and teaching online courses to hundreds of women, so I'm focusing my attention out toward them. I'm focusing my attention toward contribution, towards serving, towards helping, towards guiding. But when it's for me, I focus my attention deep into my own sensuality, my own curves, my sexuality, my eroticism, my emotional body, and I make it much more personal.

When I'm teaching a woman for the first time, I'm teaching her the language of her body, the full expression of her feminine body and that incorporates emotions and eroticism, because all of our bodies are erotic creatures, right? So when we ignore the erotic, we cut off and compartmentalize it into darkness. But what I like to do is help people get rid of all those boxes where we compartmentalize ourselves and make us all whole. And part of that is breaking down wholesome sexuality and wholesome eroticism. So I focus out toward them, giving them critiques or giving them notes and giving them suggestions.

When I'm dancing for myself — the minimum I'll do is three songs a day — I will start in a dark room like my bedroom or my bathroom. I'll even go into a walk-in closet if I have to, because I want the privacy. I put the music on, whether it's in my headphones or just on my phone, and I may not move an inch for the first song. I might just feel the music saturate into my sensual body. I love that word, "saturating" myself, kind of like I'm feeding my body emotional music and feeding my body sensual music. I'm letting my body devour, like a drug, and just suck it up for myself. And then I might start moving in my own private way, that is less about the technique of movement, less about how you might move or how I might teach you, so it's more of a personal, private movement. And I've been doing this for 22 years, so my body is really, really fluid in this language, or her language, as opposed to what I'm teaching. I'm teaching like a new language 101 course, breaking the words down. If you're in a college class, learning a new language, you break down all the words, you break down the structure, the sentences. That's what I do when I teach. But when I'm teaching for myself, it's an emotional, sensual, sexy journey of pleasure.

Do you have any favorite songs that you move to?

So many. It depends on the emotion that I'm feeling inside. I choose music that's going to conjure whatever emotion I need to express. So if I'm feeling particularly soulful, I would play something like "Habits" by Plested. I might play something like "Cleanse" by Boatkeeper. If I'm feeling really, really fiery. I might play "Rat Trap 666" by Die Antwoord; my body loves that song so much. And if I'm feeling nostalgic, I might play Otis Redding. If I'm feeling really, really warm and yummy inside, I would play Amos Lee. Um, I absolutely love "Arms of a Woman." Another song that's really phenomenal is "River" by Leon Bridges; that's a song I'm very into these days.

I think when you start to really cultivate and reclaim every aspect of your body, it's incredible how rich and powerful music becomes and how every single song can be a sensual and sexy experience of movement [and] an erotic experience.

Do you have a mantra or piece of advice that helps guide you?

I have two that I love. I have one that's more masculine and one that's more feminine. My feminine mantra is: Whenever in doubt, dance. Whenever I have a question I need to answer, I let my body answer it through dance. I can tell if it's a yes or no by the way my body moves and the way my body feels.

And then I have a quote I live by, by Charles Dickens: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I love it so much. I adopted that quote as my guiding light, my Northern star inspiration. I started S Factor because of that quote and I said, "You know, what, I'm not going to wait around for someone else to be the my hero in my life. I'm going to do it." I loved this movement, and women were asking me to teach seminars. I was thinking, "I'm not a teacher, I'm an actor," but I started teaching and it just exploded. So that quote has led me down the road of possibility.

Your studios notably have don't have mirrors. Being an actor, you're no doubt used to being surrounded by mirrors on set, sitting in the makeup chair and being on screen — your face is everywhere. Do you remember making that conscious choice to free yourself from mirrors?

I do remember it. When I was learning in the strip club, I was being taught by two mentors of mine, two professional strippers. And [laughs] I couldn't wear my glasses during my lessons. They would teach me during the off-hours, and the mirrors in the strip club were far away, and I couldn't see myself. I felt so un-self-conscious. I left so free. I moved my body in ways that, if I had had mirrors, my judgmental brain would have come in and not allowed me to be as overt and as sexy and as free as I was without those mirrors. So when I started teaching, I could have put mirrors in the room, but I decided to let it be a more private, personal expression. It gives women the personal space to give full permission, to express whatever sensually moves through your body. And it has become one of our calling cards.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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