When I first heard of Sheila Kelley's S Factor, I snickered a bit -- my friend Kandy invited me to come to a pole dancing party and it sounded fun and giddly and girly and bit dirty (in a good way), so I said "Sign me up!" Kandy bought me a sassy pair of booty shorts in honor of the occasion, and we had a blast taking a 2 hour class with our girlfriends, during which we were taught to move slowly, "feel our fur," circle our hips, walk sexy, do a pole trick, and dance on a wall in a very slow, sultry way that I knew would blow my hubby's socks off (it did). I had a blast at our S Factor party, but I didn't really get S Factor.
Then, a few months later, I interviewed Sheila Kelley as part of the research for my book What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend, because I had a feeling she could help me with a few of the sexual confidence questions. I instantly fell in love with Sheila, and after talking with her, I realized that there was way more to Sheila Kelley and S Factor than pole tricks. Later, I saw Sheila speak to a group of S Factor students about the fourth wave of feminism, the offenses society inflicts upon us as women, and a new way to embrace the feminine in an empowering way, and I fell in love with her. But I didn't really understand the full breadth of what Sheila and her work is all about until this past weekend, when I attended her first S Factor retreat, a 4 day intensive program in San Diego.
All in, baby
Having only done the one introductory class, I was a little reticent about what lay ahead for me. Would I be in good enough shape to survive seven hours of dance class every day? Would I fit in? Would I feel slutty or cheap dancing on a pole and learning how to do a strip tease? Would I feel sexy? But when I arrived at the first event and was invited into a big room with 40 other women, where 40 massage therapists spent an hour helping us get into our bodies while powerful music played, I knew I was safe -- held in the nurturing arms of a force much bigger than any one of us.
What happened for the rest of the retreat defies words. I could explain how I learned how to do a "cat prowl" or a "half pint" or "the flirt," but that wouldn't explain why I cried every time I watched the women in my class dance. I could tell you about the incredible five course Goddess meals that Sheila crafted with healthy chef Sherie Farah, but that wouldn't explain the energy in that room as we nourished our bodies and souls after a full day of learning to trust the movement of the divine feminine within us. I could tell you about the way the sun rose over the ocean or the way the moon lit our faces or the way our knees were cradled by the sand, but that wouldn't help you understand the way we learned to trust the emotions that unlocked when we trusted our bodies to move they way they've been moving naturally since the dawn of time, until society told us it wasn't okay to trust our instincts. I could tell you about the cleansing release ceremony we did when we wrote down what we wanted to let go of and burned it, threw rose petals in the ocean, held hands and chanted sacred songs, and chose touchstones to remind us of who we are, but it wouldn't quite describe how God showed up and blessed our feminine campfire.
Those wonderful experiences aside, the primary goal of the retreat was to put us in touch with our erotic creature. As Sheila wrote in her book (and Oprah read to the world):
"There exists in every woman a hidden Erotic Creature, a center of sexual power and self-knowledge. She may be buried beneath a pinstriped business suit or life next to a man whose snores lull her to sleep; she may hide a body whose owner lives in mortal fear of full-length mirrors and bikinis. But trust me: she's there. She's the wild, feline, untamed part of you, your sexual alter ego and the opposite of the "good girl" or "little lady." Some of us know her better than others do, but I would venture to guess that your Erotic Creature hasn't seen nearly enough light of day." -Sheila Kelley
This was Sheila's primary goal for us during this retreat -- to coax us into inviting our Erotic Creature (EC) into the light of day, where we could discover what she looks like, what name she prefers to be called, how she likes to dress, what words she likes to scream, how she longs to move.
My EC freaked the hell out of me.
She is nothing like what you might think I am. She is not cute. She is not a cheerleader or someone who inspires others. She's not intellectual or a healer or a published author. She's definitely not a nice girl. On the contrary, my EC is a bitch. She's a bratty teenager who does not want to do as her mother tells her. She's in-your-face, rebellious, pissed off, and more than a little raunchy. She likes thigh high black stiletto boots, denim, fingerless gloves, and torn fishnets. She loves to grind in deep hip circles and do the nasty frisk against a wall and she digs swinging around the pole, not so much for the acrobatics of it, but because she gets to land on the ground and come up ass first with an in-your-face gaze that'll pierce right through you and make you quiver. She does not like to be given orders, and if you try, she will stare you down with hot, sultry eyes that tell you where to go. She's tough and fierce, but when you look underneath the bravado, she's tender and vulnerable, and she cries A LOT. She's hurt and wounded and angry and she is mad as hell that I have been ignoring her for most of my life. She is begging to be seen -- to be witnessed -- to be valued.
The retreat culminated in the grand finale, the Erotic Creature ball, the coming out party for our ECs. In the safety of Sheila's nurturing arms and in the sacred space of my class and the company of my S Factor sisters, my EC (she likes to be called Alexis) got to come out of hiding -- and she came out with a vengeance, as did the ECs of 40 other women. I was the second to dance, and Alexis showed up in fierce, F-you form. She let her freak flag fly, embodied the emotions of how the experience felt for me, and allowed me to turn off my brain and turn on my body. Then Sheila acknowledged my EC, and the other women howled and applauded and meowed and screamed. And Alexis was seen -- truly seen -- and accepted with a tenderness that left me in tears.
With my coming out behind me, I got to relax into the role of bearing witness to the sensual alter-egos of all the other women. And these women totally blew me away. The emotional core of their ECs ranged all of the map. They were soulful, angry, vulnerable, hungry, celebratory, heart-breaking, humble, wicked, naughty, playful, sad, deathly, jubilant, tender, dangerous, desperate, stormy- and most of all, they were unbelievably honest and authentic. Our ECs revealed a part of us that had been hidden for so long that the unveiling was often turbulent, but at the same time, earth-shatteringly beautiful. That's what really blew me away- the beauty that each women revealed through the movement of their bodies, the stories they told, the hearts they exposed, the raw core of sexual vulnerability, the intense longing, the sadness at being locked up by societal conventions that threaten our very essence.
I was all emotion
By the end of the EC ball, I was a quivering, blubbering mascara-stained mess who couldn't get out of her chair long after everyone else had gotten up to get dressed and move on to lunch (I'm crying now, writing this, thinking back to how I felt like a raw nerve, exposed and tender). Sheila saw me, weeping in my chair and asked me to tell her how I was feeling, but I had no words. I was all emotion -- residing purely in the natural feminine state that doesn't resemble my normal existence at all. Normally, I'm in control, I'm in my thinking brain, I'm cheerful, I'm optimistic, I'm loving. But as Sheila told me later, I'm so "positive" that Sheila didn't trust me at first because everyone has a dark side -- and if you're not exposing it at all, you're not being as authentic as you might think you are.
Sheila held me as I sobbed -- as I felt -- and with my head on her shoulder, I felt more vital -- more alive -- than I have maybe ever in my entire life. I didn't feel like that when I gave birth to Siena. I didn't feel that way when my father died. I didn't feel so deeply during 9/11 or on my wedding day. Until that moment, I didn't realize that only part of me has been allowed to truly be me. As much as Owning Pink is all about being authentic, I've been cutting off a part of myself -- as so many of these other women have -- that I have been thwarting my own opportunity to live richly in this wild and precious life. The key was to fully embody my own skin and to unleash my Erotic Creature -- to have her witnessed while bearing witness to that same aliveness in other women. This was the missing link -- that thing that I've known has been missing but have had no clue how to open up.
Others saw Sheila holding me, and Sheila called my S sisters to surround me as I cried. They became my mirrors, reflecting back to me the beauty they saw within me, the way I have done for so many other women in The Woman Inside Project. I felt seen, and valued, and safe, and nurtured. And that felt unbelievably, beyond-words fabulous.
And today, I am just beginning to process, to figure out what to do with this awakening, to learn how to integrate my EC into the rest of my life. Being a writer, this is my first step, to give her a voice, to reveal her to you, to invite her out of the closet so we can begin to more fully integrate. Right now, I'm in LA, sitting in Sheila Kelley's home while she sleeps after giving so much of herself at the retreat that she could barely climb up the stairs and into her bed last night. There is a pole here in her living room, and as soon as I finish writing this, I'm going to walk over to it, wrap my bruised leg around it, and see how my EC feels like moving today. Now that I'm learning to know her, maybe I can start to listen.
Trusting you to bear witness to me,
Photo: Natalie Moser photography, http://www.sassysessions.com