With their gravity-defying moves around the dance pole, sky-high heels and perfect hair, strippers can be nothing short of magical.
Kelsea Polk, a dancer and pole instructor in Los Angeles, spends her workdays twirling gracefully around a pole in 8-inch platform heels, teaching her students to do the same. Part acrobat, part athlete, part artist, she makes it look easy, but a stripper’s job is anything but. “It’s a really hard hustle,” said Polk, who performs under the stage name Kelsea Alabama.
Seven years ago, Polk was a wannabe dancer in Portland, Oregon, without any formal dance training, save for a few ballet classes. “I had wanted to be a stripper for a while,” she said, “but I was really shy when I was younger.” After signing up for pole classes and mastering a few tricks, Polk finally gathered up the nerve to audition at a club, where she landed her first gig as a stripper. Eventually, she saved up enough money for a move to LA. Now, she’s a veteran dancer at clubs and pole shows all over the city.
Polk’s success as a dancer is the result of years of hard work, a now-unshakeable sense of confidence, and just as crucially, she said, the right shoes. “To me, shoes are the most important aspect of the whole thing,” said Polk. Her platform heels are not only responsible for creating the classic stripper silhouette — they’re an essential piece of workwear that serve a functional purpose on the job.
Polk performs and teaches in shoes from Pleasers, the iconic footwear brand worn by most pole-dancers and synonymous with “stripper shoes.” The style, with a thick platform and heels that typically start around 6 inches, is industry standard.
“The thing that makes a pole shoe specific is the design, and it’s essential,” Polk said. “The shoe is used as an apparatus, and not just as a shoe.”
Dancers use their footwear to keep from falling during complicated inversions, crisscrossing those heels to keep them securely locked to the pole. The height of the shoes creates the illusion of super-long legs, while the high platform prevents them from becoming full-on torture devices.
“They get really, really tall but it’s the platform, not the arch, that’s getting taller,” Polk explained. “If I go out and need to wear heels, like just going out on a regular night doing whatever, I’ll definitely wear Pleasers because they’re really comfortable.”
Compare that to wearing high stilettos, she said, when “you’re like, ‘These are the worst shoes. Why am I torturing myself?’”
Sliding on a pair of Pleasers can be intimidating for first-time pole students, but with the right fit, Polk said, they’re not as scary as they seem. “It is really important to find the right height and size. If they’re too big, you’re going to be flopping around on your ankle. If they’re too small, then your toes are going to be hanging off and it’s not going to be comfortable,” she said.
Pleasers come in a wide variety of colors and styles, including elaborate rhinestone-covered, rainbow-shimmering, 10-inch pairs, but Polk usually opts for a low-key look.
“Working at a club, it’s not super important to have a flashy heel. A lot of girls will wear just 7 inches because they’re easy to just be walking around and standing in,” she said. “I don’t often see girls at the strip club wearing the 9-inch or the 10-inch ones. Those even come with a warning that they’re not for dance.” Polk said she and other experienced dancers sometimes wear them for special routines or photo shoots, but they’re not ideal for an average night at work.
Besides her shoes, Polk doesn’t wear much to work. Again, that’s for a functional reason. Skin-to-pole contact is necessary to keep dancers from slipping off mid-flip. “You want to wear as little as possible,” Polk said.
She works mostly in “bikini clubs,” where the female dancers’ breasts and genitalia stay more or less covered. In California, dancer dress codes are strictly enforced in order to comply with state laws regarding alcohol and nudity in strip clubs. “If there’s alcohol served, then there’s no nudity and vice versa. And if it’s [a] topless [club], it’s just beer and wine licenses,” Polk said. “A lot of bikini clubs have rules like you can’t wear thongs and you have to keep a certain percent of your butt covered.”
According to Polk, dancewear stores tend to offer limited size options, so in order to both follow the dress code and perform in clothes that fit comfortably, she makes most of her own dance outfits.
“I get really, really uncomfortable when I have my hip being cut into with bikini bottoms, so I just make my own. If I’m working in a club, I just have a very basic scrunched-butt bikini bottoms that I make, and then sometimes I’ll do something high waisted. Leotards are also really great and versatile,” Polk said. “It’s mostly just: What do I feel like? Am I feeling like I ate a whole pizza and so tonight I’m going to wear a leotard? Or do I feel like I went to pole classes all week and my abs are showing? And then I’ll wear smaller outfits.”
On her face, Polk uses a few simple makeup products to draw attention to her eyes: just fake lashes, eyeliner and something on her brows.
“I use Wet n Wild liquid eyeliner. It’s like $1.99, and it’s the only liquid eyeliner that works. It’s the best. It stays on however long I need it to stay on,” Polk said. “If I’m going to work at a strip club, I have my Ardell brand fake lashes that I get downtown in Santee Alley or if I’m at Target. With those, I definitely use a clear lash glue because it gets everywhere, and if you have clear stuff, you can’t really see it.”
When she’s teaching a choreography class, Polk usually sticks to sports bras and homemade leggings. But for teaching “pole tricks,” where you need skin contact, she said she wears “a pair of high-waisted bottoms that I’ve made.”
After a shift at a club or a challenging pole class, Polk usually goes home in baggy sweatpants or leggings and a sweatshirt — her real “uniform.” When she’s not working, she lives in soft, comfy clothes and goes makeup-free.
“In my daily life, I’m just usually in leggings and a sports bra and crop top,” Polk said, “whatever’s most comfortable.”