I’m staring at my own face in the mirror, and wondering if I’ve ever truly done it before. Taking in the curve of my eyebrows, the shape of my jaw; noticing my dimples and the pinprick scar on my nose. I’m struggling to remember the last time I contemplated my reflection without seeing it through a prism of self-judgement.
“I am beautiful,” Madam Storm cries, and I repeat it after her. “I am enough. I am a woman. I am here.”
I’d signed up to the STRUT masterclass expecting to learn how to walk in heels like a boss, but things just got real. Female confidence coach Madam Storm uses six-inch stilettos as a tool to get women not just strutting their stuff, but owning their space – physically and psychologically. In Vauxhall’s BASE dance studios, 30 of us – from our early 20s to middle age, and from all walks of life – are sizing up our fishnet stocking-clad, stilettoed selves in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. We’re starting to realise that really, really looking at yourself (in any context that doesn’t involve make-up brushes and spanx) is not an easy thing to do. But then again, neither is sultrily sauntering towards a group of strangers, running your fingers through your hair and over your waist in a manner you’d possibly not even attempt in your own bedroom.
STRUT is one of a growing number of London-based empowerment classes of this kind. Pineapple Dance Studios have their own popular strut class (Strutology) while, on a similar tack, Ruby Rare runs sex-positive workshops for grown-ups. Tantra Dating and partnered yoga are also gaining popularity. London’s getting sexier, and exploring the idea that owning your sensuality means more than giving your sex life a boost.
Not many people would be able to get me to publicly perform a sexy catwalk. But within the first five minutes of STRUT, it’s clear that Madam Storm has a special gift for creating a safe, empowering environment that glows with sisterhood. We stand in a circle and introduce ourselves, clapping reassuringly at each other’s backstories. One woman has just begun chemotherapy. Another is going through a bad break up. Others are there to celebrate a birthday. All are just as keen to support each other as Madam Storm is.
“In this class, we don’t say ‘yes’,” our teacher begins, dressed in a black leotard, over-the-knee velvet boots and a jaunty trilby. “We say ‘YAAASSSS, HONEY’.”
Over the next three hours, we learn six different ‘struts’ – styles of walking in heels that get progressively racier. Madam Storm eases us in with the ‘power strut’. “Every day when you walk out of the house, you’re on stage,” she tells us. “So put your phone away and own it. Core engaged, shoulders back, tits UP.”
We do just that, before learning variations: walking with our hands firmly planted on our waists, or swaying our hips for a sassier effect. It all comes with positive affirmations, led by Madam Storm, to a Beyoncé backing track. “I am powerful!” I shout as I stride towards my reflection, all hips, heels and hair flicks. “I am perfect.” I’m well aware of how hard I’d cringe saying these things in any other context – and increasingly aware of how that might be a problem.
We take a prosecco break halfway through, before things are taken up a notch. We repeat positive affirmations to our mirror reflections before trying out more seductive struts, which involve slowly running our hands over our necks, hips and thighs as we walk.
“The first thing you need to do to turn someone else on, is to turn yourself on,” says Madam Storm. “Don’t be afraid to touch yourself.” “I’m not!” shouts out one of the strutters, to much hilarity. Together, we explore our more sensual sides to soulful RnB, each woman’s strut met with enthusiastic whoops of applause.
But there’s one final challenge before we can kick off our stilettos (and we’re all starting to feel the burn). Madam Storm grabs a megaphone and, in pairs, we power strut outside to the Albert Embankment. A trio of drunk, older men leer at us from the next-door Wetherspoons, but there’s power in numbers and not one of us bats an eyelid. “What other people think of me is NONE OF MY BUSINESS!” we scream, in unison. Madam Storm holds the megaphone to my lips and I call out, “I am powerful,” into the grey, drizzly breeze. I’m finally starting to believe it. And I’m not the only one.
“Today has been really empowering,” says one strutter as we arrive back at the studio. “This is my third time going through breast cancer and looking at yourself in the mirror is really difficult. It’s not something you do when you have a cancer diagnosis.”
It’s a sentiment shared by others in the room. “I’ve had a lot of surgery and through that process I felt like I’d become disengaged with my femininity,” says another participant. “This is getting me back in touch with who I am.”
It takes courage to walk tall, especially in the face of life’s most earth-shattering curveballs. My afternoon at STRUT has left me in awe of the strength shown by these women. In their honour, I keep my heels on, and power strut to the Tube to begin my Saturday night. Shoulders back, core engaged, tits up. What other people think of me is none of my business.
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