The dance studio in Carson has pink walls with empowering quotes on them: Fierce. Powerful. Fearless. They are words that describe the two women in the studio dancing on one of the nine poles facing huge mirrors.

Marie Rolla and Hara Lim both effortlessly spin and dance on the poles to the beat of the music blaring over the speakers. The vibe in the room is fun and welcoming with lots of encouragement. With few directions, the dancers just have a good time and seem to be at ease with themselves and each other.

A year ago, both Marie and Hara would’ve never crossed paths. Marie is a hair stylist and Hara a webcam model who spends most of her time at home. Living in Long Beach was about the only thing they shared in common, yet, they found each other, and became fast friends through Thicc Strip, a DIY strip show event meant to show people that every body is beautiful.

The event, held last winter, was co-founded by comedian and writer Alison Stevenson, who was tired of not seeing a wide diversity of body types in clubs and so decided to make her own event with co-founders Linda Douglas and Elizabeth Flores.

Marie and Hara were beyond thrilled to hear about Thicc Strip and jumped at the opportunity to be involved.

“I was so excited to see this event that I about cried,” Marie said “There are events for big girls, but it’s all fetishized… It’s creepy dudes that are going to want to look at your feet.”

“It feels magical to find community and everything that I believe,” Hara said. “It’s about positivity, about people of color and about acceptance. Just to be a part of it is just so wonderful. It’s beyond me.”

Because of Thicc Strip, Marie and Hara were able to connect with other Long Beach dancers and now practice at the Carson dance studio, sometimes popping up in each others’ Instagram accounts. Rolla, an experienced pole dancer, and Hara, a beginner still learning, document their process through social media, showing all manner of bruises and acro skills in their videos.

Marie Rola, left and Hara Lim, right, get into position to share a routine on the pole at Romance and Dance in Carson on Tuesday March 12, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez.

Thicc Strip, initially a one-off concept to be held at a strip club, became bigger than its three founders imagined when emails and DMs came pouring in from people wanting to participate in the show whether it be as a dancer, vendor or volunteer.

“Applications were first-come, first-serve and after a while, there was enough demand that they had to cut it off,” Stevenson said. “The fact that people are so into doing this without even knowing who I am or knowing who we are and just being like ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ That was very cool to me.”

The sold-out event was held in a warehouse space with both men and women coming out to support the 11 dancers in the show. Some came from as far away as the Bay Area to watch, and two bachelorette parties were in attendance.

“Thicc Strip definitely gave me a huge validation that I never expected,” Linda Douglas said. “To see such an overwhelmingly positive response from complete strangers gave me the reassurance that others too are fed up with the cookie cutter beauty standards that are given to us.”

When asked what surprised them the most about that night, one reaction came to mind.

“Tears,” Elizabeth Flores said. “Tears of overwhelming joy, acceptance, and love. I had people leaving the show telling me how empowered they felt that someone with a similar body to theirs could perform on stage and look sexy as hell doing it.”

Growing up, Marie was a self-described tomboy who liked to play contact sports like ice hockey and rugby. She sees pole dancing as similar in some ways, not so much in others.

“I kind of liked rougher sports and more technical things, so this was weird for me to try to just be sexy. I’ve never really done that,” she said. “So that was a whole different challenge for me. I didn’t know if I was going to like it straight off the bat, but I ended up loving it. I think the pole element makes me drawn to it because it is sort of aggressive. You [mess] your body up on that thing and you come home from being on the pole all day and your legs are bruised and black.”

Hara had a rough upbringing and credits sex work for helping her through her difficult life.

“Growing up I was incredibly poor and I never had anyone to help me,” Hara said. “The day of my high school graduation, I also turned 18. The very next day I was in the club, seeking out peace and financial freedom.”

Marie has been surprised with the support she has gotten from friends and family. When she had the other dancers over to her house to rehearse on the poles she has in her garage, her mother made them a Thanksgiving dinner.

“I told her, ‘So mom, just so you know, I’m doing this thing and I’m helping other girls out,’” Marie said. “And my garage door is slightly open and all she can see is hooker shoes lined up. My mom is really cool. My mom knows I danced and she was supportive about it.”

Marie’s boyfriend was in the crowd the night of Thicc Strip. While she was on stage, he could be heard yelling “You go babe!” and “That’s my girlfriend!” Marie says that her boyfriend has always been supportive and, fortunately, isn’t the jealous type.

Hara has lost contact with some family members over her line of work. Instead, she says, she’s chosen to be surrounded by those who  support and love her.

“The last time I can recall someone from my family speaking on me and my line of work they used the words ‘nasty’ and ‘stupid,’” Hara said. “I’m not surprised, I come from a very traditional South East Asian family. My friends, on the other hand, I get to choose, and they are wonderful beings that are so incredibly supportive. They only ever care to see me prosper and that I’m healthy and happy. I make it a point to only surround myself with love.”

Both women wanted to send a message to people attending that it’s OK if you don’t fit the beauty standards that are put out in the media.

“Sometimes body-positivity is predominately preached for plus-size women,” Marie said. “But most women face negative thoughts about their bodies regardless of their weight. I wanted to get on stage in the worlds smallest G-string and flaunt my imperfections to show women that their bodies aren’t only normal, but also super sexy.”

“Fat is not a bad word,” Hara said. “[The show] is about breaking that standard and showing a different perspective of beauty.”

Marie Rola practices on a static pole in the studio Romance and Dance in Carson on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez.

The event has given rise to two upcoming shows. Thicc Strip will make a comeback in mid-May with dancers already lining up to participate. Marie and Hara will be performing in a new show along with other dancers called Acrostrip put on by their dance studio this June. Both events are still in the works and no date has been set but the excitement around it has been growing.

“To see such an overwhelmingly positive response from complete strangers gave me the reassurance that others too are fed up with the cookie cutter beauty standards that are given to us,” Douglas said. “It also gave validation that we weren’t the only ones that wanted to see wider representation. We are so used to getting degrading remarks from strangers and here we were able to create a safe space, where people came as they were, and owning who they are. It was so refreshing.”

Back at the studio, Marie and Hara laugh and joke as they twirl around the pole. There is no judgment or scrutiny on how their form, or bodies look while they dance.

“Our bodies are literal life creators,” Marie said. “And if you’re going to let a few stretch marks get you down you gotta dig deep and find another reason to love your body.”

For more information on both upcoming events follow @ThiccStripOfficial  and @Acrostrip on Instagram for future announcements.