November 16, 2018

Her Poles Have a Particular Magnetism

A nun, a Charedi housewife and a U.N. official walk into a pole-dancing studio…

No, that’s not the beginning of a joke with a Middle Eastern twist, it’s just a random Monday at JPole, an exercise studio in Jerusalem owned by —  and the plot thickens — a religious settler.

Originally from Bet El, a Jewish community a stone’s throw from Ramallah, Ayelet Finkelstein opened her studio in the city center six years ago with strong ideals and a weak business plan. “I’m not a business person at all,” Finkelstein admitted. “I just wanted women to feel good about themselves.”

From that perspective, at least, the studio flourished. Women suffering from anorexia joined those battling obesity and with each spin of the pole their confidence bloomed.

But maintaining 1,600-square-feet of prime real estate in the Holy City was no easy task, and in August Finkelstein was forced to close her studio.

“You get to the point where you gave your soul and your heart and then you have nothing left on your plate to give,” she said.

But after the liens, the municipal fines, and the heart-gripping anxiety attacks, that’s when the yeshua — or divine redemption — steps in, she said. In her case, it came in the form of a loyal student who helped Finkelstein reopen her studio at an existing gym, saving her overhead costs.

“In here, you strip your clothes and your preconceived notions.”  — Ayelet Finkelstein

Finkelstein views pole dancing as a form of exercise like any other but she doesn’t dismiss the sexy side to it. She runs the gamut of pole classes — from a focus on the sport’s athletic, acrobatic side to classes that combine the pole with contemporary dance.

Pole-dancing is for everyone, Finkelstein insists. And a peek into the studio’s dressing room unearths a veritable cross-section of Jerusalem society: A nun’s habit lying next to an Orthodox woman’s sheitel (wig) with a pair of killer heels tossed into the mix.

“In here, you strip your clothes and your preconceived notions,” she said without a trace of irony. “So that when you look inside the studio and everyone’s in their underclothes, we all look the same.”

Jerusalem might be fraught with conflict, but a place like JPole draws out the peace in people, Finkelstein said, before going on to describe an absurd scene from a student recital. For over a year, she had taught pole-dancing to first-graders from the Eritrean and Filipino foreign workers’ communities who were brought to her by the nuns. Finkelstein’s eyes lit up as she described the priest in his black cassock, oversized cross and flowing beard who had come to watch the student recital.

“Where else would you see such a mix of people? Well, except for the tram, I mean,” she laughed, referring to the Jerusalem light-rail system that famously brings together the most incongruent sectors of society.

The studio also acted as a second home for many women, she said, giving them community, friendship and a sense of belonging in a judgment-free setting. One of them was Zaida Catalan, a Swedish national stationed in the region as a European Union worker educating Palestinian police officers on gender-based violence. She hated her job, Finkelstein said, and would often linger in the studio’s kitchen, drinking coffee and chatting to other women hours after her pole class was over.

Catalan eventually moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work for the U.N.  Tragically, she was killed there in a murder-decapitation that made headlines around the world.

The fact that I’m hearing this story from Finkelstein, a soft-spoken woman with a modest air about her, makes it even more harrowing.

But Finkelstein is used to jolting people out of the comfort of pigeon-holing.

Does she still have people with crazy stories in the studio’s current incarnation?

“This is Jerusalem,” she said, and then smiled. “Everyone has a crazy story.”

Around the pole in Israel

Pole dancing as a modern sport connects the world of dance—jazz, ballet and cabaret—with acrobatic exercise. The pole serves as the base to perform different acrobatic acts of varying levels of difficulty. Regular exercise clothes are worn, not the sexy revealing garb many imagine, with the stomach exposed in order to allow for friction with the pole and to prevent slipping.

The athletic benefits are abound—they include developing strength, stamina, flexibility, coordination, and rhythm. Many women also report an improvement in their self-confidence, their physical feeling, and their femininity. In Israel, classes and private studios are taking the country by storm. 

Champions

Elisa Palsakova, 26, opened her own private studio two years ago. She has been dancing and exercising since she was 5 years old—everything from acrobatics to ballet. In the last decade, she made aliyah from Moscow. She studied dance instruction and became certified as a personal trainer upon moving to Israel, and when she discovered pole dancing, she fell in love with it. She recently won first place in the International Pole Dance Fitness Association (IPDFA) competitions in Moscow and currently sits on panels of judges in competitions all over the word. She feels it is a great honor to sit amongst the world’s top athletes.

Another Israeli champion is Neta Lee Levy, 31, who won first place in the European championships in Holland. Levy has always participated in sports, and she currently studies at the Circus School in Israel, where she learned the trapeze. There, she began to teach herself pole dancing and developed her technique. Levy is the first person in Israel to perform in street festivals using a pole—as a performer, not a stripper. She opened a studio in Tel Aviv and describes the women who come there and exercise as women who are seeking to boost their self-confidence and sensuality.

The Combat Soldier

Alex Brodeski, 21, is a combat fitness instructor in the army who trains in Palsakova’s studio. “It is a physical activity that is different and challenging for the body using muscles that are not usually developed in other exercise classes,” he explains.

He says that the soldiers he trains know that he pole dances, and admits that he gets teased. “But they are jealous that I practice with girls and ask to come observe classes. I tell them that they can’t observe, they must participate, but they get cold feet.”

The Attorney

Boaz, 33, began training following his first visit to a strip club with his girlfriend. “I saw women dancing on poles and I was in shock at their acrobatic abilities. I wanted to learn the acrobatics. After three months of training, it improved my body image and self-image. My arm muscles are stronger and my stability improved. Yes, it is a sexy dance, but other forms of dance are sexy, too. I am not embarrassed by it.”

The Hassid

Bracha (name changed) usually wears a long skirt and a head covering and works in an ultra-Orthodox college. She is a religious woman, 53 years old, a wife and mother of three. But in the past year and a half, multiple times a week, she has been changing her conservative clothes into short exercise clothes. Along with her 17-year-old daughter Anat, she attends classes in Palsakova’s studio.

“When my daughter told me that she wants to learn pole dancing, I told her that she can only if I chaperone as her bodyguard because who knows who participates in such things. Once I entered the studio, I knew that I wanted to participate as well,” Bracha says.

In terms of dealing with revealing clothing, Bracha started with a t-shirt but says “it was difficult for me to do certain moves, so I started wearing a tank top and shorts.”

Bracha explains that it isn’t easy for her to pole dance with men in the room, but says she won’t quit for that reason. “If there are very sexy exercises, I do them minimally because I am here for the acrobatics and not the dance,” she says. Anat adds that they stand on opposite sides of the room from the men, and because the men are much older, it doesn’t bother her.

Bracha says her husband “understands that for us it is only a sport.”

“He is fine with it, but prefers that we keep it a secret from the community because we are religious,” she says.

“I beat him in hand wrestling, and we bought a pole for the house and he has already tried to swing on it,” Anat says of her father.

Bracha doesn’t tell most of her friends about her hobby “because I don’t want them to think bad things about me.” Anat says, “Some of my friends don’t talk to me anymore because of it, others are jealous but wouldn’t dare try, and others don’t even know.”

Bracha adds, “sometimes religious friends are surprised by my body so I tell them I simply ‘do sports’ without getting into detail.”

An Olympic sport?

Several organizations around the world are trying to recognize the sport, holding regional and worldwide competitions that judge the competitors on strength, flexibility and artistic expression. Points are given to competitors according to the level of difficulty, technique, choreography and stage presence. The smallest mistake in body movement may disqualify a competitor.

The British organization Vertical Dance even recently requested that the Olympic Committee recognize the sport as an official competing sport in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Whether or not their efforts will be successful remains to be seen, but for Israelis—regardless of background—pole dancing is in.

This article was translated by JointMedia News Service from the Hebrew edition of Israel Hayom.