Pole dancing without the striptease

A religious settler opens a "ladies only" studio in Jerusalem, empowering women with a unique form of exercise.

Dancing to a different tune  (photo credit: Yossi Zamir )
Dancing to a different tune
(photo credit: Yossi Zamir )
Learning that her daughter has grown up to become a pole dancer sounds like every Jewish mother’s nightmare. But not in Ayelet Finkelstein’s case. This is because she performs neither in strip clubs nor in front of men. Instead, she opened Jerusalem’s first women-only pole dancing studio, aptly named Jerusalem Pole and Fitness, in the city’s neighborhood of Mahaneh Yehuda. Pole dancing as a form of exercise is a trend that has been sweeping the US over recent years, with everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Lindsay Lohan taking part in the sport.
Finkelstein, 25, was born into a family of eight and grew up in a national-religious settlement not far from Ramallah. After studying Hassidism in a seminary in Safed, she trained as a makeup artist before finally settling on her chosen career path of pole dancing.
Finkelstein’s classes, which cater to individuals as well as groups, combine yoga, dance, acrobatics and, yes, sensual movements as well. Pole dancing is the ultimate exercise for toning muscles, firming the body and increasing flexibility.
In Israel, the concept of pole dancing still has sleazy connotations, although the emergence of pole-dancing schools in Tel Aviv is helping to curb that image. “When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a personal trainer,” says Finkelstein. “What can I do? There’s a stigma attached [to pole] and when people meet me – a religious girl – they don’t understand it.”
Ironically, Finkelstein claims that the most adverse reactions she receives are from secular people. “When I tell religious people what I do, they sort of shrug and accept it. But secular people most often come out with comments like, ‘Oh, so you want to be a stripper?’” Finkelstein’s mission is to change the perception of pole dancing so that people start viewing it as an art form and not just a spectator sport saved for seedy clubs.
Being sexy isn’t exactly a priority for most settlers, so how did a young woman from the pastoral climes of the Judean hills get into pole dancing? “I was always into skinny,” Finkelstein admits.
“I was obsessed with wanting to look like a runway model. At some point I realized that this isn’t a healthy approach. I discovered pole and suddenly I realized that you can look like a normal human being and feel good about yourself. In fact, once I started training, I no longer wanted to be waif-thin. Being frail and skinny just isn’t conducive to mastering the pole. You want to gain weight and build up your muscles.”
Finkelstein received her “Climb and Spin” diploma after training in New York, the East Coast’s pole capital. In Brooklyn, pole dancing has already taken the Orthodox world by storm, with everyone from rebbetzins to sheitel-machers (wig-makers) signing up for classes.
One of the attractions of pole dancing is that it is a versatile sport with many different facets. “With every woman I train it’s different,” avers Finkelstein. “Some want to learn the technical moves, the spins, the acrobatics, while others want to learn how to dance sensually. Others still are interested in either losing weight or gaining it or in building muscle tone.
“Pole dancing serves all these functions and conquers all of women’s usual hang-ups. It makes women feel powerful, strong, elegant, sexy and graceful, because it celebrates a woman’s curves. You learn not to be embarrassed about your curves because they always look great against a pole.”
When Finkelstein first opened her studio, she was approached by a girl suffering from severe anorexia who wanted to learn pole. The first few classes were a disaster because the girl’s tiny frame meant that she was too weak to move properly or to even have a firm grip on the pole. Even though it was summer, the girl wore baggy pants and sweatshirts because she was always cold. Over the course of a few months, the student’s body-consciousness took a sharp turn toward a much healthier attitude. She began putting on weight and realized that in order to succeed on the pole she would need to eat breakfast – something she had never done in her life – before class. Finkelstein claims that the transformation is nothing short of miraculous. “The color finally returned to her cheeks and now she’s wearing shorts and is so much prouder of her body and who she is.”
On the other side of the coin is Hadas Erez, 29, who for many years suffered from obesity. Since beginning pole classes three months ago, her self-image has taken leaps and bounds. “I feel sexy for the first time in my life and this was a major boost for my self-confidence,” she says. Erez, who also hails from a religious home, says that people find it amusing when she tells them about her new-found hobby. “At first they find it funny but when they see how happy I am they’re ok with it.” For Erez, pole dancing is a sport before anything else. But she also says that it has empowered her as a woman and she credits Finkelstein for coaxing out that side of her. “Ayelet believes in me when I don’t believe in myself. She taught me how to connect with my femininity.”
Another of Finkelstein's clients is Esther, a religious mother of four who maintains that there is no contradiction between her religious affiliations and pole dancing."On the contrary, I manage to fit pole classes around my parsha classes," she jokes. A natural born comedienne, Esther waxes comical about her husband's reactions to her new hobby. "My husband is thrilled that I've taken this up. If all other sources of income fail, I've always got the pole to fall back on. Literally."
Perhaps because it is a sport that exercises so many different areas both physically and mentally, Finkelstein has witnessed more drama in her studio than even the toughest weight-loss boot camp. “I’ve had students break down and cry hysterically after performing a difficult feat. They turn around and say to me, ‘Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have thought I would be able to do this.’ It’s amazing to see. For me, watching these women improve themselves both in body and mind and become more and more comfortable with who they are is the ultimate job satisfaction.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Premium Zone's online Metro. For more information and to sign up for classes, contact [email protected] Facebook: Jerusalem Pole and Fitness