A woman’s sport

Jerusalem’s first and only pole-dancing studio brings new meaning to weathered stereotypes.

Pole dancing class. (photo credit: Ilya Shumsky)
Pole dancing class.
(photo credit: Ilya Shumsky)
Ella, a 20-year-old soldier, has come back from base to Jerusalem specifically to attend a pole-dancing class.
“It’s obvious what people think,” she says. “You tell someone you’re pole dancing and they immediately think you’re stripping.” But, she asserts during her warm-up, “I do this for me.”
Being in the army, she explains, “I have very little that I can decide to do for myself. [With pole dancing,] I feel stronger, more confident.”
In the mirrored room of the Jerusalem Pole Dance and Fitness studio on Beit Ya’acov Street, just outside the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk, a group of girls is taking a beginner class. They are learning the building blocks of pole dancing, from walking around a pole seductively, to spinning and then climbing. The sound of Rihanna on the stereo quickly drowns out the loading trucks and car horns outside.
“Pole dancing requires a lot of strength, core, upper body, basically everything,” says Ayelet Finkelstein, the 27-year-old founder and instructor. “As much as it’s challenging, it’s doable; you always achieve your goals.”
Finkelstein speaks with a California accent that complements her blonde hair and slender figure, but she’s Israeli-born-and-bred. One of six children, she grew up in the national-religious settlement of Beit El. She admits that she only works in extremes, attacking ideas at 100 percent and figuring things out while they are already in motion.
After finishing her national service and studying in seminary, she struggled with what to do next with her life. She was miserable while studying in university, and out of desperation, she did an Internet search of popular professions.
“I went to Google the ‘10 coolest jobs in the world,’ and one of them was pole-dance instructor,” she recalls.
Reading further, she became attracted to the athleticism, sexiness and challenge of the sport.
“It’s everything a woman is,” she says.
When she began training in 2009, there was only one pole-dancing instructor, and she was in Tel Aviv. While renting an apartment in Talpiot, Finkelstein set up a pole in her living room and started to practice. Around this time she made a trip to New York and visited S Factor Studio, one of the first pole-dancing studios in America. Its founder was Sheila Kelly, who is credited with mainstreaming pole dancing.
“It made me feel really good,” says Finkelstein. “I started accepting my body the way it is, and I thought, if I feel this good, I want everyone to feel this way.”
Upon her return to Jerusalem, she began traveling to Tel Aviv up to four times a week to take lessons with Elisa di Chello, founder of the Israel Pole Dance and Fitness Academy. On her 23rd birthday, Finkelstein wrote down a list of goals and declared that by the following year she would have her own studio.
“It was very nerve-racking and scary and exciting – because a lot of people were saying, ‘You’re not going to get any clients, pole dancing is crazy, you’re spending all this money and nothing is going to come of it.’ But I was idealistic about it. I thought that once people start it, they are going to get hooked.”
Working two jobs, as a waitress and a makeup artist, she began building her business and giving private lessons. She says it took a good year to build up her client base, relying on word of mouth, flyers in the neighborhood and social networking.
“I remember [when I first] had two clients in one week, I was in heaven!” she exclaims, a smile broadening across her face as she thinks about the memory. Her two first clients were a woman who had recently given birth and an American student at the Hebrew University. “They told their friends, and slowly more people started coming.”
In March 2013, she began renovating her studio space with friend and business partner Shlomtzion Cohen. In June, they officially opened the Jerusalem Pole Dance and Fitness studio.
Finkelstein’s routines combine acrobatics and dance with an element of sensuality, yet there is never any striptease. Finkelstein herself is an observant Jew and won’t perform for men. Her goal is to inspire confidence in her clients, help them change their bodies and promote a positive selfimage.
“People here [in Jerusalem] are very serious,” she says, adding that fitness in general is not awarded as much importance in people’s everyday lives. “They think of working out as a waste of time and a waste of money,” she says. “Somebody comes here because they want to gain confidence, lose weight, tone up. They just want to have an hour that’s for them because they are busy with [life].”
In December, the studio celebrated its first recital, and Finkelstein says it was an affirmation that her dream would be a success.
“I never saw myself as a business owner. I don’t think I thought it through all the way,” she says. “I just loved pole dancing. I loved how it made me feel, how it changed my body, changed me, so I wanted to teach everyone else and show them what a great thing this is.”
The clientele spans a wide range of the Jerusalem population – from teenagers to 70-year-old women, Arabs to haredim from Mea She’arim, students and internationals. Born to American parents, Finkelstein is fluent in Hebrew and English. She has another instructor from Moscow, and there is a yoga class in English.
“I’m seeing the results,” she says. “The feedback the girls will give me – they come three to four times a week, and they look forward to coming to classes.”
Since she began pole dancing in 2009, the trend has picked up all over the country. There are now three studios in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and Haifa and Ashkelon have a studio each.
Pole dancing continues to gain popularity worldwide as well. The World Pole Sport and Fitness Championship is heading into its fifth year and will take place in London on January 31 and February 1. Competitors from 26 countries across five continents are expected. In 2012, there was a push for the London Olympics to have a poledancing competition, but constant evolution of the trend hasn’t allowed for a standardized set of scoring, and names of techniques vary among clubs in different regions.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation highlighted the sport of competitive pole dancing recently in a video segment. It followed Chinese-Australian Jennifer Liu, who earned her PhD in cancer research and is first in her class for her medical degree.
She got into pole dancing to find a sport that would challenge her physically while she was young, breaking up the time she spent in the hospital or the lab. Her parents expressed skepticism at first, admitting that for traditional Chinese the sport is a bit too sexy. But they ultimately came around and installed a pole in her grandma’s bedroom so their daughter could practice.
Likewise, in Jerusalem, a stigma and fear of overt sexiness remains. Some of Finkelstein’s students don’t tell their friends or families they take pole dancing. But Finkelstein is unwavering in her belief in the benefits of pole dancing and invites anyone to come see for herself – or even himself – what the sport is all about.
“There were a few husbands who didn’t want their wives to come to pole dancing,” she says. “So I brought them all here and had a little men’s class.” She pauses for emphasis, giving a knowing look. “They loved it! They were sore after and said, ‘Honey, we got to get a pole.’”