When Tomer Solomon began dancing on the weekends during his army service, he could never have imagined he would find himself where he is today – living and working in dance, and soon to marry his business partner and love of his life.
The story of JLMambo, a salsa studio in Jerusalem’s Yefeh Nof neighborhood, is one that is unique to Israel – a mix of cultures and identities bringing life and flavor to the world around them.
Salsa is a form of dance accompanied by Latin music. Originally developed in New York City by Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants, it quickly became a dance style that spread across the world.
Getting into salsa
Solomon first started dancing salsa in his free time at the age of 20, starting with classes and ultimately taking it on as a serious hobby. He moved to Australia three years later, where he lived for five years and worked in hi-tech. All the while, he kept dancing and even learned circus acts while there.
Returning to the very strong salsa scene that had developed in Israel – a country that participates in international Latin dancing competitions – he settled back into his native city, Jerusalem.
Just as he returned, the whole world flipped upside-down with the emergence of COVID, something that obliterated all forms of organized dancing. Solomon recounts to In Jerusalem that “underground dance clubs sprang up. We were always afraid the cops would come.”
Meeting Noa Arad: Dancing together and falling in love
This type of behavior did not suit him, so he posted a simple message on Facebook, asking if anyone would like to join him to do a salsa show in the street. Sure enough, he received a response from Noa Arad. He knew her name from the dance scene but not much more. Nevertheless, they prepared for their performance.
Arad has a background in dance, something she has enjoyed all her life. She is also fluent in Spanish and Arabic, the latter of which she teaches.
They were set to perform at the Rose Garden in Jerusalem, but to their dismay, no one showed up. However that didn’t deter them. They did the performance anyway, all the while talking and enjoying their time together. Afterward, they decided it would be a good idea to open a beginners’ course together. And that was the start of JLMambo.
Starting with one class a week on Sunday evening, they hosted their first dancers in June 2020. Solomon said that four people came to the first class, but word quickly spread, and they expanded to two classes a week.
Part of what has made salsa so popular is that it’s easy to learn. Moreover, it is very social. At JLMambo, every class is followed by a party. It’s also great exercise, as well as a way to combat anxiety, according to some studies.
As things began to reopen after the COVID restrictions were lifted, Solomon and Arad were faced with the choice of continuing or closing down to allow the traditional studios to do their work. They decided they felt most at home in their own studio.
SOLOMON SAYS this is because he felt the diversity in what they were doing. People were coming from all sectors of Israeli society for a night of dancing and enjoyment. This feeds into their studio’s motto: “Spreading health and happiness through dance.”
Working two jobs – in hi-tech in Jerusalem and at the studio – Solomon was balancing his priorities. That was until he was fired from his hi-tech job in April 2022, at which point he decided to work in the studio full time.
Roughly two years after opening the studio, he and Arad became closer, though just as friends and business partners. Despite Solomon’s interest, romance did not seem to be in the cards. Solomon is Ashkenazi, and as Arad, who is Mizrahi, said, “I was looking for a Mizrahi guy with a beard.”
“I was looking for a Mizrahi guy with a beard.”Noa Arad, who married a clean-shaven Ashkenazi man
On the flip side, Solomon, who was clean shaven at the time and born to Anglo parents, felt he was supposed to be with an Anglo. This all changed in May 2021 when Solomon was on his way to meet his mother.
While riding his bike, he was hit by a car. He required stitches on his face, which led him to grow a beard to cover the scars. Now Arad was interested.
Solomon went to Arad’s family for Yom Kippur – still as friends – although the two were getting closer. At the same time, Arad’s friends kept asking her why she wasn’t with Solomon, saying they should be together. The only thing holding her back – now that he had a beard – was the fact that they worked together. “What if it doesn’t work out?” she thought to herself.
Despite this, they felt as though, for all intents and purposes, they were already together. They were even performing together in international competitions, such as in Bulgaria.
Finally, during Sukkot 2021, while running into each other at a bar, they decided to give it a go. About a year later, they decided to move in together – something Solomon said meant that this was for real.
Then, about a year later, Solomon brought Arad to a park in Yemin Moshe overlooking the Old City. There, he got down on one knee and proposed. And she said yes.
As they prepare for the wedding, the studio continues to grow. They now have dance staff working for them in their space in the community center in Yefeh Nof. They offer classes on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, followed by a party. Their hope is to continue to grow the space and the art, as they see the value that salsa has brought into their lives, and they hope to bring that value to others.
For Solomon, being with Arad is as much a dream as it is a culture shock. Coming from an Ashkenazi background, he constantly finds himself adjusting to the changes. On a deeper level, their story helps to represent the quickly closing divide between the Jews of the East and the West, living in unison in the Land of Israel – in Jerusalem in particular – to create a more diverse and full future in the country. ❖
On Instagram: @jlmambo_studio