Like many parents, I too hoped to realize vicariously through my daughters all the things I didn’t get around to doing in childhood, or that narrow-mindedness had kept me from taking up. The aspirations were quite banal. I thought, for example, that my kids would become virtuoso pianists or have careers as ballet dancers or soccer players. But, as we know, it’s all a matter of role models. Maybe I should have taken them to more recitals, dance performances or soccer games. Instead, I let them watch television. They became addicted to reality dance-competition shows.
So it was that some months ago, Zohar, then 8 and a half, trained her big, determined eyes on me and demanded: Find me an after-school group in pole dancing.
“Why not classical ballet?” I suggested, “Or modern dance? Or flamenco?” No, she shot back: Dancing on a pole.
I told her I didn’t think there were any programs like that for kids. She didn’t understand why. I decided it would be too hard to explain to her at her age, and tried to change the subject. I stuck to that approach for about a week, during which each day would begin and end with her asking how the search for a children’s pole-dancing group was going. She’s a stubborn girl.
When I relented and began to search, I found information online about a studio in Herzliya, whose director turned out to be Alisa Pleskova, the young woman from a TV reality dance-competition show that my daughters and I had watched. She’d performed a spectacular dance during the audition phase, and had even been accepted, but somehow disappeared afterward from the contest, without explanation. Too professional, apparently.
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I also discovered that Zohar was right: While it’s not widespread, there are quite a few studios around the country that offer pole-dance training from age 7. I swallowed hard, but understood that I had two choices: Either I tell my daughter about strip clubs and their connection to pole dancing, or I simply take her to a class. I chose option No. 2.
I found a studio close to home, in Tel Aviv, and hoped that Zohar’s whim would vanish quickly, the way quite a few similar obsessions had in the past. But one Saturday morning, about half a year after we first entered the studio, we found ourselves in the gym of the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood – at the Israeli pole-dancing championships.
But don’t you dare call it dancing! It’s “pole sports,” and it may even become an official event at the Olympic Games. It turns out that the little girl knew something that her shortsighted parents had missed. After a few classes, the instructor and studio director, Mor Motola Buchnik, declared that Zohar was a definite talent, possible an Olympic hopeful. Olympic? I asked in astonishment. I already understood that not all pole dancers come from the rather sordid area around the diamond exchange in Ramat Gan – but even so, was this really a sport that has gone mainstream?
It was Motola Buchnik, who already in our first phone conversation forbade me to call it “pole dancing,” told me that the International Olympic Committee was considering including the sport in the 2024 Games in Paris and was therefore keeping tabs on the competitions and supervising them very closely. The Israeli enthusiasts involved are working intensively to put together a team. My daughter is flexible, Motola Buchnik told me, strong and unflappable. Superb material. She’ll ruffle in the air like a flag atop a pole. So, please: Do you want her to succeed, or will she also have to wait until she herself has kids and fulfills a missed career by proxy?
The three months of preparations included two private classes a week with the teacher Maria Pipkin, a certified pole dancer who has all the necessary equipment at home, in her living room and kitchen, which she and her partner, the dancer Dima Shevchenko, and their year-old son like to climb. Dima and Maria have more of a connection with the artistic aspects than with the athletic part of this field. They don’t take part in competitions, but rather make a living from performances and teaching.
Zohar, as a 9-year-old beginner, took part in her first championship competition in the novice category. It wasn’t altogether clear what to expect: Was it realistic to hope for a medal at such an early stage? For her part, Zohar kept her cool. She told her little sister, who had great expectations, that there was no chance she’d get a medal, but what was important was to take part – and, above all, not to fall off the pole.
Worse than zero
In the Jaffa hall the male competitors wore only tight bathing-suit like bottoms and the females were in skimpy shorts and sports bras. Sport or no sport, the skin had to be as exposed as possible in order to stay attached to the pole. The ushers and cleaners, on the other hand, actually wore hijabs.
In the center of the hall was a stage into which two poles had been set up – one dynamic (rotating), the other static. The competitors were required to perform exercises on both of the poles. The rules are very strict. As in other types of gymnastics, there are certain exercises that must be included, and any mistake will reduce the number of points. The scores range from minus 30 to plus 50, and there’s a bonus for creativity and virtuosity. Still, it’s easier to lose points than to gain them. For example, competitors who waited for their score while wearing flip-flops lost a tenth of a point. For incorrectly filling out the registration form for the event, even before their hips touched the cold metal of the pole, many participants lost four points. One of the coaches related that there are competitions in which the participants get a negative score. The horror! Suddenly zero looked like a terrific result.
The judges, who were from abroad, wore uniforms, including dark ties. They sat in a row opposite the stage and munched on potato chips most of the time. Zohar was supposed to warm up in the dressing room upstairs, but it turned out that the organizers had forgotten to bring a mattress for warm-ups on the floor. Maria didn’t recommend seeking the help of other coaches in procuring one, but I was already deep into the “obsessive mom” role (I’d even considered coming in a sweat suit matching my daughter’s).
Cautiously I approached one of the coaches, a Russian speaker who had just overseen the warm-up of a petite girl of 7. The woman looked familiar to me, but I didn’t want to bother her with a where-have-we-met conversation. I asked if we could use their mattress; she agreed, provided we didn’t move it.
Zohar went downstairs for a group photo with the other girls in her age category – 20 girls with hair swept back and light makeup, wearing blue-and-white sweat suits with the word “Israel” in English emblazoned on them. So, do we already have a national team? No, not yet, Motola Buchnik explained; these were the girls from the studio in Caesarea run by a woman named Noga. They compete abroad, so their uniforms announce their origin.
Zohar and the little 7-year-old were the only two girls in their category who didn’t belong to the Caesarea group; both wore black sweat suits with no national logo. I looked at my little, inexperienced black swan, and the suspicion crept into my heart that Noga’s smiling, super-flexible girls would leave her in the dust. Turns out that this Noga was also one of the judges. How is that possible, if most of the competitors are from her studio? Maria, the instructor, reassured us that Noga was judging a different category and that the judging would be completely fair.
Ancient Asian art
The competition began. The first contestant appeared alone in the category of pre-novice girls. She received a score of zero and looked very sad. She was followed, in the next category, by the little girl with the tough Russian-speaking instructor. Then the penny dropped: The instructor was none other than Alisa, the dancer because of whom we’d gotten into this in the first place. From that moment I never took my eyes off her. A celebrity! Motola Buchnik told us that Alisa would compete later, in the elite category. At the rate things were going, that would probably be in the middle of the night. Motola Buchnik declared that Alisa was the queen of the sport in Israel and that we mustn’t miss her performance – as if I’d planned to go somewhere else.
After Alisa’s girl, a series of little empresses from Caesarea climbed the pole sporting spiffy attire and brimming with self-confidence. Then came the turn of the kid with my DNA. For her exercise, Zohar had chosen one of the umpah-lumpah songs from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Compared to the saccharine tunes that had dominated the competition until then, this was a refreshing innovation. I hoped they’d give her points for originality. She executed an iguana, a butterfly and an allegra, and she didn’t forget to smile despite the pressure, or to do a toe point as best she could, and above all didn’t fall off the pole. There was a feeling of relief when the exercise ended, and her score grade was definitely reasonable, though the medal would wait for another occasion.
The rate of junk-food consumption by the little competitors was astonishing. Everyone who finished wanted to gorge on some chocolate snack or cotton candy. Wonder what the Olympic Committee will think about that. Alisa protested twice against the score her pupils got. Every such protest costs money and also delays the competition, because documentation of the disputed ranking must be sent to London where a decision is made by representatives of the International Pole Sports Federation.
In the meantime, I tried to get Motola Buchnik and some of the other instructors and coaches on hand to talk about the problematic image of this sport, which aspires to decency and recognition. I told them my friends’ reactions to the decision to allow Zohar to do pole dancing ranged from twisted jokes – like she’ll be able to provide for the family if we have a financial crisis – to shock at my debased feminist standards. Motola Buchnik related that she hadn’t wanted to get near it precisely for that reason. After completing her army service, she said, she served as the Israeli vice consul in Miami, and her neighbor had a pole dance studio. The neighbor persuaded her that it wasn’t just a strip-club thing. She went and caught the bug. Then, after returning to Israel six years ago, she opened a studio of her own, which now has five branches around the country.
The coaches explained to me how it’s a mistake to think that the whole business of the sport began in strip joints: Its an ancient art whose origins actually lay in India, in mallakhamba training, some 800 years ago. At that time it was mainly men who executed the acrobatics – a kind of aerial yoga combined with wrestling moves, and using wooden poles. From there the practice spread to China, where again it was men who executed leaps and somersaults between two tall poles. According to Wikipedia, the use of poles in this fashion reached America at the end of the 19th century, with a group of wandering gypsy dancers, whose minimal attire drew viewers who had been accustomed to far more puritanical dress in performers. From there it was a short distance to the tents of the soldiers in world wars, the nightclubs in Las Vegas, Miami and the rest of the world, and the Bada-Bing Club in “The Sopranos.”
Now the International Pole Sports Federation and its Israeli member association are trying to rewire peoples’ brains. Pipkin said that in Russian-language Twitter, for example, every tweet relating to her occupation still generates furious responses. “How many of the serious competitors here started their career in strip clubs?” I insisted. Motola Buchnik and her colleagues rolled their eyes skyward. Maybe one or two, Motola Buchnik said, and her friend murmured quietly, “About half.”
No second chance
The competitors in the adult amateur groupings – there are both those and professional categories for the older contestants, as well as for the children and teens – looked happiest. They obviously weren’t here because of their Olympic prospects; that’s not going to happen for them. But as new mothers, not especially athletic, who had apparently started dancing on a pole in their mid-30s, the very fact that they could lift themselves solely by means of their arms and move about in the air was incredible. Not to mention the fantastic fitness (meaning great figure) this sport produces without excessive effort and above all without boredom. Sivan Ostroff Kriss and Keren Elsner Or, both 35, from the Sharon region, each of whom has two children, met in the army and lost contact for many years. They met again in a pole dance studio in Kfar Sava, almost by chance, after a mutual friend dragged them there.
Both have been training for a year and a half, and this was the first competition for both of them. Both women have master’s degrees, Ostroff Kriss in biochemistry; Elsner Or in biotechnology.
In her first class, says Elsner Or, she thought she was having a heart attack. “I couldn’t even climb onto the pole,” she recalled. But because she had made a bet with her husband that she was capable of sticking to some sort of sport, she showed up again and quickly caught on. She trains only once a week now, and claims that her learning curve is very steep.
“It’s a sport with a great many virtues,” she said. “It’s good for flexibility, strength, coordination and acrobatics, for endurance and fitness. If you don’t get frustrated, you can succeed in everything, and that’s rewarding. It also contributed to an improved body image for me. Before this, I wouldn’t take off my blouse even at the beach. But here the body has to be exposed, so I broke barriers. Even a shy girl like me finds herself in minimal clothing.”
For her part, says Ostroff Kriss, “I’m not ashamed of being involved with the sport, even though it has a sleazy connotation. I try to think of it as acrobatics,” she says, adding that she’s addicted to it, practices twice a week, and even installed a pole in her living room. Her girlfriends ask her to demonstrate some of the exercises and her male friends also try and discover that it’s far from easy. For Ostroff Kriss, the chief advantage of pole dancing is that it’s a sport she doesn’t hate. “Before this I tried a little swimming, working out, yoga. I always finished as fast as I could, like work. I come to a pole class even when I have no strength, and it’s always fun.”
After the women’s competition came the turn of the men. It was already 5 P.M. Not many men compete, but Jose Rodrigues, one of the local pioneers in the field – he established the Israel Pole Sport Association and also the Israeli championships – claimed that it’s gaining momentum. Rodrigues, who is half Portuguese and half Dutch, started his training in London. He’s lived in Israel for six years and has a studio in Tel Aviv.
The performances of the male amateur competitors were pretty pathetic. The poles couldn’t hold the weight, and one after another they fell after sliding down them. Maybe the cleaners who wiped the poles from top to bottom after each contestant performed weren’t thorough enough, or maybe the men were perspiring excessively because of faulty air conditioning. It really was a little hot in the hall. But whoever fell would just have to wait for next year. The judges wouldn’t let them have a second try.
At the end of the day, after quite a few additional categories, Alisa Pleskova, 32, finally took off her monastic black sweat suit and appeared in all her glory, sporting amazing abs and sculpted arm muscles, and wearing a spectacular, glittery bikini. Her number was breathtaking, she hardly left the pole, didn’t waste time on ground transitions. She spun, let go, gripped tight, turned over and held her poses. There’s no doubt that this was a particularly high level of acrobatic skill. Gradually her inexpressive features softened and she smiled at the judges. I stared at her, wide-eyed. Zohar asked why I had been so anxious to see her perform.
“She’s the dancer you saw that made you want to do pole dancing, isn’t she?” I asked. She made a “Mom-you’re-imagining things” face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen her before. And now buy me popcorn.”