Stepping into the dimly-lit studio in midtown Manhattan, Elisheva and Sarah shed their skirts and long-sleeve shirts, leaving only shorts and tank tops. They quickly take their places at two poles in the room and begin climbing and spinning as they wait for class to begin. For these two Stern students — both modern Orthodox women in their early twenties — pole dancing classes at Shockra Studios, located a few blocks from their Yeshiva University classrooms, provide an exhilarating, judgment-free way to release the stress of school and all the anxieties that come with it.
“We carry a lot on our shoulders as Orthodox women,” says Elisheva, who, along with Sarah, asked that she be known by her pseudonym. “To take a break from that without simultaneously breaking halacha is a wonderful feeling.”
Elisheva and Sarah are just two of many women joining the pole dancing fitness craze. No longer relegated to strip clubs, pole dancing has attracted a new crop of fans, thanks in part to fitness studios offering specialized striptease workouts as an alternative to regular exercise. (In a seven-block radius in midtown, I found five venues — all advertised as workout studios.) The collision of Orthodoxy and pole dancing is not as peculiar as you may think.
“It’s very freeing, very fun and it puts me in touch with a side of myself that I don’t get to access very often,” explains Elisheva.
This feeling of release is what keeps women like Elisheva coming back to the dance.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had ever, in the world,” says Aliza, a 20-year-old Orthodox woman from Baltimore, who asked to only be identified by her first name, has taken pole dancing classes about five times and plans on continuing this summer. However, she admits to feeling uncomfortable when she mentions it to some of her Orthodox peers.
“My friends are totally fine with it, except for one who responded with ‘Oh my God, that’s awful,’ when she heard I take pole dancing, and I definitely feel weird mentioning it to other people,” Aliza says. “It’s just the Orthodox mindset, where people are afraid of being in touch with their sexuality.”
The all-women’s setting for these classes enables Orthodox women, who normally embrace restraint in their dress and behavior, to free themselves, if only for an hour. Aliza excitedly described her pole outfit as “short shorts, a tank top, and high heels,” while Elisheva points out that pole dancing symbolizes “a break from expectations and responsibility.”
Suzanne Mazal, a Stern alumna, believes that the sexuality of pole dancing creates an aura of the forbidden — even to those outside the religious spectrum.
“Pole dancing is a hyper-sexualized activity, one that carries with it a kind of taboo,” says Mazel. “Taking a class, even a private for-women-only class, feels like breaking that taboo, but in a safe and controlled environment. I’ve noticed this feeling no matter who’s taking the class, whether religious or secular.”
Many women are also attracted to pole dancing for the intense workout it offers. Aside from the obvious cardio fitness that all dance regimes provide, the constant use of the pole increases strength in the arms, legs, and abs.
“It’s a fitness craze,” says Vel Levon, owner of Brooklyn’s Finest Pole Dancing in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “The sensuality comes with the territory, but we’re more focused on the fitness aspect.”
Despite efforts to attract the ultra-Orthodox members of the community, Levon hasn’t had any Orthodox women attend her classes — yet.
“I went in to a nail salon a lot of Hasidic women frequent, and handed out cards,” she says. “I got a very positive reaction. A lot of women said, ‘Oh I’ve wanted to try this with my friends,’ but so far no one has come in.”
A few miles away, in Flatlands, Brooklyn, Rochel Goldberg’s studio Got Pole? has a thriving Orthodox clientele. Goldberg, an Orthodox Jew herself, recently added pole classes to her wide range of fitness classes, including gymnastics, karate, and ballet. “At first people reacted almost like I was opening a strip club,” she says. “In the beginning, people hear pole and think, ‘oh, it’s dirty,’ but it’s not what you think it is.” Now, young women flock to her classes, and rave about them on Facebook.
Still, Got Pole? received criticism from rabbis in the neighborhood who were afraid the studio would “bring bad things into the community,” Goldberg explains. However, she says she’s felt nothing but support and interest from the community members themselves. And while pole dancing provides a challenging workout and great stress relief, Goldberg believes that it can also teach women to be non-judgmental. Her classes reflect the community mixture of Brooklyn, from Orthodox women to Latinas, (the “craziest mix of people,” as she says) but Goldberg stresses that she doesn’t just mean judgment of others.
“The biggest goal is to learn to love who you are. You realize that you don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to be a stick. You love yourself.”
Though some women who take pole dancing classes avoid discussing it publicly, many feel nothing inherently “dirty” about the pastime. And rightly so; as one Stern student stated, “Every Stern girl worth her salt has taken pole dancing classes.”
The day may not be far off when pole dancing gains credibility as a sport. The International Pole Sport Federation is spearheading an effort to have pole join the Olympics by 2016, a move that would legitimize what women like Goldberg have been doing for years.