On a scorching Friday afternoon, five Arab professional pole instructors and entrepreneurs set up a portable pole against a Nile-side parapet and take turns flexing their most graceful moves against the Cairo skyline. The backdrop of the city, the arabesque arch, and the soundtrack to the shoot inadvertently provided by Om Kalthoum through a speaker or another, all serve as a stark reminder of the context that supports, problematises, and defines the Middle East pole fit industry.
Mint Elmokadem, Pole Fit Egypt.
because we’re in the Middle East...our struggles are very unique to our geographic area
Over a long weekend in Cairo, Mint Elmokadem - founder and CEO of Pole Fit Egypt, the first pole fitness studio in Egypt, and national organiser of Pole Theatre Egypt - brought instructors from all over the Arab world together for the first time. Elmokadem was joined by Talha Albusaidi, 26, owner of Pole Fit Muscat; Mariana El Tamim, 28, an instructor at Pole Fit Jordan; Dina Elhifnawi, 28, the Egyptian founder of Carousel Fitness in Bahrain; and Laura Ayoub, 30, founder of Pole Fit Lebanon and overall winner of Pole Theatre Egypt.
Talha Albusaidi, Pole Fit Muscat.
“I wanted to actually connect us together, because we don’t know each other,” says Elmokadem. “And I wanted the rest of the pole world, and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa to know that this exists. Saying, yes, there’s pole in Bahrain, there’s pole in Oman, there’s pole in Lebanon, there’s pole in Jordan. And I wanted to do seminars and entrepreneur huddles, because we all experience the same issues. And because we’re in the Middle East...our struggles are very unique to our geographic area.”
comments like ‘oh my god, she’s the daughter of so and so! How could she do this?!’ Like I’m an embarrassment to my family.
Though the first instinct of many might be to dismiss pole dancing as some kind of glorified stripping, pole fitness studios have steadily gained popularity all over the world, with the industry increasingly recognised as a sport. The International Pole Dance Fitness Association now organises the International Pole Championship and is working to get pole dancing into the Olympics. “You open up a pole studio in any country, people think maybe you’re on the edge,” says Elmokadem on the changing attitudes towards pole dancing. “But they don’t think you’re completely mad for leaving your job and doing that. But for us [in the Middle East], people think we’re crazy.”
Dina Elhifnawi, Carousel Fitness Bahrain.
“I kept it discreet for about a year and a half, nobody knew,” says El Tamim of the years leading up to her tenure at Pole Fit Jordan. “Only close people to me knew, because I had a job and I didn’t know how people were going to react. I was scared of the image that people had about pole dancing. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, people just didn’t know. They didn’t know that it’s a sport, it’s a dance, it’s an art. They just had this universal stigma about it. And you don’t want to be perceived like that.”
A student of ours [...] had breast cancer, and she had to remove both of her breasts and she had no hair anymore. And she told me that all she wanted was to connect with her feminine side and just feel like a woman.
“Worse than comments like ‘oh my god, what a piece of ass,’” says Ayoub on attitudes in Lebanon. “Worse than when I perform in public and people make it a bit sexual, I’ve heard - and I find it so funny - comments like ‘oh my god, she’s the daughter of so and so! How could she do this?!’ Like I’m an embarrassment to my family. And my family, on a personal level, are the most supportive.”
Mariana El Tamim, Pole Fit Jordan.
In their multi-year journeys of building careers and businesses from their passion, the five women have successfully walked the tightropes of their respective cultures, navigating cultures of ‘3eib’ and expectations of female modesty, with the growing regional fitness entrepreneurship scene and the power of word of mouth. Elhifnawi, for example, faced no backlash from her family or community in setting up her studio in Bahrain. Instead, she says, local society welcomed her, pointing to comments on social media to the tune of ‘hey, have you heard about the new Egyptian teaching pole?’.
The only presence of pole in Egypt and in Middle Eastern countries doesn’t lie in the erotic industry. We don’t have strippers here. So it’s actually, to me at least, a much more enjoyable place to work.
Similarly, Albusaidi points to the pleasant surprise of how welcoming her society in Muscat has been. “Just about 3 months ago, [Healthy Lifestyle Festival] approached us and asked us to do a public event, which was a very big step in Oman. Because I thought everyone was close-minded about it and they always had the wrong idea.”
Further problematising the acceptance-vilification spectrum, Elmokadem points to an unexpected dynamic between the Middle East and the West. “I’ve only found negative feedback or unwelcoming feelings in Western countries. I travel often to train, and when people ask me [in New York or the UK or Greece] and I say I’m there for pole training, I get that kind of [sexualised] reaction. No one has ever insulted me in Egypt for doing pole.”
Elmokadem explains that that is because pole dancing in our region only ever exists as a sport. “The only presence of pole in Egypt and in Middle Eastern countries doesn’t lie in the exotic industry,” says Elmokadem. “It doesn’t lie in the erotic industry. We don’t have strippers here. So it’s actually, to me at least, a much more enjoyable place to work.”
The power of pole dancing - through the pain of the splits, the stigma, and the persistent sexualisation, even in the most liberal of societies - is best encapsulated in El Tamim’s reaction to fetishising attitudes. “When I tell people what I do for a hobby - or now, for a living, really - some of them are like ‘oh, so you’re a stripper’ or ‘oh, can you give me a show.’ Like, no, that’s not what I do. I’m an athlete. It’s not for you. It’s for me.”
In all five conversations, that single attitude emerged as a common thread. “It’s not for you. It’s for me.” The empowering aspect of the sport is more than the widely-touted cliches of yas queen and the like. It’s a profoundly internal strength, externalised into motion, set to music, and yes, ultimately sexy, but not necessarily to any male gaze lying in wait.
“Because we’re wearing bikinis and there’s a pole,” explains Ayoub, “there’s always this joke or wink or smile. But on a personal level, I’m not bothered by it. Sometimes I find it exotic and threatening to some men, and why not…” At this point Ayoub laughs and her voice trails off, but her message is clear, that the sexualisation that is so often wielded as a weapon to belittle women, she reclaims as a tool of power, confidence, and agency.
“After a while [of keeping it discreet],” El Tamim reflects, “I felt more confident and I started by showing the athletic side of it. I started posting [to social media] when I could show the power of pole dance. I’m not the most flowy pole dancer. I’m more into the power moves, I took more the acrobatic part of it more than anything else. For me, it’s a bit of dance and gymnastics, and I rely on my strength to express myself on the pole more than anything else.”
The International Pole Dance Fitness Association now organises the International Pole Championship and is working to get pole dancing into the Olympics.
Where Ayoub is more comfortable than most embracing what she calls the ‘exotic’ element of pole dancing, El Tamim points to her broad shoulders and upper body strength as traditionally ‘masculine’ features reclaimed for her own (literal) empowerment. In the “mix of dance and gymnastics, strength and femininity,” as Ayoub phrases it, every dancer finds her own goal, no matter how small or life-altering.
“A student of ours walked into the studio, and she didn’t want to do any crazy flips,” recalls El Tamim. “She had breast cancer, and she had to remove both of her breasts and she had no hair anymore. And she walked in, and she told me that she had been sick, and all she wanted was to connect with her feminine side and just feel like a woman.”
Today, the pole fitness scene in the Middle East continues to grow. Before Pole Fit Muscat was established, the closest pole studio to Oman was in Dubai, where Albusaidi regularly went to classes. But the industry remains small. “Most of the countries today around the Middle East, there’s only one studio that does the sport. There’s only one studio that represents the industry as a whole.” But one, lonely number though it may be, is infinitely better than none.
Photography by Haleem El Shaarani
Shot on location at Sofitel El Gezira