Michy Markowitz made Aliyah from South Africa in 2004, at the age of 26, leaving behind a promising career in fashion. Today Michy teaches Zumba to girls, teens, and women all across Israel. I spoke to Michy to find out how she went from the world of fashion to designing tablecloths to teaching Zumba.
By Sorelle Weinstein
When and why did you make Aliyah?
I made Aliyah in January 2004 at the age of 26, joining my brother and sister who had made Aliyah before me. I was at a crossroads in my career: either I would continue to push my career as a fashion designer in South Africa or make Aliyah and begin a new life in Israel. My BA was in Psychology and English, motivated out of a desire to be in a profession where I could help people, but in reality I needed a career where I could channel my creativity and energy.
Following my BA, I did a three-year degree in fashion. I found success in the world of fashion. I was featured in Fashion Week South Africa and people were offering to stock my lines in their stores.
I had a great life in South Africa but was happy to embrace change and try living in Israel. I had a Zionist upbringing and Aliyah was always in my consciousness. I remember getting a call from my really good friend Julia who asked me what I was doing in January 2004. When I told her I didn’t know, she said: “I am making Aliyah and you’re coming with me.”
Describe your first few years in Israel
When I got here, I studied and lived in Ulpan Etzion with my friend Julia. It was a great experience. Following Ulpan, I moved to Tel Aviv, a city with a pulse that I quickly fell in love with. In South Africa, I was fairly well known in the Bnei Akiva world in which I was active but in Tel Aviv I was anonymous and could create new connections with people.
Professionally I continued designing clothes for private clients. I had interviewed with a lot of big companies in Tel Aviv but by that point I was pregnant with my first child, and I needed my schedule to be flexible. I designed evening wear, wedding dresses, funky and edgy casual clothing. At the time my husband David was starting at a hi-tech company and our combined salaries were not enough to cover our expenses. To supplement my income, I taught English at Berlitz and cooked meals for an elderly woman in Tel Aviv. The financial challenges just pushed me further to succeed.
How did you transition from designing clothes to tablecloths?
Through my contacts in the fashion world, I started my tablecloth business, Me-She. I had access to suppliers who were importing fabrics and customers would provide their table measurements and I custom-made tablecloths for them. This was an easy side business for me. I found a gap in the market and supplied that need. After becoming pregnant with my second child and moving to Modiin, I eventually stopped designing clothes and focused my efforts on my tablecloth business. It was too much effort for not enough financial return.
How did you become interested in Zumba?
I gained a tremendous amount of weight with each pregnancy. I had a gym membership I never used, and I was becoming fed up of people wishing me congratulations on another pregnancy when I was in reality just overweight. I was self-conscious and embarrassed by my weight, and I remember that when I decided to attend my first Zumba class eight years ago, in 2010, I stood at the very back so as not to attract attention. Within minutes, I was sweating from head to toe and by the end of the class I was in disbelief that you could have such a good time while working out. I had a background in dance and jazz but I never really derived so much pleasure from it. Slowly but surely I became hooked on Zumba. I started to lose weight and felt this contagious energy every time I attended a Zumba class. This newfound energy and passion led me to making better food choices because I was starting to feel good about myself. At one point, I was attending up to five Zumba classes a week, and went to Zumba parties and events around the country.
My teachers encouraged me to take a course and become a Zumba instructor. I kept on making excuses (to myself and them) why it wouldn’t work. After having three kids via c-section, I decided to do the course, which proved to be both physically and emotionally rewarding – with therapeutic benefits. To become a registered instructor, I joined ZIN (Zumba International) which gives you choreography, music, and updates about any developments in the Zumba world. When the head of Zumba Israel, Mario Gutierrez, gave me my certificate, I burst out crying. I was emotional at the thought of finally being able to make others as happy as Zumba made me.
What is involved in preparing for a Zumba class?
People think that you just get up and dance in a room filled with people but preparing for a Zumba class takes hours and hours of work. You have to identify your students, your target markets, and know your choreography inside out. After becoming instructors, many stop teaching soon after when they see how much work is required. Being an independent Zumba teacher means you are starting a business: you have to become savvy in the world of marketing, social media, managing the financial aspect of your business and getting an accountant to help you with taxes.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a Zumba teacher?
PR and managing my business. Without a doubt. It is the bane of my existence. I just want to teach Zumba, make my students happy, and shine on the floor. Promoting your business means that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of rejection – and there is no way of avoiding it. You have to sell yourself. The hours are also really difficult.
How did your Zumba business develop?
Initially I started teaching classes at Curve and Gmax gyms in Modiin. I also hosted a few Zumba parties. I then rented a tiny studio in Modiin where I taught Zumba to teens. I was so excited to be bringing in a few thousand shekels a month. Over the years my business has grown; I am currently teaching a Zumba chug (extra-curricular class) at eight different schools in Modiin and still teach teens twice a week from a large studio I am renting in the Azrieli mall. I have an open class on Wednesdays for adults and kids. I also do Zumba parties and events including bat mitzvot. I provide Zumba classes for businesses for their “fun day” and have been invited to summer camps in the north to conduct classes there.
I started out with classes primarily made up of English speakers but today I teach many classes to Israelis. I wouldn’t say that my Hebrew is perfect but it is definitely good enough.
One of my favorite groups is in Brachfeld, Modiin Illit where I teach a class of Haredi women. They are a group that have been with me since the beginning; what started out as a class of five women has now quadrupled in size to over 20 women. That class is the highlight of my week. For this group of Haredi women, this class provides the same release as clubbing. Off come the skirts, off comes the hair coverings, and they are a fun and fiery class. There are some new faces but there is a core group of women who have been with me since the very beginning. We have built a connection with each other where we are each other’s support system. One woman recently lost her husband and our group went to visit her during Shiva. Another woman is giving birth soon and she came over to my house and took some baby items. I don’t see this as my job where I teach the class and then disconnect from my students. I really care. I had a teenager in my class whose parents were going through a messy divorce and couldn’t afford to keep coming to the classes. I told her that I didn’t care about payment; it was more important to me that she had an outlet and could continue doing something she loved. I told her that my phone and door are always open to her. The relationships I build are so important.
What is your schedule like?
Teaching Zumba is the main focus of my career. I still design custom-made tablecloths but the bulk of my time is taken up with Zumba. A lot of my business comes from word-of-mouth. I don’t have easy hours. I use mornings to do my preps for Zumba classes, I teach Zumba classes in the schools in the afternoon and then take care of my kids; at night I am teaching Zumba. Juggling the different elements of my life is not easy but you only get one chance in this life and I want to take advantage of every opportunity given to me.
What advice would you give to Olim in pursuing or transitioning to a new career?
When you make Aliyah, allow yourself to be open to new opportunities and challenges and think outside the box. Don’t fixate on what you SHOULD be doing. Be creative, push yourself to experience something completely different. When I left behind my career in fashion, and made Aliyah, I took an enormous risk. And the challenges in Israel were great. But those same challenges propelled me forward. I took on multiple jobs. I wasn’t afraid of hard work and I remained focus. There are times you need to take on jobs that are not fulfilling but you can still make space in your life to pursue your passion. You might have to work harder than you ever imagined but you learn to keep your eye on the prize. Even teaching English was interesting to me. By teaching in Berlitz, I got a job teaching professional English at SIT where I met incredible people and learned a lot. Everyone has a skill or gift or interest that makes them unique. Discover that skill and create a plan. Don’t play it safe – whether that’s with fashion, personal or professional choices.