On a typical weekday morning, a group of women files into an underground shelter in Rehavia. Working mothers, soldiers, lawyers and grandmothers, they've all come here for one express purpose - to let down their hair, tie a bangled scarf around their hips and belly dance. It's even more astounding to watch the transformation that occurs as Arabic drum beats start playing on the stereo and the women line up behind their teacher. Slouching shoulders seem to perk up, tired hips soften naturally and there are sexy smiles all over the room. Like this group of students at the Arabesque dance center, thousands of other women throughout the city and across the country are discovering the delights of Middle Eastern dance. Where once belly dancing was confined to Egyptian movies or the occasional show at a cabaret or restaurant, it is increasingly becoming a popular art form for Israeli women - and some men - who have newly discovered its physical and therapeutic benefits. Belly dance classes are now offered at almost all gyms and fitness centers, not to mention the private instruction sessions for bachelorette parties, so that the bride and her friends can be ready for the wedding. Even a new Israeli movie, The Belly Dancer, starring Meital Dohan, glamorizes the fictional life of a formerly Orthodox dancer turned criminal. According to Yael Moav, founder and director of the Arabesque center - which has branches throughout Jerusalem - the flowering of the form is a relatively new trend. "When I started learning 19 years ago, there was almost nothing in the way of classes and good teachers in the country. Now the level in Israel is extremely high. You have a concentration of excellent teachers and a lot of interest," she explains from her underground studio, which looks a bit like a funky Mediterranean tea house. One reason for the increasing popularity of Middle Eastern dance may be its emphasis on encouraging natural self-acceptance. Whereas Western dance forms such as ballet and jazz often require students to achieve unusual levels of flexibility, according to most accounts belly dance does something different. "The movements of the dance suit us as women. You move in a way that is very feminine and natural. You get the feeling that fullness is beauty," explains Leslie Sachs, vice president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a non-professional belly dancer for several years. Moav agrees and speaks enthusiastically about the women who enter her classes disconnected from their bodies and undergo a shift in the way they carry themselves. She explains that the dance form's attention to each separate part of the body makes students aware of their physicality, sometimes for the first time. Famously, belly dancing requires that the dancer move her pelvis separately from her upper body - a trick that many in the Western world find hard to manage. Yet Moav claims that "all women" can learn to move in this way and when accomplished, it is truly liberating. Ilana Bar-Ajva and Shiri Portal, both students in an intensive two-month seminar at Arabesque, claim they feel more fluid, more at home in themselves. Portal, 25, no longer calls herself "ungainly," and Bar-Ajva says that the aesthetic qualities of the dance consistently put her in a good mood. "These are women who always wore heels - and now look," says Moav, pointing to Bar-Ajva's comfortable flats. Tzvia, a social worker enrolled at the studio, feels that the dance has helped her come to terms with her sexuality as a single religious woman. "Because sexuality is not emphasized so much in the religious world, some girls have a sense of shame about their bodies and when couples get married, they don't know how to start," she says. "This has helped my posture and most importantly helped me feel free and natural in my body," she adds. For a woman like Tzvia, belly dancing will likely be reserved for herself and performed only in front of other women, a nod to modesty that is actually rather authentic to the Islamic countries where the art form developed [see box]. But some women learn the dance in order to perform and often in front of mixed audiences. So how do the "new" belly dancers feel about performing in front of men, particularly when this often involves having a wad of shekels stuffed into one's costume? Moav, who chooses to perform only on stage for larger audiences, concedes that this is an important issue to consider. She adds that one of the dangers of the form is that any woman with minimal training can dress in a revealing manner and be hired to appear at a family party or corporate event. Yet, she says, many of these women are not artists and do not represent the full range of what the dance means. "Ultimately, it is what you put out there. Sure, it is a sensual dance and if it 'does it' for some people, great, but you can dress in an open but not revealing manner and you can really dance for the sake of the dance," she explains. Efrat Sharoni, a youth counselor for the Jerusalem Municipality's division for youth development, also talks of having to "walk a careful line" between artistic expression and over-emphasis on sexuality when dealing with the young at-risk women enrolled in a weekly Middle-Eastern dance class in Malha. The youngsters, mostly 15-17 and dealing with difficulties at home or school, have responded very positively to the weekly belly dancing sessions. Many of them are familiar with it through their own family heritage and are used to dancing at family events. An added benefit, explains Sharoni, is the way the dance helps the young women feel at peace with their changing bodies. "They get a break from the less pleasant parts of their lives and get a chance to see how their bodies are working for their own benefit. They feel a sense of pride in being part of a group and in knowing an art form," she says. Still, she says that she works to emphasize both to the girls and to their male peers that Middle-Eastern dance is an art form that can be performed even completely covered-up "as it was performed in Egypt." While the girls dress in a modern but modest way, they are taught that you can be both expressive and "not cheap." Having gained the skills to truly dance, the young women perform at events throughout the city, such as Festival B'shekel several weeks ago, as well as at nursing homes and municipal functions. Sharoni tells of one young woman who makes dance a regular part of her life. In the afternoons, her brother plays the darbuka (Middle-Eastern drum) while she dances for the pure joy of it. Identification and pride in Mizrahi culture may be another element in the growing popularity of belly dance. Yael Gilboa, a content editor from Haifa who belly dances as "Ghazalla," says that she spent most of her life "repressing" her Iraqi heritage while embracing only her Ashkenazi genetic link. Dancing has put her in touch with Arabic music and culture, she explains. Indeed, Middle-Eastern dance has long been a part of Israeli culture through Mizrahi celebrations including weddings, where both men and women do the steps familiar to belly dancers. "Men use the same steps as women but it looks completely different, masculine, when they do it," explains Moav. For some, belly dance may also be a way to connect with Arab neighbors. Both Moav and Gilboa recount experiences with local Arab women who chose to study the dance form with Israeli teachers. "Every year, I get a few Arab students and we all get along very well," says Moav. Diversity seems to go together with the new trend toward shimmying in sequins. The dancers of today come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are as likely to be over 40 and fit as as they are young and full-figured, together with any other variety. Among Moav's students are a grandmother and her granddaughter as well as several mother-daughter pairs. Sachs has been dancing together with her daughter for six years. Starting as a total beginner at Arabesque, she now performs in Kadim, the dance troupe for advanced students and her daughter - now a young woman - still wants to dance with her. "We took a break for a year but we both want to get back to it," she says, sounding excited.

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