It takes guts

The Arabesque belly dance gala offfers more than the usual curves.

Remember the iconic photo of Demi Moore naked and pregnant that graced Vanity Fair's August 1991 cover? In that spirit, when Chen Lebo and Gali Attias-Eliahu perform today at 2 p.m. at Beit Shmuel in the belly dance gala Arabesque, both will be proudly showing off their third trimester-protruding belly. "It's great that I'm able to do it, that I'm healthy enough to continue dancing. Exercising while pregnant strengthens the abdomen, and helps me relax," says Chen, 31, a Jamaica-born, Toronto-raised dancer, now in the home stretch of her first pregnancy. "This is really fun for me," concurs Attias-Eliahu, in her seventh month. "I do what I'm used to doing. An avid practitioner of yoga, Lebo continues her daily 15-minute power yoga practice, as well as attending yoga classes several times a week. But her heart is in belly dancing. Lebo, who made aliya in 2005, first became interested in the art form four years ago while living in Canada. For the last two years, she's been dancing two or three times a week at Arabesque, which meets at the Cosell Center Sports Hall at the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. "I love the music, and being able to have fun while dancing," says Lebo. "Being able to belly dance with other women makes me more self-confident. I feel great at the end of each class." The dance routines also give one great posture, she adds. Lebo's gynecologist has encouraged her to continue dancing throughout her pregnancy, as long as she feels well. In fact, over the last two years several of Arabesque's students have been dancing while pregnant, she notes. Arabesque studio owner Yael Moav, 46, herself danced while pregnant. "Belly dancing is the only dance form that is suited to a woman's body," Moav explains. "In ballet and jazz, the aesthetics are of angles. It's a male-dominated dance form about creating lines with your body, whereas belly dancing is about creating curves. Men run the show in Western dancing, and that's why you find [female] Western dancers are very skinny. "I don't know one [Western] dancer who doesn't have an eating disorder or doesn't smoke like a fiend to keep from eating," she continues. "It's so screwed up." In contrast, Moav, who describes herself as a feminist, calls belly dancing "empowering" for women. Eating disorders like anorexia are unknown among her dance peers, she emphasizes. "In belly dancing the moves emphasize your curves, to make your hips look bigger. It emphasizes everything about being sensual and about being a woman. Even the costumes are designed to make you look more curvy," she says. The art form originated in women's birthing ceremonies in Pharaonic Egypt and is popular in the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean countries. Recently, laments Moav, belly dancing has been popularized by Shakira, the 20-something Colombian sexpot and singer. "It totally offends me. Right now hip hop and R&B are picking up and exploiting it [belly dancing] in their music videos. They're totally misrepresenting what belly dancing is. They sexualize it. R&B and hip hop are genres that use blatant sex to sell their records. The lyrics are all about sex. But in Middle Eastern music they're talking about love and loss. It's very spiritual, beautiful, poetic language." And what about belly dance's seedy reputation? "It's a dance, just like ballet is just a dance," says Moav. "Belly dancing isn't used to seduce men. It's sensual, not sexual. But Western culture appropriates and exploits other cultures, including belly dancing. And, of course, Hollywood picks up on this and sexualizes the dance form because sex sells. They just want to make money, and they don't care about the message they're sending out." The Arabesque gala show features three local troupes: Arabesque, composed of professional dancers between the ages of 16 and 30; Moav's troupe Karin, featuring 12 women aged 30 to 50; Forever Young, all of whom are grandmothers; and guest star Nava Aharoni. For more information, call 620-3455 or 651-1070.