What strikes you the most when you meet the enigmatic Leila Haddad are those intricate braids that cascade over her shoulders and are adorned with shiny threads and metallic rings. A single cowrie dangles from one of the braids in the center of her forehead. Dressed in a pink and yellow blouse and fuschia skirt, with a sheer red scarf wrapped around her waist, Leila looks as colorful and free-spirited as the Ghawazee (nomadic musicians and dancers of Egypt) .
She takes umbrage at being called a “belly dancer”. Leila corrects me and says she is a representative of ‘raqs al-sharqi’, an Arabic dance form which when translated into English means ‘oriental dance’. And she is called the “high priestess of oriental dance”. This little Tunisian-Egyptian dancer, who at 73 still knows how to dance the storm and who now lives in Paris, was recently in Madurai to explore the dances of southern India. Leila spoke about her artistic journey which helped her bring to light a form of dance relegated to cabarets.
Leila Haddad in a colorful costume poses | Photo credit: ASHOK R
What inspired you to revive and refine this art form?
n “I won’t say that I learned this art form. It’s there in our culture. In almost all Arab-Berber villages, women dance when they come together. It acts as therapy for us. Before the arrival of Christianity and Islam in the region, we were nomadic in nature traveling along the Nile. And along the way, we incorporated various dance forms, especially from North Africa, and the goddess Ishtar being the main female deity, the high priestess of the temples performed this dance. This dance is for me more than an art, it is a sacred rite. But with the breakthrough of Christianity and Puritanism, it was considered a pagan art form and slowly relegated to the sidelines. At the end of the 18th century, this art slowly made its way into brothels and with it even the name changed. From ‘raqs el sharqi’ it became belly dancing. When rock and roll and jazz still retain their names, why change the name of this art form. The colonizers showed no respect even for terminology. They denied his spiritual identity and focused only on his sexual aspect. To Westerners we are all exotic and they have distorted our culture and that is what I wanted to change.
You never started as a dancer, when and how did this transformation take place?
n During my studies, when I was in England, I was influenced by the African National Congress movement. The anti-apartheid unrest got to me and the only way I could show my protest was to join the Zulu theatre. If I was silent, I knew that meant I was colluding with those who perpetrated injustice. So I had to speak. Being a Western and Arab-Berber woman, I had to be seen to be heard. And the theater was the only place where I could express my anger in a very democratic way. I am a solo dancer but I had to use the space given to me on stage, so I became a choreographer and depending on the piece, I choose the number of dancers. Space for me is esoteric and I want to invoke its energy and spiritual meaning. When I use the sacred geometry of space, it gives more power to my performance and my thoughts. Even the accessory of a light for me is part of the theater and a way of interpreting my message. So I opened the theater to oriental dance.
So is political activism an integral part of your performance?
n Yes, as an Arab in a European world, I know what it means to face discrimination. Therefore, I sympathize with the struggles of African Americans. Maya Angelou influenced me a lot and I choreographed a dance where she recites a poem in her own voice. The civil rights movement, from Martin Luthur to Rosa Parks to Obama, have all been part of my dance repertoire. As a writer, I’ve written plays and acted in them. And yes, I am feminine and feminist. I celebrate femininity through my dance. Lately I can see a wave towards the extreme right in many countries. It’s scary and we have to be vigilant. We can lose in one case what people like Simone de Beauvoir had for us. As a woman I have many layers, I am a mother, a daughter, a lover and a wife. The dancer in me helps me reveal these different layers. I have to talk about my rights and the injustice that is being committed. The day I won’t talk about this is when I’m dead.
What do you hope to take away from this trip to India?
n India is not new to me. I have been a frequent visitor and the folk dancers of Rajasthan, especially the Kalbeliyas, have inspired me. Maybe the fact that they are so nomadic helped me understand their art form. I find a lot of similarities between the two dance forms. I brought my students and made them realize that there are so many varied dance forms and that we should be open to assimilating them. This is my first trip to South India and I want to see Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and other unique dance forms here. I also want to understand the culture and tradition behind these art forms. I don’t know Tamil or Malayalam but I can communicate through my dance. Dance being a common language, I know that people will understand what I am looking for. If I write a play, I am limited by language, but through dance I can reach all human beings.