What strikes you most if you meet the enigmatic Leila Haddad are these intricate braids cascading down her shoulders, and ornamented with shiny threads and steel rings. A single cowrie shell hangs from one of the braids at the centre of her brow. Clad in a pink and yellow shirt and a fuschia skirt, with a sheer crimson scarf wrapped round her waist, Leila seems to be as vibrant and free-spirited as the Ghawazee (nomadic musicians and dancers from Egypt).

She takes umbrage at being known as a ‘stomach dancer’. Leila corrects me and says that she is an exponent of ‘raqs al-sharqi’, an Arabic dance kind, which when translated in English means ‘oriental dance’. And she is named the ‘excessive priestess of oriental dance’. This petite Tunisian-Eqyptian dancer, who at the age of 73, can nonetheless shimmy up a storm and who now calls Paris her residence, was just lately in Madurai to discover the dances of South India. Leila spoke about her inventive journey that has helped her carry into the limelight a dance kind that was relegated to the cabarets.

Leila Haddad in a colourful costume strikes a pose

Leila Haddad in a vibrant costume strikes a pose
| Photo Credit: ASHOK R

What spurred you to revive and refine the artwork kind?

n “I received’t say that I learnt this artwork kind. It is there in our tradition. In nearly all Arab-Berber villages, the ladies dance once they come collectively. It acts as remedy for us. Before Christianity and Islam got here into the area, we have been nomadic in nature travelling alongside the River Nile. And on the method, we integrated varied dance varieties particularly from North Africa, and with goddess Ishtar being the predominant feminine deity, the excessive priestess in the temples would carry out this dance. This dance for me is greater than an artwork, it’s a sacred ceremony. But with Christianity and puritanism making inroads, this was seen as a pagan artwork kind and slowly relegated to the sidelines. In the late 18th century, this artwork slowly discovered its method into bordellos and with it even the title modified. From ‘raqs el sharqi’ it grew to become stomach dance. When rock and roll, and jazz nonetheless retain their names, why change the title of this artwork kind. The colonisers didn’t present any respect to even the terminology. They negated its religious id and targeted solely on its sexual facet. For the westerners, we’re all unique they usually distorted our tradition and that is what I needed to alter.

You by no means began out as a dancer, when and the way did this transformation happen?

n During my pupil days, once I was in England, I used to be influenced by the African National Congress motion. The anti-apartheid unrest touched me and the solely method I may present my protest was by becoming a member of the Zulu theatre. If I used to be silent, I knew it meant that I used to be colluding with these perpetrating the injustice. So I needed to speak. Being a girl in the West and an Arab-Berber, I needed to be seen to be heard. And theatre was the solely place the place I may specific my anger in a really democratic method. I’m a solo dancer however I needed to utilise the house given to me on the stage, so I turned choreographer and in response to the piece, I select the quantity of dancers. Space to me is esoteric and I’m eager to invoke its vitality and religious that means. When I utilise the sacred geometry of the house, it offers extra energy to my efficiency and ideas. Even the prop of a light-weight for me is a component of the theatre and a strategy to interpret my message. So I opened up the theatre for the dance of the orient.

So is political activism an integral half of your performances?

n Yes, as an Arab in an European world, I do know what it means to face discrimination. Hence, I empathise with the struggles of Afro-Americans. Maya Angelou has influenced me lots, and I’ve choreographed a dance the place she recites a poem in her personal voice. The Civil Rights motion, proper from Martin Luthur, to Rosa Parks to Obama all have been a component of my dance repertoire. As a author, I’ve written items and carried out on it. And sure, I’m female and a feminist. I have fun womanhood via my dance. Of late, I can see a wave in the direction of the far proper in lots of nations. This is horrifying and we’ve to be vigilant. We could lose in a single occasion what individuals like Simone de Beauvoir had bought for us. As a girl I’ve many layers, I’m a mom, a daughter, a lover, and a spouse. The dancer in me helps me reveal these varied layers . I’ve to talk about my rights and the injustice being completed. The day I received’t speak about that is when I’m lifeless.

What you hope to take again from this journey to India?

n India will not be new to me. I’ve been a frequent customer and the people dancers of Rajasthan, particularly the Kalbeliyas have impressed me. Maybe the truth that also they are nomads helped me perceive their artwork kind. I discover many similarities between the two dance varieties. I’ve been bringing my college students and making them perceive that there are such a lot of different dance varieties and we must be open to assimilating them. This is my first journey to South India and I need to see Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, and different dance varieties which can be distinctive right here. I additionally need to perceive the tradition and custom behind these artwork varieties. I don’t know Tamil or Malayalam however I can talk via my dance. Dance being a standard language, I do know individuals will perceive what I attempt for. If I write a play, then I’m restricted by the language, however via dance I can attain out to all human beings.

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