"For me, everything begins with respect"
The dancer Leila Haddad, who was born in Tunisia and lives in Paris, has been successfully working to lead oriental dance out of the world of the clubs onto the stage of international festivals for years now. She was inspired by ballet and modern dance to tell stories with the belly dance, known as "Raqs Sharqi" in the Arab world.
When Leila Haddad, born in Tunisia of a Tunisian mother and a Syrian father, came to France seventeen years ago, oriental dance was not yet recognised as an art form there. Leila Haddad was the first woman to teach an oriental dance class in Paris. Although dance had always played a central role in her family, she only began to concentrate wholly on dance after studying comparative literature and Italian in London and Paris. When she came from London to Paris with her then dance theatre group "Zulu Theatre" at the beginning of the eighties and suggested performing a piece with Raqs Sharqi, she encountered nothing but disapproval of this "belly dance". Since that time she has been fighting for recognition of the oriental dance as an art form equal to any other.
Leila Haddad, who studied at the conservatoire in Tunis, was inspired by ballet and modern dance to tell stories with her dance. In addition she also includes traditional dances from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria in her repertoire. "Unbelievably indecent" was Flaubert´s horrified opinion of the oriental dance on his travels. Since then the traditional Arab dance has been stigmatised: it was exiled to the brothel, where it degenerated into what is today popularly called the belly dance.
Even in Tunisia the Raqs Sharqi is not publicly respectable. "We have modern dance and classical ballet there, and Raqs Sharqi is for cabarets and restaurants. There are no schools for it. At the conservatoire there are traditional Tunisian dances to my knowledge. Raqs Sharqi belongs in the private sphere", laments Leila Haddad. "I don´t think there is Raqs Sharqi in an official conservatoire anywhere in the world." Nonetheless she has now performed at the Festival of Roveretto in Italy alongside Pina Bausch. She usually works solo. But she has also put fully choreographed shows for sixteen dancers on stage before.
With great determination, Leila Haddad has brought the oriental dance out of the private corners of the cabarets and clubs into the "Theatre des Bouffes du Nord", the "Theatre du Rond Point des Champs Elysees", the "Institut du Monde Arabe" and also the House of World Cultures. She now dances regularly at festivals in Paris, Lisbon, Naples, Roveretto, but also at the "Festival de Hamamet" and in Beirut. With her performances she has revived the dignity and tradition of the belly dance and thereby conveyed what is latent in it: sensuality and a new physical consciousness. Leila Haddad´s dance is a tribute to femininity and for her has absolutely nothing to do with a subjugation to male images of women.
"I am a fighter," she said in an interview with the magazine "TanzOriental". "I know that what I am fighting for is difficult to achieve ... I don´t have any foolish dreams. I am politically and culturally conscious. I read, I learn, I know the situation of women – not only in the East, but in the West as well. Women have often had enough of feminism here as well. We need to become conscious of ourselves, the intellect, the emotions, the body. Why can´t I be feminine and free? I can study, I can read, I can debate, and still remain a woman."
Leila Haddad is not just fighting for recognition for the oriental dance in Europe and the Western world. She also demands respect for the Arab world. "People need to cultivate themselves. I´m fed up with people saying the Arabs are all one people, something uniform. We are twenty-two countries, we are Berbers, we are Arabs, we have Bedouins, we have many different peoples, languages, traditions. There are gypsies too in the Arab world. It all intermingles. So our culture is immensely rich. It´s very important that people respect us. For me everything begins with respect." She does not intend to move to Tunisia. "My story is France."
Events at the HKW:
4th April, 1992
Even Her Walk is Divine
Dance of the Seven Veils
Oriental Dance by Leila Haddad
Organiser: House of World Cultures
The participating artists:
Leila Haddad – Dance
Julien Weiss – Kanun
Mohamed Saada – Flute
Adel Shamseddine – Percussion
Leila Haddad was born in Tunisia, the daughter of a Tunisian mother and a Syrian father. She studied Comparative Literature and Italian in London and Paris. She has been living and teaching in Paris for seventeen years.