CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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FRANCE: Leyla Haddad, a new life for Oriental Dance

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Leyla dancingEveryday scores of European and American women meet up in dancing halls to learn the art of oriental dance, something once largely confined to the stage of cabarets clubs. For Leyla Haddad, who bear much responsability for this rebirth of interest, the revival marks the achievement of a personal adventure.

Born on the island of Djerba, which is said to have fascinated Ulysses, of a Berber mother and a Tunisian father, today Leyla Haddad teaches belly-dancing across Europe and North America. Sorry, Leyla flatly refuses to use the term “belly-dancing” preferring instead Raks el Sharqi, the Oriental art of dancing, that has “nothing to do with the words invented by the Legionnaires”.

Born into a middle class family, Leyla’s father died when she was quite young although, she insists, she did not suffer any hardship, either economically or psychologically. “I was living in an extended family, including my mother, my aunts, my cousins, it was a large and supportive group”. Later, she decided to become an interpreter. Her studies took her to universities in England and France but somewhere on the way she discovered the theatre, the African National Congress (ANC) and the struggle against apartheid. “ I fell in love with theater. I watched a famous act known as the “Zulu group”, and was fascinated because they mixed acting, singing and dancing with the delivery of a message, the denunciation of Apartheid”.

Leyla teachingThe Zulu Group began in Senegal with around 20 artists of various creeds and colours: “The group members were black, white, yellow, green, whatever you want, from different nationalities, working around the same idea. It was also an extended family”.

“I realised I could not be an interpreter, my heart was not in it but I finished my studies to please my family. I wanted to work in the theatre but I also knew I could not make a living there so, after much consideration, I decided to try and give dance lessons”. However the career move was not without its problems. Leyla visited a number of studios offering her services as a teacher of oriental dance. People would stare at her wide eyed and ask: “Oriental dance, what do you mean? Oh, do you mean “belly-dancing? “No, we don’t do that”. After some serious searching Leyla met an American woman in Paris who had recently opened a new studio to teach tap dancing. Leyla explained that she had no training in dance, no CV, and no pupils. Nevertheless the American agreed to give her a chance: “My first students were five Algerian sisters”, Leyla recalls with a laugh. “So my class size varied between five and zero, depending on whether they turned up or not!”. At the beginning Leyla did not how how to teach. “I did not know how to warm up, how to train to do this or that. My first students were my guinea pigs. We learned together. Even today I sometimes feel I am still learning how to teach”.

Portrait of Leyla HaddadLeyla agrees that the art of Oriental dance is not a million miles from the theatre life she loved as a student. And she is still involved in politics: ”Africa is Africa: North Africa or Black Africa, we all occupy the same continent”. After conducting a great deal of research on the subject, Leyla Haddad says she is not sure where the art of oriental dance originated. Many believe it must come from Egypt since after Napoleon Bonaparte sent his scholars to Egypt in the early 19th century, anything carrying the label “oriental” had to be Egyptian. This theory is frequently supported by the fact that the fisrt recorded nightclub in the Arab world featuring such dancing was opened in Cairo in the 1920s by the famous Lebanese actress and singer Badia Masabni.

Others maintain that oriental dance originated in Turkey at the time of the Ottoman empire. “But”, Leyla reminds us, “neither of these two two theories are necessarily correct. If you look at dancing in black Africa, especially in Guinea, many styles of dancing indigenous to that area have a similar style to Raks al Sharqi”.

“I suppose”, Leyla goes on with with some passion, “you could describe oriental dance as one of the most ancient forms of art. Its original aim was to exorcise the fears of the people. It was a holy dance and it is an art I want to rehabilitate. There were two places where I could dance, at home, where nobody would see me, or in a cabaret club, which is not what I want. I don’t have pretensions to open an opera house or a temple dedicated to the art, a theatre would do. But the people with the keys of the theatres and other halls of culture don’t want to hear us. So I teach. For me it provides a method of communication, a way of revealing my culture to the people at large. Not with words, with words we can make so many mistakes, but through the medium of dance”.

“When I go abroad and see people dancing to the songs of Oum Kaltoum, it makes me happy. Most people know only the cheap side of it... but the dance is so delicate, so refined, it responds to classical Arab music in the most essential way. It is not only a physical exercise but also a spiritual one. You dance with your body, but also with your heart and your brain. Yes, it is also seduction -- why not”.

What kind of women -- there are also a few men -- come to learn to dance with Leyla? All kinds of people, she says, young girls, old women, educated and uneducated, all of them caught in the fantasy. They may have seen a film shot in Egypt, or they travelled to the East. Maybe they were inspired by the music or simply by the joy of the dance. In her studio in Paris, Leyla teaches groups of 20 to 30 students. Myriam, aged 27, is an accountant; Shirin, 19, a student; Margarita, 35, a house wife. All have roots in the Arab world, either they were born there, or perhaps they have an Algerian parent. Yvonne, the dean, is now 76, she is from Egypt and still loves dancing. “I know all these songs and tunes and I love them”, she explains.

Margarita is fond of Verdi but she also likes Oum Kaltoum. Marie, aged 28, is a student of Arabic who has lived in Morocco. Jeanine, aged 56, a housewife, was born in Algeria and although her father spoke fluent Arabic she never learned. Marie-Louise, a 35 year old Lebanon-born artist sums up the feelings of many of them when she says: “This dance is part of my culture. I want to use it as my link between the East and the West”.

(The Middle East magazine, January 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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