Homer once wrote, “The belly is the commanding part of the body,” and he was right. It aches when we’re sick, drops when we’re shocked, fills with butterflies when we’re nervous, but moves freely when we dance. This is something Oriental dancer, choreographer and teacher Leila Haddad understands. Haddad will make her Ann Arbor debut tonight at the Power Center for the Performing Arts.

Haddad will be performing Raqs el Sharqi, the Arabic term for “belly dance,” where the role of the dancer is to convey emotion and rhythm of music through movement of the feet, legs, pelvis, chest and neck, which all function in the movement of the belly.

“Scientists say that the belly has a brain,” Haddad said in an interview with L’Humanité.

“I call it the sun, and arms and legs are its rays.”

She will be accompanied by the Ghawazee musicians of Luxor, Egypt, who play traditional instruments like the re baba, a two string Egyptian fiddle, and a tabla, an Indian hand drum.

Oriental dance is one of uncertain origins, reminiscent of the indigenous dances of ancient North Africa, India and other Middle Eastern countries. Tonight’s performance will be a collective display of the sights and sounds of these regions. In addition, Haddad will incorporate Greek, Iranian and Spanish dance influences.

Born of Tunisian and Syrian descent, Haddad learned Oriental dance by watching her mother and aunts as a young girl. In London, after pursuing a masters degree in English, Haddad decided to resist the disapproval of her family and pursue a career in dance. It was no easy task. When she came to France, stereotypes of this far eastern dance deprived people of an understanding of its true nature.

“American culture is so dominant in France that no one ever took the liberty to translate the terms rock’n’roll, mambo, salsa and twist in equivalent French terms,” Haddad said in an interview with Tilda Moubayed.

“It is not the case for Oriental dance that they allowed themselves not only to translate but also to ‘misrepresent’ by a bad translation: ‘belly dance’ for American people and ‘danse du ventre’ for French people.”

Haddad’s work as a dancer has helped undo a cultural miscommunication about the art of belly dancing, which is still being rescued from its negative connotation in the West as a dance exclusive to nightclubs and cabarets. Haddad suggests a more accurate translation, calling it “Eastern dance.” Its identity as a credible form of art becomes more recognizable when it emerges from its hidden setting and onto a theatrical stage.

“My struggle concerns people’s approach to this dance, and it seems to me more than necessary to do this job and carry on with it,” she said.

Haddad’s job is a work in progress, as this Eastern dance is always in motion. While it remains true to its multi-layered traditions, it has become a sort of blank tablet in the U.S. where rock and hip hop, as well as fashion and film, can leave their influences. The dance is more complex than what we see. The sensual bold movements elicit an understanding of an ancient civilization, whose dances will emerge tonight from the edges of a questionable form of art and into an acceptable and versatile mode of expression.

Leila Haddad

Tonight at 8 p.m.

At the Power Center


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