Amelia Wells: What inspired you to start belly dancing?
Leyla Fahada: When I was in college, I saw that there was a non-credit course available and I thought it might be fun. I had never done any type of dancing before and I wanted to try something completely new. I never thought I'd be serious about it either, but it ran away with me and I started taking other classes.
AW: Tell us a bit about the history of belly dancing.
LF: The history of belly dance is a hotly debated topic! What I can tell you is that what you're likely to see on stage today is a combination of folk dancing and Hollywood fantasy. In Egypt, everyone dances at family get togethers and celebrations. Many of the moves you see on stage are the same moves you'll see done by people at parties and weddings. The more ballet-style movements and costumes seen in performance come from Hollywood movies. American tourists expected to see the bra and belt set from the movies, so dancers in Egypt adopted it. There's a strong Orientalist component to it. In America, dancers in the 70s would dance at clubs with a mix of people from different Middle Eastern and North African countries, so a style that's now known as American Cabaret evolved. It was a fusion of different styles by American dancers. The most important thing to remember is that this is a dance of the people, first and foremost.
AW: Belly dancing seems to be quite a changeable art with plenty of different styles, what's your preferred style, and why? Do you think the adaptable nature of belly-dancing helps or hinders its becoming more 'fashionable'?
LF: You are absolutely right! I prefer American Cabaret and Egyptian styling. American Cabaret is flashy and big. It's high energy and includes veil tricks, floor work, and sometimes the use of a sword for balancing. Egyptian is more subtle in some ways and has an immense emotional range. I do think the adaptable nature of belly dance helps it to be fashionable. From a performance standpoint, fusion is very popular and so I regularly see Bollywood, Flamenco, Ballet, and Burlesque fused with Belly Dance. People who may have no interest in the cultures or aesthetics of more traditional belly dance might have their eyes opened to it through fusion. From there they usually discover how much is beneath the surface. Even without any modern fusion, belly dance comes from a rich culture with complex music and traditions. I could study one style for my whole life and still not be able to learn everything.
AW: What kind of skills do you need, starting out as a belly dancer?
LF: Starting out as a student, you need dedication and patience. I am not a natural and so many of the moves were frustrating to me at first. As a professional, you need to be skilled at improvisation using an appropriate movement vocabulary, familiarity with the music and an understanding of typical Middle Eastern rhythms, command of your props, an understanding of appropriate costuming and grooming, and cultural sensitivity.
AW: How did you come to start a bellydancing duo? Do you have any plans for expansion in the future?
LF: Zaira and I met in our beginner class and were eventually invited to join our teacher’s troupe. We bonded in that time. When the troupe disbanded, Zaira and I decided to continue as a duo. Currently, we’re happy as a duo – two schedules are hard enough to coordinate.
AW: Do you prefer teaching or performing?
LF: Performing. Right now I still have plenty to learn and to explore and my personal style is still developing.
AW: How does dancing in a duo compare to dancing solo?
LF: Belly dance is traditionally an improvisational art and when I dance solo, I dance and react in the moment. As a duo, we have to choreograph our shows to be in sync, but we have the benefit of being able to play off of each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
AW: It looks like a lot of fun, do you still enjoy it now it's more than a hobby?
LF: It is a lot of fun and I enjoy it even more as a performer. I like interacting with people when I dance. The best part of a show is the audience participation section where I can get people up to dance with me. I try to make a personal connection with each audience member in hopes that I add a special element to their evening.
AW: You work with various props, like veils, swords and canes. Which is your favourite?
LF: My favorite is sword. I love the contrast and the drama of it. People, especially children, really seem to respond to it – maybe because it adds a little danger to the dance.
AW: Have you or would you ever work with fire?
LF: I have never performed with it, but I’ve learned some things about it. I would love to try the fire poi, but that takes a lot of extra safety precautions that are difficult to take in a restaurant. First I want to focus on balancing a tray of candles on my head while I dance, which is something many belly dancers do.
AW: How do people respond when you tell them you’re a belly dancer? Do you think they take it seriously as a profession?
LF: People usually respond with curiosity and a lot of thoughtful questions. No one has ever told me that they don’t take the profession seriously, but those close to me, who have seen the amount of time, work, and money that goes into it, respect it as a profession.
AW: How do you feel about the balance between belly dancing being empowering for women versus its sometimes sexualised nature?
LF: To see belly dance as sexual is to see just a very tiny part of the picture. A dancer explores such a wide range of emotions and experiences. At any moment a dancer could be sexy, flirty, sassy, or coy, but then she is also at times bold, sorrowful, joyful, angry, giving, or demanding.
Good belly dancers have put a tremendous amount of work into their art and have strong bodies and minds. To perform in a restaurant, you have to be confident, self assured, and in control. I feel good about any sexuality expressed in my dancing because I am in control of it. I am expressing and giving a part of myself to my audience when I dance and sex is part of who I am as a human. But I also give my love of the dance and the joy it brings me. Belly dance is a union of empowerment and sexuality.
AW: What would you most like to see happen in the world of belly-dancing?
LF: I would like to see more serious study of and effort to understand the cultures from where this dance comes. Some people forget that it is a form of cultural expression and needs to be respected as a legitimate dance form.
AW: You recently performed at a Raw Food and Vegan Festival in Maryland, what was that like?
LF: As soon as the music came on, it began to pour rain! The band was on a covered stage, but Zaira and I had to dance on the ground with the audience. We danced anyway, in the rain and resulting mud with the entire audience dancing with us. It was one of my favourite shows. I felt genuine love and gratitude from the people there and there were plenty of vegan snacks backstage. It was one of the most fulfilling shows I've done because it went to promote and celebrate the lifestyle I love so much.
AW: What led to you becoming vegan?
LF: I read an article about slaughterhouses when I was a kid and it horrified me. I remember looking at my dog, who I love so much, and realizing that as an animal lover, I was obligated to extend the love and compassion I had for him to all animals and became a vegetarian. Years later, I had dinner at the home of a vegan friend. She and her family showed me that it was a lifestyle that was easy to live, but more importantly, that I had to live. I realized that if dairy was factory farmed as meat was, I had no business consuming it.
AW: Who inspires you, as a vegan and as a belly dancer, and why?
LF: My sisters, who are both vegan. They are creative, vibrant women who both actively work towards making the world a better place for animals. They both have big hearts and find a lot of joy around them. My dog, Mr. Darcy, and my cat, Skeletor, who both always live in the moment, revel in small pleasures, and love me unconditionally. Ansuya, Jillina, and Carolena Nericcio, who are all very talented and very famous vegan belly dancers and innovators in their respective styles. These women all have made names for themselves in the dance and continue to educate others and perform beautifully.
AW: You perform at charity events occasionally, are these usually for animal or vegan based charities or do you tend to leave being vegan out of your business decisions?
LF: I do seek out opportunities to perform at animal-related events. I also donate all of my tips from restaurant shows to animal causes.
AW: Are you actively pro-vegan when you perform at non-vegan events?
LF: I am actively pro vegan and I bring vegan snacks to share whenever I can.
AW: How else do you think being vegan affects your bellydancing?
Being a vegan means that I am at the peak of health. If I was not vegan, I would not have the energy to sustain my schedule. I did 5 shows back to back last Friday, but had the energy because the food I eat does not weigh me down or take away from my movement. I can steal a bite between sets and not be afraid of how it will affect my ability to move.
AW: How do you feel about performing at non-vegan restaurants?
LF: I think of it like I do ordering vegan dishes at non-vegan restaurants. I’d prefer not to, but I can take advantage and set an example. Middle Eastern cuisine has a lot of inherently vegan and vegetarian options, so I hope that people can learn that animal products do not have to be part of a meal. Also, I end up talking to patrons a lot after shows and I take any chance I can to talk about veganism and suggest vegan menu options.
AW: Lastly, do you have any tips for aspiring belly dancers, vegans, or both?
LF: Don’t get frustrated! In both worlds, sometimes it seems like the odds are really stacked against you, but with some forethought and work, you can get past anything. Try new things, expand your palate, and the results, whether belly dancing or veganism, will amaze and enrich you.
For more info on Leyla and Indra Lazul, visit http://www.myspace.com/indralazul