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Belly Dance in Turkey - Origin, Forms and Male Dancers

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

After their heyday and popularity during the Ottoman Empire, male belly dancers, known as köceks, are making a come back in modern Turkish dance culture. However, many still consider the dance as a domain for women and an expression of their power and beauty.

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    Turkish dance form

    The origin of the Turkish form of belly dance, called ciftetelli, is widely disputed, as is the source of the name. Three of the more popular opinions state; that the dance has its origin either in a religious dance practiced by temple priestesses, was a part of regional practices when giving birth, or else dates back to the Roma. However, theories one and two could hardly explain the undisputed existence of male belly dancers. Opinions remain divided, but belly dancing has a centuries old tradition in Africa and the Middle East. In Turkey it is perceived as a traditional part of wedding folk music and dance, which indeed explains the participation of males, although the sexes were strictly separated when dancing at wedding ceremonies.

    The word "belly dance" is a Western invention. The original Arabic word for the dance has nothing to do with a body part but simply translates into "oriental dance" or "folk dance." Credit for the term "belly dance" goes to Sol Bloom, an American promoter who invented the word in 1899.

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    Belly dance costumes

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    Distinction between forms

    The performance of belly dancing can be divided into two forms: raqs baladi and raqs sharqui. Whereas the first refers to a social dance, the second is a more spectacular version, as seen in nightclubs, movies and other forms of modern entertainment. The costumes which are worn today are a curious mixture of tradition and romanticism as well as commerce. As the West became more and more fascinated with Middle Eastern culture the belly dance evolved from wedding ceremonies to highly professional performances by famous dancers. Hollywood and an Egyptian nightclub owner by the name of Badia Masabni had a lot to do with the richly decorated dance outfits worn today.

    In the times of the Ottomans, as miniatures show, belly dancers wore harem pants, a long shirt and short vest over it and a caftan with a wide shawl or belt. No naked belly was on display. Today, belly dancing costumes in Turkey vary from other countries in that they are more revealing and high heeled shoes are worn instead of dancing barefoot like in Egypt. Another distinctive Turkish feature is the skillful use of zils or finger cymbals.

    Belly dance movements are based on circular motions of one body part at a time. Hip circles follow chest circles, accompanied by rotations of the shoulders and the hands. Music plays a vital part in belly dancing; in fact those dancers who can best express the lyrics and emotions of the music are considered the most accomplished. Turkish belly dancing is also more athletic and vigorous than its Egyptian counterpart.

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    Male belly dancers

    Traditionally in Turkey, men as well as women have performed belly dances. During the Ottoman Empire, the sultans used to employ male and female troops of dancers and the male became extremely popular. They also wore wide, billowing skirts and were considered by some to be female impersonators. Some indeed were, as the male belly dancers of the time were also musicians and actors. Female roles were performed by them as women were not allowed to perform in public. Modernization and Western taste led to a decline in the role of male belly dancers, but they maintained their place in rural Turkey, particularly in the region of Kastamonu. But, male Turkish belly dancers are bouncing back and becoming increasingly popular in TV shows and nightclub performances in modern day Turkey.