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A Short History of Turkish Bellydance

   Sat, September 22, 2007 - 7:04 PM
1. Origins.

Like the Ghawazee (Egyptian Roma) Turkish Roma groups have had an enormous influence on bellydance, particularly Turkish bellydance.

The story probably has its orgins around 1493, with the conquest of Istanbul ( formerly Constaninople of the Eastern Roman Empire / Byzantium) by the Turkish Sultan , Fatih Sultan Mehmet ii ( Ottoman Dynasty) . The Turkish Roma are associated with this date, since many were settling or arriving in Turkey , around the same time ( Cooper 2004). The Roma , (men and women) since their arrival and interaction in Turkish society, were recognised as being skilled in arts and music, especially as Turkish women were not allowed to perform in public. The Roma female artists would therefore perform for the women in harems, hammams (public baths) and weddings.

The Chengis

These female artists formed dancer/musician troupes known as "chengis" or "cengis", meaning a harp-like instrument, or a Roma person ( from the Turkish word "Chingene", compare other words for the Roma such as "Tsganie", " Sinti ',etc). Although many of the Roma, may well have been Muslim, (adopting their host countries' customs) they were very much outside the margins of conventional societal rules
and retained at the same time, much of the customs and rules from their ancestral home land of India.

From the chengi troupes, we get what we would consider Turkish bellydance with its veil dancing, complex hip work, shimmies, zill-playing and expressive faces, amongst other moves and styling (Cooper 2004).

The chengis also enlivened the Ottoman Court dance repertoire, noted for its sedate femininity, in want of Roma energy, sensuality and vivacity. (Vashti , 2005). We have to bear in mind, too that the Roma had adopted many dance styles on their travels from India. So they too would have probabaly observed different dance styles in the Royal Palace harems, in Turkey itself and also from the women who had been transported to the harems, from other countries in the Ottoman Empire. These moves must have been incorporated into the Turkish Roma dance vocabularies and presented back to the Turks.

End of History: The Republic

All in all the chengis were highly valued ans respected for their enormous skill and artistry. They worked right up until the end of the 19th century . From then on, decline and changes within the Empire, led to the set up of the secular Republic , with its first President, Kemal Attaturk leading the "modernisation of Turkey" ( discarding of the veil and the fez, the adopting of the Latin alphabet, the breaking down of harems, industrialisation, etc . Women were encouraged to take on more public roles, such as going to work, leaving the world of the harem behind.)
With these changes, the chengis eventually disbanded, their work patterns changed forever. Many of them sought alternative employment, such as teaching dance privately to women. Thus the dance did not disappear. The context in which the dance developed, happened to be different.

Modern Turkish dance

For a start the two-piece bedlah was adopted ( as it was in Egypt) and rising talenetd Turkish dance stars , encouraged by the more public female role, appeared: Ermine Adalat Pee (1920's) and Nergis Mogol. These two were early international stars (Jasmin Jahal) .

Melike Cermai, Saliha Tekneci and others followed throughout the 20th century: notably the 1950's. More recently Sema Yildiz ( retired 1991) Nesrin Topkapi, Princess Banu and others made their mark too ( Jasmin Jahal). Turkish dance is lively, bold, big, sensual, with hops and jumps, influenced by the Roma, as well as flexible backbends, floor work, more usage of floor space (than seen in more contained Egyptian dance), hand to hip/body gestures. Artemis Mourat's recommended Turkish Style Bellydance DVD explores many of these moves and feeling, adding that while Turkish dance is different to Egyptian Dance , it is still equal to Egyptian.

The Tourist Industry

Of late, the Turkish tourist industry, probably has damaged Turkish dance reputation, by playing up to the stereoype of beautiful, unskilled and just sexy, scantily -clad dancers, where " artistry can easily be overshadowed by sexuality" (Cooper). Although, it has to be said, attitudes are changing and Turkish dancers are now being encouraged to train and work hard, evidenced by many talented Turkish dance teacher/performers travelling to and working in the West.

All in all , Turkish dance is indebted to the Chengi, as we are too.

It is a dance style worth pursuing, for it brings tremendous accomplishment, joy and skill, and a real sense of liberation and exuberance.

Turkish male dancers have played their part in Turkish bellydance, for which they deserve an article all of their own.


Cooper Laura (2004 ) Bellydance Step by Step

Green Ozlem and others (2005/2006 ) Turkish Dance Workshops (Sutton Coldfield, West Mdlands, England )

Jahal Jasmin or (click on newsletter and then scroll

down for archived articles)

Mourat Artemis (DVD) Turkish Style Bellydance

Vashti ( Selford Cathy) Turkish Dance Workshop (Celebrating Dance Festival , Torquay, England, October 2005)


add a comment
Thu, September 27, 2007 - 7:21 AM
great info.
Thu, September 27, 2007 - 3:18 PM
Thanks Eve! I loved writing this. I feel Turkish dancing has been misunderstood and exploited, but it's a beautiful dance, as Egyptian dance is. Both are equal. And I can see Turkish dance elements, as well as Egyptian in ATS and Tribal Fusion. They're all important.

Thanks for reading ;)

M x
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