Turkish and Egyptian
A COMPARISON OF TURKISH AND EGYPTIAN ORIENTAL DANCE
by Eva Cernik
In its open-minded hunger for new information and change, the oriental dance community in America continues to delve deeper into the history of oriental dance. The search has led us to the realization that this dance has roots in the Goddess-worshiping religions of the Middle and Far East. Done to embody the attributes of the Goddess, it was a spiritual dance which expressed the desire to be fruitful and multiply, a theme common in many religious traditions. From this source, the dance has become tightly wound into the cultures of several different countries superimposed on the lands of the ancient Goddess cultures. Egypt is not the only country which can claim to be the source of the dance. However, many of the traditions alive in Egypt today resonate with the flavor of the ancient fertility rites.
At nearly every Egyptian wedding a “belly dancer” is retained. A photo is commonly taken of the bride and groom sitting with the dancer standing between them as they both place their hands on her belly, presumably hoping that some of her fertility will rub off on them. In the past, the dancer performed rather explicit copulatory movements exclusively for the virginal bride and her close female friends, with the intent of teaching and inspiring her for her wedding night. As time passed, customs and politics changed, and weddings became desegregated. Now the dancer performs for a mixed party, keeping her movements more modest and subtle. Although the dancer has moved from her role as teacher to one of entertainer, her role of inspiring couples has remained.
The expression of this tradition has been affected by the various cultural attitudes and governmental policies of the countries in which it has developed. This is especially evident when one compares oriental dance in Egypt and Turkey. The laws in Egypt control public performance much more than Turkish law. In fact, in the area of “morals,” Turkish law is far more lenient than Egyptian law. Egypt even has a “morals police” called the “Adeb.” An American friend in Cairo had some rehearsals at her apartment for her folklore troupe. There were young men and women coming and going from her place. The Adeb came in and caught them “in the act” of a perfectly innocent dance rehearsal. Since my post card (in belly dance costume) was stuck up on her mirror, they took it as evidence of immoral intentions in that apartment.
Many of us know how many times Sahar Hamdi has been arrested for implied sexual remarks on stage and for immodest costumes. Seeing the trend towards shorter “mini-skirt” costumes, and smooth “body curve” dresses in Egyptian dance costumes, it seems that they will show as much as the law will allow. In the 50’s and 60’s, the law, or at least its enforcement, was somewhat looser. In the earlier Samia Gamal movies, one can see that they wore nothing under their Assyut dresses but their underwear, with jewelry and a sash on the hips. Egypt has become more restrictive over the years. There was even a time when freezes and stomach flutters were banned as being too suggestive.
On the other hand, Turkey has become more open and loose with laws on modesty. After World War II, president Jamal Ataturk secularized the country. The “modern” educated Turks strive to become more like the West and Europe. The traditions and culture of Turkey are constantly lagging behind the fast pace of the government. There is an immense separation between the most modern Turk and the most traditional, between Western and Eastern Turkey. For example, while at a topless beach near Side this Summer, I observed tourists and modern Turks sunbathing topless all over the beach, while in the water were older, more traditional Turkish women in stockings, slips, skirts, blouses and headdresses, soaking wet. In your travels, I would not advise taking the role of trailblazer. Always take the more modest approach, no matter how many full-color photos of scantily clad starlets you see on the front page of the serious national newspaper.
In Istanbul this past Summer (’92), I was able to see a strip program from Italy (down to the G-string) and a “Playboy” program, both around midnight on regular TV channels (not cable). I was told that this was something new, and that more and more Oriental dancers are “allowed” to be seen on television. What does that say about the status of Oriental Dance in Turkey?
We have worked very hard to change the rules and attitudes about our dance in this country, and some dancers like Burçin in Turkey and Samia Gamal in Egypt have done their share in their own countries. Samia created a scandal when she publicly stated that when she dances she feels as though she is praying. Burçin protests by wearing unusual costumes. She even went on strike once by sitting on the stage of Maxim’s, one of the greatest night clubs in Istanbul, cross-legged and wearing head scarf and chador. Then she would get up, take off the cloak and dance. Needless to say, they finally broke her contract…which she was very pleased about. When we travel to these countries to learn about the dance, it is harder to see what the origins of the dance are when it is cloaked in the politics of the day.
With these two completely separate and different contemporary environments, it is natural to expect that the dance and costuming have evolved quite differently in the two countries. The most obvious difference between Egyptian and Turkish dancers is in the costuming. Turkish dancers, emulating the entertainers of the Lido and Las Vegas, have nearly done away with the skirts. The belt is worn much higher on the hips than in Egypt, since their quest is to appear to have longer legs. Also, high heels are worn in most city night clubs. The tops are simply bra cups with spaghetti straps and tie in back, kind of like our bikinis. As I mentioned, an exception is Burçin Orhon, who often wears what I call “genie outfits” with a bodice. Sometimes she wears Spanish style ruffled skirts with sleeves. However, she says she often wears “normal” costumes in order to keep her job. She does have cut-outs even in her special outfits in order to stay in line, to be acceptable. Prenses Banu, who is nearly retired now, wears costumes more similar to the old Egyptian style, because she did spend time working outside of Turkey and in Egypt, in her impressionable years. However, she has conceded to remove the bra cup, and only keep the ornament, which was a coiled golden snake. She appeared that way in a video, but when posing for a post card photo in front of a Christmas tree, she wore red sequin fabric under the snake. The Gypsies also tend to be more modest in their costuming, but only when they work in Sulukulé ( a gypsy quarter in Istanbul) among family, or in the street in rural areas. It could be that their families do not allow them to be so revealing, or it may be that they buy old costumes which are out of style, simply because they cost less and current fashion is not very important to them.
In Egypt, the star dancer has a whole two-hour show, complete with folkloric dancers woven into her choreography and many costume changes. She has her own full orchestra and often has a theme to her show which she changes every season. The Turkish dancer sometimes comes with her band of five to seven musicians, but more often dances to the “house band”. Her shows are approximately twenty minutes long with no extra costume change. Often the Turkish dancer uses this work as a stepping stone to a singing career, as Sibel Can did (pronounced Jan). Sometimes shows may consist primarily of singing, with a token drum solo included within the more expansive singing show. Sometimes dance success provides exposure for a career as a starlet/dancer in film. Some dancers, like Tülay Karaca (pronounced Karaja) have careers based purely on dance.
Egyptian dancers use the music and words of a singer, whom they feature, as a way to express feeling to the people. Much of the precious quality of the Egyptian dancer comes from her expression of shared feelings in the room. The technique is far less important and sometimes criticized for getting in the way of the mood, as I’ve heard commented about American dancers who have worked in Cairo. The Turkish dancers seem more alone or independent. They dance simply to dance.
Another major difference is the use of finger cymbals by Turkish dancers: they use them throughout the show, and sometimes they play solos for themselves on the zils after the drum solo, as Tülay does.
The essence of the movements and steps in both Egyptian and Turkish dance is the same: undulations of torso and shimmy of the hips are emphasized more than leg and arm movements. However, Turkish dancers tend to be more athletic (and look so) than Egyptian dancers: they move about the stage much more actively, and all undulations and rib-cage movements are exaggerated. Often high kicks with a turn are ventured, with splits and backbends down to the ground being common. Floor work has always been typically Turkish, often after a spectacular jump into a sliding drop to the knees. This may also be a social class issue in Egypt, where floors are considered to be very dirty, along with soles of shoes. However, I have noticed through many years of observing changes that the Egyptian dancers have been barefoot more and more, and Aida Noor has actually taken to sitting cross-legged on the floor as she shimmies.
Of course, the cultural gestures and native folk dances seep into the Oriental Dance. In Egypt the dancers enjoy Wahda-o-nuss rhythm, while in Turkey they have borrowed 9/8 Karsilama rhythm from the folk dancers. Lots of hops and quick foot move-ments come from folklore. In Egypt, the assaya (long stick) is often used by the oriental dancer, imitating the fighting games of the Saaid. In Turkey, during the Karsilama part of the dance, many hand gestures are used, such as cutting the body in thirds or in half, or pounding with fist on shoulders, hips, or the palm. Some of these gestures come from long forgotten, meaningful gestures brought by Gypsies from dances of Northern India. In Egypt, I have seen dancers lick their thumbs and press them into their palms; I’ve seen them bite one knuckle or a lower lip (very subtly), or flick the four fingers of one or both hands.
Different cultures, different travels along the road of dance through history and time. The American dancer, watching from afar, has the freedom to choose. Or is she also molded by her own culture and audience? Keep a watchful eye!
Eva Cernik has been traveling to Egypt and Turkey since 1979, observing and studying with various teachers and Oriental Dance performers in both countries, totaling eleven separate trips. She also worked for a year with the Erdogans Modern Turkish Oriental Group in Baghdad. Eva was originally introduced to this dance by Anahid Sofian of New York, who is herself Turkish-Armenian. www.evadancer.com