Innovative Twist on Turkish Oryantal
by Eva Çernik
Burçin Orhon’s (pronounced “Burchin”) superstar status in Turkey is obvious at post card stands, which universally display beautiful photos of her.
The first time I saw Burçin Orhon was in 1989 in Bursa, Turkey at the Taylan Gazino where she was doing the lambada with a group of dancers she had choreographed for. Then, in 1992 I saw her doing a Spanish theme as the feature Oriental dancer at Orient House, Istanbul.
We first met the next day at Bella fashion house. Burçin was there to see about her white, long bodice costume. The pattern of the sequins and crystals was not as she prescribed, so she had them rip it out and redo it.
Throughout the following three years, I called her periodically from the U.S., England and wherever I happened to be, hoping for an interview, but with no success. This year when I arrived in Istanbul, I called and got her on the first try. She remembered me and the postcard of my fire dance which I had given her at Bella’s back in ’92. She was enthusiastic about doing an interview and meeting me again. After twenty days of continuous phone calls and frustrated efforts to connect at Orient House, we finally met when she invited me to the TV studio where she hosts a daily game show.
Every weekday morning on ATV (a major Turkish TV channel with good reception) Burçin and Suna Yildiz Oglu (not to be confused with Sema Yildiz) are hosts to a game show, due to run through next Summer, where game participants win prizes behind revolving boxes. Suna, who is actually Sonia, moved to Turkey from England in the mid 1970’s and became a well known singer and film actress. Burçin and Suna often perform as partners and are good friends off the screen.
The show regularly employs a band which plays clarinet, dumbek, and organ. Burçin says: “They’re Gypsies, they can play anything you ask them to.” Burçin and Suna often dance in their mostly casual game show clothes. (Burçin doesn’t go for the glamorous look, as she never felt comfortable with it.) Near the end of the show, they encourage the participants to dance with them. On occasion, Burçin does dress up in full costume and performs. The general attitude of the whole show is very playful.
Her first word when we met again was “Finally!” Her friendliness was just as I remembered it from our first meeting at the seamstress shop. In the courtyard of the TV studios we finally had an opportunity to talk at length. We sat and drank coffee with real cream, which Suna’s husband had brought in a thermos. I explained that in the West there is a huge Oriental dance community which publishes several of its own papers and magazines. I tried to describe the contents and the historical research many of its writers are engaged in. Burçin summed it up quite well in one short sentence: “They take it seriously.” Since I didn’t have a copy of Habibi with me (I’ll never travel without it again), understandably she appeared a bit uneasy about who I really was and who eventually was going to hear the interview I was recording. I did have one of my videos with me, and offered to leave it with her so she would have a better idea of who I am, and to offer my half in sharing this dance. I could see her excitement and eagerness to view the tape. She drew up a map and instructions to find her home on the Asian side of Istanbul, and we agreed to meet in two days.
From the Blue Mosque neighborhood where I kept an apartment, I took an electric tram, then a ferry across the Bosphorus, a dolmus (collective taxi), a walk and finally reached her quite late. No matter. She sat there in front of the TV in shorts, tank top and sneakers, watching the end of my two hour video. She jumped up and compared the way we did some moves. We recognized a few as being the same except that hers were larger and more exaggerated, while mine were more subtle.
She said: “How do you do that?” referring to a certain slow back bend to the floor.
“Lopsided, to favor my injured knee,” I answered, and we both compared knee operations and scars. Hers was a meniscus arthroscopy, mine a ligament reconstruction.
Burçin grew up studying ballet both in Istanbul and Ankara, where at nineteen she entered the Ballet Conservatoire. She is five feet, six inches tall and says she is now thirty-two years old, though the numbers add up to a small artistic fib. Maybe thirty-four or six is more like it.
Her mother is Greek. She’s a friendly and helpful woman (as I learned in early transcontinental conversations with her that led up to this interview) who often helps Burçin in caring for her seven year old daughter.
Burçin’s daughter is quite tall by Turkish standards, and even though she dances, Burçin says : “She’s too big for ballet.” She takes an interest in riding horses and working on computers. Her father, to whom Burçin was married for approximately nine years, is Johnny Logan. He is an Irish singer who is a three time Eurovision Award winner. They must have met after Burçin left the conservatory and during the time that she was dancing and choreographing for musical plays in Turkey. Burçin traveled back and forth to Europe, staying several months at a time. It greatly improved her knowledge of English, but her career was “too broken up.” When Burçin became pregnant, she continued dancing until her sixth month by wearing sashes across her torso and dresses to disguise her figure. Soon after the birth of their daughter, the marriage also broke up.
Burçin’s father, a Turkish man, was a fine photographer by profession, and had photographed her since babyhood. (Another source told me that each year she was photographed in the nude, showing her progress.) She appeared as the feature centerfold model in Playboy’s first Turkish issue, which Burçin believes was the first big boost to her career.
Apart from dancing, she also did modeling and TV specials. When musical plays ceased to be a popular venue in Turkey, Burçin did not return to ballet. She had to find another way to show her talent, earn a living, and be fulfilled artistically. Because the only available venue for dance was the night clubs with Oriental floor shows, she went to Nesrin Topkapi for lessons in Oryantal Dans. “I went there, but you know, I’m a ballet dancer. I thought it was so difficult for me because I can’t change my muscles. They’re so hard and straight, so I said, I’m coming here for nothing.”
Burçin’s knees were not accustomed to bending through so much of the dance. I remember my own trials in converting from ballet to Oriental: for the first two months, my teacher, Anahid Sofian, would come around and whack me behind the knees to bend them, until I learned. Burçin, however, decided to leave the classes and pursue her own style. She developed what Turks came to know as “Oryantal Bale” (Oriental Ballet).
“So how do you find work for your own style?” I asked her.
“Well, at the moment I have no problem, because I’m Burçin Orhon. But before, I had to use only Oriental music so they would think that I’m a belly dancer, but it was nothing like a belly dance, really.”
I would describe her dance more as Oriental dance, done in a jazzy balletic style, rather than ballet done with an Oriental flavor (as Diana Calenti of Canada has performed in theatres in Cairo with her company). Burçin’s dance consists of a great variety of steps with very precise and complementary arm and hand movements, sometimes in the angular pharaonic style. She seldom uses zills, which are common among other Turkish dancers. In addition to the hip work of Oryantal Dans, she also does many kicks, and pliés in a wide second position, usually leading into an exaggerated side hip-bump. Her torso movements are sinuous. Stops in the music are captured in elegant but strong poses, rather than in body or hip locks. She sometimes captures one beat in a deep back bend with one knee pulled up, but the momentum of it all pulls her up again directly into another movement (and all this in high heels!). Her dance is fiery, with prancing long legs; and her large brown eyes, though dramatic in expression, do not belie her gentleness and warmth. It is no wonder the Turks have nicknamed her “Bambi.”
From her theatrical background, Burçin retained the habit of working on a large stage with full control of lighting and other elements. She says: “I can’t dance in most clubs, because I can’t spread out my arms. The stages are too small and when the stage is at floor level, I’m afraid I’ll kick somebody and my moves can’t be seen very well.” Burçin performs in the better night clubs in Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul, as well as at special parties and festivals, in addition to more television work. Besides her game show, she can often be seen on the music channel in Turkey, doing anything from stylized Spanish, interpretive-modern, to Oriental Ballet. At Orient House, where she worked for many years, I never saw her work to the house band. She always had taped music, as her preferences included such diverse musical selections as Lambada, East Indian, Israeli pop, and some classical Western music with Oriental flavor, often with a 7/8 section. Burçin is always on the lookout for more good dance music, which is not easily available in Turkey. Her Volume 4 audio cassettes are more conservative, using mostly Turkish music: çiftetelli, 7/8, 9/8 and some well known Egyptian tunes played Turkish style.
Burçin’s costumes have always been unique. Some have had highly jeweled genie-type bodices either full length or midriff; sometimes with open side harem pants cut in a special triangle shape to drape at the knees and come in tighter at the ankles; with the belt always cut high on the leg. Thin “coins” and harem pants are “in” now in Istanbul. I guess fashions everywhere run in circles… well, spirals actually, since this time the coins and pants come with a revealed thigh and the high-cut long leg look. (Maybe last time around, long torsos were considered sexy.) One of her costume phases was to have nothing but a few strands of pearls or beads draped across her hips with a flesh-tone subtly jewel-studded body stocking holding up the front and back of the “belt.” She laughingly said: “They think I’m not wearing any undies.” Indeed, modern Turks like the long legged look, and as Burçin put it: “I can’t help it, they like my bum.”
I traded her a couple of these used costumes for a fully beaded crochet net dress from Mahmoud’s of Cairo, which I had brought. She was very excited about it and I’m curious how she’ll choose to wear it… Lining? Leotards? No way! What will I do with her costumes? First of all, I think I need to add about six inches of belting on either side of the hips….
Many modern Turkish Oryantal costumes have themes, and sometimes the dancer uses moves or music to suit. The last time I went with Burçin to the seamstress, she was being fitted for a new peach colored costume with “old fashioned” full circle-cut front and back panels, with aurora borealis hardware from Phillip Au (Yes… California!). (Editor’s note: Cost Less Imports of Berkeley, California, is now owned by the late Phillip Au’s son, Patrick.) To go with her Phillip Au costume, she used an East Indian piece of music. Another costume she was being fitted for was a tropical “Carmen Miranda” outfit with ruffles and large colorful silk flowers in the right places. Once Burçin showed me a black patent leather cutout sexy thing with chains. (I didn’t see how her dance looked in that one.)
Burçin told me that a while ago she was trying to break a contract she had with Maksim’s because they would not play her music at the right volume, along with several other technical complaints. They refused, so since there was nothing in her contract about what she should wear, she decided to get creative. She started her show each time coming out wearing a black Islamic veil and then removing it later. She was quickly fired.
On their TV game show, Burçin and Suna often have special guests. Burçin offered me the opportunity to do a short performance (with the band, if I liked — I’d have it no other way). The following Sunday I arrived on time, and the director gave me a choice of dancing immediately or three hours later. I needed to warm up, so I chose the latter, which turned out to be six hours later.
It was a good workout. I was worried about my costume not looking Turkish enough, but Burçin put me at ease by saying that the audience is really curious about what an American dancer looks like. “Just be natural,” she said.
We went on with our discussion of the differences between our two countries in Oriental dance. “I’m sure it’s much better in the U.S. and other countries,” she said, “because it’s taken more seriously. In Turkey, since it is easier for Turkish people to do belly dance because we’re used to it, and we all do it since we are three years old, everybody thinks: ‘If I have a good body, and do just a little bit, I can get somewhere…’ They don’t try hard. But in the U.S., since the rhythm and the moves are unusual, they have to actually learn it. I respect Nesrin Topkapi because she teaches seriously.”
“Yes, Nesrin has many European and American students, but very few Turkish ones,” I said.
“Yes,” she added, “because they think they don’t need it!”
I described the fantastic expansiveness of Rakkasah to her in detail, and she was surprised at the idea of a dancers’ convention, and enthusiastic about the possibility of attending some day.
I asked her if she had ever been to Cairo, and described the whole scene to her. She said that she had never gone there, and lamented not having the time to do so. She said: “Yes, I know that it’s very different in Egypt. I like to do something different… so my new show has some Indian styling to it.”
I pressed: “But have you seen the Egyptian style?”
She said: “Yes, it’s nice, but I cannot copy, and they wouldn’t watch anyway… In Turkey, dance is not good yet. They think that dance is not important. There are awards every year in Turkey for the best music, best singer, actor, etc., but they do not include dance.”
“Are you doing anything to change this?”
“Yes, I talk everywhere, but it doesn’t make any difference because there are not that many really good dancers in Turkey. There are some, like Gizem and Tanyeli, and… I’m trying to remember her name… Birgül, but the others are just doing sexy moves and not really trying. I’m not saying that I’m so good, but at least I’m working very hard at my dance.”
When I asked, Burçin did not know who Özel Turkbas was, nor Sema Yildiz, who retired recently, and she was not sure who was working where. In Denver, my home base, on any given night any one of the working dancers can tell you who is dancing where. I get the feeling, not only from Burçin, but from other dancers in Istanbul with whom I spoke, that dancers there work as lone stars, not being too closely concerned with what other stars are doing in the galaxy. In Egypt one often sees one famous dancer sitting in the audience of another dancer’s show, sometimes inviting each other up on stage; and sometimes, on the other side of the same coin, even sending out a “spy” to see what the others are up to. Also in Egypt, awareness of old-time dancers is very keen, possibly due to greater exposure of dancers in old films and their lasting popularity. Not so in Istanbul. Most city Turks will know only the name of Nesrin Topkapi when asked about Oriental dance, and very few know that she has long since retired or that she is teaching.
The Western portion of Turkey looks forward to being more Western and joining the European Union, and moves “forward” in fashion and manner more suitable to MTV. The Oriental dancers who do appear on the music TV channel never have a chance to do a complete dance. Short takes of a dance are interspersed with the singer and other scenes. Sometimes a song comes out which is “arabesque” in flavor, and they show longer segments of the dance, but still not enough to match the appreciation one can have in a night club where one can watch a dancer from her entrance until her exit.
I asked Burçin: “Is TV helping to improve the status of dancers?”
“Yes, there are lots of people trying to get famous, so they have to do something different apart from being beautiful. But I don’t see anything, really. I’m just hoping to see somebody that really does good, but I don’t. Maybe it’s because the people are asking to see just a good body.”
In an interview published by an Istanbul paper, Tülay Karaca, a now retired dancer, was asked precisely the same thing. She answered the opposite, that TV was ruining the dance because not much of the dance is shown, but a lot of the dancer’s body is. I guess it boils down to the same thing in the end. Burçin’s theory would work if the demand was such that a dancer would have enough airtime to show what she knows, to show something different apart from being beautiful.
“Do you prefer to create an art piece or to dance for entertainment?” I asked Burçin.
“Anything, if it’s nice and it has a good quality, I would do it. I like dancing, that’s the most important thing. I feel like I’m living when I’m dancing, the only meaning in my life…And I’m getting older … that’s horrible. I do anything for dance, if it’s good quality.”
“Have you thought about making a video to teach dance?”
Burçin replied, “They asked me to do that two years ago, but they didn’t pay me well enough, so I didn’t do it. But actually, I don’t think anyone can learn anything from video, because it’s one-sided. I can’t give feedback.”
Burçin does have a Volume I performance video tape readily available in Turkey, called “Raks-I Sahane.” Some of us American dancers who have traveled to Turkey had it converted to NTSC and have shared it with our students. Burcin’s second performance video has been out for a couple of years now. I took on the project of trying to make this available in the U.S., but it turned into a considerable endeavor, which is still in progress.
“When I go to Egypt they tell me that this dance came from the Turks, and when I ask the Turks, they tell me that it came from the Arabs. Can you try to explain this?” I asked.
“All Oriental people, Egyptians and Turkish, were mixed in the Ottoman times. I guess we can say it’s Oriental. Anyway, it was created to impress the men.”
“But in the West and in Japan the women who choose to do this dance are usually the more liberated ones. They are not doing it to seduce men, they do it for health and for themselves,” I said.
“Yes, now, but at that time they were vying for the attention of the Sultan,” Burçin responded.
“How about ancient Anatolia? Is it possible that belly dance was used for spiritual reasons: not as an entertainment, but for meditation?” I continued.
“Well, it could be. You know about Mevlana and the whirling dervish dance? Maybe there’s a way that we can use our bodies to pray…That’s the best way to feel better…Whatever I feel, even when my father died, I could dance.”
“Does this dance come from folklore?”
“Well, folklore actually comes from places, there’s not just one folklore. It’s different for each place, but this dance is only one dance.”
“From where?” I persisted.
“Well, it’s just Orient.”
And Burçin’s goals for the future? Well, she has a fiancée, and one foot in the door for a career in TV and film. She’s a natural on the set, great at improvisation, and since live performance dancers are used to the idea of “There is no going back to fix it,” she is always perfect on the first take.
“Would you like to say something to the dancers in the West?” I asked.
Burçin responded, “If I know that there is someone out there who cares, I’m using traditional folkloric dance, Oriental, and any kind of dance to create my dance. Maybe we can come together and teach each other something. Maybe we should have a chance to come together someday and talk about it. Everybody puts together what they know, and everybody can have a piece.”
Eva Çernik has been traveling to Egypt and Turkey since 1979, observing and studying with various teachers and Oriental dance performers in both countries. 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. She regularly leads tours to Turkey and Egypt. www.evadancer.com