Belly dancing is an art which has developed in several countries, over many years, and is fundamentally a celebration of the seductive power of the female form.
The allure of belly dancing has always been powerful, seducing figures of authority from Ottoman sultans to current heads of state, but its widespread appeal has never been more evident than today. Walk into any self-respecting dance studio in London or New York, and you can be sure of finding a belly-dancing class, perhaps even a type of fusion such as a samba- or salsa-belly dancing mix. These have been inspired in part by the dancing styles of international stars like Shakira, who has pioneered a concoction of hip twists and tummy undulations that treads a fine line between Latin and Middle Eastern sensuality (in keeping with Shakira’s Spanish-Lebanese heritage). There are also striking similarities between bangra, or Bollywood dancing, and belly dancing, particularly the snaking movements of the hands. While the Indian style seems more measured and intended to appeal aesthetically, and the Middle Eastern style more ostentatiously seductive, the commonalities between the two have resulted in some inspired sequences that incorporate both forms.
Broadly speaking, belly dancing involves isolating and moving particular parts of the body with crucial support from core muscles in the torso. The moves that occur most commonly in a performance are the shimmering vibration of the belly or shoulders, hip juts, and undulations of the belly or torso; the most striking instance of this last move is the jerky rotation of the shoulders to imitate the movements of someone riding a camel. This is all heightened by other elements, such as snaking movements with the waist and arms, playful hide-and-seek games with veils, clicking the fingers, and tapping bell-laden anklets. The sequence of moves in any particular dance is up to the individual performer and will be informed not only by the norms of her region but also by her personal style.
To pedants who insist on the existence of a superior, “pure” or “traditional” mode of belly dancing, I say this: it is an art which has developed in several countries, over many years, and is fundamentally a celebration of the seductive power of the female form. Therefore, to quibble over the authenticity of a particular style is pointless and contrary to the spontaneous and creative nature of the dance. There are, of course, elements which unite (and differentiate) Lebanese, Turkish, Armenian, and Egyptian variations of the dance, and there are costumes and classic moves that are unique to belly dancing. However, its versatility and popularity across the world are testaments to the chameleonic quality of its hypnotic charm.
In Turkey, belly dancing in any form is immensely popular, and Istanbul is famous for admittedly touristy shows which are nevertheless spectacularly good fun. Turkish belly dancers favor a particularly raunchy outfit: a traditional long skirt cut to the hip to reveal the legs, spangly stilettos, and plunging sequined bras. This style was popularized in the early 20th century by the misguided, stereotypical image Hollywood had of “Eastern Belles” — an image that actually had more in common with Western burlesque and vaudeville dancers, and certainly not much in common with Middle Eastern belles of the time. Nevertheless, the style is still popular in Turkey and Lebanon. In Egypt, by contrast, it has been illegal to perform with a bare midriff since the 1950s. Consequently, the raqs sharqi dancers, as they are known there, usually wear a figure-hugging one-piece gown with strategically placed patches of flesh-colored cloth. None of that nonsense in Turkey – in combination with the raunchy dress style, Turkish dancers usually have a flirty, playful act and single out members of the audience for attention, rather than giving the more formal performance commonly found elsewhere. This is probably due to the relative Westernization of Turkey and its more relaxed attitude toward the public appearance of women. However, one can’t forget the tradition of the Ottoman harem, where belly dancing was one of many skills learned by the resident concubines to ensnare the affections of the sultan. In that cutthroat world, if your hip shimmies weren’t up to snuff, you lost out to your more supple or voluptuous competitors. Similarly, the most alluring dancers today attract the most loyal audiences; some things never change.
Most Turks seem to be born with the instinct to dance. Regardless of age or agility, hips will start swaying and fingers clicking as soon as a drum starts up a suggestive beat. In these situations, there is often the tinkle of ice in a rakı glass in the background, and the best place to catch some impromptu local dancing is in a meyhane (tavern) or fish restaurant in Kumkapı. In this tucked-away area on the southern promontory of the Golden Horn, the rakı and good times flow as gypsy musicians wander amidst the outdoor tables, and diners get up to join the dancers to the accompaniment of laughter and song.
Of course, Turkey is famous for the glitzy performances described above, and a night out at a proper belly dancing show is a lot of fun. By far, the best place to go is Al Jamal Badawi, a wonderland of over-the-top opulence and intoxicating kitsch. As you enter, kohl-eyed boys lead you through perfumed drapery and ornate candelabras to the main hall, where dancers perform on a stage illuminated by eerie green lighting. Around the stage, diners watch the shows as they eat meze from mirror-topped tables scattered with rose petals. The dancers are very good. The star of the night is usually an exquisitely lithe male dancer, dressed almost exactly the same as the girls with the addition of glittery body paint on his naked torso. One of the best acts is his entrance in the costume of a Rio carnival dancer: a bright orange, wedding cake-shaped hooped skirt which later opens to reveal a girl. She snakes out of her cage to perform a perfectly choreographed duet with her counterpart, to wild applause. The atmosphere is decidedly festive, and in the breaks between acts revelers get up to try out some dancing themselves – reminiscent of the Kumkapı dancers but in very different surroundings!
You can find a similar style of belly-dancing in more restrained and less hedonistic surroundings at Nomads, just across the road from the glamorous nightclub Reina in Ortaköy. The interior is less sprawling and more imposing than Al Jamal, with dark, polished walls illuminated by perfectly spaced lamps and no drapery or faux candelabra frippery. The waiters are make-up-free and disappointingly devoid of exotic scarves. The dancers perform in a central space by the bar rather than on a stage, and are a sideshow rather than the main event of the evening. There is the same variety of choreographed troupes with matching outfits, and a solo male star with perfect control but rather less seductive appeal than the belle of the ball at Al Jamal. All in all, this is a somewhat half-hearted attempt at belly dancing, and falls into the embarrassing gap between a light-hearted homage to belly dancing and a performance that takes it seriously as an art form. It would be perfect for those who don’t want to commit themselves to the unadulterated silliness of Al Jamal but still want to see some belly dancing on the sly. The prices are just as high as Al Jamal’s, but the night less full of fun. Take your pick.
If you leave a show feeling fired up and inspired to master the mesmeric moves yourself, the best place to go for lessons is the Turkish Belly Dance Academy in Osmanbey. Workshops are arranged on a regular basis, but it is worth paying for private lessons (a very reasonable 50TL for an hour of one-on-one tutelage). These are ideal if you are shy of learning in a group context, or simply want to work at your own pace and help choreograph a personal routine to whip out at the next party you attend (the more straight-laced the better). A great place to attend classes is the Depo Dans Café in Cihangir. This has a very relaxed feel and offers classes in all kinds of dance, including samba, salsa, zumba (a current Latin fusion craze), tango, hip hop, and Latin social dance classes (basically a chance to practice your moves in a festive context, with like-minded people). The Dans Cafe is ideal if you prefer to learn the art of belly dancing in a more relaxed and sociable setting, with a group of people who are at your same level.
To outfit yourself for best effect, search for sensational outfits in the Grand Bazaar. Be warned – there will be a fair amount of badly made “novelty” costumes, but if you head down the smaller side streets of the bazaar and look out for shops displaying good-quality cotton harem pants in the front, chances are that there will be some good belly-dancing costumes somewhere in stock (ask for “oryantal” to show you are a serious aficionado). To save time and get straight to the professional-quality stock, head to Al Jamal, not to be confused with the dining/show venue described above (the outfit shop is on Taşkışla Caddesi, while the show venue is in Beşiktaş, on Süleyman Seba Caddesi). The clothing shop is an Aladdin’s cave of sequined, glitter-heavy garments in all colors, shapes, and sizes. It’s like the dream walk-in wardrobe of a particularly ostentatious drag queen, and caters to the most outlandish tastes, while also offering more modest pieces for more retiring dancers. Outfits are sold piece by piece, so you can choose each element of your ensemble separately rather than having to choose an entire color-coordinated outfit off the peg. Costumes are on offer for both sexes, so bring along your boyfriend or brother for a particularly ridiculous shopping spree!
If you want music to which you can practice belly dancing at home or merely to bring back nostalgic memories of your Istanbul trip, try the traditional drum beats of “Passion of Percussion”, an album that features slightly modernized versions of the fast, rhythmic drum patterns used in traditional dancing. Otherwise, most upbeat Turkish pop music is highly suitable for belly dancing, and is often the trigger for an ad hoc performance in a party environment. Join the masses in their adoration of Sezen Aksu or Tarkan, the undisputed monarchs of Turkish music. With a glass of rakı and “Şımarık” playing in the background, you’ll be well on your way to a job at Al Jamal.