An Introduction to the History of Turkish Oriental Bellydance

Kristina Melike (2007)

Once described as “the dance that could melt a stone,” belly dance is known as “Oriental Dance” in Turkey, literally meaning “Eastern Dance.”  (The “göbek dansı” or “stomach dance” is entirely a different dance form, involving two men with faces painted on their bellies.) 

The roots of Turkish Oriental dance lie in the Turkish Rroma (“Gypsy”) culture, the harems, and the turn-of-the-century theaters in Istanbul. During the Ottoman Empire, the “çengis” [chain-gees] (dancing girls) and the “köçeks” [ko-cheks], (dancing boys), were comprised of Rroma, Greeks, Albanians, Circassians, and Jews. These entertainers were never Turks, as public dancing was considered undignified.  The most skilled dancers were the Turkish Rroma.  Due to the Ottoman occupation of Egypt from 1517 to the early 1900’s, there was a merging of cultures (and dances) between the Turks and the Egyptians.  They influenced each other.  Turkish dancers were brought to Egypt to perform in the theaters there.  Kocek DancersCengi Girl
Köçek Dancers & Çengi Girl

Another influence on Oriental dance was the entertainment in the harems.  The odalisques, or  servant girls of the harem, were trained to dance, recite poetry, and play musical instruments, for the purpose of entertaining the Sultan’s guests.  They were from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Central Asia.  They were never Turkish because they were essentially slaves.  The odalisques were at the bottom tier of the harem hierarchy. They were not concubines, although they could potentially (and rarely) rise up to this next tier if they possessed enough beauty, talent, and grace. When the harems were abolished at the turn of the century, some of the dancers who sought new work began performing in European style theater halls in Istanbul.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk pushed to modernize the new Republic of Turkey.  He favored regional folk dances and classical ballet to Oriental Dance.  Although it was no longer part of everyday life, it was still performed at parties, traveling carnivals, and public holidays.  In the 1960’s Oriental dance made a comeback due to the demands of the tourists.  At this point Turkish women also performed the dance.

Like the famous stars of Cairo, many Turkish Oriental dancers were also film actresses.   Saliha Tekneci [Sa-lee-ha Tek-ne-jee] starred in several Turkish films in the 50’s before coming to America.  She made one film here in 1964 (“Diary of a Bachelor”), and danced in the clubs in NYC.  She was known for her “haughty and distant attitude” while performing.
Saliha Tekneci

Nejla Ateş [Nej-la Ah-tesh], also appeared in several Turkish and American films as an actress and dancer. She modeled on the cover of several record albums as well, most famously (or infamously) on Mohammed El-Bakkar’s album “Port Said.” She also performed on Broadway, in “Fanny” and became known as the “Exquisite Turkish Delight.”  She died in 1965 from an overdose of barbiturates.
Nejla AtesPort Said

Özel Turkbaş [O-zel Turk-bahsh], was another film actress who had a big career in Turkey, and who came to America in the 70’s.  She sang and danced in the clubs of 8th Avenue. Özel was instrumental in bringing Oriental dance to American women.  She wrote a book called “The Belly Dancer in You,” in English.  She also brought together top Turkish musicians, like Mustafa Kandıralı [Kan-der-al-ih], to record Bellydance music.  Although the album titles are tawdry today (“How to Make Your Husband a Sultan,” “How to Belly Dance for Your Sultan”), the orchestrations are still outstanding. Özel sometimes sang on the records, and a small instructional booklet usually accompanied them. Today she lives in New York City. A few years ago, Kristina had the pleasure of hearing her sing in a special concert when two of her albums were rereleased on CD.
Ozel Turkbas Ozel Turkbas

Princess Banu [Ban-oo] and Nesrin Topkapi [Nes-reen Top-kap-ee] were famous dancers in the 70’s and 80’s.  Princess Banu was well loved.  She began her international career in 1976 in London.  She has performed all over the world, and is said to be “the best interpreter of the Egyptian school of dancing.” Nesrin Topkapi was the first dancer to do a show on Turkish television.  She started teaching bellydance to German tourists in Turkey, and was so successful, she opened a dance school in Germany in the 90’s.
Nesrin Topkapi Princess Banu
Nesrin Topkapi & Princess Banu

Sema Yıldız [Sem-ah Yihl-dihz] grew up in a Romany neighborhood in Turkey.  She used to sneak out of the house to watch the dancers at parties.  Her dance career began when she appeared in a dance competition in 1967.  She went on to become a top star in Turkey.  Her style strongly shows the influences of the Rromany dancing she had learned earlier.  She has since retired, but is still teaching workshops around the world. She has coached the new Turkish dance stars of today, among them Asena [Ah-sey-na] and Didem [Dee-dem] (who is Rromany).
Sema Yildiz

Oriental dance in Turkey today is performed for tourists, at fancy hotels, clubs, and on special dinner cruises; and at “Gentleman’s clubs.”  However, the top dancers (like Asena and Didem) are considered Pop Stars, and perform on television, like the “Ibo Show,” and “Oryantal Star,” an “American Idol” type of contest.  The dancers often use Egyptian and Arabic music and stylings in their dance shows now.
Asena Didem

Advocates of the Turkish style of bellydance in America today are Anahid Sofian, who danced in the original 8th Avenue clubs, Eva Cernik, Dalia Carella, and Artemis Mourat.  Artemis has been instrumental in researching the historical contexts of Turkish Oriental dance, and in promoting this style of dance authentically to bellydance students in America today. She teaches in the US and throughout the world.
Artemis (photo by Sarah Skinner)

At some point bellydance is bellydance, no matter where it comes from.  There is a common language of movement.  However, there are certain stylistic differences.  Morocco puts it well, as she tells Artemis in an interview: “The movements are the movements – it is the ‘accent’ and ‘idiomatic expressions’ that define what we would like to think of as different ‘styles.’”  When differentiating the Turkish style, the most important of these “accents” is the influence of the Rroma.  Most significant is the use of the 9/8 time signature in the music.  The most popular rhythm in this time signature for Oriental Dance is the “Karşılama” [Kar-shih-la-ma].  Other influences include Rromany hand gestures and “pelvic drops”.  Another elemental aspect of Turkish Oriental dance is the fact that it is an improvisational art form, most likely because the Turkish music is largely improvisational as well.  Other facets of a Turkish Style show are the use of floorwork, a technique that has been illegal in Egypt since the 1950’s, and the strong use of zills (finger cymbals).


Cernik, Eva. 1998 “Sema Yildiz: Istanbul’s Dancing Star.” Self Published

Jahal, Jasmin. 2002 “Top Turkish Talent.”  Self-Published

Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis. 2001 “A comparison of Turkish and Egyptian Style Oriental Dance.”  Self Published.

Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis.  2003 “The Dance That Could Melt a Stone.” Habibi Magazine Vol.19, No.4

Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis. 2007 “Turkish Dance, American Cabaret, and Vintage Orientale.” Self Published

Ozgen, Korkut. 2002 “The Family: Harem, and the Ottoman Women.”  Lucky Eye Lmt.

A Note from Kristina Melike:
I wrote this article for Laura Ligouri's "The Art of Middle Eastern Dance" Lecture at the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center (March 2007). It is intended as a brief summary. I gathered much of my information from dance historian Elizabeth "Artemis" Mourat; I am entirely grateful to her knowledge on this subject, and for making it accessible to us. Please read her articles for more in depth information:

KRISTINA MELIKE performs Rromany (Gypsy) Dance from Turkey & the Southern Balkans as well as Oriental Bellydance. Her performance highlights include appearing as a Guest Artist with Hüsnü Şenlendirici (from Turkey), Kal (Rromany band from Serbia), Turbo Tabla's “Bellydance Overdrive,” and at the CUNY Graduate Center. As a guest dancer with the brass band Slavic Soul Party, she has performed in festivals and clubs on tour throughout the US and at home in NYC.
Kristina Melike has studied Turkish Rromany dance extensively with Tayyar Akdeniz; she is now among the foremost performers of this style in the US. Other training also includes Oriental Bellydance with Yousry Sharif, Elena Lentini, and others, Balkan dance with Michael Ginsburg, percussion classes with top professionals, and many years of classical ballet studies. She has traveled to Serbia to attend the Amala School for Rromany dance & language.
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