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A gracious tradition: belly dancing

In the West, belly dancing is often seen as an erotic performance done by concubines to entice and seduce their sultan. But belly dancing is actually a joyous, graceful and energetic folk dance, performed by women during festivities such as weddings, births and holidays. In Istanbul there are several places where you can still attend one of these traditional belly dancing performances.

Belly dancing began many centuries ago as a fertility prayer to the goddesses. The female members of ancient Arab tribes imitated mating and birthing moves to appease the goddesses. In the Muslim community, where men and women live separately, the dance developed into an afternoon pastime enjoyed by mothers, daughters, aunts and grandmothers. They also performed the dance during celebrations. However, the dance has nothing to do with seducing men.

A taste of harem life

The best place to see a traditional Turkish belly dance performance is at the 550-year-old Hodjapasha Cultural Center. This former bathhouse, not far from the Topkapi Palace, has been converted into an intimate theatre. Several authentic Turkish belly dancing shows are presented here, accompanied by a live band. This dance is also called the ‘oryantal dans’ or simply ‘oryantal’, with very playful, energetic and aerobic movements which is in contrast to the understated Egyptian version.

An important role for the dancer is reserved for the finger cymbals, the Turkish variant of the castanets. Connoisseurs recognise a good dancer based on her talent to play this instrument while dancing. Dancers are dressed in traditional costume consisting of a colourful bra with harem pants or long see-through chiffon and silk skirts. Decorative coin chains draped around the waist and head make a sensual jingling sound as the dancers move.

In the Hodjapasha Dance Theater, 25 male and female dancers perform a theatrical presentation of Oriental and modern dance, depicting the true 18th-century love story between an ambassador and a concubine. In reality, the concubines in the sultan’s harem did not perform belly dancing, at least not for the men; belly dancers were regularly invited to entertain the concubines themselves. Nevertheless, the lighting, the beautiful costumes and the video projections make spectators feel they are part of a harem in an Ottoman Palace.

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Hocapaşa Hamam Sok, 3.B

Belly dancers in the Hodjapasha Dance Theater

Showtime!

It may be more of a tourist attraction than a cultural outing, but a belly dancing performance at Sultana's 1001 Night should be seen primarily as entertainment. What can you expect? An evening event with long tables filled with Turkish 'meze', a selection of savoury snacks, a variety of cheeses, bottles of wine and a non-stop programme of belly dancing, theatre and music. The show, which includes YouTube phenomenon Didem, gives an impression of what life was like in the Ottoman Palace.

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Cumhuriyet Caddesi, 16/1

Photo credits

  • Belly dancers in the Hodjapasha Dance Theater: Rajesh_India, Flickr