Monday, April 29, 2019


APRIL 29th is International Dance Day and we are proud to note that male belly-dancing is making a comeback in Turkey, Asia Minor, the birthplace of Antinous.

Ironically, the neo-conservative policies of the nation's President Tayyip Erdogan are encouraging a return to traditional values and customs ... such as male belly dancing.

Traditionally, belly dancing was performed by boys and men in the old Ottoman Empire, since females were sequestered behind harem walls.

But the tradition fell by the wayside as Turkey embraced Western values under Atatürk in the 20th Century.

Now male belly-dancing is back in the "New Turkey." However, male belly dancers now dance with more masculine moves than in the Ottoman Empire, when they were expected to be effeminate.

These days, it is increasingly popular to go to a nightclub to see male belly dancers (in Turkish referred to as zennes, rakkas or koceks). 

Ironically, the conservative, neo-Ottoman government has brought about the gradual yet steady increase in the popularity and availability of zennes across Turkey.

Now zennes are invited to dance at private gatherings — birthday parties, weddings, circumcision ceremonies, traditional henna nights (bridal showers) and even at get-togethers on the occasion of divorce.

There are those who celebrate their divorce with a bang, according to one bold male dancer called Tarik.

"I have performed in several homes with only females at bridal showers," Tarik said in an interview with Al Monitor newspaper. 

"Even conservative families who may not allow go-go dancers or male strippers are comfortable with a zenne when grandma can also dance along," Tarik said. 

"One young female told me, ‘I feel like I'm in the Ottoman palace when you dance.’ Belly dancing is our tradition, even the most prudish and stuck-up customers loosen up after 10 minutes with the music,” said Tarik.

Tarik has been dancing since he was 15 in big cities and towns of the Mediterranean, such as Kas, Fethiye and Bodrum. 

He said, "Foreign tourists enjoy the nights the zennes perform, but I will be honest with you, it is the Turkish and Middle Eastern customers who sustain our art. They are the majority of our customers." 

Traditionally, zennes used to be young. 

In the days of the Ottoman Empire, boys at the age of 7 (mostly from non-Muslim families) started training and they performed until they could no longer hide their beards.

That is no longer an issue, Tarik said. "I can dance with a beard, as long as it is stylish. However, body hair is still a no-no."

Another male dancer, Ali Murat Sahiner, in his mid-30s, is open about his identity. 

Sahiner, stage name Diva (left), has been dancing since 2000. 

He has danced at the most prestigious nightclubs in Turkey, such as Al Jamal, Cahide and Zarifi. Diva is passionate about his art, and he is known to have inspired many young dancers. 

"Initially, it was a secret but once I appeared on television, we could no longer hide it," Diva said. "My family was concerned, but now they understand this is my profession." 

Diva, like many other dancers, has a website since he does not hide his identity or wear a veil during performances for fear of cameras.

Yet, belly dancing reaches far beyond the borders of Turkey. Indeed, the most famous belly dancer in Germany is a Turkish male dancer, Mehmet Sasmaz, who is better known by his stage name Zadiel. 

Zadiel told Al-Monitor, "My family initially did not know. I took belly dancing classes on my own. Then once I went on stage, they found out." 

Zadiel, who lives in Germany, added, "I earn about 500 euros (over $600) for 20 minutes on stage in Berlin. However, that is not all. I also travel to dance and teach." 

Zadiel travels extensively as an instructor and was invited to take the stage at the renowned Sultans of Raqs show as well.

"The Internet has helped our profession," Zadiel said. "People who are curious get to watch it online and then they can contact our managers to book us for a party or attend one of our shows. It has made male dancers acceptable," he noted.

"As a male dancer, I believe I'm privileged because the supply of male dancers is low. It makes me all the more exotic and raises my marketability."

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