No one ever forgets his first really supreme belly-dancer. It is the loss of a virginity of sense: yes, the female body can do all that, and to suitably serpentine music. Mine took place at a private restaurant in Marrakesh, in decadent North African style. Tribespeople from southern Morocco came to entertain. The dancer was lithe, sultry, charged with animal vitality, and frenzied; probably she’d been smoking kif. Her dancing was so uninhibited she seemed dangerous. This experience has never repeated itself.
Until recently in the Middle East there were several places one could go in search of her dance. Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Istanbul are the traditional belly-dancing capitals. Now that Baghdad is less accessible, and Beirut off the beaten track for most Americans, Cairo and Istanbul alone have to carry the veil.
A century ago writers crossed the world seeking this primal experience—like Gustave Flaubert, keeping a diary in Egypt:
“Kuchuck shed her clothing as she danced. Finally she was naked except for a veil…behind which she pretended to hide…at the end she threw down the veil…sank down breathless on her divan, her body continuing to move slightly in rhythm.” (1849)
Flaubert’s countryman, Theophile Gautier, was more analytical in his book on Constantinople. The dancing, he wrote,
“consists of perpetual undulations of the body: twisting buttocks, swaying hips, eyes flashing or swooning, nostrils quivering, lips parted, bosoms heaving, necks bent like the throats of lovesick doves…the mysterious drama of voluptuousness….” (1854)
Lovesick doves indeed. Lady Duff Gordon was less sentimental. One dancer’s gyrating breasts, she noted, “were just like pomegranates and gloriously independent of any support.” (1865)
The dance’s origins probably lie with gypsies wandering the region many centuries ago. Among connoisseurs of the art, Cairo has long had the edge in reputation, though belly-dancing undoubtedly was developed by odalisques of the Ottoman sultans’ harem in Constantinople for the pleasure of their lord and master. Imagine my surprise, then, at being awakened by rumors that the belly-dancing standard was on the rise in that magnificent Turkish city now known as Istanbul. Without hesitation I flew down to the Golden Horn to devote time, valuable time, to investigate.
You can spend your life looking at belly-dancers and come away none the wiser about the fine points. First I called on Nancy Ermenidis, an American woman who’s lived ten years in Istanbul and earned an unsurpassed reputation as a teacher of the dance.
“Most belly-dancers have no art,” she said. “It’s the gypsies who keep the art alive. You can go their camp at Sulukule, and pay them to dance. But the girls keep the real dance to themselves.
“The degeneration’s not in the lack of teachers but in the expectations of the audience. The requisite here is to be young, have a good body, and not mind showing it. Girls now wear a bikini with lots of things hanging down. The level of dancing here is better than it was ten years ago: the problem is that male audiences want only to see flesh. And there’s a precarious balance between the sensuality and the sexuality of the dance.
“A good belly-dancer should transport you. Two of the best are Burcin Orhon and Tulay Karaca. A good dancer will be barefoot, or in slippers—never high heels. The bad ones walk around a lot. They don’t want their makeup to run. Most don’t do anything with their hands, they have only a few movements. You’ll rarely see a real shimmy, you’ll never see snake arms.” She demonstrated a long movement like water rippling through her arms and shoulders.
“Here we bare the midriff. Egyptian girls aren’t allowed to show their bellies or legs, so they wear see-through net. But meat doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter: belly-dance is all illusion. What’s too bad is there could be someone in a low nightclub in three skirts who’s better than the others but who isn’t encouraged because she doesn’t show a lot of flesh. She’s the one to find.”
I decided to start with the gypsies, encouraged by visions of James Bond in From Russia, With Love—knife-throwing, cat-fights, the usual. So I enlisted the sturdy companionship of Erdogan, a kind, amiable man who was boxing champion of Istanbul for three years. He in turn enlisted the aid of Abdullah, who “knows all the gypsies.” Erdogan, no alarmist, made it clear a yabanci (foreigner) wouldn’t be safe visiting the gypsies without local guidance.
Istanbul at night is full of otherworldy visions: floating mosques, lit-up minarets, crumbling ancient walls. I remember we passed through a shadowy arch, trees stood up in darkness, then suddenly lights on rude stone buildings blinded me. Filthy fat gypsy women fell upon our taxi, reaching out their hands, imploring us to choose their dark-eyed, willing daughters. “Gypsy people have no god,” said Erdogan approvingly. “Money only god for gypsy.”
A deal was struck. We were led into a low house with sloping floors, then to a small room garishly lit by bare bulbs. Right away four young men joined us, wailing away on drum, lute, tambourine, and clarinet. Three girls came in. Two sat immediately on our laps, the third stripped down to a bikini and did a bored dance. Several enormous women built like wrestlers came in and started yelling at us. Abdullah yelled back.
“If Abdullah not here,” said Erdogan, “too much money. Tourist come alone is not safe, like night-cluip. Don’t go night-cluip, sir.”
Money changed hands (about $50, a week’s wages in Istanbul), and the bikinied girl undid her top. Perhaps she was fifteen, beneath her mascara. She stood inches away from each of us and demanded money. A boy of about three wandered in bouncing a red ball, followed by his grandmother. A new argument started as our beers came. The musicians howled. In the airless room we were dripping with sweat.
“Don’t worry,” Erdogan announced. “Sex not possible with gypsy.”
Rapidly the other girls got up from our laps, did the little business of wiggling their breasts, extorted a tip, then dressed and went away. We were left with our beers, the fattest grandma, and the musicians. Erdogan looked sad. Abdullah scowled, then stood up and began singing and dancing to himself, snapping his fingers. At least he could dance.
Another evening, ever in search of the Gypsy Experience, I went out to Kumcapi, a nest of fish restaurants by the Sea of Marmara. There were many superb gypsy musicians improvising away, the fish was superb, but that night no “butterfly” girls showed up to dance.
Still I didn’t give up the Belly-Dancing Quest. I went to one of the fanciest “turist” clubs in Istanbul, atop the Galata Tower (14th c.). I’d seen Tulay Karaca dance there years ago, but Tulay’s expressive limbs had sugarcoated my memory of the club. It’s one of those international joints where they keep changing your ashtray but never change the singer, some creep who talks to the audience in twelve languages and knows a song in each. The first dancer was a tall blonde in sequins and heels who tossed her hair and stared down at us imperiously. She had a knowing saunter, she twirled and teased and shook, but she didn’t come close to the artistry I was seeking. The second dancer, who also wore a bikini with streamers, reminded me of the mountains coming to Mohammed. Had I lost faith?
The U.S. Consulate confirmed Erdogan’s dire warnings about the Turks-only nightclubs in the Pera district, that present foreigners with a $1000 beer bill, then beat you up if you refuse to pay. One night I found my way alone past clubs with names like “Harem” and “Lolita,” avoiding the obvious strip-and-clip joints. Shortly after midnight I ended up at the Beyaz Saray on Mesrutiyet Caddesi, by the merest coincidence within shouting distance of my consulate. A doorman quoted me $10 a beer including cover, and I walked into a spotless, '70s-style club with imitation art nouveau panels of nude women. I felt safer there than in any lunatic-driven Istanbul taxi.
At the bar a lovely Iranian woman named Zeynep suggested I buy her a drink. She had long black hair and the natural aristocracy of many Persian women; fortyish, she’d left Tehran nine years earlier, after the revolution. She slipped away as the lights went down.
The star, Aylin Erol, wore white high heels, and her bikini glittered. At nearby tables men smoked and watched with great concentration. Ten minutes into her dance Aylin turned wanton, flashing plenty of leg and shaking her copious breasts. Her hips rotated and pulsated and she finished with a fascinating belly wiggle. Despite the high heels, I soberly rated her the best so far.
A knife thrower, athletic folk dancers, a Turkish Desi Arnaz, and an amazing sword acrobat followed, notably superior to their equivalents at the tourist nightclubs. Occasionally I was joined at the bar by a ”whiskey dolly,” who’d let her hand stray to my leg, then ask me to buy her a drink. No one ever realizes how much he resembles a foreigner until he’s the only one.
An ample blonde dancer came on, extravagant belly undulating. Growls went up as tidal waves crossed her navel and her breasts grew rowdy with the music. She stooped low to let men push 10,000 lira notes ($4) into her cleavage. Once they got their moment of erotic contact they lost interest, and she finished lackadaisically.
By three in the morning, two dancers later, I was sated and ready to give up. Had I journeyed so far for so little? Then, to my surprise, Zeynep appeared onstage. At first I didn’t recognize her. She was slender, barefoot, supple, her legs hidden by swirling skirts, her midriff bare. A long veil bellied like a sail behind her as she whirled. She lacked the voluptuousness and the youth of the Turkish dancers, but I saw immediately that she was the Mother Lode.
Her hands spiraled around every crossbeat. After a languid ballet of arms alone she went into an intricate sideways shimmy, now swaying, now teasing. It grew to a complex wriggle, a lascivious shudder, that engulfed her. A drum solo erupted, and her hips furiously punctuated, then counterattacked the muscular beats, faster and faster. Her arms floated and swam upward. The other instruments wailed, and Zeynep shifted into a slow, grinding cadenza, powerful accents rippling from her expressive shoulders through her body to her pleading knees. As the music climaxed she went spinning, black hair hurtling around her. She finished abruptly, to an assault of the drums, and we all howled.
Night! Youth! Zeynep! And the moon!