What do you love most about Turkish Oriental dance?
I love the energy of it. It is passionate and powerful, and Classical Turkish Oriental never lost its Romany (Gypsy) roots.
My family are Greeks from Turkey and we can now trace our history there for over 1000 years. My first time seeing Turkish Roma dance was when I was 14 at a Sunnet (male circumcision) party in Istanbul. I was mesmerized. Then I first learned about the Romany and Oriental versions of Middle Eastern dance while doing field research in Turkey, starting in the 1980s and continuing to this day.
Back then, I took lots of footage with my big old video camera, which I had to hold on my shoulder. Later, while there, I bought video footage when it became available but I had to go to the Turkish porno shops to get it (THAT was an adventure! I was so bad for their business because all the men ran out the back door when a woman walked in that eventually the shop owners would just hand me the videos with dance on them at the front door and I would slip them the money). I took this footage home and studied it thoroughly (slow mo is our friend).
At one point, while home, I listened to nothing but Turkish music and did nothing but Turkish dance for two entire years (my poor husband). Total immersion. I saturated my brain with all things Turkish until it felt as if it got in on a cellular level. Then I swapped steps with my buddies Dalia Carella and Eva Cernik. I worked extensively with Tayyar Akdeniz, who is Turkish and who does excellent Turkish Roma dance. We became dance partners and toured and performed together for several years, and we put on the Folk Tours Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in the U.S. and in Turkey for several years. We had lots of classes in Turkish as well as Arabic music and dance. And I also studied with the wonderful Reyhan Tuzsuz.
Eventually I put together all the dance material that I knew in the manual which accompanies my
annual Five-Day Turkish Intensive. It is amazing how making a "manual" forces you to evaluate and organize what you know! And when Yasmin Henkesh and I put together our "Viva La Difference" intensive, which compares and contrasts Turkish and Egyptian dance, things came together for me on an even deeper level. We got together night after night and asked each other; "How would you do that step/move/gesture?" We could really delineate what the similarities were and where there were very clear differences. We watched hours of each other's footage. There was wine involved and it was fun and fascinating for us both. We had many "Aha!" moments. When you study something comparatively, it highlights the differences more clearly, things gel, you see the big picture from different angles.
It has been quite a journey. It also showed me how American Cabaret became what it was. That is a vivacious version of Oriental dance that combines pan Arabic (not just Egyptian) and Turkish Oriental dance with American "showpersonship." I prefer the name "Vintage Orientale" since, in my opinion the only true "American Cabaret " dance started in Vegas. Vintage Orientale is an excellent example of a fusion dance that became its own genre.
You have quite an extensive collection of antique pictures of women and dancers from North Africa, the Middle East and of the Roma throughout the world. How did your collection get its start?
My dad was a stamp and coin collector and my family always loved history so it was not a far reach for me to fall in love with dance related ephemera. I began collecting in flea markets in other countries. I was living on the road and traveling from country to country dancing. There were times when I lived on peanut butter but I always managed to have the money for the postcards and pictures. Then I began to buy things in the U.S. at ephemera conventions before there was any such thing as the internet.
Can you tell us something interesting about the Romany culture that people might not know (perhaps something you’ll be expanding on at Crossroads and Origins)?
Each of the Roma cultures have their own specific dances. There are some shared aspects but the dances do differ from place to place and from ethnic group to group. That is why Roma people are offended when outsiders simply fluff up their hair and dance with gusto without ever taking a lesson and call it a "Gypsy" dance. These are fantasy or perhaps interpretive Roma dances and there is nothing wrong with that. Some of it is really good dance! But performers should use labels to help identify what they are doing. And the authentic forms are SO COOL, that people who are interested in this style and culture should dip into that well and drink the waters. In doing so, they are honoring the cultures that they are portraying. They can then fuse what they learn into their fusion forms or perhaps they will want to sometimes do the authentic versions.
I always fuse Turkish Oriental with Turkish Roma in my shows. And I sometimes do skirt too, which is not a Turkish Romany dance at all (although we used to think that it was). Skirt dance as it came to our Middle Eastern dance world in America was the wonderful fusionary creation of Dalia Carella in the mid 1980s. She mixed some Roma and non Roma dances to create it. Then a few of us from that era branched off and created our own versions. It works amazingly well with Turkish 9/8 and we all love it! You see? This is the value of fusion dance. It allows for the birth of new art forms.