Inside the World of Istanbul’s Male Belly Dancers

The nation’s shifting views toward homosexuality have opened the market for a centuries-old tradition

Segah, a male belly dancer, performs in a gaudy nightclub off Istanbul's Istiklal Street (Monique Jacques)
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When Segah dances, everybody cheers. His hips slope then shake; the muscles on his stomach vibrate with the coin belt across his loins. The drumbeat speeds up. The glitter on his chest and the gold band around his neck catch the spotlight, reflecting its glare back to the hundreds of audience members – men and women alike – craning their necks to the stage.

The lights dim. He blows a kiss. He puts his hand on his heart. He bows.

Here at Chanta Music, a gaudy, velvet-lined nightclub off Istanbul's high-octane Istiklal Street, belly dancing – and the adulation its admirers confer – is not limited to women. Segah – who performs under his first name only – is a self-described zenne, one of several male dancers in Turkey's largest city to earn his living performing what Turks refer to as “Oriental dance,” adopting traditionally female costume, roles and postures and adapting them to the tastes of an urban, socially liberal audience.

Male belly dancing is hardly a new phenomenon in Turkey. Most zenne dancers date the practice back to the Sultan's court in the final centuries of the Ottoman Empire, when women were largely prohibited from performing onstage. Much as how boys would play women’s parts in Elizabethan Shakespeare, young men – generally ethnic Greeks, Armenians, or Romani, drawn, often unwillingly, from the Empire's non-Muslim population – would be trained as dancers, adopt androgynous or feminine attire and makeup, and – in many cases – moonlight as paid courtesans to noblemen.

In traditional Ottoman practice, the terminology of “gay” and “straight” was largely absence from discourse, as explained by scholar Serkan Görkemli. Sexuality was more customarily defined as a matter of status/rank and sexual role. A higher-ranking nobleman would as a matter of course define himself as an active or penetrative sexual partner, one who would under other circumstances sleep with women; a zenne dancer would be expected to take on a more so-caled “feminine” sexual and social role. Regardless of whether or not sexual relations between dancers and their spectators took place, however, zenne dancing (and the watching thereof) was considered part of “mainstream” masculine culture..

But after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the secularist Ataturk government – which saw it as its mission to “Westernize” Turkey – zenne dancing, and its often-complicated sexual politics, fell out of favor.

And so zenne lingered, mostly surviving in rural areas, including Turkey's more religiously conservative Eastern provinces of Turkey. There, zennes frequently perform (without a sexual element) for straight-identified male audiences says filmmaker Mehmet Binay, whose 2012 feature Zenne Dancer explores the friendship between an Istanbul zenne dancer, a German photographer, and a gay “bear” from the conservative Urfa province.

“[In the East, zenne dancing] would not happen in a restaurant, would not happen in a wedding. It would happen in a closed house,  [with] ten, 12 men sitting around drinking and [watching] a male dancer,” says Binay. Participating in traditional Eastern dance, he says, was something done by men and women alike. “We all belly dance at some point – even straight men – at least, we used to.”

Back when Binay and his collaborator Caner Alper started researching zenne in 2006, they saw it as a “vanishing culture” – found only in rural areas and in a few underground gay clubs in Istanbul.

“We are very much under the influence of Western entertainment and culture and show business,” says Binay. “Oriental” dance is no longer as popular in Turkey as it once was. Even among Istanbul's sizable gay community, for whom zenne dancing might have particular resonance, “people would rather watch drag shows or go-go boys. Male belly dancing was something [from] the past.”

But in the past half-decade, zenne dancing in Istanbul has gone mainstream: bolstered by the media attention paid to Binay and Alper's film as well as the success of gay crossover clubs like Chanta: which cater their zenne shows to a largely heterosexual, female clientele.  “Zenne dancers were on the verge of extinction,” says Alper, “but now they're back again. When we used to Google zenne, we'd find a few people – now there are like hundreds. Then, [the word zenne] was an insult, now it's...”

“Fashionable,” Binay chimes in.    

“Yes, fashionable. The sort of male belly dancing we see in contemporary clubs has actually evolved. It's no longer just Oriental belly dancing. It's become something else.”

The increased popularity of zenne dancing has been a boon for dancers like Segah, who has been performing at Chanta for two years, and been featured on television programs across Turkey and in Cyprus.

Like many zenne dancers, Segah learned his art in a family setting, rather than from a formal teacher. “[Growing up], whenever my sister was doing housework she'd have music on in the background and she'd be dancing. Dancing was part of our daily routine.”

His mother was a cabaret singer, and when he went to Istanbul nightclubs to watch her, he'd often witness female belly dancers performing. “I always imagined myself dancing like them – wondering what it would be like to dance like that,” he says. When he was 15 or 16, a friend encouraged him to start dancing publicly, but the only work he could find was in a seedy gay nightclub in Istanbul's Aksaray district. “I was dancing with nothing but a coin belt on,” he says, “but once they paid me, I used that money to buy my first costume.”

Like many gay Turkish men, Segah found a degree of freedom in Istanbul – with its active, out gay community – that does not necessarily exist outside the city. While the Turkish government does not criminalize homosexuality – nor does it provide LGBT individuals with any formal protection from discrimination – cultural attitudes toward homosexuality are largely negative; according to a 2011 poll conducted as part of the World Values Survey, a full 84 percent of Turks identified gays and lesbians among their least desirable neighbors. Such disdain can all too frequently spill over into violence; Binay and Alper's film Zenne Dancer deals with a slightly fictionalized version of one of Turkey's most publicized cases: the 2007 “honor killing” of Ahmet Yildiz – a close friend of with both filmmakers – believed to have been carried out by his father.

And although Istanbul in particular has becoming increasingly welcoming to gays – Istanbul's annual Gay Pride parade is the largest in any majority-Muslim country -- the rising thread of Islamism in the Turkish government is slowing progress for LGBT rights. In 2013, Turkey’s prime minister at the time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, criticizing the adoption of a Turko-Dutch boy by a Dutch lesbian couple, publicly called homosexuality a “sexual preference, which is contrary to the culture of Islam."

The Turkish military's approach to homosexuality reflects this cultural ambivalence. Out gay men are considered exempt from mandatory military service on the grounds of mental illness. In practice, they are often forced to provide degrading pornographic images of themselves or be subject to a rectal examination to “prove” their homosexuality.

Segah himself served in the military for eight months. He'd intended to get an exemption, he says, but he was not comfortable being out to his father, who accompanied him to the military recruitment office, and so remained in the military for eight months before being able to quietly secure his release. “I didn't mind,” he says. “I had more lovers there than anywhere else.”

Now, Segah performs nightly at Chanta, as well as at private functions like bachelorette parties, appearing on television next to some of Turkey's biggest stars.

Still, Segah's family has been less than welcoming of his career. When they first found out about his zenne dancing – by seeing him on television – they called him up immediately and begged him to stop, telling him his work was “morally shameful.” “I'm from a traditional Turkish family,” Segah says, “I'm basically cross-dressing – imagine my father and my father's friends seeing me in this cross-dressing costume and dancing like like? It's not really easy to accept.”

While his family has grudgingly accepted his career choice, they've never been to see him perform. His brother came to Chanta once to watch Segah's opening act – a singer he admired – but Segah sent him away before his performance.

And, says Segah, he's never formally come out to his parents. “They realize [that I'm gay]”, he says but it's not something they ever openly talk about.

Within liberal Istanbul, however, Segah's negative experiences have been minimal. He recalls only once being heckled with slurs by a homophobic audience member.

“I heard it and turned and said, 'Thank you, sir,'” Segah laughs.  “He was so surprised – he tipped me almost 200 lira!”

Segah takes pride in his ability to push audience members out of their comfort zones. Unlike the traditional Ottoman zenne, he says, whose stylized movements were slower, stiffer, than that of their female contemporaries, Segah prefers to perform exactly the same movements as female belly-dancers. “Mostly, zenne don't get to affect people. But when I dance, I create a kind of 'gender confusion'. I am a man – with a beard! – but I'm dancing just like a woman [would]. And that really shocks people. They're shocked into enjoying it.”

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