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Dancing in Turkey
By Hugh Thurston, 1971

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Hugh Thurston

Turkey Turkey must be one of the easiest countries in which to find good folk dancing. It contrasts greatly with say, Greece or Yugoslavia. Nina and I found much less dancing in Greece than on our previous trips, and Greeks we talked with felt that the dances have been getting much less popular over the past five years or so. In Yugoslavia there is plenty of folk dance music, but people don't dance to it. Once, after a band had played a superb Devetorka to an empty floor (which had been full earlier of rocking and rolling Macedonians), I asaked one of the musicians why nobody danced. He replied, quite sharply, "It's only folklore." The Turks are different. They do, it is true, dance rock-and-roll (in the big towns), but they also dance their own dances. I don't think that any Turk would put the word "only" in "it's only folklore."


We were walking through the back streets of Antalya one afternoon when we heard dance music coming from the front garden of a house. The garden, like most in Turkey, was surrounded by a high wall, but the door was open, so we looked in. The people inside at once invited us in, and brought chairs, which they set up at the edge of the (very tiny) dancing space, and gave us coffee and lokum (a gel of starch and sugar). The occasion was a circumcision ceremony, and thirty or forty people of all ages were there. The dancing was all solo, all by men or boys, and all apparently improvised. The band consisted of clarinet, sazophone and drums, but although the orchestration was modern, the music was not: it had that "timeless" feeling to it that a lot of good folk music does.


Turkish Folk Dancing 1830 On one sightseeing trip we had gone up to our room after dinner when we heard the clarinet and the davul (a big drum played with a wooden club on one side and a reed on the other). We traced it to the roof of our hotel, where there was a lounge and a bar. The hotel guests, some musicians from the town (Nevsehir), and some of the hotel staff were having a party. After ten minutes or so of the clarinet and davul there would be a short break and then a more intimate combination would take over: a couple of baglamas (long-necked plucked mandolin-type instruments) and a darbuka (a medium-sized, goblet shaped drum played with the fingers). Then back to the davul and clarinet, and so on.

There were two dances. Neither one had a name. [The Turks call this form of dance Ciftetelli. –Aksel Öztürk.] One was improvised and the other was semi-improvised. In the improvised one the steps were mostly two-steps, danced with the arms held out sideways and plenty of finger-snapping. Often two dancers would face one another and dance to each other for a short while. The facing dancers might be a man and a woman; more often they would be two men. We never saw two women dancing together, but this may have been simply because there were far fewer women than men at the party. We were made to feel very welcome to join in.

The other dance was something like a Lesnoto – just the basic step, no variations. Variety was provided by the various speeds at which it was danced, and the various holds used. For slow music a pinkie-finger hold was usual, and there would often be quite a bit of body movement. For faster music they would use a shoulder hold, with hands on neighbors' farther shoulders. For the fastest music the dancers would take a firm palm-to-palm hold, elbows down (tucked in to the sides), forearms held out forward; it is a remarkably efficient and comfortable hold.


A Turkish dance display will contain about a dozen items, each item consisting of dances from one particular region, and usually danced by people from that region. There is very little choreography (except for the Caucasian dancing, which is very much a stage show). Standards are very variable, but it is worth sitting through the poor items for the sake of the good ones. When Turkish dancing is good, it is tremendous.


The Turks are proud of their Caucasian dances. Part of the Caucasus is in Turkey and part in the USSR; but this is a fairly recent state of affairs. It was late in the last century that the Russians< conquered their part of the Caucasus and the people there (i.e., in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) are Turkic (mixed in with palaeo-Caucasians and Armenians), not Slavic. The dancing is fairly familiar to Americans because it is what Serbe Jaroff's so-called "Don Cossacs" do. It is not cossack dancing, of course; in fact, throwing a dagger from your mouth into the floor with a flick of the head is scarcely dancing at all, even if you are on your pointed toes when you do it. Nina and I once went to a whole evening of Caucasian dancing. We did not stay to the end but the Turks loved it. In one dance the girls reached inside their jackets and each pulled out a Turkish flag; the applause was deafening.


The Middle East Technical University (METU), like most Turkish universities, has a flourishing folklore club. It runs sixteen simultaneous dancing classes, each class learning the dances of one particular town or region, and I thought it might be interesting to list them: Bursa, men; Karadeniz, men; Silivke, men; Erzurm, women; Erzurum, men; Van; Elazig; Bitlis, men; Kars (Caucasus); ,Gaziantep; ,Artvin; ,Aydin; ,Kırklareli; ,Corum; ,Sivas, men; and Sivas, women. This is, of course, not a complete list of places in Turkey where there is a flourishing dance tradition. We have also seen dances in, or from Bayburt, Edirne, Konya, and Malatya; and we are a long way from having seen everything.

The teachers are, as far as possible, from the districts whose dances they teach; but sometimes the club has to make do with an "outsider" who had visited the region in question and learned the dances there.


This is mostly rock-and-roll, but there is one folk dance that is at home in a nightclub, namely the Kasap. When the band changes to a Kasap, the dancers (who may well be bankers, lawyers, professors, and their wives) join pinkie fingers to form a chain or circle: the step is pretty much the same as the Greek Hasaposervikos or the Romanian Sîrba. Besides folk melodies there are one or two others that are recognized (in Ankara at least) as the signal for starting a Kasap. One is the popular song "Aglama degmez hayat" and another is, believe it or not, "Hava Nagila."


Turkish dancing is very varied but, apart from the Caucasian dancing and the rather special Kardeniz dancing from the Black Sea coast, it can be divided into broad categories, which I shall call "Interior" and "Exterior," and which contrast with one another in the following ways.

  1. Exterior dancing comes from the coast and the large towns, Interior dancing comes from the villages in the interior.
  2. Interior dancing is entirely "kolo" type (a "kolo" is a type of Yugoslav dance meaning "wheel"). Exterior dancing includes other types of dance.
  3. Interior dancing is accompanied by a pair of "stand-up" musicians, playing either zurna (a kind of fierce oboe) and davul, or clarinet and davul. Exterior dancing is accompanied by a "sit-down" orchestra playing bağlamas (stringed musical instruments), occasionally with a ney (a Turkish flute), or a kaval (a longer flute), and with a darbuka and sometimes spoons for percussion. Occasionally more modern instruments are included, such as violin, clarinet, or saxophone.
  4. All Interior dancing is social dancing. Some Exterior dances are essentially dances for spectators.

It is the Interior dances that seem to be full of Turkish character and steeped in tradition. None of them are as brashly spectacular as, say, the Exterior dance Kılıç Kalkan, but some have attractive and difficult, though rewarding, steps. They appeal to the spectator who dances, and who can imagine himself joining in. They certainly appeal to Turkish students. Of the sixteen METU classes, only three (Bursa, Aydin, and Silivke) are Exterior. All the others (except, of course, Karadeniz and Caucasus) are Interior. The dances are still alive today. At a wedding in Elazig, for example, the wedding guests will go through the village repertoire, starting with the slow dances and working up to the faster ones.

The Karadeniz Dances

These are all very like one another. They are danced only by men, and are accompanied by a kemançe (a kind of small one-stringed fiddle or lyre, not tucked under the chin but held vertically in one hand with the other doing the bowing). The music is fast and the rhythm often fairly complicated. The steps have plenty of fast shakes, flicks, and taps. It looks (and is) difficult to dance, but when well danced is wonderful to watch. The same kind of dancing is done in Greece, for example by Dora Statou's dance company, where it is called Pontic dancing. It was presumably taken to Greece by refugees when the Ottoman empire was dismembered after the Great War.

The "Exterior" Dances

The most widespread of the Exterior dances is the Zeybek. In fact, it is well enough known to be portrayed on a postage stamp. It is a man's solo, played on the baglama, with nine very slow beats to the bar (or, one could equally say, nine short bars to the phrase). The movements ar broad (I wouldn't contradict anyone who called them clumsy) with leaps and turns; and often the hands are held in a very characteristic manner, high in the air with wrists drooping. Well known centers of Zeybek dancing are İzmir, Ayfon, Ankara, and Silifke. Portakal Zeybek, from Silifke, is one of the more attactive ones; it is a little faster than most and does not have the wierd arm position.

Equally broad movements are seen in Kılıç Kalkan, from Bursa. This is a sword-and-shield dance (kılıç = sword, kalkan = shield), and is danced without music, to the rhythm of the footfalls of the dancers and the clash of sword on shield, sword on sword, and shield on shield. It is a very muscular dance and part of it is a mock fight. It also is portrayed on a postage stamp.

Quite different from these is the spoon dance from Konya. This is light and lively; and all the while the dancers keep up a castanet-like clicking with a pair of wooden spoons in each hand. We saw it performed by a large family: father and the elder sons played baglama and darbuka, while the younger sons danced.

The "Interior" Dances

This dancing is nearly all "kolo" type. Some villages have only men's dances. Some have men's dances and, quite separately, women's dances. Yet others have only mixed dances; some of these may be quite energetic, but the women dance them exactly like the men, sometimes looking very tomboyish and unfeminine. The "men only" dances are often even more energetic. By contrast, the "women only" dances are very feminine and dainty.

There are quite a variety of holds. The most common in mixed dance is a W-hold using little fingers. There also is an informal hold where each dancer puts his arms around his neighbors' waists. The T-hold is fairly common. The V-hold is used mainly in men's dances, and is a close, strong hold, palm-to-palm (sometimes with fingers interlaced). Men also use an inverted V-hold; hands are joined well above head level, with elbows straight. In men's dances the lines are quite straight, not an arc of a circle around the dance ground; in these dances there is no sideways movement of the line as a whole. The line either stays on the spot or moves forward and back. We saw only one left-moving closed circle dance, and that was from Artvin, near the USSR border. With this single exception, all dances that moved sideways moved to the right. And with only one more exception, all chains were open. This second exception is Nurey, from Elazig, which starts as an open chain but joins up into a circle, and then opens up again.

The men's dances are very virile, sometimes by sheer energy, as in Bitlis, where the dancers are Kurds and really let themselves go, but more often by intense muscular control. Often a few strong deliberate movements will alternate with more rigorous ones. This is particularly true of dances from Bayburt, which sometimes start with an inconspicous movement like a heel raise, perhaps broadening into a knee raise, with the raised foot circling in the air, the toe scraping the ground precisely on the beat, or being brought down with a slight but definite stamp; and the next instant the whole line will be dancing squatting steps that would make a Ukrainian jealous.

One of the best of the men's dances is the Halay from Elazig. The Halay is a type of dance, not an individual dance, and many places have Halays. The one from Elazig is danced by about six men with a close V-hold. At first, nothing seems to be happening, but in fact the dancers are feeling the rhythm, and imperceptibly bounding on the balls of their feet and bending and straightening their knees in time to the beat. These movements gradually broaden and soon crystallize into a definite warm up step: two bends, two quick bounces and another bend, and a syncopated heel-raise. Here the dancers, by all going up and down together on the knee bends (Turkish dancers move very accurately on the beat) in a very close hold get a tremendous feeling of togtherness and coordination in one six-man organism. Then, on the shout of "hopa," the dance starts: they bend forward from the waist, take three steps forward, swiftly raise the left foot up to the right, stretch it cat-like out to the left, and close it tightly beside the right foot. This step goes on until the leader calls "supur," which means "broom." The dancers make a sweeping movement with the left foot and, with a fairly relaxed hopping and bouncing step, move back to place or, if they like, to some other spot on the dance floor. They start again from the warm up, with a different main step, ending with "supur."

One exception to the statement that Interior dances are "kolo" type is furnished by Cayda Çira, also from Elazig. In this dance, each performer carries two candles. If you can imagine dancers whose arms and bodies are doing an Indonesian candle dance, while their feet and legs are dancing a Kolo, you will have an idea of what the dance is like. The steps, though unspectacular, are quite tricky (one is phrased in fives).

I mentioned that Interior dances are accompanied by either the zurna or clarinet. The zurna is the more common of the two and, of course, is much older. The main center of clarinet playing is Elazig, where the musicians are quite the equal of those in Epirus, Greece. It has been used there for at least fifty years and is called not clarinet but "granada," which the Turks explain by saying that they must have gotten the instrument from Granada, Spain. The music is mostly medium speed; ther is nothing as slow as a Tsamikos or a Vari Hasapikos, nothing as fast as a Br॓l or even an U Čest. More than half the music is in even rhythm with two, four, five, or six beats to a measure, but a fair amount is uneven, based on the slow (S) and quick (q) beats (with the slow beat half again as long as the quick) so familiar in Bulgaria and Macedonia. No one rhythm is common enough to be given a name, like the qS Pajduško in Bulgaria or the qqSqq Kopanica in Macedonia. The most common are probably qqqS and qSqq. Bas Bar (from Erzurum) goes qqSqqqs. The most remarkable rhythm is that of Çemo that goes through the following sequence: qqqSSqqqSSqqq and 25 S; and not until then does it begin to repeat itself.

If I have mentioned more dances from Elazig that anywhere else, it is not because Elazig has more dances than anywhere else, but because I was able to find out more about them. I was lucky enough to meet a young man (later a student at METU) who has done the dances since he was eight years old. There are at leaast a couple dozen places with a tradition as rich as Elazig's, and a wealth of opportunity awaits any folk dancer who wants to go to Turkey and investigate full time. Although many of the dances are not exportable (because they depend upon the musicians following the dancers, and so cannot be danced to records or tapes), there still will be more than enough to be a very welcome addition to our repertoire.


Reprinted from Viltis Magazine, Jan-Feb 1971,
Vyts F. Beliajus, Editor.

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