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Recapturing an ephemeral art Ottoman dancing
2003 / March

The desire to dance is as old as the history of human beings. Emotions, ideas and sometimes stories are expressed by the movements of the dancr'sn body, and dancing may have been the first medium of communication. Researchers agree that dancing has played an important role in the social life of all civilisations. During the time of the Ottoman Empire dancing was form of entertainment enjoyed both at court and amongst ordinary people. Unfortunately these dance traditions have not survived to the present day, and our information about them is restricted mainly to Ottoman miniatures and drawings and paintings by Europeans who visited Turkey in past centuries. When exploring the history of Ottoman dance it is important not to confuse such authentic documents with the works of European Orientalist painters, who depicted not what they had seen but what they imagined. Such fruits of fantasy include female slaves dancing naked in harems. Ottoman miniatures on the other hand, reflect the true nature of this dancing, as do pictures by eye witnesses, many of them not professional artists,

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Recapturing an ephemeral art Ottoman dancing
2003 / March

whose job was to collect written and visual information about the Ottoman Empire for the monarchs of Europe. Ottoman dances had their origins in theatre, the performers enacting a subject by means of pantomime in the form of dance, using body language to convey their meaning. These dances were of three types. The first was performed by dancers known as çengi, who originally included both men and women, but in later times came to be women only. The word çengi is derived from çeng, a type of harp played upon the knees and no longer used today. The çengi dancers held a type of castanet known as çarpara in their hands, and sometimes also handkerchiefs. Their costumes were highly ornate, concealing every part of the body apart from the face and hands. Some çengis whirled china plates on the tips of their fingers while they danced, and were then known as kâsebaz or 'dish jugglers'. Male dancers were known as köçek. They usually wore skirts and imitated girls in both appearance and demeanour, but sometimes performed as men, wearing trousers and conical caps.

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Recapturing an ephemeral art Ottoman dancing
2003 / March
Since this type of dancing consisted of sprightly steps and leaps, and the performers wrinkled up their faces like rabbits as they danced, köçek were popularly known as 'rabbits' or 'rabbit boys'. The köçeks gave public performances, while çengis performed for audiences of women only. When we look at the western theatrical tradition, we find some similarities in this respect. For example, men played womn'sl roles in ancient Greek comedy and tragedy, and in Shakespearean England, too, womn'se roles were always played by men, even such romantic figures as Shakespeare's Juliet. In ballet it was common for men to play womn'se and women men's roles. In Japanese, Chinese and other Far Eastern traditional theatres, which always included elements of dance, the most important actors were the men who appeared in womn's roles. In Ottoman çengi dancing, women dressed as men to play male roles in dances featuring roles for both genders. The third type of Ottoman dancers were known as curcuna dancers, meaning 'djin soldiers'
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Recapturing an ephemeral art Ottoman dancing
2003 / March

These resembled clowns and danced with jerky convulsive movements, making a lot of noise. They generally wore comical masks and strange, ridiculous costumes, and we might describe them as grotesque dancers. Curcuna dancers also appeared in the improvised comedies known as ortaoyunu. A miniature by Levnî shows köçek and curcuna dancers performing at the festivities held to celebrate the circumcision of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III in 1720. In this picture we see the köçeks dancing before the tent of the grand vezir, while curcuna dancers wearing masks amuse the audience with a clumsy imitation of them. The costumes worn by some of them resembled those of Harlequin, the clever and witty servant who features in the Italian commedia dell'arte, an improvised folk theatre. European court dances, such as the maatachino, buffens and moreska, were also performed in Ottoman Turkey by çengi dancers, who at the same time played in ortaoyunu and performed classical ballets.

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Recapturing an ephemeral art Ottoman dancing
2003 / March

During the time of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, when at the request of Pope Clement VII Venice, Florence and other small Italian city states joined forces under a nonaggression pact in order to save the dukedom of Milan, citizens of Venice, Florence and Genoa living in Istanbul celebrated the pact with a festival lasting three days and nights. Among its organisers was Alvise Gritti, who as the son of the Doge of Venice was called Beyoglu ('lord's son') by the Ottomans. Gritti had a large mansion in the district of Pera, and in time this district came to be called Beyoglu after him. But to return to the festival. One of the ballets that was performed was a tragic story of a beautiful girl enslaved by two elderly men, and the second was a story from mythology about Psyche. Both ballets included Turkish çengis among the dancers, who performed to an audience of Ottoman courtiers, Ragusans, Greeks and Italians. The Venetian diplomat Carlo Zeno wrote a long and detailed account of this magnificent festival in a letter sent from Istanbul on 17 February 1524.

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Recapturing an ephemeral art Ottoman dancing
2003 / March

Dancing is an ephemeral art that lives and dies with the bodies of the dancers. Only through these pictures and written accounts can we attempt to partially recapture what these Ottoman dances were like.

* Professor Dr Metin And is a member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences

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