Male Belly Dance in Turkey

by Jasmin Jahal, February 2002 (back)


In February 2000, the Associated Press released an article about how the Turkish police rescued a 19-year-old male whose father had chained him to a bed for three days. The stated reason for this abuse? The father disapproved of his son's performances as a belly dancer!

It has become all the rage in Istanbul for nightclubs to feature young, handsome male belly dancers. They are called rakkas from the word raks, which means dance. They dress in sparkling costumes and perform nearly every night of the week. While conservatives object to male belly dancing, the practice actually ha a very long history, particularly in Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was an era that was named for a Muslim prince called Osman I. The golden age of the Empire was during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66). Throughout the reigns of several sultans, the Ottoman Empire lasted from 1345 until 1922, when the sultanate was abolished and Turkey became a republic.

The center of the Empire was always the royal palace of the Sultan, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Should you visit Istanbul today, you can still visit the buildings of the Palace, now presented as a tourist attraction and a museum of great historical value. The Palace was at its greatness a collection of buildings around a series of courtyards and included beautiful gardens and the Sultan's harem.

In Muslim countries, the harem was that part of a house set apart for the women of the family. It was a place in which non-family males were not allowed. Eunuchs guarded the Sultans' harems, which were quite large, including several hundred women who were wives and concubines. There, female dancers and musicians entertained the women living in the harem. Belly dance was performed by women for women. The rakkase is the female dancer of the Ottoman era. Becoming a rakkase or a singer was strictly forbidden for Muslim women. Even non-Muslim rakkase had to wear headscarves and very conservative dresses. Although forbidden by religion, the government tolerated music and dancing. Yet, female dancers hardly ever appeared in public.

With the absence of females in social and entertainment life, Ottoman men would watch male belly dancers, generally known as rakkas, to satisfy their need to see something aesthetic. The male dancers had more freedom when compared with rakkase. They could be either Muslim or non-Muslim. Historians say that there were two different kinds of rakkas: kocek and tavsan oglan.

The tavsan oglan (which means "rabbit boy") wore a charming hat and tight pants. The koceks often wore women's clothes and allowed their long, curly hair to flow freely. Koceks and tavsan oglans performed for wedding celebrations (the custom included men and women to celebrate separately), feasts, festivals, and also in the presence of the sultans.

The tradition of rakkas is a reflection of the solitary existence of the Ottoman male. The dancing boys were organized into different companies of entertainers called kol. By the mid 1600's, they were said to be about 3000 of these dancers in twelve companies. They were young boys who were sensuous, attractive, effeminate, and carefully trained in music and dance. Their dancing was sexually provocative and impersonated female dancers. It incorporated ladylike walking, finger snapping (a special two-handed finger snap), slow belly movements, suggestive gestures, acrobatics, and playing wooden clappers called calpara or, in later times, metal cymbals called zils. The boys danced as long as they stayed good looking and could hide their beards. The dancing boys were an acceptable substitute for the prohibited women dancers. Some audience members were so enamored with the koceks that they would write poetry about the male dancers.  Many times audiences lost control, shattering glasses, and even shouting and attacking the dancers.

The koceks profession went out of style in the 1800's during the era of Mahmut II. It was officially banned in 1856, forcing many of the koceks to emigrate to other countries such as Egypt.

Today, male dancers dressed as women still perform in some areas of Turkey. They often entertain for weddings and special celebrations. No longer are the male dancers organized into the twelve companies that existed during the Ottoman era. The sensuality of their performances has faded and is usually considered nothing more than a folkloric show. Yet the effect of the rakkas history is still felt amongst the new millennium's fad to hire male belly dancers. They are as sexual and popular as any of the best Turkish female belly dancers.

The very concept of men performing belly dance can stir a controversy. There certainly exists a place in Middle Eastern dance for men. However, it is most often best accepted if done in a folkloric sense and with traditional garb. A great many Middle Eastern men are offended by a male dancer who moves his body the way a female dancer would. Yet, there are some wonderfully talented male belly dancers in the oriental dance world today. The history of belly dance in Turkey proves that the performance arena of oriental dance has incorporated male dancers for centuries. Then as now, the audience found enjoyment, beauty, talent and excitement.

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©2002 Jasmin Jahal