A Star of Turkish Dance
by Zumarrad/ Brigid Kelly
posted June 10, 2010
While watching Sema Yildiz walk straight-backed into a restaurant, makeup immaculate and her hip-length black hair draped over one shoulder, anyone would wonder “is that woman a celebrity?” In the world of Turkish dance, the answer is yes – but you don’t need to know her name to guess that she’s a star.
I spoke with Sema in Toronto during the International Bellydance Conference of Canada, in April 2010. She was compelling every time she danced, but my favourite moment was watching her at the IBCC afterparty, high heels and slim white trousers no obstacle to her spontaneous, effortless floorwork.
Interviewing Sema in her hotel room before the party proved difficult as her English is limited and, she explained, the person who was to be her translator during the IBCC had fallen ill. She had her laptop with her though, and periodically rushed to it to use its Turkish-English dictionary when communications broke down. She also had some handwritten notes translated beautifully by one of her students back home. She was hospitable, offering us Turkish bread, coffee and gifts while we talked and she readied herself for the restaurant.
Sema (it’s a stage name, but even her family use it now; Yildiz means star) was born in Istanbul, the only daughter in a family of five children. Her father, originally from the Balkans, was a farmer. She grew up in a house adjoining an open air cinema. From the beginning Sema was inspired and enthralled by dance. “I would glue pieces of glass to my fingers with tree sap so that I would be able to make the sound of zills. I loved to dance and people would ask me to dance for them at parties. I think I knew even as a child that I had a gift of dance.”
She was fortunate, she says, to grow up in a Roma (Gypsy) community rich in dance and music – the Fatih district, which houses the Sulukule, famous for its entertainment and considered the oldest Roma settlement in the world.
Her schoolmates were mostly Roma musicians’ children. As a result, her skill at Roma-styled dancing developed very early. She believes everyone can learn to dance but says Roma dance is particularly difficult because only Roma people can incorporate the real Gypsy feeling. Today she is involved in efforts to help Sulukule Roma who have been displaced by an urban gentrification project, which severely threatens their way of life.
Sema thinks of herself as a Turkish Oriental dancer influenced by Gypsy dance. Other early influences were the Indian movies popular in Turkey during the 1960s. She won a dance competition in the late 1960s and began dancing professionally soon afterwards.
“I found myself exploring the world of belly dance in many places – performing in casinos, hotels, movies, television, restaurants and even the Topkapi Palace,” she says. “While pursuing a dance career is full of challenges, I always knew I was a dancer and wanted to dance. It was my soul. Dancing was an easy career choice for me.”
Eva Cernik, who interviewed Sema for Habibi magazine in 1997, writes that Sema began her solo dance career at the Istanbul Keravanserai Dinner Club, her “home base” for 23 years, also performing at Bebek Maksim, Galata Kulesi (Tower), and Maksim of Taksim Square – all the most sophisticated and fashionable clubs of the 1970s and 1980s. She travelled widely, spending nine years in Europe, where she met and married a Belgian man. While Sema later returned to Istanbul, she still travels on her Belgian passport because, she says, it is not so easy to travel on a Turkish one.
She retired from the stage in 1992, shifting her attention to teaching, although she has taught groups of dancers from the United States and various European countries since the late 70s. Eva writes that San Francisco dancer Magana Baptiste, who was taking a group of dancers around Turkey in 1978, hired Sema to teach them after seeing her perform.
Sema teaches mostly by example. Her IBCC 9/8 workshop began with some breakdowns and then became a “dance along with Sema” session – practical dance training and an opportunity to watch her in action, all in one.
Enraptured-looking dancers emerging from a later workshop reported that her performance was superb.
Sema believes many of today’s dancers are highly skilled, but also feels dancers of her generation deserve particular respect for what they were able to create with such limited resources. “In my time there was no electricity, no YouTube, no TV – now they can see more.”
She’s concerned that some festivals in Turkey today feature few Turkish dancers.
She has become a popular workshop teacher in Japan, sponsored by dancers who studied with her in Istanbul. Her profile there grew after she featured in a documentary about pop star Takako, in which the singer took dancing (and cooking) lessons from Sema.
Her first visit was in 2006. “It was exciting – I was taken around proudly introduced as the teacher,” she says. “At the beginning the students thought I was snobby because I (walked past everyone in the lobby) to sit in the bar where I could smoke. Now they call me Sema-san. I like Japan very much.
“Now I am happy because 20 years ago I travelled to dance, now I travel to teach,” Sema says. “Through teaching I have been able to identify and nurture the talent of many young women. When my students learn and love the dance, I believe I have contributed to the world of Turkish dance.”
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