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“Relax! Listen to the Music” Ahmet Ogren

Istanbul May 2012: Study at the Source

Author with Ahmet

by Nisreen
photos by Eric Koenig and others of the tour group
posted July 10, 2012

It was my fourth trip to Turkey. The chance to return to Turkey and to study with Ahmet Ogren was too much to pass up. There is no comparison for studying at the source, especially with a master dancer! I studied once before with Mr. Ogren in Santa Fe thanks to Joan Kafri sponsoring him for a workshop, so I had no question of the quality of instruction that I would receive with him in Turkey. Although I arranged my last trip to Turkey myself, this time I joined the group of dancers and non-dancers going with Joan Kafri on her Cultural Treasures of Istanbul trip in May, 2012.

I traveled alone from El Paso, Texas, took the bus (rather than a taxi) from the airport in Istanbul to Taksim Square and hoofed it to the hotel in Tepebasi-Beyoğlu, rolling my suitcase and asking for directions along the way. Joan included information on the bus from the airport as a handy and inexpensive mode of transport among the many pre-trip details that she sent to the group.

Having taken public transportation during my prior trips to Istanbul, I knew I would be fine taking the bus. It was so thrilling to be back in Istanbul!

Once I caught up with the group at the hotel, it was only a short wait before we were off to Kumkapi for a savory fish dinner with live music. The group was lively and the representative of the tour agency was friendly and responsive to our needs. Everyone at the table began chatting until the musicians approached our table, when a number of us got up and started dancing, encouraged by the musicians who noticed us wiggling in our chairs, and some just plain unable to resist the interweaving violin and kanun. One of the men at our table was dancing earnestly, and in no time, he had commandeered the exclusive attention of the musicians, had attracted an audience and received his first-ever tip in Turkish lira from a new fan!

Kumkapi is one of the cultural treasures of Istanbul, so it was a good place to start our adventure. It is packed with restaurants, live musicians, and people enjoying themselves in the indoor and outdoor parts of the restaurants.

The next morning was dedicated to costume shopping for the dancers in our group. Tea was served in the airy tenement aerie as onlookers judged the elaborate pinned-together possibilities being modeled After heavy deliberation and much mirth, we made our choices and were promised our costumes later in the week with appropriate personalized adjustments.

Erik Models
Eric models a costume at a local shop

Joan organized activities for the non-dancers while the rest of us engaged in dance-related endeavors. With this arrangement, no one was left out or idle, and there was free time worked into the schedule. All of us met up for group activities, conveyed to and fro by a driver who was intimate with the many unwritten rules of Istanbul traffic. That evening, Ahmet joined us on the ferry to the Hidrellez Festival in Kadiköy. The festival is a true cultural treasure and a blast!

The traditional Turkish music was just what we were hoping to hear; and after a lively youth group and a singer took the stage, we were in for a treat! Ahmet was the headliner. His style of Romany dance is stylized as opposed to the homestyle variety and works well on the stage.

Ahmet performs
Ahmet performs at the Hidrellez Festival
Famous drummer Balik Ayhan Küçükboyacı sits in background

Aside from Ahmet’s satisfying performance and the professional live music, the local Romany festival-goers were quite proud and eager to show off their own dancing skills. Their enthusiasm was contagious so the locals invited one of our dancers to dance with them in front of the stage, a highlight for any dancer.

Local Romani lady gets up to dance at Hidrellez Festival in Kadiköy

What is a dance training trip to Turkey without a visit to a hamam, a traditional Turkish bath? After the festival evening, a hamam was the perfect thing. The sauna, scrubbing and massage were all relaxing and took away any fatigue from the festival. The ladies’ side of the facility was full of positive energy, singing and dancing, and the ladies working there put the newcomers in our group at ease.

Class photo
Karin van de Konijnenburg, Richard Leirer, Annya Ishtara, Ahmet Ogren, Joan Kafri, Eric Koenig, Nisreen

Even better was the fact that our workshop with Ahmet started that afternoon. We had eight hours of instruction spread out over three days in a small group setting with different basic steps, combinations and then a choreography. Ahmet is a inspirational instructor. He was encouraging and gave us individual attention in a way that would not work with a big group. Ahmet did not break a sweat during class. His dancing required all of our concentration but to him it was extremely natural. He kept telling us, “Relax!” and he encouraged us to really hear the music. In the evening, we had dinner at Rami Restaurant, a Ottoman cuisine restaurant in Sultanahmet with a magnificent view of the Blue Mosque. What better way to end the day than to gawk at that amazing structure, gleaming under the setting sun and then lit up under a starry sky!

Blue Mosque

The following day, we had plenty of time for the Grand Bazaar, which is a shopper’s delight, with rugs, fabric, textiles, cabaret and folkloric costumes, gifts, jewelry, books, amazing miniature drawings, and so much more. After that retail extravaganza, we had more class time with Ahmet and made progress on his choreography.

Grand Bazaar
Rug shop
Author buys a rug from Hasan Semerci on left. This is Hasan’s shop. He is a known authority and gives lectures on rugs.
Rahat lokum =Turkish Delight = candy!

The unique experience on this dance training trip was that there were men participating in the dance class; it added a different dynamic that we all appreciated.

The men were focused and serious about learning the steps, yet they kept their sense of humor along with their desire to sing and fost an open perspective, which added a balance to our collective concentration. Ahmet again provided all of us with helpful individual feedback. The music he used for the choreography was very orchestral and beautifully dramatic. Later that night, we went for dinner as well as a folkloric and cabaret dance show at the Orient House, a long-standing venue in Istanbul.

teacher student
Richard Leirer and Ahmet

The next day’s cultural treasures included the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, two architectural marvels. They are must see places and well worth any amount of time you can spend there. The tour agency’s guide accompanied us to our destinations, gave some explanation of the sites, and then turned us loose to explore on our own. Sadly, our last class with Ahmet was that same afternoon. We finished working on the choreography, and, after the students gave a mini performance for our own camcorders, we bid farewell to Ahmet. The intensive class we had with him was invaluable. It showed us how to put together a choreography to the basic steps and combinations he taught us, which matched the music.  After all of the dancing, we were ready for the several course dinner at Haci Baba, a restaurant decorated in Ottoman fashion. The small group setting worked for us, as everyone was very engaging and we were never lacking in conversation or bursts of song from one of the men in the group.

insdie mosque
Inside Aya Sophia mosque

For the next day’s cultural treasures, we enjoyed the Archaeology Museum, the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and a Mehter Band concert at the Istanbul Military Museum. I was a bit skeptical of the value of visiting a military museum. However I was pleased that Joan included it in the itinerary. The Mehter concert was impressive, as was the museum. We didn’t have too much time to spend there and we breezed through the museum, but what we saw was illuminating. We saw displays of weapons and musical instruments, as well as numerous portraits of Turkish historical figures. We also saw an exhibit of quilts near the exit by a ladies group. That evening, we went for dinner at a restaurant in Ortaköy. It had a beautiful view of the Bosporus Bridge, where a light show of ever-changing colors and patterns takes place at night.

The light show on the Bosporus Bridge

If you can’t go to other parts of Turkey, Istanbul has one place that brings other parts of the country to you – Miniaturk! Within its grounds, miniture version of many Turkish national cultural treasures are arrayed. It also has a a very J.R.R. Tolkien-esque talking tree and a gift shop, in case you feel compelled to purchase more souvenirs. Miniaturk is conveniently located right next to some bumper cars. As if bumper cars or Miniaturk weren’t enough of a cultural treasure, then we headed over to Topkapi Palace,that Mehmet II built as his principal residence. The restaurant had a magnificent view. This tour included a visit to the Harem. The various places to view at the palace are all impressive and you must be sure to look up inside the structures, or you’ll miss architectural or artistic features in the domes and archways. We went to a folkloric dance show for tourists later that evening in a theatre converted from the vaulted structure of an old hamam.

meza plate
Turkish meza plate
clockwisew from cucumber-

Eggplant salad, yoghurt, pilaki (bean salad)
humus, tomato, and dolma

We had a free day to catch up with ourselves and do last minute errands on our last day. That evening, we unleashed our dancing spirits with the infectious music of Çorlulu Savaş in a local favorite place – Feraye- where we dined and danced for quite some time. The live band enticed everyone to get up and dance. The Turkish ladies were celebrating a birthday and life in general at the tables near ours were genuinely welcoming. We all danced to our hearts’ content.

Those of us who left later the next day were able to visit a few places on our own, such as the Dervish Museum, the Pera Art Museum, and the Istanbul Culinary Institute. You can enjoy the culinary creations of the students at the Institute and we did! I can’t say enough positive things about all of the food that we ate on the trip. It was fresh, delicious, creative, and addictive. The remaining part of our group parted ways at the airport later that day.

Joan, herself a professional dancer with extensive experience outside the U.S., was aware that the dancers in the group would be eager to have their fill of dance class time and dance-related activities, as well as see some major sites and do some shopping. In my opinion, these goals were met. Ahmet gave a first-rate class. The non-dancers also seemed to all be well pleased with the outcome of their journey. Istanbul is so full of life, planned and impromptu music, amazing food, mostly friendly people and numerous cultural treasures. Go see for yourself!

Flag on ferry to Kadikoy with skyline of Istanbul in the background


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  1. Kristen

    Jul 12, 2012 - 08:07:06

    Inspirational… I am left feeling hungry for delicious food, travel and DANCE DANCE DANCE 🙂

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