Turkish Bellydance Trailblazer
by Jezibell Anat
posted July 31, 2012
originally published by Gamila el Masri in Bennu in 2005
Özel Türkbas passed on July 22, 2012. She was 73. Anahid Sofian reminisces about her friend: I first saw Ozel Turkbas in the Sixties at the Egyptian Gardens in Greektown, New York City, where I was a fledgling dancer. Ozel was visiting her old nightclub and was asked to come up and do an impromptu dance. The completely engaging dance she did that night demostrated why she was an internationally famous star — we were captivated by her skill, high energy and glamorous beauty (but then, all the Turkish dancers were celebrated beauties)! I did not meet Ozel again until years later when I had opened my studio and she and her husband had opened a Turkish restaurant in NYC. I would go to visit and buy her famous “Make Your Husband a Sultan” albums, and also the high-quality Turkish-style finger cymbals one could not purchase over here (that great cymbal maker in Istanbul has long since passed away). Then, I was thrilled that she was able to visit my studio on two occasions, despite her fragile health: In 2004 my friend Harold Hagopian, owner of Traditional Crossroads, reissued Ozel’s albums on CD’s, and she was a guest at my annual Intensive — “Lunch with Ozel” — where she reminisced about her fabulous career and treated us to clips of her appearances on TV. (The night before, she had come to our Intensive party and sang the wonderful Turkish songs we had danced to for so many years.) In 2006, Ozel again came to my studio, this time to teach us the beautiful, lost art of making Turkish bugle-bead netting, the first of a series of lessons with her, which sadly was not to be. None of us who experienced Ozel will ever forget her warmth and generous nature, and I am grateful for my cherished memories of a gracious friend. Thank you to Gamila el Masri for originally publishing this wonderful article in Bennu, and also to Gilded Serpent for again honoring this beautiful woman and talented artist who left us such a rich legacy.
“In Turkey dancing brings the deity into you… it did to me.”
“Özel Türkbas – Special Guest Artist” read the flyer for Anahid Sofian’s 2004 Dance Intensive. I had heard of Özel vaguely as one of the famous dancers of the sixties, but I didn’t realize what a significant role she had played in the history of Bellydancing in this country. I would soon learn more. In a nutshell, Özel Türkbas introduced Turkish dance and music to America and prompted the popular interest in Bellydancing that flourishes today. Although she no longer danced a the time of our interview because of a heart condition, she still sang, and she performed at Anahid’s Gala at Satalla. This party celebrated a release of her CDs “How to Make Your Husband a Sultan” and “Alla Turca”– reissues of two of the albums she’d made in her heyday.
A small slender woman with short blonde hair, Özel seemed delicate, but I had never seen a Middle Eastern vocalist so engage an audience as at that party. She drew us in with her rich, sensual melisma, then the tempo increased and her voice resounded with the pulsing melody of “Farfara,” a famous folk song from Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
On the next song, “Salla Salla,” she took a napkin from one of the tables and twirled it as she sashayed around the tables. People twirled their napkins along with her, and the room exploded in laughter and applause when Özel told us that the lyrics of the song meant “twirl your handkerchief”.
Those of us in the intensive had a chance to spend more time with Özel the next afternoon. She showed us a video clip from her appearance on Dinah Shore, one of the most popular talk shows of the ‘70s. Özel was there as an artist in her own right, not as background or support for another act, and she presented a short, dramatic dance sequence.
Then she bantered with the other guests, taught them a few dance moves, and, still in her costume, she went into the kitchen to demonstrate some Turkish cooking.
Özel had also brought some of her costumes for us to look at. She explained that she always liked to come across as rich, and her costumes were lavish and heavy, even by Bellydance standards. She wore custom-made creations of silk, chiffon and lamé, with exquisitely jeweled bras and belts and elaborately beaded skirts. One technique of Turkish costuming of that time was creating a type of netting out of bugle beads, and one of Özel’s skirts was woven entirely of this beadwork, with some paillettes added for texture.
Wanting to find out more about her, I did some online searching and was able to obtain her 1976 book, The Bellydancer in You, and her instructional video Bellydance with Özel. At the beginning of the video, she declares, “Dance is the way we feel each other.” What an opening! Often many of us become so focused on skills and styling that we forget about the feelings that inspired us to the dance in the first place. The video itself is extremely basic, but does show some clips of Özel dancing and gives a good demonstration of Turkish finger snaps.
I had the privilege of meeting with her to talk further about her experiences. In person, she was gracious and charming, surprisingly soft-spoken, but brimming with love for the music and dance of her country and its ability to bring people together, as had happened at Satalla.
“When you go to Turkish nightclubs,” she smiled, “you have people getting up and dancing, you don’t know who they are, but does it matter? It doesn’t matter; you connect with them. There is a connection without touching them–without knowing them.” This connection formed the basis of Özel’s life.
She was born in 1940 into a world of Bellydance and music. Her mother was a professional dancer and oud player in Ankara. Although women in Ankara did not perform for men at that time, performing for other women at parties and weddings was considered a respectable occupation. Little Özel accompanied her mother to these celebrations and saw the joy in the communal sharing of music and dance, as the women clapped their hands and danced informally to her mother’s playing. When she was five, her mother began instructing her in Bellydance. At the women’s parties, Özel was encouraged to dance, and thus, honed her skills in a nurturing environment.
She also discovered the pleasure in dancing for other women. As she would later write in her book, “When women liked me and applauded my performance, I knew it was going to be all right. …that I would have a career that would do more than bring attention to myself.”
Thus she had an ideal foundation for a Bellydancer, gaining not just technical ability but a deep sense of joy, confidence, and expression in her movement at a young age. With such a supportive background, her other performing talents also manifested early. From the ages of seven to thirteen, Özel was a member of the Children’s Theatre in Ankara, acting and singing in plays for other kids in schools, activities that she enjoyed very much. When Özel was thirteen, her parents divorced, and she and her mother went to Istanbul. This cosmopolitan city provided many more chances for ambitious performers to find work. They joined a folkloric troupe in which Özel sang and her mother danced, and for two years they toured all over Turkey. When they finally settled down in Istanbul, Özel was fifteen, beautiful, and determined to look older than her years in order to get more jobs. She began modeling and acting in movies. Unlike the Egyptian dancers, Özel did not dance in any of the fourteen films she made. She usually played leading or supporting roles, though she sang occasionally, and she represented Turkey at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals. Özel also started dancing in nightclubs in cabaret costumes.
Once, the police stopped her for being underage to perform in places selling liquor, but she went to court and convinced them that she was five years older than she actually was. However, her life in Istanbul was not all work; she met and married a handsome young student named Ayhan.
In 1959, a promoter invited her to come to dance in America. Initially, she was suspicious, and insisted on getting a contract and an advance before making the trip. By that time, Özel’s mother had developed diabetes and was no longer able to work, so Özel had become their support. She was only nineteen years old when she came to America, though people believed she was over twenty-one. The prospect of going to a country where she did not speak the language or know any of the people was terrifying, yet she very much wanted to take the opportunity to establish herself here. Ayhan, who approved and encouraged her career, came with her. For this tour, her seamstress made her three new costumes, even though Özel could only afford to pay for one. The seamstress told her, “Just pay for one now; I know you’ll be able to pay the other two later.”
Özel’s first job in America was in a club in Baltimore, and on opening night she had an interpreter and an enthusiastic Turkish audience. On her second night, there were no Turkish speakers, and Özel felt lost. She was used to everyone smiling and being friendly to her, and the club owner never smiled. She thought he didn’t like her. When he came to her dressing room to tell her it was time to go on, Özel was certain that she was being fired, and she started crying. He pulled her out of the dressing room and onto the stage in front of an audience of Americans. The orchestra played, and she began to move. The Americans had never seen such dancing, and they were mesmerized. Özel kept dancing–even when the music stopped, she continued to dance until the musicians played again. She danced until she was exhausted, investing her movement with all her feeling, all her enthusiasm.
At the end she burst into tears on stage–another instance of emotional connection despite linguistic and cultural differences. As she described it to me, “They just looked at my face. You could have dropped a pin, and you hear it. It was just amazing!”
She continued to tour all over the country, gaining confidence as she went along. In Rochester, NY, the club owner was concerned that Özel might be a stripper because of her revealing costumes. He even asked her to dance for him and his wife to make sure her show would be appropriate for his family venue. Özel refused; she told him (through an interpreter) that she either would perform her usual show for the audience, or she would leave; so he let her go on stage, and her shows were jammed every night.
With such a positive reception, soon, Özel was able to pay the seamstress for her other two costumes. She also started to learn to speak English. Although she never sewed her own costumes, she continued to commission them from seamstresses in Turkey, and she made sure that she learned how to repair them herself because she had to keep them in good condition. Of course, her mother was proud of her success. Özel brought her mother to America, but unfortunately, her mother passed away before her daughter’s next big role.
Özel was invited to portray the role of La Orientale in the opera “Thais” in Dallas, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. At that time, Zeffirelli was well known in Italy but had not established himself here. Özel was delighted to be in this production, where she worked with Jacques d’Amboise and the New York City Ballet, as well as a cast of Italian and French singers. Özel appeared on stage three times during the course of the opera, and her picture was used to advertise the show.
For one number, she used a large fake snake which she manipulated with rubber bands on her fingers, and the Dallas Herald reporter actually thought it was real and raved about her dancing with a live snake.
She was paid $1,500 for each performance. That seems like a lot of money even now, but, friend of mine who was an opera singer, told me that it was not unusually generous, just the standard payment.
In “Thais” the Belly dancer received the same recognition and respect as the other artists. After “Thais” closed, Özel continued to tour, appearing in clubs all over the country, and she developed a style of performing for Americans. One big challenge for her was music. In this era, each club had its own orchestra or band, and these American ensembles certainly did not know Turkish songs! So, Özel would have them play rhumbas and rhythms in 2/4 and 4/4. (She knew better than to try to get them to produce a 9/8!) She also provided them with musical notation for some Turkish melodies. If they could read music, they could usually follow the score and produce a passable rendition of a Turkish dance set. Some of the musicians enjoyed the challenge and did their best to create the sound she wanted. Others, especially if they couldn’t read music, were less cooperative, and sometimes she simply had to make do with whatever they could play.
Generally Özel would do three forty-five minute shows a night in a club. A different audience would come in for each one, have two or three drinks, then leave, so Özel could repeat her sets.
She would make her entrance wearing an elaborate cape. Because her agents had told her it was important to establish that she was Turkish or people wouldn’t watch her, she began by singing in Turkish. Then she removed the cape. With her veil draped around her torso, she started her dance. She played finger cymbals throughout her set, including floor-work and drum solos. Sometimes she would invite a male audience member up for some humorous volunteer participation.
As her English improved, she developed a monologue and told jokes as well. Usually her jokes involved sultans, harems and other aspects of Turkish culture, just as comics mine their own lives for their material.
Thus Özel introduced Turkish Bellydancing to America. She, along with other Turkish dancers Samra and Nejla Ates, were the first Middle Easterners to perform here since Little Egypt, and her contemporaries first introduced the dance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. At that time, most Americans’ impressions of Bellydancing derived from the interpretive work of Ruth St. Denis and the Orientalist fantasies of Hollywood’s sword and sandal epics. Bellydance had also acquired some negative connotations from the hoochie-koochie of burlesque, and many strippers used quasi-Bellydance attire and veils for their acts. Özel provided Turkish authenticity, and she had the instincts of an entertainer. She also had the benefit of good timing, arriving in this country when Americans were willing to welcome her.
Following her successful tours, Özel settled in New York. Her husband, Ayhan, found a job with Pan Am and also acted as her manager. Here, in the ‘60s, the famous Eighth Avenue scene exploded. In these clubs, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Greek and other musicians from the Middle East played together, and Bellydancing became wildly popular. Özel headlined at these clubs, along with other Turkish dancers such as Saliha, and, because there was such demand, American dancers began performing as well. Sharp distinctions between Egyptian and Turkish styles of dance were not nearly as significant then as they are today.
The emphasis then was on the quality of the dance, not upon being ethnically correct. According to Anahid Sofian, dancers had to be able to perform to all different types of music, since their set would usually consist of a mix of songs from various countries, and even Arabic dancers usually finished with Karsilama.
Crowds were enthusiastic, and dancers were well paid. Many dancers complain today about how underpaid they are by comparison to this former era, but the reality is that the dance now simply does not draw such large audiences. The Eighth Avenue clubs attracted a mainstream crowd as well as aficionados. Often, entertainers and celebrities such as Bob Hope and Jackie Kennedy would go to these cubs to watch the Bellydancers.
There was also a lot more work available overall, much more than there is today. Nejla Ates performed on Broadway. Resort circuits such as the Catskills “Borscht Belt” often hired dancers. American clubs also employed many dancers, and a standard evening of entertainment there would include a singer, a comic, and a Bellydancer. The music was not nearly as good as on Eighth Avenue — the American band would usually only know “Misirlou”, “Caravan”, and “Fiddler on the Roof”, plus whatever charts Özel and other dancers brought them — but the money was much better. Özel could make $900-1,000 a week.
For American audiences, Özel felt that the visual impact was the most meaningful. As she explained, “Americans see with their eyes. They don’t care about the music. They’re looking.” She was dancing well before the burgeoning popularity of world music, and American tastes were much less cosmopolitan.
Özel knew the importance of getting an audience’s attention, and her fabulous figure certainly contributed greatly to her success. Her outfits were revealing, with low-cut bras and slit skirts, displaying more leg and cleavage than some of her contemporaries, but her demeanor was always majestic, never coy. Her costumes were also eye-catching in the quality and intricacy of their workmanship. One of her capes was covered with gold coins. This cape once aroused the suspicions of U.S. customs officials, who actually searched her wardrobe before allowing her to enter. Also, the costumes for many photo shoots were a lot skimpier than what dancers would actually wear for performance.
Like most cabaret dancers of the 1960s, Özel wore high heels. That surprises many of us today, who find the heels phony and unnatural. Nevertheless, since athletic shoes had not yet become fashionable, women wore heels much more frequently. Dancers felt that the heels provided a more polished presentation and added to the glamour of their costumes, as well as offering protection from messy floors.
Özel especially enjoyed the appearance of high heels because they gave her height and added an elegant line to the leg. However, she would usually kick them off for the drum solo and finish her set barefoot.
Throughout her career, Özel maintained a regal attitude. She always wore black eyeliner to emphasize her eyes. She did not like to smile too much during her dance because she did not ever want to seem as though she were begging for sympathy or approval from the audience.
As she characterized her performances, “I come out with my nose up in the sky, then smile occasionally. That’s professional. You’re good, and you show it.”
Özel further insisted that tips would never be placed on her body. She said that putting money on a dancer’s body was a Greek custom, not Turkish, and that any tips should either be thrown over the dancer or given to the musicians. Her advice to dancers is that “it’s better to get a salary instead.”
During her travels and club performances, Özel found the positive response of the female audience members overwhelming. Whereas Victorian ladies had railed against what they perceived as the vulgarity of Little Egypt, American women all over the country wholeheartedly endorsed her exotic blend of sensuality and pride in the ‘60s. “Every city has a modern woman,” Özel declared. The women constantly approached her with questions about the dance, seeking to discover such grace and power within themselves. “The woman is most important,” Özel continued. “They bring the men in. Men don’t bring the women in, and why shouldn’t I love them? They love me. They wanted to learn how to dance.”
Their enthusiasm led Özel to produce an album of traditional Turkish Bellydance music called “How to Make Your Husband a Sultan.” Recorded in New York, the record contained a complete seventeen-minute dance routine along with seven other classic songs and featured the renowned Turkish Gypsy clarinet player, Mustafa Kandirali, with Ahmet Yatman on kanun and Özel on vocals and finger cymbals. Also included was a booklet of Bellydance instructions demonstrating some basic movements. “How to Make Your Husband a Sultan” sold 90,000 copies in its first year and 80,000 in its second. In addition to giving American women something authentic to dance to, it brought great exposure to Turkish musicians.
These instruments, rhythms, and melodies were completely new and exciting to most Americans. The music is also quite good, especially the marvelously silky clarinet and Özel’s delightful singing. Nor was its appeal was limited to the US – it also sold a million copies in Turkey. Due to its popularity, Özel made four other records, featuring her beloved Turkish folk songs, several of which were recorded in Turkey, and she and Ayhan established a mail-order business. Many dancers and musicians of today grew up listening to these records because they were the only Middle Eastern ones available here. One of the most popular songs was “Tin Tin”, which literally means little lady. Because of its lively, catchy tune and strong 2/4 rhythm, “Tin Tin” became a mainstay of Belly dance classes.
In the twenty-first century, the title “How to Make Your Husband a Sultan” sounds ridiculously cheesy. However, it made a great deal of sense in its own time.
Özel chose that title to place the mystery and the glamour of the dance within a family context. Domestic seduction was still the most acceptable expression of female sexuality, and definitely an improvement over centuries of repression.
Today all those references to “your sultan” serve as a reminder to me of how far we have come, as women and as dancers, in only a few decades, and much of that is due to pioneers like Özel. Though she did not want to be confused with a stripper, she never denied the sensuous nature of the Bellydance, but she emphasized its benefits for women as a source of wholeness and expression.
Özel qualified as having been a liberated woman. As well as an excellent performer, she was a savvy entrepreneur. Besides Dinah Shore, she appeared on other talk shows such as Mike Douglas and Joe Franklin. Özel was also featured on a jukebox, where you could put in a quarter and see her dance in a segment that, despite her Turkish origin, was titled “Daughter of the Nile.” Here Özel made a Hollywood-esque entrance, in which muscled men in loincloths carried her in a sedan chair, then she danced by a pool in which girls were swimming.
Özel does feel that one of the reasons for the popularity of the Bellydancers in the American clubs in the sixties is that they were entertainers, not just dancers, and they could sing and tell jokes in addition to dancing. That’s how they managed to do long shows. She thinks that the popularity of these venues began to ebb because “the girls were dancing too long without telling jokes and singing; instead, musicians were singing and dancers went on too long.”
Though she never had the time or inclination to establish a dance school, Özel taught some classes and seminars, partnering with dance educator, Dr. Paul Monty. She even taught in Hong Kong for a while. She also worked with Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah in programs where he taught Arabic dance, while she taught Turkish.
According to Özel, the Arabic dancer has good rhythm but is slower; whereas Turkish dance is more jumpy and fast but includes the slow veil section. She opined that because Turkish women have more rights than Arabic women, they are more independent and express themselves through a more open, bolder style of dance. Özel believed that the Belly moves are Turkish in origin. Her mother told her that they originated in the harem, when one of the sultan’s wives was pregnant and the baby moved within her belly. The sultan loved the movement; so the other girls imitated it. (Özel emphasized that she heard this story from her mother and had no other documentation as to its veracity.)
In her book, “The Bellydancer in You”, Özel wrote, “She who dances lives fully–and lives forever in that great chain of dancers, sisters, all, who through time have made the Bellydance one of women’s greatest gifts.”
Özel’s approach to teaching the dance was relaxed and creative. In addition to technique and how-to’s, Özel’s emphasized the process within, articulating both the spiritual and physical benefits of the dance. She discussed the belly as “the real center of your body. Vulnerable and unarmored, it is where you really receive ‘vibrations’… The stomach is where it all happens.” Her book included information on costuming and musical notation for some Turkish songs. She also included Turkish recipes and later penned a Turkish cookbook.
Özel was grateful to the US and grateful to be the first Turkish Bellydancer, saying “I came here with practically nothing and have achieved great success.” Her family was proud of her, and I met some of them at a party for her at the Lafayette Grill in New York when she was still living. Ayhan jokingly referred to himself as “Mr. Türkbas”. Her lovely daughter, Deniz, an attorney, expressed a deep respect for her mother’s accomplishments at the time, saying, “Anyone can dance. Not anyone can dance from the inside like she does so that people want to watch.” Özel in turn was quite proud of her family, and proud that her son, John, was in college.
Though Özel never smoked or drank, she inherited a heart condition from her parents and had bypass surgery in 2001. Thus, she could no longer dance after that time. However, she loved deeply the music and its ability to bring people together. For many years, she continued singing with the Turkish Choral on Long Island, a group that performs Turkish classical music.
In reflecting upon her life, she said, “I accomplished something I wanted to do–got American women dancing. When I first came in, I was the one Belly dancer; I was the first. That’s why I wrote the book, why I made the video. It’s true that I made good money, but I could have kept it in my garage. I didn’t hoard it. I saw the response–people wanted to learn; so this was great. I accomplished something; I didn’t live for nothing.”
Ozel’s beading class at Anahid’s Intensive, Sept. 2, 2006
On knees: Jezibell, Deb Rubin
Standing 1st row: Anahid, Ozel, Sarah Skinner, Shadiyah, Audra Evans, Joy Silber, Erika Ihara
Standing 2nd row: Alay’nya, Nadia Moussa Michaels, Kris Jansen
Daughter of the Nile
The Mike Douglas Show
One of many prestigious newspapers announcing her passing in Turkey
Milliyet.com.tr (Nationality, Economy) "A Belly Dancer Who Conquered America"
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