A Personal Impression
posted September 8, 2013
After a two year break, this summer brought me an exciting opportunity to return to Istanbul. This trip was cardinally different from my previous ones since there were no dance festivals for me to visit during my stay there; so I was able to set my own schedule with teachers, and I found time for exploring Istanbul’s sightseeing places (finally!), shopping, and visiting Turkish belly dance venues. Since belly dance in Turkey is mostly an entertainment for tourists, the majority of restaurants and clubs were working even during the time of Ramadan. Additionally, because of recent political protests, many tourists resisted traveling to big cities in Turkey, so it was easy for me to book a table in restaurant–even at the last minute. In this overview, I intend to share my experience, seeing two dance programs in: Sultana’s Restaurant and Orient House Restaurant.
Located in the heart of Istanbul, just near Taksim Square (Kahan 40-D, Cumhuriyet Caddesi 16/1, Elmadağ), Sultana’s Restaurant, as most of the other tourist places, offers a traditional Turkish cuisine with belly dance and folklore show, including transportation to and from the hotel. Visitors from all over the world are attracted to choose this venue because of two main features: a world-recognized belly dancer named Didem, and a TV series entitled “Ezel” that has a few episodes that were filmed at Sultana’s Restaurant.
After the majority of guests arrived to the venue, a local band of musicians, consisting of two drummers, a tambourine player, violinist, and clarinet player, opened a Wednesday program in Sultana’s. Alternating Turkish and Arab melodies, they gave an opportunity to rest after the meal and to enjoy the flavor of the entire atmosphere. Next, a little curtain descended, and the dance show began with a folklore group performance.
Between the belly dance shows, three male and female dancers performed different Turkish folklore dances including Bar, Karşılama, and Aşuk Maşuk. (The last one is a funny love story from the southern Turkey folklore, which is danced by two, usually male, dancers in puppets costumes.)
Despite the fact that a few of the group members were dancing without any emotions on their faces, and were not sure of the sequence of the movements, in general, the folklore group left a good impression, moreover, the Asuk Masuk dance still makes me smile!
The performance I really enjoyed that night was performed by belly dancer Güzem. She was the first among three belly dancers that night. Here I should mention that none of the belly dancers (except Didem) were announced at Sultana’s (at least that night). Therefore, only after additional Internet research, I found her name. (The restaurant owner still hasn’t reply to my e-mail concerning the belly dancers’ names, in spite of previously having answered all my correspondence.)
Behaving freely on the stage (in the best sense of these words), Güzem combined the embodiment of live music through her dance technique with an unaggressive flirting with the audience creating an almost entirely perfect show.
I call it “almost entirely perfect” because her costume, definitely, was a few sizes smaller than she needed! Even though she tried not to disturb the flow of the show, the audience members who were sitting slightly to the side, witnessed that she constantly checked her bra while turning to the musicians, plus the way she looked in general was a little confusing. However, except for these minutiae, I think she did a great job, and one should give her credit. As a performer: she was alive on stage! Each time our eyes met, I felt the warmth of her magnificently sincere smile.
As I have mentioned above, Didem was the only performer who was announced on that evening. Her half-hour performance followed after a whole demonstration clip about “Belly Dancer Number One In The World” (as was stated a number of times during a five-minute video projected on a large screen). She is definitely the main attraction of Sultana’s dance show; however, the contrast in the artists’ presentations was shocking!
Elegant, slim, and a little bit distant from the audience, Didem’s energy contrasted differently from live and warm Güzem. Didem did not interact with her audience at all, almost always looking over their heads, rarely smiling. The exception was only the occasion when one elderly gentleman, located near the stage, started clapping and shouting bravo in a such a curious moment that everybody in the room smiled. It probably was the only one time during the whole show when the audience saw the sincere, beautiful Didem’s smile… However, the musicians were luckier in this sense. When they joined Didem in the middle of her performance (she had started with recorded music), she often turned to them smiling and telling them something.
Additionally, their friendly and respectful relationship was highlighted when she finished her show, dancing to each instrument separately, and in this way she introduced each of the musicians. Such a relationship between dancer and musicians is not widely seen in today’s restaurant atmosphere… unfortunately.
The main program of the evening was closed by the “Harem Show” during which the stage was transformed into a harem furnished room. Güzem, portraying a Sultana in a traditional Turkish kaftan, was choosing a new girl for the Sultan’s harem, and later chose the Sultan himself among the males in the audience. After an audience’s “competition”, the Sultan was chosen and dressed in Turkish attire. However, concerning the girls to be added to the Harem, Sultana preferred to present to the Sultan a girl who was covered in the huge blue veil during the entire competition. Obviously, she was not the one among the audience. The only thing I want to say about this third unknown belly dancer, is that during the whole show, I was looking at her damaged and frightening high-heeled shoes, rather than at her. However, those parts of her dance that I noticed in spite of myself, sadly reminded me of the typical restaurant tipping of belly dancing with money (that the Sultan tucked inside her costume, according to the show’s scenario) as I often witnessed in Western countries.
Orient House is located in a historic part of Istanbul, close to the Grand Bazaar (Tiyatro Caddesi No:27, 34126). Just when we arrived there, two lovely girls in traditional costumes welcomed us outside the venue. Everything there highlights an authenticity of Turkish style as a main focus and strategy of the restaurant. The venue still saved the flavor of former theatre, which functioned there in the earlier twentieth century. The fashionable interior provides lots of spots to take memorable pictures, as well as being harmoniously fitted with a gorgeous stage-space in the main room.
The evening started with the performance of a local music band. Five musicians played different musical instruments, including qanun and oud, singing without microphones, not particularly for the audience, but just because of their own satisfaction and enjoyment of playing familiar songs.
The show program in the Orient House was impressive by its variety: The Ottoman Janissary Band paraded across the room to the stage, singing and playing on huge drums, horns, and bells; the shortened Sema ceremony by a whirling dervish, and staging the traditional Turkish wedding preparation scenes were only the additional to three belly dance performances and amazing folklore group dancing: Karşılama, Kaşık (dance with spoons), Zeybek, Horon, and other folklore dances!
I feel I should give a special credit to the folklore group Mirage (four male, four female dancers) whose professionalism made me fall in love with them. Each detail of the performance was polished and prepared: even all male shoes were identical.
With the gorgeous costumes, beautiful expressions and absolutely ideal performing, they surprised and gladdened me greatly that there are places in Istanbul where tourists could be introduced to Turkish dance heritage by such a group!
Also, I would like to mention here that all artists in the Orient House were announced by a Master of Ceremonies. However, the belly dancers’ names confused me a bit since what I heard in the venue and what I read afterwards in the restaurant e-mail was different. In the Orient House’s reply to my request, it was written that “Our belly dancers’ names [are] Oya Man and Ozlem and Birgul Beray.” However, I didn’t recognize Birgul Beray in any of three belly dancers that evening. Unfortunately, further Internet research was not successful to clarify this situation.
The belly dance shows were almost as surprising as the folklore performances, but this time, they were a little disappointing to me: the first dancer, Oya Man (Olga Roussina), unexpectedly performed an Egyptian Saidi dance with a cane as a part of her Turkish belly dance show, and then continued her performance with the fan-veils. For a typical restaurant show (when one of the goals is to impress the public) she did a great job, but as for presenting a “Turkish dance culture show” it was too innovative, in my view. The second belly dancer, Karolina (Karima), was dancing without any expression on her face at all, so that the audience might have been guessing that she was bored or nervous at that moment. This lack of expression distracted me from enjoying her calm and pleasant manner of dancing that reminded me a bit of Nesrin Topkapi’s style. By this statement, I mean only her use of dance technique, not the energy. Fortunately, the third belly dance performance was a pleasant surprise of typical Turkish belly dance flavor! Knowing exactly what she was doing, Ozlem moved freely on the stage, smiling and enjoying the taste of a live performance. Her excellent performance was lacking only in live music support, (which, by the way, was not engaged in any belly dance performances in Orient House that evening).
The program finished with a performance of (as it was announced) an international singer who sang songs of each country whose representatives were present in the restaurant! Pleasantly, our table was surprised with the Ukrainian song “Smereko”! After that, the singer invited ladies from the audience on stage, and organized a funny belly dance workshop, which finished with an improvised dance “competition”.
The folklore part of the show is definitely the strong suit of Orient House program. However, I wish the restaurant time management allowed us to fully enjoy it: unfortunately, the meal was served only few minutes before the main part of the show started, and eating while artists were performing was, at least, inconvenient. Therefore, we left Orient House inspired and happy, but hungry!
One of the Turkish belly dance features nowadays is high-heeled shoes! Absolutely all belly dancers I saw this time in Istanbul were wearing — not just high-heeled shoes — but extremely high-heeled shoes! At the same time, visually, they dance freely and comfortably in these shoes.
In both restaurants, visitors had an opportunity to take a picture with a belly dancer who circulated among the guests (with a money banknote under her bra shoulder strap).
The influence of the popular TV series “The Magnificent Century” was obvious in both restaurants. For instance, in “Harem Show” of Sultana’s Restaurant, the new girl for the harem was choosing by the Sultana, (not Sultan as usual in such scenarios), and the Orient House photographer also offered to photograph tourists wearing Turkish kaftans and to pose them seated on a decorated sofa with (or as) Hürem Sultan (a main heroine of the TV series).
The price range was 55-80 euro per person in Sultana’s Restaurant, and 70-90 euro per person in Orient House Restaurant.
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