1. Stepping Inside Orient House: 22 February, 2003

… for exotic is the place where nothing is utterly ordinary(Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 1998: 48)


After a long ride through a rare snowstorm in Istanbul, I enter Orient House, a prestigious tourist restaurant in the Old City, expecting yet another sensory riot. In the round foyer of this chicly-renovated historic cellar, a young female receptionist in folkloric costume greets me in a familiar yet professionally distant manner. I quickly glance at the neat, clean, museum-like display of delicate latticework, earth-toned carpets, brass tables, and reverential tulip imagery. In contrast, the dining and performance space feels boisterous and alive with the European, Middle-Eastern, and Asian patrons’ chatter and their rhythmic silverware rattle. Surveying this busy crowd of between 100-120 people, I wonder why Orient House, unlike other poorly-populated tourist venues, has remained unscathed by the tourism decline brought about by the war in Iraq. The chatter quiets down once the live dinner music, Turkish nightclub art music (fasıl), begins.


Following this brief musical introduction, the gray-haired Master of Ceremonies struts across the raised round stage to overstate his multi-lingual welcome: from English and French to Japanese and Arabic. In a loud bass voice matching his imperial costume, he introduces the show as “a unique, nostalgic, and authentic journey to an Ottoman past and folk traditions.” The raucous program is composed of brief vignettes common to almost all Istanbul tourist locales: regional folk dances, ranging from Aegean zeybek to Black Sea horon, interwoven with three fifteen-minute belly dance shows to mostly recorded music, with occasional singing and commentary by the MC. Continuous animation, live music for most genres, and an onstage parade of Turkish costume and food, however, are unique to this establishment. [3] The audience’s engagement and applause as well as the MC’s commentary and the venue’s advertisements say it loud and clear: belly dance is the main attraction at this locale. [4] As elsewhere, the sensual and ethnic belly dance performances at the Orient House help commercialize embodied native culture as they authenticate and concretize an imaginary Oriental space. [5]


Of all the stars, the last dancer, Birgül is not only the most coveted, but also the most controversial. Birgül, unlike other dancers at and beyond Orient House, prefers live music performance and she exerts significant control over her musicians. Directing her witty and raunchy physical humor at eager tourists and musicians, this dancer also playfully embraces and challenges gender stereotypes about belly dancers’ alleged immodesty. Here I revisit her uniquely assertive performance to highlight the artistic - kinetic and auditory - as well as socio-economic negotiations among the dancers, musicians, and audience in and beyond the performance space. In so doing, I take up three lines of inquiry. First, what does Birgül’s performance reveal about the aesthetic tools that musicians and experienced belly dancers deploy in structured improvisation? By detailing the sonic and kinetic dialogue in one particular performance, I reconfigure the dancer’s body as a powerful musical instrument whose power resides not only with artistic fluency, but also with market and nonmarket exchanges in the broader entertainment sector. Second, by treating Birgül’s performance as socially atypical, I explore both the causes and consequences of power-saturated conflicts between dancers and musicians within and beyond live performance: how Rom identity, gender distinctions, and socio-economic capital intersect to heighten or remedy inequality among performers. Third, by incorporating the views of musicians, agents, and other dancers, I inquire as to what extent Birgül’s sexual and artistic agency diverges from the norm.

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