Situating Other Dancers at Orient House and Beyond
The other two dancers at Orient House are not as fortunate as Birgül. As relatively less privileged dancers susceptible to prevalent musician-dancer rivalries in live performance, both performers prefer dancing to recorded music (CDs) than to a live band. Below, I discuss the ways in which their economic, moral, and artistic priorities interconnect and factor into their musical preferences. Olga, the first dancer performing as Oya, is a classically trained Russian dancer who fled her home following post-1990s Soviet severe economic crisis.
Lacking in popularity and technical intricacies of belly dance, Olga frequently moves between tourist performances, occasional weddings, and exclusively male chic nightclubs (‘pahalı pavyon’). So does Gülnihal, the second dancer, from humble origins in Izmir.
Trained by reputable Nesrin Topkapı, or the Turkish Fifi Abdou, Gülnihal deploys skilful technique that fuses ballet, flamenco, and both Egyptian cabaret and baladi style.  Despite her technical sophistication, Gülnihal is reluctant to view her trade as “art.”  Having had to work at disreputable venues after a short-lived period of television fame, she seems fairly disillusioned with the workings of her trade.  In particular, she refers to economic hardships: negligible pay, having to work multiple shows a night during prosperous seasons, and the lack of jobs during economic crises (1994 and 2001). In a casual conversation, I learn that her economic hardship is doubled by strenuous familial obligations: she provides for her sister and mother.
As with many others, Gülnihal mentions belly dancers’ social marginalization as the immodest or “unmarriageable women.” Echoing the voices of many other performers who have not made it, Gülnihal bitterly emphasizes the sexual and emotional harassment that disenfranchised dancers – the economically unprivileged or those lacking in fame or reputation—regularly face vis-à-vis their bosses, agents, and audiences across reputable and disreputable venues. Given Gülnihal’s resentful tone, I leave out my set questions about the dancers’ artistic license vis-à-vis live or recorded music as they appear redundant and naive.
Conversely, Olga is eager to discuss her stylistic preferences with me. Confident in her classical technique, she views belly dance as “art, sensual as it may be.”  According to Olga, this dance requires discipline and consistency, “qualities which live music cannot guarantee every night.” She matter-of-factly adds: “You know what to expect with a CD. You have choreography and you perform it. No musician can mess it up.” Olga’s distaste for live instrumentation stems, in part, from a classical training that favors a set choreography over the unpredictability of improvisation.  Although both Olga and Gülnihal decline to discuss the costs of an individual dance CD production, it is significantly high as professional studio prices range from $300 to $500.  The majority of dancers that work across the gamut of tourist and native, elite as well as disreputable and exclusively male nightclubs (pahali ve ucuz pavyon) thus turn to pirated CDs, homemade instrumental compilations burned by their agents or musicians, or simply borrow from friends.
The narratives of Olga, Gülnihal, and Birgül illustrate the extensive variability, even in one venue, of individual aspirations, social mobility, and of dance repertoires and styles effective in forging dancers’ musical aspirations. Beyond Orient House or other tourist venues, event organizers and restaurant/club owners can freely dictate the dancers’ costuming and musical choices, particularly if the dancer lacks symbolic and economic capital. The less privileged the dancer, the less she can exercise artistic and social control.
The question then becomes: how have the belly dancers lives been altered, both artistically and socially, over the last two decades? Prior to the escalating liberalization of Istanbul, belly dancers had limited resources in terms of job opportunities and public visibility. They entered Istanbul’s upper-class entertainment scene in the early 1990s, a time when the dance’s global fashionability converged with native neo-Ottomanist economic and cultural projects. Previously, gazino (middle class nightclubs) establishments accommodated belly dancers as uvertür, ranking below Turkish art music singers. With the recent heightened interest in Orientalist cultural praxis, an increasing number of tourist restaurants as well as yuppie meyhanes, taverns and clubs have rendered belly dance as the main act.
Facilitated by the early 1980s’ privatization and proliferation of Turkish television channels, dancers have also gained increased access to international movement lexicons. At the time of my fieldwork, tourist and elite venue dancers used MTV music videos as virtual dance classes sampling Jennifer Lopez’s pivoting salsa hip circles and Shakira’s sequential torso undulations. Additional sources of movement hybridization include watching other dancers at workplace or belly dance stars on local television channels (Kral TV or Kanal D morning programs) and learning the Egyptian and Lebanese dancers’ signature moves while on tour.Facilitated by the early 1980s’ privatization and proliferation of Turkish television channels, dancers have also gained increased access to international movement lexicons. At the time of my fieldwork, tourist and elite venue dancers used MTV music videos as virtual dance classes sampling Jennifer Lopez’s pivoting salsa hip circles and Shakira’s sequential torso undulations. Additional sources of movement hybridization include watching other dancers at workplace or belly dance stars on local television channels (Kral TV or Kanal D morning programs) and learning the Egyptian and Lebanese dancers’ signature moves while on tour.
Another overarching trend is the growing distinction between socially-trained and studio-trained dancers, a distinction that marks belly dance more, in the latter case, as a codified art form than a familial praxis. Although there is an increased interest in formal dance classes among the privileged few, imitation and informal emulation continues to be the main form of transmission among the rest. In reality, there is great circulation of movement as dancers work at multiple venues at night and some, like the Roma, transport classical as well as Rom dance vocabularies and styles to and from professional and communal environments.