Turkish Festival Dancers

by John Cagney Nash
Turkish-style belly dancing derives many of its moves from Romany influences.

Turkish-style belly dancing derives many of its moves from Romany influences.

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Turkish festivals take place all over the world, in enclaves where numbers of Turkish ex-pats have made homes for themselves. Dance is an important part of the Turkish identity, and a traditional medium of expression that keeps modern-day people of Turkish descent in touch with their heritage. For this reason, dancers at Turkish festivals typically perform folk dances that reference the past in both movement and costume.

Turkey's Heritage and the Importance of Dance

Because of its location at the interface of the Middle East and Europe, where three different seas come together, Turkey has long been both an important trading center and a melting pot for cultural and stylistic influences. Turkish dance forms reference input from many of the cultures the nation has encountered over the centuries. Dancers seldom practice all year long just to appear at festivals. The art form is an integral part of celebrating engagements and weddings, religious ceremonies and days of national importance, memorializing of ancient victories in battle and honoring family members leaving to perform their military service.

Turkish Dance Forms

Much of the dance associated with Turkish folk heritage is of Ottoman provenance, and is performed in troupe steps reminiscent of line dancing in the U.S. The dance form most readily associated with Turkey across the world is the belly dance, but Halay is the country's national dance. It is thought to have originated in Assyria and involves the dancers moving in circles, touching one another's shoulders; the last dancer in line holds a piece of cloth. Hora is another style wherein dancers form a circle. Karsilama is typical of routines where couples stand face-to-face. Improvisation by the more skilled practitioners is expected.


Aside from a familiarity with the primary dance forms, Turkish festival dancers must also subscribe to tradition styles of dress. Wrap-around and buttoned tunic tops are typical of the stylized "Sunday best" clothes based on the peasant clothes worn where the dances originated. Loose-fitting pants -- worn under knee-length skirts by the ladies -- and colorful waist sashes are twinned with small caps and low-heeled shoes. Women typically also wear scarves around their heads, a tradition probably drawn from the nation's interaction with Moslem traders. The organizers of the North Carolina Turkish Festival note that the choice between wearing everyday clothing or a special costume is made in accordance with the themes and messages behind the dance. Dark clothing indicates the message of a dance is somber and of gravity, while bright, colorful costume is a cue that the dancers are celebrating something that brought their community happiness, such as a good harvest.

The Belly Dance

Properly called "Gobek dans," the belly dance is a misnomer in that every part of the body is used expressively; this has made the dance a popular form of exercise in the west. It is almost universally associated with female dancers. Turkish law allows for dancers to expose their midriffs and to employ graphic pelvic movements, so the dance is extremely uninhibited. Turkish festival dancers have been able to parlay their skills into becoming exercise class instructors, and many perform in Turkish restaurants as part of the entertainment.

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