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Male Belly Dancers Are All the Rage in Turkey These Days

If you thought belly dancing was exclusive to women, you’re in for a surprise. Believe it or not, male belly dancing is a real thing in Turkey, and it’s totally in vogue. Sporting designer stubbles and dressed in skirts decorated with coins and shimmering tassels, the dancers jerk their hips to Turkish tunes, enthralling their audience with their exotic moves.

Interestingly, these male performers are not a recent phenomenon. Known as ‘zennes’, they used to be a regular feature at the courts of Ottoman Sultans, because Muslim women were not permitted to perform on stage at the time. But as the 600-year Empire declined and society modernized, women took on more public roles. The number of female belly dancers rose, and the number of zennes slowly declined.

Although they haven’t made an appearance for decades, interest in the ancient art form is now at a new peak. It all started with the Islamic-rooted Turkish government’s attempt to revive the nation’s conservative Ottoman past. Apart from the government’s attempts, the enthusiasm among the nation’s population for the Ottoman-era culture has helped improve the popularity of male belly dancing.

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Photo: Politics.be

Zennes are now hired to dance at clubs and private gatherings such as birthday parties, weddings, bridal showers and sometimes even to ‘celebrate’ a divorce. Their costumes are quite similar to those worn by female belly dancers – jewel-studded belts, satin skirts and sheer cloaks. There’s only one difference – the men don’t wear brassieres.

“Male belly dancing is not new, but for the past three years demand has gone up,” said 26-year-old dancer Zenne Segah. “Everywhere I look, it’s zenne, zenne, zenne as if there’s less interest now for female belly dancers.” He insists that the art form isn’t just for women: “Anyone who loves dancing and getting applauded on stage should do it.”

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Photo: Gara Hasan/Trip Advisor

“Zenne dancers are now fashionable and we see them performing in all sorts of clubs – from the jet set to the gritty ones,” said filmmaker Mehment Binay, who made a movie called Zenne Dancer in 2012. “People can now choose this as a profession and not as a hobby.” His film explored the friendship between an Istanbul zenne dancer and a gay man from Turkey’s Urfa province.

According to veteran Zenne Alex, who is possibly Turkey’s most famous male belly dancer, bookings have gone up in the past year. He now spends a lot of time training new zennes who want to get into the business. “If a man is in shape and can learn to dance, he can be more alluring than a woman,” said Alex, 38. “There used to be a stigma, but it is now more accepted.”

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Photo: Zenne Diva

Zenne Segah insists that the stigma still exists, and that gay men still have a tough time in Turkey’s patriarchal society. He revealed that his father could not accept his dance very easily, and that some men are actually distressed when they watch his show.

“First they may be baffled about a man wearing a skirt and dancing. But after they watch me on the stage for five to 10 minutes, they see I’m just doing art. They see their wives and women cheering and enjoying it and they usually loosen up,” he said.

 

Segah says he was fascinated by female belly dancers from a very young age. So he started learning the art himself at a club in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood. He started giving stage performances and earned good money, slowly making his way up to the bigger Istanbul clubs. “Now I’m dancing sometimes four or five times a night for different parties and club,” he said. “I have more work than I need.”

Women who watch Segah’s show are often fascinated by his performance. “We come here twice a month, just with the girls, and have a blast,” said 24-year-old Tugba Kangal. “You can see he really he loves dancing and he really feels it.”

 

“I think the popularity is due to curiosity,” added Serpil Yurecki, another member of the audience. “People want to see something different. Also, they can dance better than the women.”

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Al-Monitor