7.   Birgül Teases the Audience But…

Birgül, Orient House’s lead belly dancer, is rarely short of wit, play, and most importantly, of dialogue. Deploying direct expansive gaze and irreverent, participatory bodily humor, Birgül seizes almost every opportunity to sequentially invite, banter, and satirize her audience. Acutely aware of the restrictions of a thrust stage, she also pivots during her combinations to ensure each patron’s view in this semi-circle seating area. Alternately, she uses the intimate seating arrangement to mingle with her viewers. In order to assert her primacy on stage, Birgül weaves sexually-charged


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challenges with physically complicated moves, testing at once the agility and the wit of her participants. Towards the end of her Rom routine (third section), Birgül switches between showcasing her technique and animating the audience.


Here, she steps off the stage to bump a young male patron with double hip accents to which the older Jordanian men at the table enthusiastically respond. [28] Encouraged by the belly dancer’s private performance as well as his family, this young lad then stands up to dance with Birgül. Birgül watches intently his poor attempt at a shoulder shimmy before commanding him into mimicking her fast shimmies.
The young boy’s awkwardness underlines the technical complexity of belly dance isolations while emphasizing Birgül’s virtuosity. Disappointed but amused, Birgül then forces him back to his chair, offering half-hearted applause.

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To refocus the larger audience on herself, she nonchalantly takes center-stage with vigorously rotating hip drops. Ignoring the prominent clarinet, Birgül continues to accentuate with the pounding darbuka and davul until she instructs the musicians into a sprightly kanto-like (early

twentieth century Turkish ‘music hall’) tune. Energetically moving on, Birgül invites another male customer to center stage to indulge him with her perky challenges. Such challenges range from role inversion to unabashedly flaunting her sexuality and from testing the participant’s physical flexibility to engaging in intimate contact.

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Here, the patron’s creative avoidance and embarrassment culminate in a transgressive climax. By playing on the belly dancer’s assumed sexual assertiveness, Birgül transform self-eroticism into a victorious mode of authority. Initially, she lightly embraces her partner for a quick souvenir photograph, participating gleefully in this exoticizing/eroticizing tourist performance.

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Deploying parodic humor, she both reinstates and challenges prevalent tourist and local stereotypes of belly dancers as exotic fallen women. All performance components, from gesturing to musical accents, further these humorous call-and-response moments in which the whole audience participates through belly laughs and cheering applause.


Birgül’s innovative stage tactics resemble Egyptian megastar Fifi Abdou’s style as both dancers strive to playfully challenge local and/or global sexualized preconceptions about belly dancers. While Birgül performs to instrumental music for mainly a tourist audience, Abdou gesturally dances to urban baladi songs at an elite Cairo wedding (Lorius 1996). Birgül focuses more on the interlacing of exoticism and eroticism in and through the tourist gaze. In contrast, Abdou critiques, as Cassandra Lorius argues, the local class-bound gendered stereotypes, particularly the Egyptian elite’s dual stigmatization of baladi (upwardly mobile rural migrants) women as the lower-class and the “sexually uninhibited” (1996:289). Despite their distinctive dance styles and differing degrees of fame, both performers have some artistic license, grounded in their control over music and choreography.


In her analysis, Cassandra Lorius characterizes Fifi Abdou’s performance as transgressive, emphasizing her agency in “subverting the power relations between elite and popular, men and women.” As the article’s title suggests, for Lorius, Abdou has the power to “outwit patriarchy” (1996:285). Although Lorius acknowledges the temporary nature of Abdou’s disruption (295), she neither specifies nor historicizes the causes and limits of the dancer’s transgression. Overlooking the role of musicians in live performance and of other social actors beyond performance, Lorius reduces live stage performance to a performer-audience exchange infused with gender and class hierarchies. She obscures the materiality of belly dance praxis by ignoring the distinct ways in which material priorities and artistic preferences constitute one another.


In Birgül’s case, overlapping market and nonmarket exchanges (see above, section 5), in and beyond Orient House, provide her with relative artistic and social latitude as she continuously, and sometimes adversarially, negotiates art, money, and honor with her family, bosses, and agents. For instance, Birgül’s main agent Göksenin Inal regards her as a gifted performer, “ a number one showgirl,” who cleverly but inevitably operates in a “meat market.” [29] In this regard, her chances of “outwitting patriarchy” seem slim. Behind the scenes, Birgül, as many others, also has to work with business-minded agents who are willing to negotiate respectability with higher commissions.


Lastly, Birgül’s choice of instrumental music has also been partly shaped by macro political forces. The recent emphasis on instrumental dance music at tourist venues stems, in part, from the Turkish state’s attempt (2002) to ban Arab-originated belly dance at holiday resorts. [30] The rationale behind the secular Center-Left government’s unrealized ban was to protect Turkish entertainment, and by extension Turkish culture, from polluting foreign influences, in particular, decadent Muslim Orientalism. In addition to a persistent Kemalist nationalist ideology (Stokes 1999; Keyder 1987;Yavuz 2003), this proposition also reflects Turkey’s current European Union aspirations in its promotion of a Westernized self-image distinct from and superior to other, especially Muslim Arab, influences. The owners and employees of tourist venues adapted to such regulations by gradually replacing Oriental albums that feature Arabic vocals with instrumental live music or CDs. Another question awaits us: how do other dancers at Orient House display limited aesthetic and socio-economic agency?

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