Oriental dance is the oldest recorded dance form in the history of mankind. It can be seen the hieroglyphics of Egypt dating as far back as 4000 B.C. During the nomadic days, dance was performed primarily by women for the purposes of entertainment and religious reasons. It thrived until 600 A.D., when the Islamic religion became popular and banned all music and dance. In paintings, depiction of people was banned. The only artistic expression freely allowed and accepted was poetry. To this day, there is no music in Islam. The call to prayer is not considered music and the words of the Koran are not to be sung.
Yet, during this time and for 500 years thereafter, Arabic music and dance did find a way to survive. In Turkey, particularly in the caliph’s courts in Baghdad, the dance was protected and nurtured. This time period is referred to as the “golden age” of Arabic music. The music and dance was artistic, creative, and enjoyed for the effect it had on the human soul. The complicated musical scales and modes were produced during this age, and largely remain the same to the present day.
Today Egypt remains the major trendsetter for the costuming and presentation of oriental dance, but Turkish style belly dancing has developed a unique flavor of its own.
The music has basically the same rhythms, but often uses rhythms that Egyptian music does not, such as the chiftetelli and the karsilama (also known as kashlimar). Chiftetelli is slow and lends itself to flowing veil dances, snakey arm movements, and sensual floorwork. In a way, it can be considered counterpart to the Egyptian takasim, the solo improvisational music played between various parts of a longer routine. The karsilama is an unusual 9/8 beat rhythm, counting 9 beats to the measure. Egyptian music never uses this rhythm. Getting used to recognizing the karsilama rhythm and to dancing to its lively feeling is a bit tricky.
Turkish instrumentation also varies from that of Egyptian music. The bouzouki is played instead of the oud (the ancestor of the lute and guitar). More wind instruments are used, such as the clarinet.
The general format of a Turkish style belly dance routine is five parts: an exciting opening that is quick and usually accompanied by the dancer playing zils, the Turkish term for finger cymbals. (By the way, the Egyptian word for finger cymbals is sagat.) The second part is often a chiftetelli followed by a third song that is also upbeat and lively. The fourth part is usually a fast drum solo, and the conclusion of the set is a happy piece of music, once again incorporating the use of the zils.
Speaking of playing the zils, Turkish style differs from Arabic style. For example, the most basic cymbal pattern is counted: 1-2-3. In the Arabic style, if you are right-handed, you would repeatedly play this pattern: Right-Left-Right. In Turkish style you would repeatedly play this pattern: Right-Right-Left. Maybe in this simple pattern the difference is minor, but there is a definite impact when you play the more complicated cymbal patterns.
If you are interested in specializing in Turkish belly dance, you need to become familiar with classical musical favorites as well as spirited contemporary songs. There are some very well-produced recordings of contemporary Turkish dance music available today.
As you study the many facets of oriental dance, bear in mind that no one style of belly dance is the “correct” style. All of the various styles are beautiful and inspirational. It is up to you to develop the style that best suits you and expresses your true self. The only way to know this is to expose yourself to as many styles as you can. Be very selective in your choices of resources and the instructors which you look to for this information. In other words, make sure you study with the best teachers and use the best tools. Happy dancing!