A young American girl on a trip to the city of Bursa was waiting with her Turkish friends for the Teleferik cable car to take them down the mountain. With little money, as students notoriously are, and tensed up with cold, the girl jumped up and began to dance the chiftetelli — no, not the slow one which we are familiar with here, the fast one that the Turks do. People threw money, and the students and everyone one warmed up. Inspired, the girl, nameless to us, asked her father to find her a dance teacher. Her father is Dr. Winkler who worked at the American Hospital in Istanbul, and also happened to frequent the Kervansaray Dinner Club. Dr. Winkler approached his favorite dancer, Sema Yildiz, and asked her to teach his daughter. That was Sema's first teaching experience. Sema was quite young then, only 27, still approaching her prime, but had already been on stage for ten years.
Sema Yildiz was always a dancer. Little Sema was born to a Yugoslavian immigrant man (who also spoke Greek) from Vodina City, and a beautiful Turkish woman. They had four boys, and Sema was exactly in the middle. Her father was a fruit and vegetable seller, and none of her brothers were artists. They lived in Fatih, a conservative area of Istanbul just west of the Golden Horn, in a house with a large garden fruit trees. The family garden was adjoining the big city where there was an open air cinema. In the late fifties and early-sixties Hindi movies were very popular in Istanbul. One film would run for a month at a time at the cinema. At ten years old, Sema and, her young friends would play "dress up," and with four bottle caps or coins stuck to the ends of their fingers with tree sap, they would pretend to play zils and imitate the arm and head movements of the Hindi film dancers. One can imagine how those little girls were mezmerised by the ongoing full color drama and greater-than-life bejeweled dancers nearly in their own backyard.
Mr. Tatu seriously did not think himself lucky when his little impressionable daughter kept running off to witness the "düğün" (wedding parties) at a nearby rental "party house." Sema and her girl friends would curiously visit at the fringes of every party. A band has always been essential at these parties, and for a proper "düğün", an Oriental dancer was hired. Of course, the guests would come in their finery and in the mood for a brisk chiftetelli. It was a perfect medium for a little girl to develop a bright outlook on life and cultivate an already natural talent for dance. Her father was very angry about her escapades at the "party house," and she always feared him, though she continued in her ways.
At the age of fourteen, after only seven years of formal schooling, Sema was married off to a man whose family lived in Karagumruk, a neighborhood just next to Sulukule. As you may know, those neighborhoods within the ancient outer city walls near the gate to Edirne (Edirne Kapi) are occupied" by "Roman" families (Gypsies), and in particular, those with a tradition of music and dance. As fate would have it, marrying into a family from this area only brought Sema into closer contact with dance. She picked up the very distinctive style of dance of the "Roman" (gypsy) girls, especially their "karşılama" (9/8) dances.
The following years were times of serious change for Sema, as well as for Istanbul. The government had built a large road through many of the old family gardens, including theirs. The old Istanbul was beautiful, but, "Istanbul is no more green," lamented Sema. Her father died when she was sixteen, and soon after she separated from her husband and went to live with her mother in a small apartment.
A year later, in 1967, she entered "Yarışma", a contest for "Queen of the Dance." Now more than thirty years later she still remembers the camaraderie among the contestants. This is a reflection of her positive nature: she is sensitive to those around her. The jury chose Sema as first place winner from ten finalists. The news coverage of the contest sparked the beginning of a career for Sema Yildiz. Her name means "dancing star" in Turkish.
Sema began to dance professionally after her "baba" (father) died. "He kill me if he know!" she said. "Of course, all families hate it (when their daughters dance professionally ) because 'açık'." In Turkish açik means "naked" or "open" as in "inviting people in." A woman who is açik, exposes her belly, legs and chest in public and it is assumed that she is açik in her personality, and possibly in other ways. At that time in Turkey the only "open" girls were "Oryantal," but Sema said that singers also became açık.
Sema is a risk-taker. As long as I have known Sema, a part of her adventuresome character is given to impulsiveness. With a well-trained body and a sense of artistry, this has proven to be a boon for Sema on stage. The Turkish style is noted for its sudden drops, dramatic level changes, wild spins and head tosses. Turkish dancers are famous for sudden facial changes of mood, or some awkward or surprising gesture. Even in her shyness, if the mood is right, Sema manages a few. She is always quick to pick up new and fun gestures that she sees.
In 1968, Sema Yildiz landed her first job as a soloist, working in Zeki Müren's review. Müren was a much-loved singer in Turkey, and remains famous even after his death in 1995. The following year she began work in the Istanbul Kervansaray Dinner Club in Elmadag which was to be her "home base" for the next 23 years. She worked in all the best clubs: Bebek Maksim, Galata Kulesi (Tower), and Maksim of Taksim Square, which is now a gambling casino, but once was the center of high-end entertainment in Istanbul. Taksim Square, and the adjacent Elmadag district, all the way to the Hilton, were the fashionable places to go in the sixties and seventies. Some of Sema's contemporaries who she admired were Aysel Tanju, İnci Birol, and Özcan Tekgül, an older Turkish television actress.
Sema danced in Tehran and Khoramshah, Iran in 1976, where she appeared with other Oriental dancers including Jamileh and Nadia Gamal. She said that they were often on the same bill as Gogos, the best-loved female singer in Iran, a kind of "Madonna" of those times. After a three month working tour of Beirut, Syria, and the Ramses Hotel in Amman, she returned to Istanbul.
In 1979, a Turkish agent named Marko sent Sema to Belgium. Though returning home to visit many times, she stayed away for nine years. She married a Belgian, living with him for six years. Throughout this time she worked in Europe, represented by Zobel Agency, which was run by two Hungarian brothers—one Muslim, one Christian. They managed her career, sending her to Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Luxembourg, England ... fourteen countries in all. In England she worked at the Gallipoli Club along with another Turkish dancer, Oya Ates. There she met Ertha Kitt, who recorded "Üsküdar" in Turkish, a song that every Turk can sing...of course not the way Ertha did it! In 1988, two years after her divorce, Sema returned to home base, the Kervansaray and the Parisienne in Elmadag. But that fancy district of posh restaurants was never to be the same again.
Amid the stories in Turkish I recognized a face in a news clip. "Yes, that was Magana, who brought me my very first study group." I later called Magana Baptiste of San Francisco, and asked her to tell me all she remembered about Sema Yildiz. "Oh, she was a dynamic dancer in the clubs, with very strong pelvic and hip work!" In February 1978, Magana led a group of fifteen people on a dance tour of Turkey, Greece and Egypt. They saw Sema at the old Kervansaray, and Magana visited her in her dressing room afterwards. She asked if they could have lessons the next day at their hotel and, though speaking almost no English, Sema agreed.
When they met the next day, Magana danced some for Sema. Being very shy and reserved then, Sema exclaimed, "Oh no! I have nothing to teach you—you know all the moves!" Sema demonstrated some simple movements for the class. When the group picked up all the movements instantly Sema said, "You know everything already. I don't need to teach you." But she had that Turkish feeling so naturally, she didn't think of it as something to teach. But that feeling, that way, was what the group wanted. Through a translator, Magana encouraged her to show them the unique gestures which had caught her attention in her show, and the powerful floor work with pelvic vibrations. In the three hours they spent together, Sema gave them some universal movements which were made unique by her interpretation and use. She also showed them some 9/8 steps, which a Turk can do while somnambulant, but with the timing of the pauses and hops which seem so unnatural to others. "Though in class Sema seemed lacking in confidence, on stage she was rather strong—we were very impressed," said Magana. Now, I only see hints of that shyness. She has acquired a lot of self-confidence in the years since that visit from Magana's.
All the students eventually landed in Sema's classes. But the fact remains, as has been true throughout most of the Middle East, that there is no tradition of formal Oriental Dance classes. Most of the learning has occurred "in family," "on-the-job," or in a one-to-one "coaching" relationship. Sema's students, first Magana's group, then the German school teachers, the Italian ladies who are sent over by Katrine of Padua, Eva's Delightful Turkish Tour dancers, and now the Americans who find Sema's number listed in Habibi's Network, all contribute to teaching Sema how to teach by "Western methods," while learning from her the "Eastern mannerisms."
Sema's students are not only from the West. Apart from the many Turkish girls whom she has coached, in 1997 her protege of the time was a quite young Ukranian girl, Irena, who worked upstairs in the "Revue." Irena is well-trained in classical ballet and jazz, and has a natural ability and love of dance. Since it is difficult to find Oriental dancers in Istanbul in summer as they go off to find work in the resorts, the owner of Regine's encouraged (subtly pressured) Sema to train some of his lovely group of young Ukranian dancers to expand their repertoire beyond acrobatics, ballet, stripping, jazz and modern dance. In a nonverbal agreement for the continued use of the disco as her studio, Sema took on the new students.
Sema is not one to philosophize about the current local developments, or the course of the history of Oriental dance. Even when surrounded by the "seamy" side of the current Western revues, Sema walks a very fine but distinct line, self assured in her own path. Sema's character distinguishes her in the face of easy options which others around her may have chosen. She looks at a dancer who has come to her for help, and if she sees potential and sincerity in the dancer, she gives to her unconditionally. Sema is always caring, helping others, even the pros: she had one of her European students bring a pair of dancing shoes for Zinnur Karaca, the niece of well-known dancer Tülay Karaca. She has always arranged work for young dancers for New Year parties, and through her contacts at night clubs, she sometimes arranges for guest appearances by her students. One of Sema's German students told Sema that she wanted to study with Nesrin Topkapi, and Sema gave her Nesrin's number with no hesitation or jealousy. She encourages her students to learn from all.
Observing Sema, I could see her childhood inspiration still present. One time at the dinner table we mentioned the old time Hindi cine couple Rajih Kopour and Nargis. Sema became very animated as she sang the film song "Avare," remembering almost all of the words and dancing in her chair, full of youthful sparkle, still shining like a star.
*Eva Cernik has taught and performed Oriental dance throughout the U.S. and abroad for the past twenty-six years. Her Turkish dance style was influenced by her first teacher, Anahid Soufian of New York. In 1979, Eva began traveling to the Middle East to learn dance at its source. She created Dreaming about Egypt Tours in 1984 and Delightful Turkish Tours in 1992, which she continues to lead. On many of her trips to Turkey she has researched and video-taped the dance of the Rom. In 1997 Eva won the IAMEED "Innovative Dancer" award.
*Article & Pictures by courtesy of HABIBI PUBLICATIONS
Beautiful horizons...grand mosques towering along the Bosphorus Straight...palaces.. .the scents of tea brewing and lamb roasting lingering in the streets...visions of flying carpets! Turkey was beckoning to me!
Turkey's charm derives from its long and intense history. In many ways it can be considered to be the cradle of civilization. Many believe that the Garden of Eden is located in what is now Eastern Turkey. Enormous ruins of ancient cities are scattered throughout the country, cities that at their peak had widespread prominence, riches and glorious lifestyles, some dating to over three thousand years ago. The cities in this area were abandoned and re-inhabited over the centuries time and time again. Its long history is rich and includes Oriental dance. In the fifth century A.D, the ancient gypsy people of the Indian peninsula left their homeland and began migrating to the Middle East, bringing along their beautiful music and dance. The Turkish people today feel strongly about their adopted form of this ancient dance.
My interest in meeting Turkish dancer Sema Yildiz was stimulated when I read the article about her by Eva Çernik in Habibi (Vol. 17, No. 2). One simple phone call to her opened up a month of fabulous dancing! Her studio is based at the Regine Revue Club, a few blocks off of Taxim Square, two levels below the city on the stage of-tfee classy Sultana restaurant, with its fabulous decor! Now a "retired" performer, Sema's time is dedicated to teaching private and group lessons, and she is a sought-after booking agent for the best clubs of Istanbul. She graced many of those stages during her decades of professional dancing.
Many of our evenings were spent with Sema at these snazzy clubs being waited on hand and foot by a dozen waiters while we waited for one of her "girls" to perform. She is a queen wherever she steps in Turkey. Sema has brought many astounding, precise, young dancers into the public eye of Istanbul, including Asena, who is probably the best-known Oriental dancer in Turkey at the moment. Sema is a master at expressing the music and creating the sense that it oozes out of the dancer's body. She emphasizes the beauty of changing moods in the dance, capturing and expressing the feelings of the instruments, using drama, speed and utilizing the entire dance space. The Turks like dancers to use the space surrounding the stage, spreading their movements into the entire room. They like to see fire, flexibility, and skill in the female body. Sema's movements can be very subtle and expressive, and her dancing needs to be watched carefully. Her choreographies are good demonstrations of the Turkish interpretation of the dance.
She continues to have a small stream of students from around the world, as well as many regulars, who pop in for a few lessons. As Eva stated, "When she sees potential and sincerity in the dancer, she gives unconditionally." I found her to be very generous. In fact, Sema gave me my dance name, Kerime Sultan, which she said is a name from the Ottoman Empire.
Almost every night during the seven weeks we were in Turkey we were out looking for dancers. We found that there were two very distinct levels of dancing, depending primarily on how much the establishment was willing to pay. There were innumerable hotels, restaurants, hostels, beach resorts, and clubs advertising "Belly Dancer Tonight!" Many of the "bar" dancers were beautiful, fun and exciting, and were skilled at making the crowd happy. Although they knew some hot moves, played zils on platform shoes, and looked fabulous to an untrained eye, their dancing lacked depth.
On the other hand, on the nights that we went to the clubs with Sema, it was an entirely different story. The dancers were well trained, precise and had excellent technique. Their performances were absolutely inspiring, full of the life and spirit of Oriental dance. Two women who have been training with Sema for three or four years were especially memorable. They are now busy with full-time dance careers. Oya's dancing very much reflects Sema's style. We also were able to watch a dancer from Rumania a few times, and were so taken by her dancing that we could not even blink while she danced. Sema emphasized that it is the feeling that these dancers have inside that allows them to reach the level of success and popularity that they enjoy.
*Article: Visiting Istanbul's Delight, Sema Yildiz
by Kerime Sultan, Boulder, Colorado
*Article & Pictures by courtesy of HABIBI PUBLICATIONS