Çiftetellisi and Expression Workshops with Cihangir Gümüstürkmen

Dear readers, I have been away for a bit. Unlike most radio silences, this is not because I’m not dancing. In fact, as far as my busier-than-ever life allows, I’m dancing even more. Over the next few posts, I’ll share some memories and reflections.

Last weekend I took two workshops with the Berlin-based artist and dancer, Cihangir Gümüstürkmen. The first one was on Istanbul Çiftetellisi. One highlight was Cihangir’s discussion of the varied ways the word “ciftetelli” and its many, many spelling alternatives is used around the Mediterranean. It strikes me that North American dancers often like to find precise definitions for particular words — “it’s the dance done to this rhythm” or “it’s the dance performed in that place” — but dance history being what it is, a vague and flowing thing, hard and fast categories are pretty difficult to find.

Another highlight was doing a bit of floor work! I have some videos that touch on floor work, but I’ve never tried it myself, figuring I needed a lot more abdominal strength. If I’d known this workshop included it I probably wouldn’t even have signed up, but it was a tremendous amount of fun. I realised you don’t have to throw every move in the book into a floorwork routine, especially if it’s part of a longer song. And Cihangir gave us some very precise, very useful tips.

After a quick nursing/eating break, I returned to the dance studio for Cihangir’s “Express Yourself!” workshop. Now, I was in a position to compare this workshop with Rivkah’s mini-workshop on expression in dance that I recently did in Texas. Cihangir’s strategy was quite different. Rather than having us improvise dance to suit particular emotions, he began by teaching us a simple choreography, and drilling it a few times so we wouldn’t have to think about moves at all. Then he told us little stories, stories intended to inspire feelings, but without naming the emotion itself. We then danced the same choreography repeatedly, each time seeking to convey the feeling inspired by the story, not through the movements themselves, but by the way we performed the movements.

I loved this. It was basically a bit of method acting for bellydancers. What really worked for me was that some of Cihangir’s stories hit a chord in me. One instruction was to imagine dancing for the first time after being sick, and given my recent surgery, that is a feeling I can connect to. Another was to imagine dancing for someone who had never seen dance before, and again, given that I often dance for my baby boy, I could connect to that particular kind of joy too. I don’t know how the dancing looked, but I do know it felt wonderful.

Another thing Cihangir had us play with was clowning around. This was without a doubt the hardest assignment of all, but I think it’s important. I suspect it’s very hard for women to allow themselves to be a bit silly, silly enough to be funny. Part of the pleasure of bellydance is being beautiful in a really old fashioned way — long hair, lots of makeup, hyper-feminine clothing. How are we supposed to then consciously look ridiculous, albeit in a controlled way? Later, at home, I looked up some of Cihangir’s videos on YouTube and found that he’s a master of the form. So I leave you, for now, with this little jewel:

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My son, future dancer

One of my goals as a parent is not to impose my own desires on my child. I’ve seen it happen too often that parents try to live out their unfulfilled dreams through their children, usually to the frustration of those children. The trick is: what’s the line between trying to revive a lost cause through your kid and just sharing your passions and hobbies with them?

I’m starting to realise the extent to which this is true since, spending a lot of time with my baby, I keep imagining possible futures for him. And unlike those moms who imagine their kids becoming doctors or athletes or lawyers or other important muckymucks, I’ve become convinced that my son has the right build to be a dancer. He has these beautiful, slender legs that I’m convinced will be long, he’s strong and seems to want to stand on his own despite his six weeks (tomorrow), and when feeding, sleeping, or just hanging out, his hands will fall into the most graceful shapes. For an example, see picture.

It’s not that I want or expect him to become a professional dancer, but I like the idea that he will enjoy dancing. The truth is though, even this quite basic and understandable desire is about me. You see, music and his reaction to it gave me one of the most important moments of joy, of connection as a mother, in the last few weeks.

Back track a few months. Baby — just a fetus at the time — was starting to respond to sounds and music outside the womb. My husband and I were watching Fatih Akin’s documentary of Istanbul music, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul. I was lying on the couch, and my husband had his hand on my belly, feeling the occasional shifts and movements. Late in the movie, there’s a scene on the outskirts of Istanbul, in a bar filled with Romani musicians. The musicians are well sauced, and the music is frenetic. One of the Roma interviewed talks about the spirit of the music, how in hearing it, you simply have to get up to dance. When classical Turkish music is played, he says, people just sit and watch.

All the time, the song is rising in a crescendo, the baby is moving like mad, and when the final beat strikes, he gives a good, solid kick in perfect time! My husband and I both feel it and look at each other in amazement. This only grows in the next scene, a short of classical Turkish music — true to form, the baby stopped moving immediately and stayed still for the rest of the movie.

We joked many times later that he liked gypsy music. In fact, as a fetus, he tended to react to fast dance music in general. Fast forward to five weeks after birth. I am tired from interrupted nights and what feels like constant feedings. I am gradually growing in love with this beautiful little creature, but I don’t quite know what to do with him yet. Newborns aren’t very interactive, after all. And then, one day when I’m feeling down, I remember the music he liked in the womb.

So I get the iPod that usually plays rain sounds all night, search for some “gypsy” music, and play it for him while he lies on the bed. We listened to Romanian and to Flamenco music, and his little arms and legs flew in every direction. Sometimes I guided his movements, sometimes I let him just react to it on his own. And can I add that random baby flails sometimes look like flamenco arms? Just sayin’.

Maybe he was reacting to the music, grooving in his own baby way. Maybe he had no clue what was going on. I never can tell with him. But it was a real moment of connection for me, reminding me that the little boy who now runs my life was once in my womb, dancing in time to the beats outside.