A glimpse of a dance in the Ottoman Court, during the reign of Ahmet III is captured by the artist Levni in the miniature below.

During the time of the Ottoman Empire dancing was form of entertainment enjoyed both at court and amongst ordinary people. Unfortunately these dance traditions have not survived to the present day, and our information about them is restricted mainly to Ottoman miniatures and drawings and paintings by Europeans who visited Turkey in past centuries. When exploring the history of Ottoman dance it is important not to confuse such authentic documents with the works of European Orientalist painters, who depicted not what they had seen but what they imagined. Such fruits of fantasy include female slaves dancing naked in harems. Ottoman miniatures on the other hand, reflect the true nature of this dancing, as do pictures by eye witnesses, many of them not professional artists, whose job was to collect written and visual information about the Ottoman Empire for the monarchs of Europe. Ottoman dances had their origins in theatre, the performers enacting a subject by means of pantomime in the form of dance, using body language to convey their meaning. These dances were of three types. The first was performed by dancers known as çengi, who originally included both men and women, but in later times came to be women only. The word çengi is derived from çeng, a type of harp played upon the knees and no longer used today. The çengi dancers held a type of castanet known as çarpara in their hands, and sometimes also handkerchiefs. Their costumes were highly ornate, concealing every part of the body apart from the face and hands. Some çengis whirled china plates on the tips of their fingers while they danced, and were then known as kâsebaz or 'dish jugglers'. Male dancers were known as köçek. They usually wore skirts and imitated girls in both appearance and demeanor, but sometimes performed as men, wearing trousers and conical caps.

Since this type of dancing consisted of sprightly steps and leaps, and the performers wrinkled up their faces like rabbits as they danced, köçek were popularly known as 'rabbits' or 'rabbit boys'. The köçeks gave public performances, while çengis performed for audiences of women only. When we look at the western theatrical tradition, we find some similarities in this respect. For example, men played women’s roles in ancient Greek comedy and tragedy, and in Shakespearean England, too, women’s roles were always played by men, even such romantic figures as Shakespeare's Juliet. In ballet it was common for men to play women’s and women men's roles. In Japanese, Chinese and other Far Eastern traditional theatres, which always included elements of dance, the most important actors were the men who appeared in women’s roles. In Ottoman çengi dancing, women dressed as men to play male roles in dances featuring roles for both genders. The third type of Ottoman dancers were known as curcuna dancers.

These resembled clowns and danced with jerky convulsive movements, making a lot of noise. They generally wore comical masks and strange, ridiculous costumes, and we might describe them as grotesque dancers. Curcuna dancers also appeared in the improvised comedies known as ortaoyunu. A miniature by Levnî shows köçek and curcuna dancers performing at the festivities held to celebrate the circumcision of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III in 1720. In this picture we see the köçeks dancing before the tent of the grand vezir, while curcuna dancers wearing masks amuse the audience with a clumsy imitation of them. The costumes worn by some of them resembled those of Harlequin, the clever and witty servant who features in the Italian commedia dell'arte, an improvised folk theatre.

Prof. Dr. Metin And

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