East Meets West

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Last night we watched the final round of the latest reality show to hit Turkey. It’s not a repackaged, localized version of Big Brother or Survivor or American Idol. This reality program has a very local twist to it.

What do you get when you take 11 young women with various levels of talent, stick them in a hotel and give them dance lessons all week, then dress them up in exotic costumes so they can strut their stuff on stage? Oryantal Star is a home-grown reality program where contestants learn a new style of belly dancing (known as ‘oryantal’ or oriental in Turkish) every week, then perform it on Saturday night during a live broadcast all over Turkey (and Germany via satellite). The dancers have learned styles such as Romani (Gypsy), North African, Balkan, Arabic, Techno and of course Turkish. The home audience votes via SMS for their favorite dancer.

Which begs the question – Who wants to be an Oryantal Star? Not in the ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ sense, but really – after winning the title what’s next?

Turkey is one of several countries around these parts famous for belly dancing. On many a tourist’s top 10 things to do while in Turkey, going to a belly dance show is one of them. I was taught that belly dance is an art, a celebration of womanhood, and that the dancer is not some street tart, but somebody to be respected. And this argument can hold true in certain countries where belly dancing doesn’t have a long history, and where women are on more equal standing with men. But shimmying, scantily-clothed women are not seen as artists in a country where men from all walks of life, as if hungry wolves, look at women like innocent lambs just waiting to be devoured. The dancer is an object to be ogled and leered at, not somebody to be revered. On top of that, belly dancing is seen as being related to prostitution, as some dancers offer dancing and more. So while Turks like to watch the belly dancer perform, they don’t want their girlfriends, wives or sisters to be the belly dancer.

And unlike singing or acting contests, there’s not an obvious next step for the winner of Oryantal Star. Dancers may perform at private parties, cultural shows, on women’s daytime programs and evening variety shows on TV. But unlike singers or actors, there’s no recording contract to land, no film role to act in, no guarantee of regular work.

When asked what their next step would be after winning, the finalists were not even sure what they would do. ‘Keep practicing’ ‘Improve my Turkish’ ‘Help poor people’ . Nobody had a clear idea of where their career as a belly dance star would lead them in 10 years.

I think the producers of this show are to blame for not explaining what the contestants can expect from a life of belly dancing. If the show is meant to improve the image of belly dancing in the public's eye, then there should also be a clear career path spelled out. Indeed, Tanyeli, the belly dancer judge of the show, and Asena (another very famous Turkish dancer) – are even changing their tune and seem to be working on their singing careers at the moment to be able to branch out from dancing alone.

It takes courage to break down stereotypes, and for that I tip my hat to all the contestants who went on stage every week to be judged by thousands. And the concept has caught attention elsewhere, with other countries wanting to run local versions of the program. I personally feel it’s a great way to showcase the rich variety of dancing that there is, and I hope that the show succeeds in raising the status of belly dancing to an art form so it can pave the way for other women wanting to carry on this ancient tradition

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