One of the greatest things about learning to belly dance is that it gives you an excuse to travel to the lands of its origin. Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, oh my!
As I lived in Istanbul for many years and speak the language, I thought I’d give some advice about this city: my favourite place to learn and see belly dancing and shop for costumes!
*Please note that the opinions and advice expressed here are purely Shivaun’s and not those of Shimmy Belly Dance or OmniFilm Ltd.
Favourite places to see Belly Dance in Istanbul
Unfortunately, due to the gentrification of the old Roma (gypsy) neighborhoods of Istanbul, many of the best places to see belly dance in Istanbul are turning into Starbucks and condos. Both Sulukule and Tarlabaşı have been demolished and and the current government has mostly banned dancing from outdoor venues such as Kumkapı (though here’s hoping this will change soon!). However, you can still see some amazing shows at indoor venues like Orient House and Gar Music Hall, though you should be prepared to pay between $50 to $100 for dinner and a show. It may sound like a lot compared to other prices in Turkey, where you can easily find a good meal for $5, but considering you will get a three-course meal and a show which can include belly dancing from stars like Didem and Gigi, Turkish folk dancing, Turkish music, and whirling dervishes, it is still a good value.
Belly Dance Costumes Designers and Stores:
Without a doubt, Bella is Turkey’s most well-known belly dance designer, but her prices are not suited to everyone’s budget (most between $750 and $1000 USD) and her shop is difficult to find.
Legend Costumes is amazing – almost the same quality as Bella and about half the price and it is completely female owned and operated. Best of all, it is easy to find as it is just off the main square in Taksim. Don’t be scared off by the hike up the dark stairs – it is worth it.
If you are looking for cheaper costumes, or souvenirs like hookahs and t-shirts, you can’t go wrong with Ali Baba Bazaar (Fesciler Cad. No:119-121 Kapalıçarşı – İSTANBUL). They may not be high fashion like Bella or Legend but they have an incredible variety (make sure to check upstairs!!!) and prices range from $50 – $300. Make sure to ask for Little Mustafa and tell him Shivaun from Canada sent you.
Don’t be afraid to ask for directions when you are in the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı)! Even for Turks, the Grand Bazaar can be confusing. The shop assistants can be aggressive but also very helpful and will even walk you right to competitors’ doors. The worst that can happen is a handsome Turkish man will try to sell you a carpet and give you tea instead of telling you the right way to go. Try to just go with the flow and enjoy every experience. You might end up getting a good deal on a carpet!
My favourite designer is Nihal. She works in the back of a tiny shop in the Grand Bazaar called May Costume (pronounced ‘My Costume’) which is, unfortunately, hard to find. She doesn’t speak English but her boss, Ender, does. If you contact him (email@example.com) he can give you directions to the shop and even pick you up from somewhere near the bazaar. Otherwise, you can ask at a big shop like Ali Baba and they will show you the way.
Favourite Dancers to Take Lessons from:
There are soooo many amazing belly dancers in Istanbul, but not all of them really know how to teach dance to foreigners and not too many speak English. However, I have found a few teachers in Istanbul who bridge the cultural divide and remain authentic to the art.
My absolute favourite up and coming Turkish dancer is Gigi Dilşah. She has great tips and tricks for both Turkish Oriental style and Turkish Roma dance, as well as having great knowledge of anatomy. She speaks English fluently as she lived in Seattle and her teaching style is very suited to western dancers. Her website is in Turkish but you can check it out, or just google her to get a taste of what she can do.
You can message her on Facebook or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sema Yıldız is the queen of Turkish Belly Dance, having been a star in Turkey and internationally for over 40 years. Her prices reflect this so be prepared to pay a premium to work with the best. She can be very strict compared to American dance teachers but if she likes you she will treat you like a daughter — even act as your agent, arranging well-paid gigs in Istanbul. Her English is not perfect but it is good enough to communicate and it is worth it simply to be able to say that you took a class with the great Sema Yıldız.
Last year I had the great pleasure of taking a class with Hale Sultan for the first time and it was just fantastic. She combines that signature Turkish-belly dance energy with classical dance training and her English is great.
Of course, I’ll be in Turkey until the end of August so if you are around give me a shout at email@example.com