A modified version of this article appeared in the Winter 1998 edition of Habibi. A dance class by Sema Yildiz is included onDelightful Turkish Tours . Purchase a video of Sema.
Istanbul’s "Dancing Star"
by Eva Cernik
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 a 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 not always Sema, but she was always a dancer. Little Emine Tatu was born to a Yugoslavian immigrant man (who also spoke Greek) from Vodina City, and a beautiful Turkish woman. They had four boys, and Emine 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 and fruit trees. The family garden was adjoining the big city garden 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 Emine 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 döyüm (wedding parties) at a nearby rental "party house". Emine 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 döyüm, 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, Emine 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 Roma 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 distinct style of dance of the Roma girls, especially their karsilama (9/8) dances.
The following years were times of serious change for Emine, 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 Yarisma, a contest for "Queen of the Dance." Now more than thirty years later she still remembers the names of the other contestants. That is a reflection of her character: 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 ‘açik’." 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 açik girls were "Oryantal," but Sema said that singers also became açik.
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 fun gestures that she sees. She said she was watching a video of Arabian dancers the other day, and that night in her show she included a gesture she had learned.
In 1968, Sema Yildiz landed her first job as a soloist. She worked in Zeki Müren’s review. He remains famous even after his death in 1995, a much loved singer in Turkey. 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 Tancu, Inçi Birol, and Özcan Tekgül, an older Turkish television actor.
Sema danced in Tehran and Khoramshah in 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.
I saw Sema for the first time in 1992, the year she retired from the stage. It was a very difficult time for her—her mom had recently died, and Sema cared for the one younger brother who remained at home. Though he was a full-grown man working in interior decoration and painting homes, she still cared for him like a mother. That night she shared the bill with Tülay Karaca and her niece Zinnur Karaca. Tülay also retired soon after that, but to have a baby. Imagine! In the West or even in Egypt, if you are a star, we would think that if you are too old to be on stage, certainly you would be too old to have a baby. Not so in Turkey. Their idea of too old for the stage is actually a dancer’s technical prime, when she approaches an understanding of what the dance really is! I asked Sema if Tülay and she were friends: "Yes, she stayed over many times." Other working dancers of her time were Seher Seniz, who now lives in one of the Mediterranean coastal cites, and Efruz, the mysterious one I wrote briefly about in the Summer ’93 issue of Habibi (Volume 12, number 3 ). Now I know that Efruz went to Europe on a contract in 1995, remained there, got married and had a child. And, Sema, what about children? Did you not want to have any? "No time," she answered, an all-too-familiar reason for professional dancers.
In 1995, when I actually got to know Sema, she was at the tail-end of a crisis over the transition in her career. Nesrin Topkapi, the famous retired dancer, was another of her contemporaries but just a few years older. She said Nesrin had been her friend for a long time, but now they don’t talk much. When Sema was still performing and Nesrin began to teach, Sema confessed that she thought it was shameful to be forced into teaching because no one calls you for work anymore. But now she sees that it is a natural progression in this world. She respects Nesrin, as well as herself, for continuing their careers as dancers-in-the-form-of-teacher. Sema laughed that one dancer who had been dancing only two years had proclaimed that she is a teacher. After the laugh was over, we got serious and decided, "This is not natural in a city where there are teachers who have earned their position by a quarter century of experience."
Recently in the early morning hours, Sema and I rummaged through the piles at the bottom of her closet, unearthing some shoe boxes, those ubiquitous protectors of the accounts of people’s lives. It was late, and she resisted, but I opened a box! There was Sema’s professional life—the movies, the stage shows, her travels.
There was a funny photo of Sema in a Mexican costume with a tall pointy New Years hat and ruffled sleeves. She said that when she applied for a job in Monaco she sent in that photograph along with a three-minute recording of "Esin Engin" (in those days you sent in the sheet music for your show). When they saw the photo in pointy hat they thought she was making fun of them and rejected her for the job. We had a good laugh.
Tired, but curiosity prevailing, I carefully lifted page after page. Amid the stories in Turkish I recognized a face in a news clip. "Yes, that was Magaña, who brought me my very first study group." I later called Magaña 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, Magaña led a group of fifteen people on a dance tour of Turkey, Greece and Egypt. They saw Sema at the old Kervansaray, and Magaña asked to visit 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, Magaña 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, Magaña 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 Magaña. Now, I only see hints of that shyness. She has acquired a lot of self-confidence in the years since that visit from Magaña’s group.
Sitting with Sema in 1997 in Rolân’s bar across the street from Regine’s, she reflected on the changes in her familiar neighborhood. The various establishments in the area know her well from her frequent visits after work hours. But now, instead of being surrounded by fans, groupies and coworkers, she is surrounded by another kind of fan—her students. Across the street, several of the clubs have given in to a trend in recent years that for a while brings in more money than traditional Turkish Dinner clubs—they have converted to "Crazy Horse" style strip-revue programs, mostly with the original owners.
One such place is Regine’s Club and Disco. Sema has been utilizing the basement disco floor off-hours to teach her classes. I remember after our first lesson in ’95, when we came to that same disco again at night, Sema did not cease to be a teacher. We got up to join the others on the dance floor, and she almost bullied me into following her moves. We were in the Orient, and teachers there are coaches, and coach me she did. Every place we went that night she had me up dancing and reminding me of certain moves I must try.
Now I am there with Sema in the dark disco with its marble floor. We’re having tea while we wait for a student to appear for her lesson. Sema is making a tape for her of mostly Egyptian music, because it is quite "in" and seems very exotic to the Turks. Sema gets her good Egyptian music from the European dance students who come through town. I always encouraged her to use Turkish music for our lessons, because I didn’t "get it" that Turkish-style dancing done to Egyptian music is still Turkish!
Several of the women who teach at the German School in Istanbul come to Regine’s Disco twice each week to have lessons. As teachers fulfill their contracts and leave, they tell each other about Sema, and there remains a steady though small group of German students. For Sema it is like having an extended family always coming to visit. The German women were the students of a Swiss woman named Julie, who taught at the International Women’s Club. Julie had learned Oriental dance in Europe. Another interesting aside, Nancy Ermenidis, an American, also taught Oriental dance "in the Orient" through the women’s club. I must admit that in the half year that I lived in Istanbul and taught in my apartment, I never could get over the convoluted reality that I actually had some Turkish belly dance students.
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 Magaña’s group, then the German school teachers, the Italian ladies who are sent over by Katrine of Padua,Eva’s Delightful Dance tourists, 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 protégé 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 course of history of Oriental dance. 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, sometimes she arranges for guest appearances for her students. One of Sema’s German students, Uta, 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.
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.
Observing Sema, it is easy to see where her original inspiration came from. 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, her youthful sparkle still shining forth brightly.
Eva is a much sought after performer and workshop instructor