A Question of Köçek – Men in Skirts

August 31, 2008 at 11:13 pm (Belly Dancing) (, , , , , , , )

Köçek Dancers, miniature from the Surname

Köçek Dancers, miniature from the Surname

I came across some excellent video of Köçek dancers in Turkey recently, thought I’d post a bit about them.  Köçek (say Kocheck, sometimes spelled Kocek, Kojek, Kochek) are male dancers dancing in essentially female costumes – although not exactly in drag.  The style dates from Ottoman Turkey when Köçek (male) and Çengi (female) dancers were kept as part of the court entertainers.  Both Köçek and Çengi danced in feminine style.  Beautiful young children were chosen mostly from among the non-Muslim populations (Jewish, Armenian, Greek and other conquered cultures) and were trained in the court styles of dance and music.  During much of that time both Köçek and Çengi were used as prostitutes as well as performers. 

While the Çengi only performed in private settings, the Köçek performed in public as well as in the court.  Köçek dancers were attached to the court or organized into performance companies called Kol.  These companies included musicians, singers, dancers and actors and performed a variety of styles of music, dance and entertainment.  Among the Köçek dances is a style is recorded as being seductive and done in female dress.  From The Belly Dance Book:

According to 17th century Turkish traveler Eviliya Chelebi, in 1538 there were twelve kolsin Turkey with over three thousand performers.  These troupes frequently were hired to entertain the crowds at public festivals by the dignitaries of state who organized them and could also be seen at processions and parades.  When the Sultan’s armies left for battle or returned, musicians, clowns, jugglers and dancers preceded them. 

The word Köçek comes from the Persian kuchak, “little,” “small,” or “young.”  In the Ottoman court, Köçek boys performed until they could no longer hide their beards or “lost their youthful beauty”.  Jasmin Jahal writes:

They were young boys who were sensuous, attractive, effeminate, and carefully trained in music and dance. Their dancing was sexually provocative and impersonated female dancers. It incorporated ladylike walking, finger snapping (a special two-handed finger snap), slow belly movements, suggestive gestures, acrobatics, and playing wooden clappers called calpara or, in later times, metal cymbals called zils.

Today, Köçek dancing is still seen in Turkey, although it has changed form to a more folkloric and less sexualized dance and is now done by adult men, still in skirts, beards and all.  Still, once can sometimes see it’s roots in the movement. 

Here are some clips of contemporary Köçek dancers:

This one is from “Bak Kim Dans Ediyor“… “Look, Who is Dancing!” which is the Turkish production of Dancing With The Stars. (I’ve seen video on this show of a variety of dances including oriental, Persian, lyrical, rock disco, Samba, modern Jazz, and ballroom.)  I’m not sure this is the most aesthetic version of the dance, but you’ve got to admire their enthusiasm and I especially love the cartoon BooOOyOOOYoooYoing sounds that go with the pelvic thrusts…

Lots more videos at the Folkloric Vodpod link http://azizasaidfolkloricbd.vodpod.com

A bit more about Köçek history, in case you’re interested in the details…

The Ottoman Empire lasted from mid 1300’s through the early 1900’s.  At some times, female performers weren’t permitted and performers like the Köçek took their place.  In other times both men and women were included in the musicians, dancers and entertainers.   In general Köçek performed in public settings and Çengi performed at private homes or social events.

A bit about the end of the dance in it’s original form, from The Belly Dance Book:

Sometimes the crowds became over enthusiastic in their admiration and on many occasions quarrels broke out among the spectators. … Unfortunately, performances often devolved into fights and riots.  These were so common that in order to put an end to the quarrels among his Jannisaries (soldiers) Sultan Mahmoud first forbade and then passed a law prohibiting the performances of Kochecks in 1857.   Many of them fled to Egypt, where they were employed by Mohamed Ali Pasha.  Ironically, twenty-three years earlier in 1834, Mohamed Ali banished the female dancers (Ghawazee) from Cairo in an attempt to keep them from the view of European men. 

There is some historical disagreement on the source of the costume.  From The Belly Dance Book, we have this:

Many Europeans… who saw male dancers, described their costume as being half male, half female:  The upper half being a shirt of some kind or a vest and the lower half what they called a petticoat.  To them, the sight of a brightly colored skirt suggested femininity.  This, again, was a cultural misunderstanding.  Ordinary men and male performers can be seen wearing outfits of this description throughout the Mediterranean and Asia.  For example, Greek soldiers, called Evzones, wore an elaborate pleated skirt and still do for special occasions.  The male dancers of Tunisia perform a dance balancing a stack of water jugs on their heads.  Their costume is the same as mentioned by Lane, a shirt witha vest and a “petticoat” which is ankle length, with a sash tied around the waist.  sometimes the skirt reaches the shinbone.  As late as 1926, there was a dagger dance performed by the Druze warriors of Syria in which they wore a large pleated skirt, used only during this dance.  Even as far away as Tibet and India, male dancers can be seen wearing a costume with a wide multicolored skirt.

Several travelers to Turkey mentioned that the female Chengis were gealous of the notoriety of the male Kocheks and imitated their dress and dances.  In miniatures of Turkish female dancers, they are shown in a dress similar to what the Egyptian Ghawazeewore.  A typical costume would be a long overcoat with flowing sleeves and baggy pants.   European drawings also show them in the single or double skirt of the Kocheks.  Eyewitnesses also mentioned that the hems of Kochecks’ skirts were weighted so that when they spun or pivoted, they flared out like a fan.  Given this evidence is is my belief that it was worn by both the male and female performers.

 And also this:

The upper part of the costume was a close fitting tunic with a short collar, which fell to mid thigh, often made of velvet, buttoned down the front and from the forearm to the wrist, held in place by a belt with a heavy clasp, or a sash.  Over the tunic (just below the belt), was a skirt made of silk or some other rich fabric.  They often wore a double skirt, the first being shorter and a different color than the second.  Underneath they wore fitted trousers, ankle high boots or slippers.  On their heads, they wore skullcaps or a fur cap called a culpack.

This complex costume came into vogue in the 15th century.  Earlier depictions show them wearing a much simpler costume, consisting  of an intricately embroidered robe (the same as men of the upper classes), tied with a sash and either a turban or a culpack on the head.

 From Wikipedia:

The youths, often wearing heavy makeup, would curl their hair and wear it in long tresses under a small black or red velvet hat decorated with coins, jewels and gold. Their usual garb consisted of a tiny red embroidered velvet jacket with a gold-embroidered silk shirt, shalvars (baggy trousers), a long skirt and a gilt belt, knotted at the back. They were said to be “sensuous, attractive, effeminate,” and their dancing “sexually provocative,” impersonating female dancers. Dancers minced and gyrated their hips in slow vertical and horizontal figure-8’s, rhythmically snapping their fingers and making suggestive gestures. Often acrobatics, tumbling and mock wrestling were also part of the act. The köçeks were available sexually, often to the highest bidder, in the passive role.

While some may argue that köçek dances, costume and persona were not necessarily effeminate or trans-gender, there is a strong Turkish cultural idea that suggests it is.  In the 1975 Turkish movie Kocek, the main character Caniko is called “Kocek” by other men, and sometimes confused for a woman.  From one analysis of the film:

Caniko is thus an aggressive and assertive young man. But even he is aware of his ambiguous sex. Whilst staring at his smooth, unblemished face in the mirror he threatens to cut himself (a form of punishment a man inflicts on a woman for disobedience) if he doesn’t obey his desires to look more like a man. As Caniko, the protagonist is restless, frustrated, unhappy. An irrepressible desire he has is to dance. In the streets he dances; in the tavern he dances; on tables he dances. Whilst watching a belly dancer with his male friends he is disturbed. Here Caniko is the spectator, not the spectacle. He usurps the female dancer and becomes the spectacle by starting to dance in front of his friends. By attracting the male gaze he takes on female form. In his discussion of Jacques Lacan and Laura Mulvey, Madan Sarup writes: The male subject is the imagined source of the gaze and the female subject is the imagined recipient of the gaze. Indeed, in our culture, voyeurism is the active or ‘masculine’ form of the scopophilic drive (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object), while exhibitionism is the passive or ‘feminine’ form of the same drive(1992: 158).

So Caniko is confused, or rather society sees him as a tangle, both physically and scopophilically. His desire is to be a man who is gazed upon. Yet, society will only allow the woman to be the recipient of the gaze. Even when he isn’t dancing, Caniko connotes what Laura Mulvey calls “to-be-looked-at-ness” (1985: 309). Caniko, whether he likes it or not, has an “erotic impact” on men. It isn’t necessarily that they think he’s a woman and therefore desire him. It is more likely they desire him and thus think of him as a woman.

Turkish culture recognizes the Köçek as effeminate men.  Interestingly, while contemporary Islam views homosexuality with great prohibition, Middle Eastern cultures historically do not.  There is a multi-gender view that has subtle gradations.. there are masculine men, effeminate men, men who wish to take on women’s roles, and feminine women, masculine women, and women who wish to take on men’s roles.  The idea of “homosexual” as used in the west (a sort of one-size-fits-all label) doesn’t really apply.  A man who wishes to be desired by other men is not seen as the same as as one who desires other men… they fall in different places on the social and acceptability scale.  There is apparently a rich resource of traditional songs, poems and literature that has either been ignored or mistranslated over the years.  Here’s an example from Abu Nuwas, a Persian/Arabic poet of the late 700’s as translated in Carousing with Gazelles:

The Lovers

    Blessed indeed are these two loving friends; They sleep through the night, in an embrace without end.
    They have loved each other since birth, so they say; With strong, equal loves, alike all the way.
    When Love came to them, they told him what to do: “Do the right thing, Lobe and split Love in two!”
    So Love split himself, in two equal parts; Hard work! But no thwarting those strongly-knit hearts.
    Their two souls became one soul, and then; That one soul lived in the two loving men.
    These two don’t quarrel; they avoid any strife; They guard their love as more precious than life.



  1. Hilary Hall said,

    Interesting. I myself am not attracted to men but the idea that men find me attractive is … appealing in some unexplainable way.
    I’ve never thought about that until I read your last paragraph.

  2. scribblinggypsy said,

    Your essay is really interesting. I’ve been curious about the Cengi since reading about them in “Looking for Little Egypt.”

  3. Aziza Sa'id said,

    DeAnna, delighted you found it useful! I’m working on a second post specifically on the Çengi, more to come!

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