Male belly dancers are thrilling audiences in Turkey and other European capitals, drawing on a tradition dating back to Ottoman times when men in the Sultan's palaces were entertained by young male dancers as the women lived separately in harems. [Reuters]
Male belly dancers are thrilling audiences in Turkey and other European capitals, drawing on a tradition dating back to Ottoman times when men in the Sultan's palaces were entertained by young male dancers as the women lived separately in harems.
As 36-year-old dancer "Alex" takes to the stage and the repetitive beats are replaced by Arabesque music, the young Turkish crowd goes wild, flinging their arms in the air and jostling for a view of his belly.
"All kinds of people watch me. I dance on stage in clubs, bars and even rock concerts," said Alex, who goes by his stage name.
His costume and dance style are distinct from that of a female dancer. He wears loose black trousers, a chain-mail headdress, a richly-tasselled belt and stole, and a cloak made of sheer fabric, which he extends with his arms like wings.
"I am really against people thinking oriental dance is a female dance. In doing this they are trying to give it an identity...but all dances can have male and female characters."
Ballet also has male and female dancers, he points out.
Alex began dancing aged 16, drawn to belly dance as he thought it was the most expressive dance for his body shape whilst also being highly in demand.
"He dances often two or three nights a week. It is popular with visitors," said club manager Metin Kemer.
Alex said he learned the history of male belly dance from Ottoman palace archives and then modernized the tradition.
The multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, governed from Istanbul, spanned three continents in its heyday around 400 years ago.
As the empire's reach declined and society modernized women became more in view and the number of female belly dancers rose, but Alex sees the dance as most erotic on a male body.
Although the stomach moves are reminiscent of those of a female belly dancer he makes stronger lines with his arms.
The dancer says he has no concerns about intolerance towards his profession in predominantly Muslim Turkey, nor about the re-election of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, which has Islamist roots.
"I did not face any problems. There are more marginal jobs than mine in Turkey... I was marginal 10 years ago in Turkey. Now you can watch striptease or a topless DJ."
He says he has become so well known that there are even impersonators operating in the country.
"I am being imitated which means I must be going in the right direction. I registered with a patent institute."
But male belly-dancers still face a battle for wider recognition of their craft, they say.
London-based Turkish Cypriot dancer Ozgen Ozgec said: "I think there are just a few Turkish male belly dancers in the world, including me, doing an international stage job and trying to get it recognized as art and not just a bar job."