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Chengui dancers - forbidden fairies of the Ottoman Dmpire

Updated: Feb 21

Belly Dance in the Ottoman Empire. Part 1

Although belly dancing was not a traditional art of the Ottoman Empire, it was not only firmly rooted among other types of entertainment for Turks, but also acquired local characteristics and colour.

During the Ottoman period, professional dancers were united in troupes. Male troupes of koçeks and female çengi troupes always existed separately. Çengi danced only in front of a female audience. As a rule, their ensemble consisted of a patron, 12 dancers and a 4-person orchestra called saz.

The patron, as a rule, was a former dancer who had spent her entire life in dance troupes.

Her house was a kind of academy where young girls learned the art of singing, dancing and playing musical instruments, as well as the rules of the troupe, which were set by the mistress, the abla. When passers-by heard the wonderful music coming from the windows, they knew that the chenguis were practising.

Young dandies and old men with tight wallets would often hang around their homes in the hope of picking the "forbidden fruit", but alas! According to tradition, chengui dancers were forbidden to have contact with men. On the contrary, relationships within the troupe were not objectionable.

They were often invited to weddings of wealthy gentlemen. Festive ceremonies involving chengui lasted several days. Negotiations with the inviting party were conducted by the patron-abla. After lengthy bargaining, the amount of remuneration and the terms of the contract were established, under which the dancers were guaranteed accommodation and food for the duration of the holiday.

In the streets, the dancers' procession to the place of performance was a real spectacle. With their faces covered by a thin veil, wearing brightly coloured bedspreads that tightly fitted their bodies, they gave sweet smiles and passionate exchanged glances. Swaying their hips, they walked accompanied by obscene words and greedy glances from men.

In the palace where the dancers were invited, rooms were prepared for them, but the women of the harem were forbidden to enter the territory of the chengui. However, their curiosity got the better of them, and they invented various tricks to get in.

By the time of the performance, passions were running high. Beautiful dancers dressed in sparkling costumes, letting their long black hair down, leaving their breasts showing through the thin lace of their dresses, over which they wore a gold-embroidered velvet vest that emphasised the whiteness of their skin. They wore small cymbals on their fingers, which they used to beat the rhythm to the music, while making undulating movements with their hips and bodies. They slowly bent over, making their shoulders and chests tremble, moving very feminine way.

Several times, some of the dancers dressed as men to portray a love scene surrounded by other women, which was the climax of the performance. At this time, the audience showed interest in their favourite dancer with all sorts of hints.

Chengui were a favourite pastime of wealthy women and middle-aged widows who had inherited large fortunes.

During the dance, they attracted the eyes of their favourites by making seductive promises and sending secret messages. They would place a gold coin between their breasts, whispering invitations. At the end of the dance, there was a real competition between the women for the main prize - to share a rooms decorated with silk with one of the dancers.

Many ladies chose young girls from their husbands' harems to brighten up their leisure time. Sometimes the dancers would make their intentions very clear by tying a white scarf around their necks with a love message embroidered on it. The patroness, the abla, could be recognised by her special shoes, fan, and white neck scarf

Most chengi came from white gypsy tribes who came from the Balkans, but there were often Muslim women among them.

Performances with the participation of chengui can still be seen in Istanbul today. However, they have nothing to do with the traditions of the past, and the audience includes both men and women.

Based on the book "La vie privee des Ottomans"

Translated from French by Amira Rafaelu

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