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What is Tsifteteli?

by Chryssanthi Sahar Scharf

Tsifteteli is the name for Greek style Bellydance. This name comes from the Turkish word Chifteteli, which originally meant "two strings".

Tsifteteli was mainly brought to Greece by the Asia Minor Greeks, who had to leave their hometowns because of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Greece was occupied by the Turks for about 400 years (from the early 15th century to the early 19th century) and was part of the Ottoman Empire.

In the 1920's Greece started a war against the Turks for independence and by the mid 19th century Greece became a free and an independent state. At that time there were many people of Turkish origin and Moslem faith living in Greece as well as many people of Greek origin and Greek Orthodox faith living in Turkey.

The first Greek colonies on the west coast of Asia Minor were founded about 1000 BC and spread to the Black Sea shore. So there were Greek cities and towns in those areas until 1922 of our time. In that year there was one last big war between Greece and Turkey which ended in catastrophe for both countries. But for the Greeks the catastrophe was bigger, because many Greek cities in Asia Minor were destroyed by the Turks. The Greeks of Smyrna (Izmir) were especially hit hard. At the end of that war Greece and Turkey agreed on exchanging their remaining populations, except 100,000 Greeks in Constantinople (Istanbul) and a similar amount of Turks in North-eastern Greece and on some Greek Islands.

The population exchange brought many new problems to the new Greek State. The Greeks that came over from Turkey had lost everything and the State had to take care of them. But the State was poor. That led to a very bad situation for the new immigrants. The Greeks from Smyrna suffered the most, mainly because they settled down in the urban areas of Athens and Piraeus. Those Greeks had a very rich musical tradition and they brought it with them to Greece. Their music was a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Arab elements. They developed the tradition further in Greece, mainly in order to remember their roots and to comfort their souls. This musical tradition is called "Rembetiko" (some people call it the Greek Blues).

Rembetiko was (and still is) not only a music style but it also includes dances: Zeimbekia, Chassapiko and Tsifteteli. So it was primarily the Greeks of Smyrna who spread Tsifteteli all over Greece.

There may have been Belly dance in Greece before that. Many archaeologists say that Belly dance already existed in ancient Greece. That ancient Greek women used it for worshiping Aphrodite (Venus). There may also have been Belly dance through Greek medieval times. At that time of the Byzantine Imperia the Greeks had strong cultural exchange with the Arabs and other Middle-Eastern populations.

Nevertheless Tsifteteli as we know it today, was brought to Greece by the people of Smyrna and at first it was part of the Rembetiko culture. It developed though through the last 80 years, it spread throughout Greece and became established as the most popular and most common Greek dance together with Zeimbekia. The Tsifteteli songs today are quite different from the original Rembetiko Tsifteteli songs. The lyrics are not as sad as the ones of the Rembetiko Tsifteteli. The original Tsifteteli lyrics are very sad, because they reflect the suffering of the people that created them. They mainly talk about poverty, immigration, lost love, desperation, etc. The original Tsifteteli is not a cheerful dance, as many people outside Greece consider it to be.

But the modern Tsifteteli songs can be very cheerful and funny, some even have lyrics that make no sense at times, but they can also be sad. The music is now resembling more modern Arab music (Pop Balady). That's why it is convenient to also dance the Arabian Raks Sharqi to modern Tsifteteli music.

Today Greeks dance Tsifteteli almost everywhere: At folklore feasts, in Night Clubs, in Bouzoukia Clubs (Greek style Night Clubs), at private parties, at weddings and so on.

Though you will seldom see Tsifteteli performed by a dancer. There are very few places (mainly some Bouzoukia Clubs and some tourist restaurants) were Tsifteteli is performed by a dancer and in most of those cases the dancer dances not the common Tsifteteli but either Arabic Raks Sharqi (to Tsifteteli music) or American style belly dancing.

Tsifteteli is mainly a social dance. People dance it together and mostly in pairs (man and woman, woman and woman, man and man, mainly though man and woman). They improvise together, they communicate through the dance. And if a man and woman dance together they even flirt through the dance. This is one of the reasons why Tsifteteli is immensely popular today and it will probably never stop being popular. It is the expression of the soul and the game of love.

Tsifteteli Movements

The movements of Tsifteteli are a lot simpler than the movements of the Arabic Raks Sharqi. But this doesn't mean that Tsifteteli is easier to dance. For non-Greeks it may even be more difficult to dance then Raks Sharqi, because it has no rules and it depends very much on the feeling for the music. In order to dance Tsifteteli right, one has to become very aware of the Greek Tsifteteli music. This is especially important for the traditional (Rembetiko) Tsifteteli.

The most common Tsifteteli movements are:

Shoulder Shimmy
Vertical backwards figure 8
Hip circle
Hip semi-circle
Rotating around oneself with hip circle
Hip lift to the front
Hip lift in circle
Half camel step
Hands stretched out to the sides
Snapping the fingers
Hands put at the back side of the head
Bending backwards
Belly rolls (some times)
Hip sway forwards\backwards
Hip shimmies and particular steps are not used in Greek Tsifteteli.

As it is a social dance, nobody plays cymbals while dancing it. Only in rare cases, when professional dancers perform Tsifteteli, then they play cymbals. Probably the Rembetiko Tsifteteli dancers who had come from Smyrna, played cymbals, but the more Tsifteteli spread all over Greece, the less common it became to play cymbals.