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Talking Turkey with Tayyar Akdeniz

Turkish Choreographer, Performer, Musician, Teacher and Promoter.
By Atesh

Tayyar Akdeniz Recently I sat down with my friend Tayyar Akdeniz over tea and baklava. For those of you unfamiliar with his work I have included a short bio followed by our tea time discussion. You can't really get the full effect of Tayyar's impish charm and his deep passion for music and dance from the written word but what transpired was really fascinating. I hope you enjoy!

Tayyar Akdeniz was born in Kars, Turkey. He was raised in Ankara where he began performing as a child. He was influenced greatly and learned many dance and music styles from the Romany (Gypsy) population in his neighborhood in Ankara. He worked and toured with many Turkish dance ensembles throughout his childhood and adolescence and started teaching professionally at the age of 16.

He toured extensively throughout the world with the prestigious Turkish State Folk Dance Ensemble and with other dance troupes. Tayyar has shared the stage with many distinguished artists, musicians and singers, including Zeki Muren, Nida Tufekci, Arif Sag, Muhlis Akarsu, Izzet Altinmese, Ozay Gonlum, Belkis Akkale, Ajda Pekkan and Ibrahim Tatlises.

As a singer and musician, his skills with song, the baglama (lute), davul (drum) and kasiklar (wooden spoons) are much in demand. He has taught in Turkey at May 19th University, Samsum Municipal Conservatory and at Hacette University.

His love of dance is evident in the sheer joy that he projects from the stage. In 1989 Tayyar moved from Turkey to the United States, settling in New York. Since then he has worked tirelessly to keep a sense of Turkish culture alive in America, particularly for children.

He has taught, organized and directed many folkloric activities sponsored by the Turkish American Youth Association, the Turkish Women's League of America and currently continues to make a positive impact with his astonishing capabilities as the Director of Cultural Affairs for the Federation of Turkish American Associations, Inc.

His files are teaming with certificates, awards, invitations, and letters of thanks from various organizations and Turkish heads of State. In 1994, he established the award winning Turkish Fine Arts Ensemble, Inc. in New York City and toured with the group throughout the United States.

Tayyar founded and owns M.E.D. Folk Tours, Inc., (www.folktours.com) and is now devoting his time between Turkey and the United States. He is looking forward to sharing his love of dance and music and his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture through many dance and music events both in the USA and Turkey.

Atesh: Tell me how you got started dancing and playing music professionally?

Tayyar: I started playing music and dancing when I was very young. It was a big part of life in my neighborhood. There were always lots of parties and weddings. When I was about four years old we lived next to a busy street with lots of traffic. Since I was always running around my mom made a drum for me out of a wooden marmalade container and some animal skin. She wanted to keep me safe at home practicing drum. It worked!

When I got a bit older I would play in the wedding parties. I was so little I had to stand on a chair so the drum would not touch the ground when I played! I always danced all through grade school but I paid more attention to soccer until I saw a folk dance group at our school. They were holding hands and dancing. It looked like fun and there were pretty girls in the group so I joined! I was about 16 years old.

At that time there was a very popular Kurdish folk dance but only one teacher with an adult folk dance organization knew the dance in all of Ankara. Every Sunday I would rush to their rehearsal and peek through the keyhole and watch the grown-ups learn the choreography. I taught it to my group and we won first place in our competition! A few years later the University in Ankara was looking for a drummer and all the professional musicians were busy at that time. I said "I can do that!" I went and auditioned, they hired me for two shows and we did good. At the end they said "Here is your pay". I was shocked! I didn't know you could earn money from this type of thing! I then began playing for the University and teaching dance. I was earning a salary and was very happy! In 1975 I joined The State Folk Dance Ensemble of Turkey and was very lucky to travel all over the world performing and playing. Music and dance has been very good to me!

Atesh: Folk dance is very well respected in Turkey, isn't it?

Tayyar: It is like a sport with many dance competitions taking place. Yes that is right. What makes it so exciting is the richness and complexity of our cultural heritage. If you look at the history of Turkey especially during the Ottoman Empire you will see so many different nationalities and cultures that have been a part of Turkish history. They have all left their mark on music and dance. Each region of Turkey has it's own dances and music. There are so many you can never be bored!

Atesh: You grew up in a rough neighborhood in Ankara called Cin Cin Baglari where there were many Rom people (Gypsy) living. How did Roma music and dance influence you?

Tayyar: They called the neighborhood Cin Cin because there was nothing there! Nothing! Some poor people from the outside villages from East Turkey, Kurdish people and Alevi (Sufi) people came there and started building houses. My mother built our house herself! Some Roma people would stay in Cin Cin between travels. Although Ankara has grown and Cin Cin is now in the middle of the city, at the time it was far away and no one would bother them. The people of the neighborhood gave them a chance to build houses and settle down and now there are more Roma people in Cin Cin than anything else! The music and culture was totally different. Totally different dance, music, different feeling from other Turkish music and dance. I got a chance to play music with them and learn the dances just because they were a part of my life, a part of my neighborhood. They were my friends.

Atesh: What are the differences between Turkish oriental (bellydance) and Roma (Gypsy) dance?

Tayyar: Roma dance is much more a social dance usually done in a group setting than oriental style, which has been more developed for the stage and is usually performed solo. So the Roma movements are much more relaxed and not as stylized. Also there are a lot of everyday movements incorporated in Roma dance, washing clothes, cooking, ect. Rom women work very hard and their dance is a very proud dance. Costuming is different too, Rom women usually do not show their belly.

Atesh: How do you feel as a male dancer teaching women?

Tayyar: I can teach and tell them what to do but of course the feminine feeling has to come from them. I let my students know how to count the music, what steps to use with what music and what the culture is like so they can use all that to express the music and also themselves.

Atesh: It seems there are some popular male bellydancers in Turkey nowadays. Can you talk about that?

Tayyar: That has it's roots in history. My style is folk and Romany but of course there have been male belly dancers for quite some time in Turkey. Long ago, because of cultural pressure women did not go out and dance in public. Instead young men with covered faces would go out and dance at public functions mimicking the movement of women. We call them Kocek or Zenne.

Atesh: You were in the very prestigious State Folk Dance Group which was as respected as say, the American Ballet Theater here. Socially bellydance is not as accepted in Turkish society as Folk dance. When did you first recognize bellydance as an art?

Tayyar: Poor dancers! We were not seeing them as artists, only as pretty girls. Once I was performing with the State Folk Dance Group in Istanbul. I was waiting to go on and there was a bellydancer on before us. I was happy to see a woman as I had just come from the army! But as I watched her I became amazed at her movements, and how she matched the music. I saw how difficult it was, and how much artistry there was in it. I forgot she was a woman and saw only her talent and artistry. That dancer was Nesrin Topkapi. I gained so much respect that day for Oriental dance.

Atesh: What would you say makes Turkish oriental dance distinctly "Turkish?" What are the differences between Egyptian and Turkish Oriental dance?

Tayyar: There are similarities but of course they are totally different countries, different cultures, different climates. Different music! Some of the rhythms are the same but the emphasis is on a different beat. This creates a totally different feeling. And we have our own rhythms too. Egyptian style dance is much more lifted while Turkish is more grounded. Turkish dancers can do floorwork if they feel like it. My friend and partner, Artemis Mourat has written many articles about this subject.

Atesh: There has been criticism that there are no good dancers in Turkey anymore. What do you say to that? What do you see as the future of oriental dance in Turkey? What is the future of Roma dance?

Tayyar: I still see good and talented dancers in Turkey but some dancers are copying the Arabic style without understanding or paying attention to their own culture or even paying attention to the Arabic culture they are copying. They also are not studying dance, studying music and working hard. I am sorry to say they think it is "in their blood". Maybe so but you still have to work hard! Bellydance is becoming more popular in Turkey and many tourists want to come here to study so I think that will make the dancers who don't work so hard pay attention and start to learn more. But there are good dancers here and I want everyone to know them and what Turkey has to offer! As for Roma dance it has become very popular and the government has put together a Roma dance and music group. They also sponsor the Herdelez Spring Festival in May. I respect the Roma people and their beautiful culture. I hope they can keep their tradition strong.

Atesh: You have taught workshops all over the world to many different people age 8 - 80! What do you think is the most important thing to cultivate as a dancer? What do you find that students who are not from the Middle Eastern culture have the most trouble with?

Tayyar: I would like to tell the dancers who are not from this culture or Arabic culture that they should make themselves really comfortable and not pressure themselves. Not only are you learning new steps and movements but you are learning a different way of feeling and experiencing movement. For example, it took me many years to get the feeling of the Turkish Black Sea dances because I am not from that region. These things can take time! Dancers also have to pay attention to the music, some songs are religious and not proper to dance to, what do the lyrics mean, is it a sad song or happy, what steps go to each style of music? When I see a performer that took the time to research this, I feel very happy. Also, when you say "Middle East" that is a big place with a lot of different countries. Each country has it's own personality and style of dance. When you dance Egyptian use Egyptian movements and music and feelings. If you dance Turkish to Egyptian music it doesn't fit well! Dancers are like children for me and children must have parents. The melody with it's flow and nurturing is the Mother and the rhythm with it's steady beat tells you what to do and how to step like the Father. Let's all be good kids and listen to mom and dad!

Atesh: Tell us about Folk Tours and what you want to accomplish. Tell us of your plans for the future.

Tayyar: I started Folk Tours because I taught at Mendicino and saw what great things were going on there. I wanted to bring an experience like that to the East Coast for people there. We are in our fourth year now! We have a festival in Turkey as well, where people can study with Turkish teachers and teachers living in Europe or elsewhere that they wouldn't have such easy access to otherwise. This year we have Leila Haddad for Arabic style and Birgul Berai, star of the Orient House for many years along with many other native Turkish teachers. They can take great music and dance classes and get the real feeling of Turkey. So many people worldwide are interested in this type of music and dance. We always hoped that Folk Tours could build bridges across cultures. When people make music and dance together, something happens, something wonderful. I want to share that joy with people all over the world!

Atesh (also known to some of you as misswebb007!) has been performing most of her life in one way or another. She is a fully converted "Turkophile". A full bio can be found at www.folktours.com/about.html