Folk Dances of Turkey

Facing three seas and straddling important trade routes, Turkey has a complex, sophisticated culture. This is reflected in the variety of its folk dances. The dominant dance forms are all a type known as the “line dance”.

Line dancing is familiar in the U.S., particularly in the Western states. Country dances are usually held in a large barn or in the community’s town hall. They are the highlight of the week in ranching and farming communities. Line dances – like the Two Step, the Western Promenade, the Cowboy, and the Waltz to name a few – are practiced with great vigor at weddings, birthday celebrations and parties. Line dances are usually the only kinds of dancing everyone knows how to do. These dances, or as they are popularly called “hoe-downs”, are very popular celebrations. Country farmers celebrate the harvest of their yearly crops. Hard-working ranchers and cowboys in the U.S. West celebrate the last round-up and the sale of their livestock.

In the small town where I grew up in the state of Indiana in the U.S., the most popular dances were “Sock Hops” and “Square Dances”. A “Sock Hop” would be held in the high school gymnasium after the Friday night basketball game was over between high school teams in the area. It was given this name because at that time, the varnished and high-polished floor where the games were played were considered off-limits for anyone except those in athletic shoes, to avoid scratching the floor. After the game was over and the dance music started, all the high school boys and girls took off their shoes and danced in their socks. Nothing could be called a “line dance”, however, because the music lent itself to either slow dancing for couples or fast dancing to the fiercely popular rock and roll music.

A square dance on Skyline Farms in Alabama, circa 1937

Square dancing is uniquely American. Like the culture it came from, square dance has roots in European, Native American, and African practices. Square dancing has been a part of American entertainment for centuries. Several European dances influenced the formation of “square dance”, a form which dates back to the 1600’s in England. Dances like the quadrille and the cotillion were performed in 18th Century France. This photo from circa 1937 has a remarkable similarity to the “line dances” common to Turkey’s regional folk dances.

Many different types of folk dances are performed in various ways in Turkey, with the cultural structure of each region represented by its own particular folk dance (reference the map above). A few of the best-known examples of Turkish folk dances are the Bar, the Halay, the Hora, the Horon, Spoon Dances, the Lezginka, and the Zeybek. The fast-stepping Kolbasti Dance is from the seaport of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey. It has become a favorite and its popularity has spread outside the region.

Bar Dance – Eastern Anatolia: With its structure and formation, Bar dances are performed by groups in the open. In general, this dance is spread over the Eastern Anatolia region, especially in Erzurum, Artvin, Bayburt, Agri, Kars, and Erzincan provinces. The characteristic of the Bar Dance is its formation. It is performed side-by-side, hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, and arm-in-arm. Women and men’s Bar dances are different from one another. The principal instruments of the Bar Dance are the “davul” (a large double-headed drum played with mallets) and the “zurna” (the shrill pipe). The clarinet has been added to the women’s Bar Dance. The dancers normally wear costumes, dance with pride, and turn their hands as they hop dance.

Halay Folk Dance – East, Southeast, and Central Anatolia: The Halay is one of the most striking of the Turkish folk dances. It has a rich simplicity showcasing the originality and creativity of this dance. The rhythmic elements of the Halay are generally performed with the “davul-zurna” (drum-shrill pipe) combination. However, it may be danced with the “kaval” (shepherd’s pipe), the “sipsi” (reed), the “cigirtma” (fife), or the “baglama” (an instrument with three double strings played with a plectrum). Or the only accompaniment for the dancers may be the singing of folk songs.

Hora Folk Dance – Eastern Thrace Region: The dancers hold each other's hands and the circle spins, usually counterclockwise, as each participant follows a sequence of three steps forward and one step back. The dance is usually accompanied by musical instruments such as the cymbalom, accordion, violin, viola, double bass, saxophone, trumpet, or the pan pipes. The steps used are extremely diverse, varying between three and seven or eight steps forward, and one to five or six steps back. The Hora is popular during wedding celebrations and festivals, and differs by the rhythm of the music and the steps taken. It is an essential part of the social entertainment in rural areas.

Horon Folk Dance – Black Sea Region: This Anatolian folk dance is the ancient koron-horon, originally of pagan worship, and became a sacred ritual dance performed by men only. There are many different types of this dance in different regions. The word “Horon” comes from “hur-kor” meaning “Sun”, or “horom” meaning a line of six or seven corn stalks all tied together to form a lattice. It looks like people joined together with arms raised. The Horon is generally danced by a chain of either men or women who form a line or semi-circle. It has one of the most characteristic movements – a fast shoulder shimmy (“tremoulo”) and a sudden squat. This imitates or suggests the movements of a fish called the “hamsi”, a type of anchovy, as it swims in the sea or struggles in the nets for its life. When men and women link arms and perform together as a couple, the dance is often referred to as “Rahat” (comfortable Horon), since it is slower and simpler in its patterns. Horons are danced to the music of the cura zurna (a wind instrument), the cura davul (a two-stringed instrument with a high-pitched sound), the Tulum (looks and sounds like a modern-day bagpipe), the kemence (bottle-shaped bowed lute), koltuk davul (a large, double-headed drum played with mallets), and even the accordion.

Spoon Folk Dance – Konya: These dances are mostly spread over Middle Anatolia, and in the south especially in Konya and Ankara. They have a very different structure with their arrangement, performance, rhythmic and melodic characteristics. Dances with spoons used to be played in Middle Asia to the emperors. The dancers use two plates and two wooden spoons, and dance freely and apart from each other, holding their spoons in each hand. The dance is done by forming a circle or standing opposite one another, face-to-face. The spoons define the rhythm of the music, which is at 2/4 or 4/4 time. The music of most spoon dances comes from folk songs with lyrics. When instruments are used, it is the beast bow (later the four-stringed violin), clarinet, and baglama, a national four-stringed instrument that is a smaller form of the guitar.

Lezginka Folk Dance – Kars and Ardahan: Lezginka is the collective name originally given by Russians to all Caucasian dances united by fast 6/8 rhythm. It can be a male solo dance (often with a sword) or a pairs dance. The melody is clear and dynamic, the pace is fast. The man, imitating the eagle, falls to his knees, leaps up, and dances with concise steps and strong, sharp arm and body movements. When the dance is performed in pairs, couples do not touch; the woman dances quietly as she regards the man’s display. A common mistake made is to attribute this dance only to the Lezgin people, a Northeast Caucasian ethnic group native predominantly to southern Dagestan and northeastern Azerbaijan who speak the Lezgian language.

Zeybek Folk Dance – West Anatolia: Zeybek means brother or friend and it has become the local dance of the West Anatolia Region. Men and women rarely perform this dance together, however there are parts that only male or female dancers dance. Individually or singly within groups, the men begin slowly strutting about to tight strains of music. Usually slow and boastful figures suggest men's strength as well as pride in being heroes. Most of the Zeybek dances start with a part called "strolling around". Until the end of the first part of the music, dancers stroll around the stage. Then abruptly, they start dancing with the music, while shouting out. This shouting out is called "nara" in Turkish, and is only for the male dancers. It is a signal that the main part of the dancing is starting. Female dancers start too but they do not shout out.

Zeybek dances are slow and splendid, with one to three dancers, but there can also be a group of dancers, with wooden spoons in their hands. They use these spoons as percussion according to the rhythm of the music, which can either be slow or quick. Sitting and turning around are the most common figures of the dance. Most of the music for the Zeybek dance is Turkish national folk songs, with rhythms of 9/2, 9/4 and 9/8. The musical instruments are usually shrill pipe accompanied by a drum, lute with three double-strings or two-three strings, and an earthenware kettle drum.

Kolbasti Dance – Trabzon; Black Sea Coast: You have to see the Kolbasti performed to believe it! Click on the link below to enjoy these modern, young Turkish dancers. Their feet and bodies are moving so fast it is amazing how they can remember all of the movements and the steps to the dance. The routine is very complicated, and how they manage to keep their balance and their feet from becoming tangled is a mystery to one like me who cannot manage our Western-style line dances. It must come from first loving this dance, then spending hours of practice to perfect the movements and the footwork.

Loosely translated, the word “kolbasti” means “caught red-handed by the police”. According to legend, the name comes from the nightly police patrols of the city to round up all of the drunks, who then made up a song with the lyrics, “They came, they caught us, they beat us” (in Turkish, “Eldiler, bastılar, vurdular”).

In the past few years, the Kolbasti has become very popular. People have really taken to it and its popularity has spread outside of the Trabzon region. This dance now seems to be used mostly for weddings, by young people to show off, and for the guys to attract girls. However, the Kolbasti has never disappeared from the Black Sea region of Trabzon but remains very much a part of the local culture and tradition.

Costumes for Folk Dances: There is no special costume other than for the drummer, zurna player, dancing boy and girl, and the Zeybek dancer. Where folk dances are performed in public and cultural centers, each group will choose a special costume. Many will use Turkish wedding costumes. As happens with dance groups all over the world, Turkish folk dance groups will choose special costumes unique to their group.

The most common costumes for men are the fez, turban, or tall Persian-lambskin cap for the head; a short jacket with slit sleeves; a sash and weapons belt for the waist; baggy trousers, full-gathered knee breeches, or a kind of tight-fitting trouser; “zibka” for the legs, socks with a motif; boots, light peasant shoes (“yemeni”) or a sandal of rawhide (“carik”) for the feet.

Women’s costumes are very rich in color and form. The head is covered and ornamented with jewels and an embroidered kerchief. The wearing of lightweight shoes or “yemeni” is widespread. They may wear a single skirt, two skirts, or three skirts; a short jacket or “cepken”; a short collar-less jacket or “salta”; and a doublebreasted waistcoat, a “camadan”. They must also wear a belt or sash. Underneath they wear baggy trousers (“salvar) of which there are many different kinds. An apron, stockings with a motif on the feet, and a light shoe (“yemeni”) or a sandal of rawhide (“carik”) complete their costume.

Costumed Turkish Folk Dance Company

Folk dances in Turkey can be divided into many categories. Some describe the relationship between man and nature. Other dances have events such as fighting, war, love and courtship as their subject matter. There are dances about agriculture, the harvest, and damaged crops. Other dances describe different occupations such as that of a shepherd, or the daily tasks of baking bread, milking, or spinning yarn.

Folk dances are performed at weddings, engagement ceremonies, when sending young men off to perform their military service, at national and religious festivals, after victories, going to and coming back from the high plateaus and at meetings. People who enjoy reputations as good folk dancers are especially invited to wedding ceremonies. Folk dances owe their rich variety of moves to such people, who happily improvise while performing in order to show off their skills. In this way, Turkey’s folk dances are successfully passed on to the next generation.

With colorful costumes and vibrant figures, folk dances in Turkey are important components of the entertainment culture of the people. But more than this, they preserve the heritage of cultural motifs thousands of years old and carry them into the future. Folk dance groups take the stage at almost every occasion, at festivals, at marriage ceremonies. Traditional folk dances are taught at the schools, at state and municipality organizations, and in private lessons. From grade school on up to the university level, every school in Turkey has at least one folk dance ensemble and a folk dancing teacher. Many local, national, and international folk dancing festivals are hosted in Turkey. You will certainly come across a folklore festival, or a local festival in which folk dances are performed, in any Aegean or Mediterranean city you visit for a vacation in Turkey.

If you happen to be present and witness any of these dances at a festival, be prepared. Your Turkish friends will invite you to dance with them!

Mary Bloyd is a retired corporate manager, living in Centerville, Ohio with her husband, Jon. A mother of one daughter and grandmother of four beautiful children, she loves cooking for her family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, make stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about all manner of food and cuisine. A dedicated colorist, she is also a journal-keeper, writer of short stories and poetry, and loves to travel.

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