The hips gyrate, the voluminous skirts swirl, the glittered chest sparkles—why, it’s a belly dancer. Only, it’s…not. Because it’s a guy. Since when do guys belly dance? Welcome, my friends, to the world of zenne.
Believe it or not, as long as there has been belly dancing in the Middle East, there have been zenne (“zeh-neh”). When Islam moved in, and the genders became that much more segregated, the zenne dancer had the spotlight and reached their artistic height during the Ottoman Empire. However, when the empire fell, so did the zenne. And with astonishing speed.
Why? It’s complicated. Zenne dancers, who more often than not were slaves, were also courtesans to the imperial men of the Middle East (whether zenne were actually gay is another thing entirely), and the ornate homosexual politics surrounding the art in the now militantly anti-gay Muslim world went a long way in pushing zenne to near-extinction.
But now we come to Turkey. Far and away the most progressive of Middle Eastern Muslim nations, Turkey is sloooooowly reassessing its views on the gay experience. And in cities like Istanbul and Ismir with openly gay communities, zenne are making a comeback — and at breakneck speed. Zenne are to Turkey now what drag queens were to America in the 90s: the socially acceptable (or “tolerated”) public face of gay life. In fact, most Turks expect their zenne to be gay, and are kinda ticked, or at least very surprised, if they aren’t. A film, Zenne Dancer, caused quite a stir in Turkey when it was released back in 2012.
They are so popular now that the men that take up the dancing are veritable celebrities, so much so they can go by only one name and perform all over the world. Go to Istanbul’s Club Chanta, the venerable epicenter of the zenne resurgence, and ask about “Segah” or “Zadiel” and everybody will know whom you are talking about. They dance for tips, but the way, so have your lira ready.
The wildly opulent costumes are what you would expect of a belly dancer, only zenne cover the arms, bare the chest, and often have some sort of headdress. The wigglely dancing style is also familiar, but unlike women, who emphasize their hips, zenne tend to go gonzo more with the arms and shoulders. Being pro dancers, they are in peak physical condition, so those bare torsos, often bejeweled, are wonders to behold. And expect make-up so thick you could scrawl a Russian novel on their foreheads and blood wouldn’t flow.
So the next time you are in Istanbul, check out a zenne. It’s a fantastical show, and you’ll be on the cutting edge of Turkish gay life. Contact Steele Luxury Travel for all of your Turkish delight travel needs. Visit us at www.SteeleTravel.com