Male belly dancers, or “zennes,” were a mainstay of Turkish culture during the Ottoman Empire. Though Turkey today has been guided by its socially conservative Islamic government and culture, Istambul is currently experiencing a paradoxical revival of zennes.
“Male belly dancing is not new, but for the past three years demand has gone up. Everywhere I look, it’s zenne, zenne, zenne as if there’s less interest now for female belly dancers,” Zenne Segah, a 26-year-old dancer (pictured) told the Wall Street Journal.
Once performing mostly in gay dive bars, last year Zenne Segah graced stages in Germany and Cyprus, and snagged a nightly slot at Istanbul’s flashy Club Chanta.
Despite the growing demand for male bellydancers, it’s still not an altogether easy path.
Segah’s father was slow to warm to idea of a belly dancing son, and he says men often start out uncomfortable at shows.
“First they may be baffled about a man wearing a skirt and dancing….But after they watch me on the stage for five to 10 minutes, they see I’m just doing art. They see their wives and women cheering and enjoying it and they usually loosen up,” he said.
During the Ottoman Empire, the men who belly danced in the Sultan’s court would wear the clothes of females and often take on androgynous personas. They’d also likely be paid courtesans to noblemen.
Below, meet Zenne Segah and get a taste of the reemerging art form: