Kocek Dancers from the Black Sea

“One Saturday last summer I was on the phone chatting with my ninety four year old auntie in Australia. She and I love to talk and can do so for hours but this time I was distracted. The sound of drumming was coming from outside my window. At first the noise was muffled and indistinct but by the time I hung up it was almost deafening. I was confused. Ramazan had finished the previous month so it couldn’t be that. Besides, the Ramazan drummers only came in the early hours of the morning to wake every one up for sahur, the meal before dawn. Now it was the middle of the day and I had no idea what was going on. I looked out the window and to my amazement saw two men spinning and whirling around in the middle of the street wearing long colourful skirts. They were accompanied by another two men beating time on large davul, traditional drums covered with goat skin. As the dancers wove in and out of a circle of onlookers the drummers swooped and bowed in time with the music.

Grabbing my camera I ran downstairs and joined Selim the waterman, Huseyin the tailor and Kamil our kapıcı, or doorman. They were watching the dancers in the company of the other kapıcı from our street, all of them smoking and chatting amongst themselves. When I eagerly asked about the skirt-wearing men, everyone was highly amused at how excited I was. Laughing kindly at my question Selim informed me they were from Sinop in the Black Sea region of Turkey and were here to help celebrate a wedding. Soon after the bride came out of the building two doors down from mine, a solid girl wrapped in metres of white satin, flanked by stout matrons in tight, shiny mother-of-the-bride cocktail dresses attended by young girls fluttering around them like butterflies dressed in brightly coloured concoctions of tulle and lace. Although now more generally associated with folk dancing and wedding celebrations, the tradition of male dancers, or rakkas as they are called in Turkish, from the word raks meaning to dance, dates back to the seventeenth century.

Historians say there were two different kinds of rakkas, called tavsan oğlan and köçek. A tavsan oğlan, literally meaning ‘rabbit boy’, wore a stylish hat and tight pants, while köçek had long curly hair and wore women’s clothes. Both performed at weddings in the past when strict gender segregation was applied to festivities, with men and women celebrating separately. They also performed at feasts, festivals and in the presence of the sultans. The majority of the rabbit boys are believed to have originated from non-Muslim societies living on islands in the Aegean and Marmara regions.

Little else is known of them, in contrast to the well-documented history of the köçek. Originally sponsored by Ottoman sultans, pretty boys around the ages of seven or eight were chosen from non-Muslim populations across the vast Turkish Empire to be schooled in the art of dance. Muslims were forbidden to work as dancers during this era. The children trained for around six years before beginning to perform as fully fledged köçek . .”

You can find out more about köçek dancers by reading the full version of “Dancing in the Streets” in the 2nd edition of my book Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City

About Goreme1990

I’m Lisa Morrow, the person behind www.insideoutinistanbul.com. I was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up a leafy middle class North Shore suburb. After finishing high school I went to Sydney University but failed to find my niche. After working as a public servant, cleaner, sales assistant, waitress, bar maid and car counter, I went overseas. Once there I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. My three months stay in the small central Anatolian village of Göreme changed my life. On my return to Australia I earned a BA Honours Degree in Sociology from Macquarie University. An academic career beckoned but the call to travel was louder. After several false starts I moved to Turkey and lived there for ten years. In 2017 I moved to Lisbon, Portugal, but continue to travel regularly to Istanbul. In addition to my blog I've written a travel narrative memoir called "Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul" and two collections of essays, "Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City" and "Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries". I have a regular segment on San Francisco Turkish radio and in early 2017 I released an audio walking tour called "Stepping back through Chalcedon: Kadikoy Walk", through VoiceMap. In addition I write for various international and Australian magazines and websites, as well as for this blog. A full list of my published articles, with links, can be found on the Writing on Turkey and Writing Beyond Turkey pages.
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