Interview With Chryssanthi Sahar – Middle Eastern and Greek Tsifteteli Dance Expert


Dev – Chryssanthi Sahar you are a performer and teacher of Middle Eastern and Greek Tsifteteli dancing, Can you tell us what is the basic difference between those two styles.

Chryssanthi Sahar – The main difference between Middle Eastern, or better to say Egyptian belly dance and Greek Tsifteteli is the repertory of movements and rhythms. Egyptian belly dance (Raqs Sharqi/Raqs Baladi), has a huge repertory of movements and the Arabian music has a big variation of rhythms, as well as complex musical arrangements. Greek Tsifteteli has, opposite to it, a small repertory of movements, rather simple musical arrangements and uses only 3 rhythms (Maqsoum, Malfouf and Chifteteli), but actually one of them (Maqsoum) is the most popular one for Tsifteteli songs. This is because Tsifteteli is rather a social than a stage dance and because it derives from the Egyptian Raqs Sharqi. So you find almost all Tsifteteli movements in the Egyptian belly dance, but not the other way around. The same is valid for the music. Tsifteteli uses Arabian rhythms, but only 3 of them, while in Raqs Sharqi you find at least 10 popular rhythms (there exist lot more than 10 Arabian rhythms, but the rhythms used for the belly dancing are about 10).

So concluding one could tell, that Greek Tsifteteli is like a summary of Egyptian Raqs Sharqi.

Dev – In Turkey there is a folk dance called Tsifteteli, which does not represent any form of oriental dance, while Greek Tsifteteli is more oriental based Are these two styles related in any way?

Chryssanthi Sahar – The Turkish folk dance is called Ciftetelli (pronounced Tchiftetelli). Actually it is the same name like Tsifteteli, the name is Turkish and means “two strings”, but since Greeks don’t have the loud “tch”, they pronounce it as “ts”. This folk dance has elements of belly dance and most probably the Greek Tsifteteli is somehow related to it, because the Greeks of Smyrna (today Izmir) who mainly brought the Tsifteteli to Greece after been driven away from their city because of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922, seem to have known this Turkish dance called Ciftetelli. One evidence of this is the fact that the costumes of the first Greek belly dancers (most of who were Greeks from Smyrna), looked very much like the costumes women wore when dancing the Turkish Ciftetelli (little hat with veil on the head, harem-pants. )

Dev – Your first public performance as an Oriental dancer was in 1986. Twenty two years later what are the differences you see in the general publics attitude towards the dance, specifically in Europe.

Chryssanthi Sahar – I cannot talk about the entire European continent, because Europe has so many different countries with different perceptions of the belly dance. I can talk only about Germany, where I live and work and where I started performing 26 years ago, as well as a bit about my home country Greece, where I have been performing once in a while over the last 2 years. In Germany there is a huge progress in the general public’s attitude towards belly dance. 22 years ago many people didn’t know what belly dance is and they thought of it rather as a kind of erotic animation than an art form. This has definitely changed, mainly thanks to the engagement of many German (and non German) belly dancers, who did their best to clarify things about belly dancing. The pioneer in this matter was a lady called Dietlinde Karkoutli, who did a huge promotional work to change the image of belly dancing in the public in the 80s and early 90s. This wonderful lady unfortunately passed away in the mid 90s, but she definitely opened the way for other dancers to present the real nature of this dance to the public. In many places of Germany belly dance is acknowledged an art form and it is even presented in theatres. The good thing is, that since belly dance has become very known to the wider public, many people learned to differentiate between skilful professional dancers and not so skilful amateurs and the good dancers are nowadays appreciated. For example many Germans who would hire a belly dancer for an event, would rather pay higher fee and hire a good dancer than pay less and hire a bad dancer. Also age and body type are not relevant, if the dancer is really good. Of course there are still places in Germany (especially in Eastern Germany), where belly dance is still not so popular and kind of misunderstood, but in most areas the dance has got its place in the cultural life. In my city Heidelberg the dance is well accepted as an art form, my shows in the theatre are always sold out and I have become a firm part of the cultural life of the city

As about Greece, the dancers still have to fight against prejudices, especially because until recently most belly dancers didn’t have high skills, since the dance was mainly performed in the Bouzoukia clubs (Greek style night clubs) and it was kind of erotic animation. In this case it was not important if the dancer was good or not, it was more important how she looked like and how old she was. Unfortunately this situation still exists, but there are some serious, skilled dancers all over Greece who present belly dance as an art for a wider public and somehow the image of the dance has started changing, slowly but surely.

Dev – One of the main aspects of Belly Dance is looked down upon and often misinterpreted by the general public as being sexual in some way, In current years we have seen many dancers especially non ethnic dancers who try hard to diffuse the sensuality from the dance, As an instructor and teacher how do you tackle this complex situation with your students.

Chryssanthi Sahar – Actually we don’t have this kind of problem here in the area of Germany where I live, perform and teach. As I mentioned in my last answer, belly dance has been accepted as an art form in most parts of Germany, so the erotic aspect is not really relevant. You would hardly find some Germans (except if they come from villages, or maybe from the Eastern part of the country where belly dance is not so popular yet) who would mistake belly dance for erotic animation. The point is, since Germany is a country with open and tolerant attitude towards sexuality, you can find different kinds of entertainment who are very directly erotic (like peep shows, strip shows or even sex shows on stage) and there is no reason for the Germans to disguise erotic entertainment as dance or other kind of art. A German who wants to watch an erotic show, would probably be very disappointed with belly dance presented as such. I think the problem of mistake dance ( especially belly dance) with erotic animation exists rather in countries with more prudish or restricted sexual moral. The truth is, that in Germany we have a completely different problem about the image of the dance: it is rather mistaken for a dilettante dance practiced by frustrated housewives, because there are quite many ladies of that kind who unfortunately have no skills at all, but want to present themselves as professional dancers, although they are bloody amateurs. So what I am mainly fighting against is THIS kind of wrong image and not the erotic thing, which is irrelevant here

Dev – Do you think in the present day situation oriental dance could be a tool to a better understanding and help cross barriers for Western people and vice versa.

Chryssanthi Sahar – I am not sure. What is sure, is that Westerners who deal with Oriental Dance definitely start getting more interested in Middle Eastern culture in general, but I don’t know how Oriental Dance would be a tool for people from Middle East to understand the Western culture better. The only Middle Easterners who would be interested in that, are maybe musicians who work with Western belly dancers or Oriental dancers from Middle East who work and teach in Western countries.

As about the Westerners, dealing with Middle Eastern cultures can bring a deeper understanding about them, but it can also bring some disillusioning. Some of the dancers have very unrealistic and romantic ideas about Middle East, but the more they deal with it, the more they see that their imagination and the reality are falling apart. For example, a common problem is that many Western women who start learning belly dance don’t realise that belly dancers have a quite bad reputation and bad social status in many Middle Eastern countries and they are quite shocked when they start realising this. I think this is a reason why some dancers turn then away from the original Middle Eastern belly dance and dedicate themselves to Western belly dance styles (like Tribal, Gothic, Tribal Fusion etc.).

Concluding I still would say that I am not sure about the role of Oriental Dance for the cross cultural understanding.

Dev – You are involved with the CID (Conseil International de la Danse) which is a sister organisation of UNESCO, What is the goal of CID and how does a dancer benefit by being a member of this organisation.

Chryssanthi Sahar – The goal of CID is to bring dancers of all genres and from all over the world together and to establish dances of all kinds as art forms. So there are not only professional dancers of the established artistic dance genres who can become members of CID and present their work, but also dancers of genres who are not recognized everywhere in the world as art forms yet (like for example belly dance, salsa, tango Argentino, etc.), as well as amateur dancers, who dance rather folklore than artistic dance forms.

The benefits of being a member of CID are various: one very important thing is the possibility to participate the CID congresses for a very low fee (60€), where high class dancers from all over the world teach workshops, give lectures and perform on stage. One can participate actively, but also passively. For a professional dancer it is a great opportunity to present the own work in front of an international expert audience, as well as to get to know other professional dancers of all possible genres and styles.

Another benefit is the fun you have during such congresses and friendships you start with people from all over the world

There is one big world congress of CID a year, which usually takes place in Greece and also many other smaller congresses which take place in different countries all over the world.

For me it has been a great experience to be a member of CID and I can only recommend it

Dev – Thank you Chryssanthi Sahar for your time. We wish you all the best.

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