What is Tsifteteli?

by Chryssanthi Sahar Scharf

Tsifteteli is the name for the Greek Bellydance. This name comes from the Turkish word Chifteteli, which originally means “two strings”.

Tsifteteli was mainly brought to Greece by the Asia Minor Greeks, who had to leave their home towns and go over to Greece because of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Greece was occupied by the Turks for about 400 years (from the early 15th century to the early 19th century) and it was a part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 20’s of the 19th century Greece started an independence war against the Turks and by the middle of the 19th century, a part of Greece (as we know it today) was free and an independent state. But there followed quite some war, until the current Greek State was formed. In that time there were many people of Turkish origin and Moslem religion living in Greece and many people of Greek origin and Greek Orthodox religion living in Turkey. The Greeks that lived on Turkish ground even though had been living there since ancient times, had to leave.

The first Greek colonies at the west coast of Asia Minor were founded about 1000 BC which spread to the Black Sea shore. So there were Greek cities and towns at those areas until 1922 of our time. In that year there was a last big war between Greece and Turkey which ended with a catastrophe for both countries. But for the Greeks the catastrophe was bigger, because quite some Greek cities were destroyed by the Turks. Especially the Greeks of Smyrna (Izmir) were badly assassinated. At the end of that war Greece and Turkey agreed on exchanging their left over populations, except 100.000 Greeks in Constantinople (Istanbul) and a similar amount of Turks in North-eastern Greece and on some Greek Islands.

The population exchanged brought many new problems to the new Greek State. The Greeks that came over from Turkey had lost everything and the State had to take care of them. But the State was poor. That led to a very bad situation for new emigrants. Especially the Greeks from Smyrna suffered the most, mainly because they settled down in the urban areas of Athens and Piraeus. Those Greeks had a very rich musical tradition and they brought it with them to Greece. They music was a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Arabian elements. The developed that tradition further in Greece, mainly in order to remember their roots and to comfort their souls. This musical tradition is the so called “Rembetiko” (some people call it the Greek Blues).

Rembetiko was (and still is) not only a music style but it also includes dances, mainly 3: Zeimbekia, Chassapiko and Tsifteteli. So it was mainly those Greeks of Smyrna who spread Tsifteteli all over Greece.

But most probably there was Belly dance in Greece before that. Many archaeologists say that Belly dance already existed in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek women used to dance it for worshiping Aphrodite (Venus). There must have been Belly dance also through the Greek medieval times. At that time of the Byzantine Imperia the Greeks had strong cultural exchange with the Arabs and other Middle-East population.

Nevertheless is Tsifteteli, as we know it today, brought to Greece by the people of Smyrna and at first it was part of the Rembetiko culture. It developed though through the last 80 years, it got spread all over Greece and it got established as the most popular and most common Greek dance together with Zeimbekia. The Tsifteteli songs today are quite different from the original Rembetiko Tsifteteli songs. The texts are not as sad, as the ones of the Rembetiko Tsifteteli. The original Tsifteteli texts are very sad, because they reflect the suffering of the people that created them. They mainly talk about poverty, emigration, lost love, desperation etc. The original Tsifteteli is not a cheerful dance, as many people outside Greece consider it to be.

But the modern Tsifteteli songs can be very cheerful and funny, even have texts that make no sense some times, but they can also be sad. The music is resembling more and the modern Arabian music. That’s why it is convenient to dance also the Arabian Raks Sharqi on modern Tsifteteli music.

Today Greeks dance Tsifteteli almost everywhere: At folklore feasts, in Night Clubs, in Bouzoukia Clubs (Greek style Night Clubs), at private parties, at weddings and so on.
It is seldom though, that Tsifteteli is performed by a dancer. There are very few places (mainly some Bouzoukia Clubs and some tourist restaurants) were Tsifteteli is performed by a dancer and in most of those cases the dancer dances not the common Tsifteteli but either Arabic Raks Sharqi (on Tsifteteli music) or American style belly dancing.

Tsifteteli is mainly a social dance. People dance it together and mostly in pairs (man and woman, woman and woman, man and man, mainly though man and woman). They improvise together, they communicate through the dance. And if a man and woman dance together they even flirt through the dance. This is one of the reasons
why Tsifteteli is immense popular also today and it will probably never stop
being popular. It is the expression of the soul and the game of love.

Tsifteteli Movements

The movements of Tsifteteli are a lot simpler than the movements of the Arabic Raks Sharqi. But this doesn’t mean that Tsifteteli is easier to dance. For non-Greeks it may even be more difficult to dance then Raks Sharqi, because it has no rules and it depends very much on the feeling for the music. In order to dance Tsifteteli right, one has to become very aware of the Greek Tsifteteli music. This is especially important for the traditional (Rembetiko) Tsifteteli.

The most common Tsifteteli movements are:

Shoulder Shimmy,Vertical backwards figure 8,Hip circle.Hip semi-circle,Rotating around oneself with hip circle,Hip lift to the front,Hip lift in circle,Half camel step,Hands stretched out to the sides,Sniping with the fingers,Hands put at the back side of the head,Bending backwards,Belly rolls (some times),Hip sway forwards\backwardsHip shimmies and particular steps are not used in Greek Tsifteteli.

As it is a social dance, nobody plays cymbals while dancing it. Only in the seldom cases, when a professional dancers perform Tsifteteli, then they play cymbals. Probably the Rembetiko Tsifteteli dancers who had come from Smyrna, played cymbals, but the more Tsifteteli spread all over Greece, the less common it became to play cymbals.