Spontaneity is the spice of life and Istanbul, located on the old Silk Road, is naturally full spice. When you whip spontaneity and Istanbul together you get an extra spicy life! Or at least that’s what I have learnt.
At the end of my first year here and looking for a job, my Turkish-American friend says, “I have a friend who needs oriental dancers tomorrow morning for the Seda Sayan TV show. There will be other English-speaking dancers. It should be fun. Are you in?”
The quote from Eat Pray Love and my background in oriental dance had something to do with what happened next.
The next morning, giving into this quote and believing this adventure may somehow lead me to my future, I found myself in down-town Balat. Balat is a poor neighbourhood in Istanbul renowned for having a large Roman (gypsy) community. In this community lives a Roman fashion designer.
With my make-up and hair done, complete with false eye lashes and bouffant hair-style, I stand on an urban street. I look around for other dancers. No one arrived and I grew more and more nervous as I watched one loud costume after another being loaded into a truck. Think organza, think tulle, think sparkly gem stones, think bright feathers, think huge hoop satin skirts dotted with glistening sequins, think…am I going to wear that?
Children and teenagers were then loaded into the back of the truck – I thought I was to be next. I grew claustrophobic and thought for an excuse to leave but then,”Haydi, haydi,” (c’mon, c’mon) was said as I was shuffled into the front of the truck where I shared a single front bench seat with two adults and three restless children.
I was beginning to regret my quest for spontaneity and my friend’s reassurances of safety. No one spoke English and I had no idea where I was going or what exactly I should do for this TV gig.
Arriving to the studio, I was ushered to the change rooms where I was met with the stares of 20 young Roman girls aged between 10 and 15. A chorus of whispers of, “Yabanci” (foreigner) broke out. I was out of place. Why was this mid-30 year old, fair skinned, blonde haired woman back-stage? For her quest for spontaneity that’s why!
The awkward moment was broken by an older woman opening the door and placing a large bag of make-up on the counter. A flurry of activity broke out. Whispers turned to screaming and squealing as the girls scrambled and fought over lipsticks, blushes and eyeshadows.
Judging by the level of commotion, I thought it was time to get ready. I opened my make-up case. A few of the girls notice and look at it like it’s a chest of gold. They swoon. Now I’m promoted from yabanci to, “Abla! Abla!” (Sister! Sister!) as they help themselves to my case. Turkish words were thrown at me. I did not understand a word. All I could say was “Pardon, Türkçe çok az biliyorum!” (I know very little Turkish! ). They just giggled and continued to explore the yabanci chest of girly treasures.
The door opens again and the designer himself gestured me to follow him. The girls gave back my make-up and another chorus of, “Bye, bye, bye,” ensued amongst giggles.
I was escorted to the TV station’s hair and make-up studio where I sat shoulder to shoulder with the TV stars. Fantastic! Pamper time! Professional hair and make-up like a star – yes please! Spontaneity was starting to show some fruit.
Pimped and primed – I felt good. Now I needed a costume so I returned backstage. Backstage was chaos. Multi-coloured flouro feathers flew in the air. Sequinned costume bits were strewn from one end of the room to the other.
Someone hands me a purple plume of organza and strips me down and zips me in. Wollah! My costume is on. I am transformed into Ms Ruffles Galore.
The light purple organza bodice with embroidered gold flowers was matched with a light purple organza skirt that came up to my thigh in the front and extended into a long train at the back – completely covered in organza ruffles.
I did not plan on wearing a dress that exposed my legs – oriental dancers wear long skirts – so I had brought black shoes to dance in and, since this was a last minute gig, I didn’t bother to wax my legs.
Horror! There I was about to make my TV début on National TV – one of the most watched daytime TV shows in Turkey – and I was wearing light purple organza ruffles with hairy legs and black shoes! I would give yabanci’s a bad reputation furry legs and poor colour coordination! Needless to say, I didn’t take any full length photos in the costume.
One awkward moment after another made me nervous. Where were the other English-speaking dancers? Why am I getting special treatment? Am I to ‘star’ in the show? Will I dance by myself or will I just walk in show the costume, smile and consider my gig is done? If I exited the building right now would anyone notice?
The music started. It was showtime – but the music was not oriental – it was the Romany 9/8 rhythm. I can’t dance the 9/8 rhythm! I’m clumsy and uncoordinated dancing to it. I’m fair haired, blonde, wearing a plume of organza and now I have to pretend to dance Romany style …did I mention this was live TV!?
Panic stricken, I asked TV program staff, “Do you speak English? Do you know what I am to do?” No English, no answers. HELP! I was about to make a fool of myself on LIVE NATIONAL TV!
The music continues and about 15 girls walk on stage before me. I relax a little. I think I am just a back-up dancer with the young Roman girls…I think. I’ll just follow them and stay behind them so no-one sees that I am an imposter!
But wait! It’s obvious I’m foreign, what happens if Seda takes an interest in me and asks me a question? I can’t say “Türkçe çok az biliyorum!!!” How uncouth! I’ll be on YouTube as a joke! Especially with my hairy legs and black shoes exposed!
Deep breathe…was I about to live a nightmare?
The music builds up and I’m gestured to move on stage. I pick up my train and composure and step out to the cameras. Hello, National TV – I made it…just.
There’s Seda to my left, a live band to the right and a live audience of Turkish housewives in front of a group of Roman dancing girls. I thought to myself – you’ll be fine –just move your hips to the rhythm and pound your fist to your chest couple of times – just like a Roman dancer. No feet – just hips and fists!
The girls all gathered around. This is when I relaxed for the first time that day. I started to dance like a pouting, powerful Roman girl with attitude. I hid behind the younger girls who were hungry for the camera and who thankfully shielded my legs from the crowd. I loved the song so it was not difficult to enjoy the moment. A few more gypsy fist salutes and hip bumps – the music finishes and we go to ad break.
I receive applause from the band, from the designer and my fellow dancers backstage. I had made an impression. I was part of the dancing Romany sisterhood! I felt good! I was smiling and laughing with my new friends. I hadn’t failed – infact I had fun and I had lived a dream many dancers dream of – I danced on National TV (and in a genre unfamiliar to me).
The whole experience taught me that sometimes we get stuck in ground hog day. Sometimes we stop taking risks. Sometimes we forget to laugh at ourselves, we forget to let go and have fun because we fear failure.
Sometimes we should just be spontaneous and enjoy the spice it adds to our life. It certainly makes for a good story to tell your friends!