Cross-Dressing
In Middle Eastern Dance

by Shira

When most people hear the term "Middle Eastern dance" they think of women in skimpy costumes glittering with beads and sequins. But there's an interesting tradition of men dressed as women performing dance in public. This article will take you on a tour through Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco to explore this side of the history of Middle Eastern dance.


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The Moroccan Shikhatt

The shikhatt is a Moroccan women's dance which was traditionally performed at the women-only wedding celebrations. From there, it developed into a social dance that women did for other social occasions as well.

In traditional Muslim culture, men and women lived segregated lives. People didn't socialize with the opposite gender outside of the immediate family. When family occasions such as weddings, circumcisions, and other festive events occurred, the men would gather for a men-only party, while the women gathered separately for a women-only party. Living quarters of houses were segregated too: men would entertain other men on the men's side of the house, and women would entertain women on the women's side of the house.

The original purpose of the shikhatt was to provide sex education to the bride. This dance is distinctly different from belly dancing. It uses movements that emphasize the hips and breasts. At the women-only party before the wedding, the bride would sit on a "throne" dressed in her finery while a woman known as the sheikha would lead the female party goers in doing the shikhatt for her. In some cases, after performing at the women's party the sheikha might take her ensemble to perform for the men as well.

In time, men too began to learn the shikhatt. In fact, many men have also become professionals at dancing the shikhatt. They generally perform it in drag, or at the very least in a woman's caftan and d'fina, due to the feminine origin of this dance.

For more information about the shikhatt, please see a paper titled Dance As Community Identity In Selected Berber Nations written by the dancer Morocco. This paper describes a number of different dance forms from North Africa, including the shikhatt.

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The Turkish Kochek

In 18th-century Istanbul, the kocheks were popular performers of Oriental dance in the coffee houses. These were young men, clad in garb that bore a strong resemblance to the women's fashions that were popular at the time. The kocheks dressed in clothing that resembled women's garb in many ways. There were some differences such as their short hair and the caps they wore on their heads.

The kocheks were particularly popular among the Turkish military, the Janissaries. Often, fights would break out in the coffee houses among the Janissaries over the favors of the young men. At last, Sultan Mahmud tired of the constant disruption and banished the kocheks from Turkey in 1837.

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Egypt: Filling The Void

In the early 1800's, Europeans were bringing modernization to Egypt. At the time, Egypt was ruled by the powerful Muhammed Ali, who was eager to accept European assistance in building factories and developing a military force. The Europeans who worked on these projects sought local entertainment, and to them the dancers represented a sort of barbaric exotica. The dancers who performed in public for these men were the Ghawazee.

At that time, there were no nightclubs or other businesses dedicated to the purpose of providing entertainment, so the dancers would perform publicly in the street for patrons who were willing to pay. The Egyptians were not pleased with the patronizing attitude that these Europeans took toward their culture. In 1834 Muhammed Ali decided to ban the embarrassing Ghawazee from Cairo, and exiled them to outlying towns in the south.

The exile of these women left a void, which was quickly filled. So in 1837, when Sultan Mahmud banned the boy dancers from Istanbul, they fled to Cairo. Discovering upon arrival that there was a pent-up demand among the Europeans for seeing Oriental dance, they seized the opportunity and delivered their own public performances. In many cases they embellished the original women's dance with acrobatics and explicit sexually-oriented movements. These boys became known in Egypt as khawals.

Because the Europeans expected to see women, and because the clothing worn by the khawals resembled women's garb, many times the Europeans believed they were watching women until they caught a glimpse of week-old beard.

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In North America Today

A small minority of modern-day Oriental dance artists in North America are men. Some are gay, some straight. Because the stereotype of a "belly dancer" is that of a sensuous woman, people are generally quite intrigued by male dancers.

Most male dancers like to appear in masculine-looking costumes -- sometimes folkloric, other times more of a glittery nightclub look but still decidedly male.

Others adopt a more androgynous look, that looks believable on either men or women. For example, they might wear shoulder-to-floor length tunics over pantaloons, topped with coin belts or hip scarves.

A small minority like to dance in drag, wearing the same beaded and sequinned bra/belt/skirt styles that characterize the women's nightclub look.

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Final Comments

Don't let this article lead you to believe that all male dancers in the Middle East were cross-dressers -- I just chose to focus for this article on this little-known minority group within the male dance traditions of the region.

For further information about men's dance traditions in the Middle East, see Tarik Sultan's article, Oriental Dance: It Isn't Just For Women (And Never Was. This article includes several photos of Tarik himself clad in masculine garb.

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For More Information

If you'd like to learn more about men in Middle Eastern dance, here are further resources to explore:

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on June 29, 2001.

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