caner teker/ Sofie Luckhardt, ›Köçek/Zenne‹


This is a collection of findings. Visuals, stories and practices which were archived, told, shown, preserved, shaped and carried on. This collection exists despite and because of the ever present and shifting tension between praise, even stardom [yildiz] and looming to outright threats and acts of repression and erasure.

This is about encountering Köçek(i), Köçekler(ii), Zenne(iii), Rakkas(iv). We are moving through some motions with themto find affirmative ways to engage with their contemporary representations in the practice of Zenne dancing.

The stories of the Köçekler begin and thrive in the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 18th century. Köçekler, young male androgynous dancers in femme connotated attire, make up and jewelry performed mostly in court, harems and upper class spaces, while women were not allowed to dance in public. Female dancers had been banned for obscenity in an earlier colonial period due to western influences. These male professional performers were often groomed and trained from a very young age(v), as their careers were limited to their youthful appearance. They were desired, fought over by their mostly male audience, eventually gaining a reputation for doing sex work. Recent research found that Köçekler inherited and sometimes still learn this profession from their fathers(vi). Other sources suggest that the young male dancers were often picked from non-Muslim groups within the Empire.

Each  Köçekler/Zenne employ/ed  their own distinctive combination of femme demeanor and traditional dance; commanding the audience with their khôl(vii) gazes, accentuated hip circulation and acrobatic movements, also drawing on traditional dances depending on the occasion. They are ususally accompanied by musicians who move around the space with them. Traditionally, two dancers, two drummers and two hornplayers would be performing together(viii). Köçekler  would move on to the position of musicians, once they passed performing age. The dance repertoire varies from Oryantal [‘belly  dance‘] to the 8-step Halay [which is very common up to this day, for instance at Turkish weddings] to all kinds of folkloristic influences.

With creeping westernization and militarisation in the 1920s, the Köçekler were banned(ix). The subsequent erasure of ambiguity or fluidity in gender performance in the course of the forming of modern patriarchal republican nation states mimicking the western eurocentric models.

Köçekler groups and their practice therefore disappeared from upper class entertainment in cosmopolitan surroundings. Though instead of completely vanishing,  they dispersed to more rural areas of the deceasing Ottoman Empire and beyond, performing only for small audiences, often in private settings. Public Oryantal dance performance has since been resumed by female performers, as it is considered integral to modern Turkish culture. Today, Köçekler, often under their more contemporary name and credit, Zenne – are still met with certain acclaim as ceremonial accompaniment, but not without frictions and exposure to repressive mechanisms. In today’s Turkey, the history and fates of Zenne performers appear closely interlinked with the governmental and societal posture towards LGBTQIA*communities, especially  nonbinary,  gender non-conforming and trans* folks. Michelle Demishevich, a trans* author who fled from Turkey to Germany, notes, how after the military coup in 1980, public life was dominated by repression and violence which involved the systematic persecution of and violence against LGBTQIA* people - specifically trans* folks were murdered in high numbers by the military(x). According to journalist Kaya Genç, in recent years, trans* folks were even encouraged to get surgeries by government institutions to hold up and reinforce homogenous binary gender ideals and outrule nonbinary, fluid identities(xi). Herewith, the bodies and practices of Zenne account for “the coexistence of differing systems of social and sexual classification, re-emerging as unfinished histories in the unsettled present”(xii), as theorist Joanna Mansbridge describes. She suggests that the re-emergence of zenne dancing in the 2000s can be traced to “global transformations”(xiii) in the visibility of LGBTQIA* folks “in popular culture and public discourse” on one hand, but I the same breath signifies “an unpredicted consequence of AKP’s purposeful revival and romanticization of Turkey’s Ottoman past”(xiv).

Following these observations, the Köçek could be considered as a historical treasure full of ambiguous sparks, whereas the Zenne appears as a vital contributor to contemporary movements who shows: “that history can be used as a source of agency, the very material with which to imagine and fashion possible futures.”(xv)

The contemporary practice of Zenne dancing is weaved into discourses around potentially queer or non-conforming ambivalent agency in looking relations of othering of differing kinds and clashing ambivalences. In this sense, it resonates with what Edward Said describes as „[...] the critique of eurocentrism, which has enabled readers and critics to see the relative poverty of identity politics, the silliness of affirming the “purity” of an essential essence, and the utter falseness of ascribing to one tradition a kind of priority, which in reality cannot be truthfully asserted, over all the others. In short, it comes down to the realization that cultures are always   made up of mixed, heterogeneous, and even contradictory discourses [...]“.(xvi) If we follow this analysis and view Zenne dancers and queer communities as caught up in such conflicting times of peak nation state agendas, growing queer visibility and thus, vulnerability, but also moments of community and potential radical sociability (xvii), a few questions arise for contemporary positionalities and common futures.

How can we affirm and move with the figure of the Zenne dancer in a contemporary context, beyond heterosexual weddings, nationalist borderpolitics, religious tradition, false tales of progress and binary gender constructs - or rather in-between? What are the Zenne dancer’s own rituals and communities, apart from canonic repertoire and embodied spectacle? What could be shifted, queering rituals and practices for this re-configuring hauntology of post/-modern identity, impersonated by Zenne dancers? How can their work be uplifted, their practice be learned  from and shared in oscillating spaces of non-institutional belonging? How can they be response-ably(xviii) cared for and with - now and in the future?

sofie luckhardt, 01/2021

(i) dt. sprich <Kötschek>

(ii) dt. Plural von Köçek

(iii) Name of contemporary dancers, following Joanna Mansbridge

(iv) dt. Tänzer

(v) Similar historical phenomenain which youthful male bodies and persons have been groomed and institutionally exposed in similar ways can be found in western contexts, namely i.e. choir boys and castratias is the circumstance of men filling in for women on stage in theatre plays.

(vi) see Kurt, Berna:“ANALYSIS OF THE PREJUDICES AGAINST THE MALE DANCER IN THE CASE OF‘SINOP KÖÇEKS’”, presentation text, Ethnography Forum, De Monfort University Leicester, 2008.

(vii) Grey or black mineral powder used to line and emphasize the eyes


(ix) Mansbridge, Joanna: The Zenne: Male Belly Dancers and Queer Modernity in Contemporary Turkey, in: Theatre Research International, Vol. 42, no.1., pp 20-36,International Federation for Theatre Research, 2017, here p.23.

(x) Demishevich, Michelle:!5508913/, letzterAufruf 13.01.2021.

(xi) Genç, Kaya: Sex Changes in Turkey, The New York Review, June 28, 2018.

(xii) Joanna Mansbridge: The Zenne, p.34.

(xiii) Joanna Mansbridge: The Zenne, p.24.

(xiv) Ibid.

(xv) Joanna Mansbridge: The Zenne, p.34.

(xvi) Said, Edward: Reflections on Exile and other Essays. Harvard University Press, 2002, p.16.

(xvii) For ‘radical sociability’ see Lou Drago, Asad Haider und Lea Susemichel.

(xviii) For ‚response-ability‘ see Karen Barad “On Touching”