Get in Line

Through the grapevine: Turkey’s Eastern Thrace region dances the hora


John Burns


Fatma Gultekin


During weddings in Edirne, a small city in Turkey’s Eastern Thrace region, guests might find themselves swept up in a circle of revellers to dance the hora between servings of cigeri and badem ezmesi.The capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1363 to 1453, Edirne embraces its former imperial culture: the Selimiye Mosque, built by chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, still dominates its skyline, and the Kırkpınar oil wrestling festival remains the city’s main annual event, nearly 650 years after it was first staged to test the strength of Ottoman soldiers.The hora dance, however, can be traced back to the Balkans. Its roots are tied to the Thracian history that once joined the region to Bulgaria and Romania. Edirne is Turkey’s most northwesterly city – Bulgaria is a three-lira minibus ride away and Greece a seven-kilometre walk.

What’s worn is whatever’s popular – so now stiletto heels and short skirts are probably the costume

‘We have history with these countries thanks to the Ottoman Empire,’ says Mustafa Çakar of ASEM, an organisation that arranges folkloric events throughout Turkey, including performances of the hora. ‘It’s a typical Thrace dance,’ he says. ‘And it’s still danced in some parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.’

At its simplest, the steps of the hora are relatively straightforward and reminiscent of the grapevine, with one foot following the other. A dancer starts by stepping left before the right foot crosses behind.

The left foot steps left again, and so it goes. Similar to the Levantine dabke or the Caucasian kochari, the hora is a communal dance performed in a circle or line with dancers joining hands at shoulder height. Any trickiness lies in synchronicity.

‘It’s a social dance – anybody can join in, regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender,’ says Çakar. ‘It’s just a dance, and it’s very fun.’

Outside of staged performances, the hora occurs spontaneously, often at weddings and celebrations in Eastern Thrace and throughout southeastern Europe. Variations include the Romanian hora, the Bulgarian horo and the Montenegrin and Macedonian ora.

In Turkey, the clothes traditionally worn during hora performances are typical of the country’s general folkloric costume: the halay dancers in Anatolia or the zeybek dancers of the Aegean coast, for example, wear similar get-ups.

‘The traditional costume is based on hundreds of years of history,’ says Murat Erdem, an art director at Hobi Sanat Merkezi – a folkloric music and dance organisation founded in Ankara earlier this year. ‘It’s a great pleasure to dance in it and help sustain its national and cultural value.’

Borrowing elements from the dress of Central Asia, the Ottoman court and the Middle East, male dancers wear a gömlek, or white shirt, tucked into baggy breech-style pants, known as salvar. A fabric cummerbund, or sal kusak, covers any awkward bunching of the gömlek at the waist, as does a sleeveless waistcoat, or yelek, which is often embroidered and generally worn buttoned up.

Male accessories include a keçe fes (a felt fez less structured than the truncated cone styles found in Arab countries), a pair of white çorap, or socks, and a pair of çarık – Yemeni style sandals.

Women, too, wear çarık, çorap and a keçe fes, topped with an additional tepelik – a filigree metal cap studded with coloured glass and coins – or headscarf. A gömlek and pair of floral patterned sal kusaks are also worn, over which women will add an additional apron or üçetek – a polychrome embroidered three-skirted cloak – fastened with a silver belt, known as a gümüs kemer.

‘The hora dance probably came to Turkey with the Balkan population that moved there in the 1920s,’ says Liz Mellish, a secretary of the ICTM Study Group on Music and Dance in Southeastern Europe and an expert on hora, particularly its Romanian strain.

Official Ottoman statistics from 1910 recorded about 625,500 Greeks and 71,000 Bulgarians who were living alongside Turks in Eastern Thrace. The diverse group counted for more than 43 percent of the region’s population when combined. Two Bulgarian Orthodox churches remain in Edirne, one of which, Saint George, houses an extensive Bulgarian library and an ethnographic collection.

The hora dance, in all of its variations and nomenclatures, derives etymologically from the Greek word ‘horos’, which means dance. Its circular formation, too, is thought to trace back to the horostasi found within the villages of Ancient Greece. Referring to the flat, round spaces in which charioteers would thresh wheat, villagers would gather at their local horostasi in celebration of a successful harvest, moving and dancing in the circular motion allowed by the perimeters.

Although today the hora’s choreography and costume is not standardised across the region in which it endures, variations of its performance are only slight. ‘The actual counts are the same over vast areas,’ Mellish says. ‘It’s just that the local way of moving and the local way of being changes the style in movement, how you interact with your neighbours and how you present yourself. It’s very difficult to untangle.’

In Turkey, as in neighbouring Balkan nations, the hora’s traditional costume has been largely modernised and replaced at everyday celebrations with la mode du jour. Its original ensemble is preserved largely for organised performances at folkloric events and bayrams. ‘Turkey has lots of costume catalogues, so we order from them,’ notes Erdem.

‘Nowadays, it’s not often you’ll see the traditional costume at social occasions,’ adds Mellish, before explaining how it largely fell out of fashion with the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘What’s worn is whatever is popular – so now stiletto heels and short skirts are probably the costume.’

However, Mellish says that she has noticed a reemergence of the traditional hora costumes on her field trips throughout the Balkans in recent years. ‘In the last five or 10 years, people have come to value the costumes again,’ she says.

‘The actual financial value has increased considerably, too,’ she adds. ‘People are wearing things that belonged to their families again and are looking to hold on to them. It’s much better that they do so, because the amount of handwork that went into the old traditional costumes was vast. Nobody has that amount of time to sit and embroider now.’

This article appears in the Brownbook’s latest Fashion Directory, Dances of the Middle East and North Africa