I see it so often: an American dancer with years of knowledge and experience refers to a performance as “karşılama” or “karsh” online. A native Turkish person or specialist in Turkish dance says “that’s not a karşılama”. The American dancer feels slighted. The Turkish person feels frustrated and unheard. What’s going on here?
“Karşılama” comes from the Turkish root word “karşı” meaning facing – it refers to a folk dance, typically (but not always) done to a rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, where the dancers are face-to-face.
Turkish music theory is different from Western theory, which has led to some odd conventions in how Western belly dancers talk about Turkish music. Most of the “names of rhythms” (i.e. “karşılama” or “çiftetelli”) that we use are actually the names of folk dances where the rhythm in question is typical. This makes it easier for us to talk casually about music and rhythm selections for performances, but it starts to break down when we dig deeper, or when we work with native Turkish musicians.
More significantly – “karşılama” in particular is used by many Western dancers to refer to any Turkish or Greek piece of music in 9/8. This is not correct. There are many classical, folk, and Romani pieces of music from Turkey in 9/8 rhythms that have nothing to do with the karşılama folkdance. In Turkey it has never been typical for Oryantal dancers to perform to karşılama-style music. So how did we get here?
In the 1950s and 1960s, the New York dance scene was full of dancers from Turkey. Özel Türkbaş, Nejla Ateş, Saliha Tecneci and more danced in the New York clubs, making an indelible impression on American belly dance. The musicians working in New York with these dancers, though, were primarily Greek. Greeks have their own tradition of juicy 9/8 (and 9/4) folk music, and also share a number of musical traditions and folk dances with Turks, due to their long, entangled history. The Romani 9/8s common in a Turkish Oryantal set wouldn’t be likely to be familiar to them, but they would absolutely know karşılama, or “karsilamas” as it is known in Greek. There are also Turkish songs of Romani origin (“Mastika”, “Rompi Rompi” etc) that are well known to the Greeks, but Greek musicians tend to play them with a brighter, more karşılama-style sound, and using the karşılama-style 9/8 rhythm. Thus, using a fast karşılama song for a finale became an American belly dance tradition.
More recently, Western dancers have developed a stronger interest in both authentic Turkish Oryantal shows, and in Turkish Romani dance. This has led to confusion as some dancers learn to separate Oryantal from Roman, and both from karşılama, and other dancers well-rooted in the American Cabaret tradition continue to use their own terminology which conflates them. There are some well-known dancers in the U.S. who really know their stuff when it comes to Turkish music, who still refer to a 9/8 piece or even a Romani performance as “karşılama” – why? If you’ve been in the belly dance world for any length of time, you’ve seen online debates over the use of the term “belly dance” itself. It’s neither an accurate translation of “raqs sharqi” or “oryantal dans”, nor an accurate description *of* a dance that is more hip-focused than belly-focused. When those who use the term are asked why, the answer is nearly always “because that’s what the public knows.” If you advertise a “raqs sharqi” class you are unlikely to get much response. If you advertise a “belly dance” class people know (or think they know) what they are getting. Likewise, “karşılama” is so entrenched in Western belly dance vocabulary that it is the shortest, most direct way to express what you are planning to present, even if it is a misnomer.
So what should you take away from all this? Maybe nothing more than a deeper understanding. If you are diving into Turkish style belly dance (“Oryantal”) and/or Turkish Romani dance (“Roman Havası”) you should know the difference between Romani and karşılama-style 9/8 music, and when each is appropriate to use. If you’re a vintage “AmCab” dancer, dancing to a karşılama song for your finale is a well-established Western belly dance tradition. My purpose here isn’t to declare either group right or wrong, but to help both sides communicate with more clarity. Hopefully, with knowledge of context and history, we can do just that.