Tsifteteli is the Greek belly dance. Tsifteteli follows a rhythm common all over the middle east. The name tsifteteli is turkish and comes from chifteteli, which originally meant “two strings”.
A typical tsifteteli is not performed by a single belly dancer in a Rhine-stone costume, but by a massive number of dancers populating the dance floor, just like in a disco!
Tsifteteli is danced by men and women alike, in solo, couples and group formations. However, if you have been to Greece, you probably figured out that tsifteteli is the essential seducing female dance. Many women dance tsifteteli on the tables or bars trying to seduce and tantalize the men who are watching them, ready to fight for her eyes only!
Tsifteteli is one of the most important and meaningful dances in Greek music and culture.
The origins of tsifteteli
Tsifteteli was mainly brought to Greece by the Greeks from Asia Minor, who had to leave their hometowns because of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
Greece was occupied by the Turks for about 400 years (from the early 15th century to the early 19th century) and was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1821 Greece started a war against the Turks for independence and by the mid 19th century Greece became a free and an independent state. At that time there were many people of Turkish origin and Muslim faith living in Greece, as well as many people of Greek origin and Greek Orthodox faith living in Turkey.
The first Greek colonies on the west coast of Asia Minor were founded about 1000 BC and spread to the Black Sea shore. So there were Greek cities and towns thriving in those areas until 1922. In that year there was one last big war between Greece and Turkey, which ended in catastrophe for both countries.
But for the Greeks the catastrophe was bigger, because many Greek cities in Asia Minor were destroyed by the Turks. The Greeks of Smyrna (Izmir) were especially hit hard. At the end of that war Greece and Turkey agreed on exchanging their remaining populations, except 100,000 Greeks in Constantinople (Istanbul) and a similar amount of Turks in North-eastern Greece and on some Greek Islands.
The population exchange brought many new problems to the new Greek State. The Greeks that came over from Turkey had lost everything and the Greek State had to take care of them. But the country was poor. That led to a very bad situation for the new immigrants.
The Greeks from Smyrna suffered the most, mainly because they settled down in the urban areas of Athens and Piraeus. Those Greeks had a very rich musical tradition and they brought it with them to Greece. Their music was a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Arab elements. They developed the tradition further in Greece, mainly in order to remember their roots and to comfort their souls. This musical tradition is called “Rembetiko” (some people call it the Greek Blues).
Rebetiko was (and still is) not only a music style but it also includes dances: Zeibekiko, Hassapiko and Tsifteteli. So it was primarily the Greeks of Smyrna who spread tsifteteli all over Greece.
There may have been belly dance in Greece before that. Many archaeologists say that belly dance already existed in ancient Greece. That ancient Greek women used it for worshiping Aphrodite (Venus). There may also have been belly dance through Greek medieval times. At that time of the Byzantine Empire the Greeks had strong cultural exchange with the Arabs and other Middle-Eastern populations.
Nevertheless tsifteteli as we know it today, was brought to Greece by the people of Smyrna and at first it was part of the Rebetiko culture. It developed though through the last 80 years, it spread throughout Greece and became established as the most popular and most common Greek dance together with zeibekiko.
The tsifteteli songs today are quite different from the original rebetiko – tsifteteli songs. The lyrics are not as sad as the ones of the rebetiko – tsifteteli. The original tsifteteli lyrics are very sad, because they reflect the suffering of the people that created them. They mainly talk about poverty, immigration, lost love, desperation, etc. The original tsifteteli is not a cheerful dance, as many people outside Greece consider it to be.
But the modern tsifteteli songs can be very cheerful and funny, some even have lyrics that make no sense at times, but they can also be sad. The music is now resembling more modern Arab music (Pop Ballads). That’s why it is convenient to also dance the Arabian Raks Sharqi to modern Tsifteteli music.
Today Greeks dance tsifteteli almost everywhere: At folklore feasts, in Night Clubs, in bouzoukia clubs (Greek style Night Clubs), at private parties, at weddings and so on. You will seldom see tsifteteli performed by a dancer.
There are very few places, mainly some bouzoukia clubs and some tourist restaurants in Greece, where tsifteteli is performed by a dancer and in most of those cases the dancer performs not the common tsifteteli dance, but either Arabic Raks Sharqi or American style belly dancing.
Tsifteteli is mainly a social dance. People dance it together and mostly in pairs (man and woman, woman and woman, man and man, mainly though man and woman). They improvise together, they communicate through the dance. And if a man and woman dance together they flirt heavily through the dance.
This is one of the reasons why tsifteteli is immensely popular today and it will probably never stop being popular in Greek Music Stages. Tsifteteli is the expression of the soul and the game of love, expressed through the sensual movement of the hips.