Zeybek (L*) – Turkey

*A Living dance is a 1st Generation dance that is still performed in the country of origin (or immigrant communities) as part of a social event like a wedding where others can participate (not for an audience) by people who learned the dance informally (from friends and relatives by observation and imitation, not in a classroom situation). For more information, click here and here.

See also Zeybek Costume under CLOTHING.

Zeybek are the folk heroes of Western Anatolia (today’s Turkey).  From their first appearance in history around 1600 until the consolidation of the modern Turkish state in the 1920’s, they played a key role in defending the little guy from rogue militias, rapacious landlords and tax collectors, and even aiding armies in repelling invading Russians in 1877-8, and Greeks in 1922.

They hid in the highlands, lived off the land, elected their chief, called Efe, and had a strict code of honour.  The name Zeybek is said to derive from the Turkish “bekneg”, meaning durable, healthy, reliable, and “zey”, meaning almost the same thing.

Turkish dance regions

Today, Zeybek is the most popular dance of Western Turkey, and one of the most popular in the country.  There are said to be over 150 different Zeybek dances, varying by region and type – fast, slow, solo man & solo woman, group, couple, etc.  Most are solo men’s dances, like the example above.  Below is one end of the spectrum, judged performances by trained groups.

The other end of the Zeybek spectrum looks to me like my definition of a living dance – performed for its own sake in an informal setting.

In between is what looks like a trend among the well-heeled – the groom’s wedding performance.  Apparently the groom & friends take classes [or  hire a troupe] to make this look good.

Women also dance Zeybek, in what seems to be a growing trend.

The origins of the Zeybek are still hotly debated between Greeks & Turks.  Greeks point to their ancient relatives who lived in the same area.  An example:

“In Xenophon (400 BC) we have an account of men dancing with their full military accoutrements, which indicates that (as might be expected) this sort of thing has gone on for a very long time.”  And:

“My first hit was Sir William Ramsay’s book “Asianic Elements in Greek civilization”. Definitely a reliable man, if you need info on Anatolian matters… His definition of a Zeybek was: 

“A zeybek is, or used to be, a dashing young Turk of the mountain country fringing the Maeander valley, dressed in an exaggerated native style, with an armoury of lethal weapons displayed on his person and in his hands or waistbelt”.

While having an etymological theory on my mind, those lines gave me more hope in what I was expecting to discover. I had two keywords… Maeander valley and people bearing armoury… After searching further I got more info where Zeybek is the name used for people of the Anatolian highlands (mountaineers).

The Buyuk Menderes river (Maeander) is a river in Turkey that has it source in Phrygia. The armoured men, reminded my of the armoured Phrygian dancers, followers and high priests of Cybele. I’m referring to the Korybantes of course, that are referred in some Greek traditions as the first humans on earth. In some traditions they are referred as descendants of the Idaean Daktyls, mountain daemons of Crete and Phrygia! 

This religious group of dancers was well known in the ancient world. They were bearing armour and were moving with slow stepsstretching their arms from right to left. The custom spread and passed onto the Dionysian and Kabeirian cults of Samothrake.

Turks have their own ideas about the origins of the Zeybek.  Turkey’s Turks originated in Mongolia, and arrived in Eastern Anatolia around 1000 A.D.

“About Zeybek, here is something quite interesting, in Mongolian wrestling the winner performs an “Eagle dance” and in the Altay region there are “Eagle dances”. The Zeybek dance is sometimes referred to as an Eagle dance. The Eagle was of spiritual significance to Shamanic communities.

Before the match begins each wrestler does the traditional “Eagle Dance” which symbolizes power and invincibility and is based on the flight of the mythical Garuda bird.
As nothing remains stagnant, could the original form of Zeybek have been morphed over time due to changes in lifestyle, exposure to different cultures and rulers?
The dance does come across as very “macho”, the use of arms shows the rebellious nature of it .After all Zeybek gangs and their Efe’s were Robin Hood type characters, also it seems to be connected to nature with references to eagles and the article Kotumeyil shared refers to some religous connotations, similar to a Sema.”

Meanings of the figures in Zeybek:
Some differences are seen in their figures of walking, turning, rising, knee-downing and holding up their arms (the walking with or without richochets) and turnings in the Zeybek plays display Zeybek’s self-assurance, honesty, braveness and challenging.

Here’s some examples of various styles being taught, or at least demonstrated.  Harmandali style is one of the most popular, from the region around Izmir, known to Greeks as Smyrna.


It turns out that humans are not the only animals that like to Zeybek.  

For those of you familiar with Greek dance, yes, the Greek Zeybekiko is a direct descendent of the Turkish Zeybek.  There are similarities in the dance, but the Greek version came to Greece with the flood of Rebetiko types in the 1920’s, and quickly morphed into an urban, highly individualistic dance – quite different from the more traditional, rural Turkish dance.  I’ll do a Greek post soon…

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