Internationally acclaimed dancer Ozgen is one of those rare performers whose got it all: his stage presence and awe-inspiring technique are nothing short of dazzling, and he’s got the kind of dark, sultry look that literally makes the ladies swoon. A choreographer as well as a great instructor, his wide repertoire includes everything from Turkish Oryantal to ballroom dance, ballet, contemporary and burlesque, as well as Arabesque- a slinky, retro style of belly dancing that was popular in Turkey during the 1970’s. One of his specialties is authentic Turkish Romany (Gypsy) dancing- and it’s also become one of his signatures- but more on that later!
Ozgen has danced pretty much his entire life. Born in Cyprus, he began learning Turkish folk dances when he was just a little tot. He excelled and kept dancing, which landed him a spot in the Turkish production “Hurrem Sultan”. Soon after that, he joined the music and dance extravaganza “Night Of The Sultans” in Istanbul. For the past fifteen years he’s been teaching workshops and performing all over the world, and he also runs “Oriental Istanbul” a Romany dance intensive that takes place every year in the city, before going to Erdine to celebrate Herdelljez, the Romany springtime festival.
Ozgen and I met in 2008 in London at The Shimmy Shake Show, where we were both performing. The Shimmy Shake Show was a groundbreaking event in the UK- it was the first time that belly dance and burlesque were being presented together, and nobody in the cast was certain what the audience reaction would be. Held at the glorious and quite notorious Madame Jo-Jo’s in Soho -which, back in the day had been a burlesque theater- the show sold out immediately, much to the disappointment of those in the line that that snaked at least a full block down the street.
As I pushed my way through the crowd into the dressing room, two things happened simultaneously: The show’s producer Sapphira immediately popped a bottle of bubbly and handed out champagne flutes among the performers for my birthday toast, and as this was going on, she introduced me to a tall, dark and handsome man…Ozgen.
We got along like gangbusters right away, giggling like a couple of rookie chorus girls as I fumbled to secure his costume belt with a safety pin- there’s nothing like meeting backstage just before the curtain goes up to dispense with any sort of formalities!
I could already tell Ozgen was totally cool- nice, smart and really funny. However, I really wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed onstage as he danced…he was truly incredible. That evening, Ozgen performed a Turkish Oryantal piece as well as a dangerous fusion dance that included a thick length of rope as a prop. Between twirling it as a lasso and binding his own wrists, Ozgen had every woman in the 85% female audience in the palm of his hand. I fully expected to see masses of panties tossed onstage a la' a vintage Tom Jones concert!
Ozgen and I stayed in touch, meeting up whenever I came to the UK, both socially and for gigs at dance festivals. In 2009 at Festival Fantasia we worked together and I got to witness firsthand Ozgen’s infamous Shoe Dance. Hours before he even went on, all the festival attendees were giggling and whispering about the macho Turkish Romany performance he was going to do that night…which concludes with the afore-mentioned shoe being taken off his foot and getting tucked into Ozgen’s belt front and center, as he thrusts his way through a series of earthy pelvic shimmies!
Though it sounds like a raunchy adult-oriented performance, the so-called Shoe Dance is actually a fairly traditional Turkish Rom dance. Sometimes, the dancer even will substitute a beer or wine bottle for the shoe! That night onstage, the reaction to Ozgen’s Shoe Dance was more like an early Elvis or Beatles concert than a belly dance show. The audience was going so batshit crazy I was kind of shocked that an ambulance didn’t show up to cart some of the hysterical women away!
Even though Ozgen is literally awe-inspiring onstage and has legions of fans drooling over him, in his every day life, he’s pretty low-key.
Here’s what he has to say about the way he likes to prepare for his shows, in his own words:
“ I have been dancing maybe from five years old in a group or as soloist, but I still get stage fright before I go to dance.
I quite like the stage fright, because its shows the respect to the audience and to yourself. I see that in a good thing for a performer, because sometimes dancing IS their life. Or dancing is the only thing in their life that they put so much emotion into, and dancing becomes the love of their life. So going onstage, it’s almost like you see your lover for the first time, so like a school child you get very nervous and shaky.
On the day of the show, or the day before, ideally, I don’t eat any bread or food that will make me feel heavy. I check my music, costumes and all to see if they are still there and working!
I don’t want to be ready to dance and have my make up on and then wait hours and hours. I do very little make up anyway, so it’s not a problem. I do my make up about 30 or 40 minutes before I will dance, and I am dressed fully in costume 10 or 15 minutes before the show. When I dress in my stage gear, it’s like someone else in that costume, not me, so it’s better to put on just before the show!
Oh, my God I go in to my zone back stage and don’t like talking too much. If someone tries to have conversation with me, I normally don’t understand what he or she is going about. I prefer to be alone, or with someone who isn’t stressing out, and I never practice my music. I do semi-improvisation when I dance, and I truly believe in “The luck of the amateur”, so I like improvisation, or to not to know what I am doing every second of the song.
I am spiritual, as all artists are, so I try to think of being in Istanbul to get in to the oriental mood. Very often I think of some old-time Turkish belly dancer, and like a child, I talk with them and sometimes I dedicate my performance to any dancer that I have liked from past.
Sometimes I remember my mistakes from a previous experience, and before I go to the stage, I try not to repeat them.
Often before I perform, I feel very shy to go to dance, as I am quite a reserved guy…but when I hear my music and first step to the stage it all changes.
It’s almost like I am walking to my home and my comfort zone, so it all goes better and then DANCER OZGEN appears and Real Ozgen (me) disappears! “
September: 22 -23 in San Jose-Halanda Studio http://www.halanda.com/
September 25-30 Los Angeles : Workshops at Dance Garden on Wed., Sept. 26 (evening) & Sat. Sept. 29 (afternoon)
Ozgen's only LA appearance is on September 27 at Skinny’s Lounge, North Hollywood, with Helena Vlahos, Rania, Dilek, Atlantis, Marque Bissell, DeVilla & Isis-Siren-Sekhmet, Jenna & of course lil' ole me... Princess Farhana. All info here:
Info on Ozgen’s Oriental Istanbul 2013 Festival is here:
…. and last but not least: THE SHOE DANCE! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHp5vg6HWvg