Travel: Navel manoeuvres

Rose Rouse was hip to the challenge of a belly dancing course in Turkey
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The Independent Travel
What sort of person chooses to go on a belly dancing course? Especially the "Middle Eastern dance course, including Egyptian warrior-woman stick dances" that I saw advertised. It was taking place at an alternative holiday centre in a beautiful valley in south-west Turkey.

My question was answered at Dalaman airport. At first I spotted only one likely candidate among the dozens of casually clad, fag-wielding holidaymakers. Richmal certainly looked the part (it was her Armenian blood that did it). A PA to an estate agent in Dorset, she also seemed to be a belly dancing expert, and talked volubly about coin belts and where to get them, then related strange tales of Bedouin evenings in Blandford Forum, and explained how she once almost strangled herself performing a veil dance at a friend's party.

The others were an incongruous bunch. Belinda, a business analyst from Somerset, had been belly dancing for four years ("it gives me an excuse to wear all the clothes I'd never dare wear otherwise"). She told hilarious tales about her local lascivious Turkish restaurant owner called Herman. Then there was Fatima, a retired nurse, and her niece Soraya, a theatre set designer; and Joanna, a social worker from London. They, like me, were all belly dancing neophytes.

As the minibus sped southwards, passing gorgeous pine forests and rural vignettes of young Turkish women tending their goats, it became apparent that the British belly dancing sorority was divided into the tassel twirlers (glitzy, cabaret, with at least a hint of tackiness) and the non-tassel brigade (earthy, taking belly-dancing back to its feminine roots, fun). Belinda informed me that Karine, our teacher who I had yet to meet, was "definitely a non-tassel person." Richmal, on the other hand, had distinct tassel tendencies.

It was dark by the time we arrived at Huzur Vadisi ("peaceful valley"), an hour's drive from Dalaman and 30 minutes inland on an unmade road from the eastern town of Gocek. It is obviously a very special place. Tanfer and Jane Taka, together with Jane's brother Ian Worrall, bought the three- acre site three years ago when it had only olive trees and poppies on it. It now has six round yurts (traditional nomadic tents), a kosk (an exotic treehouse on stilts where you eat, lounge around and socialise), and a stone-clad swimming pool.

Jane herself came up with the idea for a holistic holiday centre. Yet it was her husband Tanfer and her brother Ian, an eco-engineer who had helped set up an alternative energy project in Ladakh, who actually put the plan into action. They have constructed everything themselves. Aided by a local group of young lads, their building plan was based on respect for traditional Turkish culture, including yurts. After a wild fact-finding mission - on the back of Ian's motorbike - they decided their yurt's wooden poles needed hand-stripping and steaming. Creating the centre has truly been a labour of love.

The first morning we gathered at a special stage area in the middle of a sunny wheat field surrounded by olive trees and pine-covered hills. We were dressed in sarongs with colourful scarves deliberately accentuating our hips. Most of us, that is. Of course, Richmal was professionally attired, including the shimmering coin belt across her bum. Karine Butchart, our tasselless teacher from Bristol, explained that "it was the grace, sensuality, strength and inner feminine power" that attracted her to belly dancing, while reminding us "that originally belly dancing was done by women for women, it was partly about strengthening the whole pelvic area ready for childbirth. Only later did it become bastardised into a dance to please men".

Hip-circling amid a gentle breeze and to the enticing sound of Egyptian baladi music, we swayed slowly, and gradually got used to a new vocabulary. Hip drops (letting your bottom drop suddenly), hip hits (pushing your hips violently out to the side), camel walks (which turned out to be Belinda's speciality) and vertical figures of eight were to become a part of our daily routine. "I just start to get that womanly feeling in my belly when it fades away," waxed Fatima whimsically.

Fortunately Karine was not a stickler for technique and did not insist that we perfect the crab walk or the diagonal vertical eight. She was more interested in the spirit of the dance. By day three, I was wearing my Indian table cloth and wielding a wooden stick in my own particular warrior-woman rendition of the Egyptian stick dance. It was a liberating experience. "Think of the pride of bearing that stick," said Karine. "Think of yourself as a tree." And somehow, I had no problem at all.

In between dancing - two hours in the morning and an hour in the evening - we visited a belly-dancing shop in Fethiye (guess who bought a sparkling black-and-silver beaded number? Yes, Richmal - but she did look fantastic), took a boat trip to the island of Yassi Adasi, during which we not only saw a flock of iridescent blue-and-brown bee-eaters but also burst into spontaneous belly-dancing action (much to the amusement of the Turkish staff), ate tasty vegetarian meals at Huzur Vadisi and went for long, wandering walks.

By Saturday, our last day, we were exploring techniques of classical belly dancing and playing with diaphanous veils. It was bliss.

And then there was the party. Nick, Karine's partner, managed to turn the stage into the Huzur Vadisi version of a harem and we put on a performance: me, like a whirling dervish, Belinda like a very funky disco dancer, Soraya and Fatima like genteel, pop versions, Richmal like a sensuous, slow classical belly dancer and finally Karine as our floating, folksy, stick-rotating star performer.

It was a very playful night. Hips a-go-go, shimmying bottoms, flirtatious veil dancing, sexy hip circling - it all happened. But my favourite moment was seeing Tanfer's mum, a normally taciturn Turkish lady, sporting my bright-orange feather boa and an occasional smile.

TURKEY SURVIVAL GUIDE

GETTING THERE Frequent scheduled flights link London Heathrow and Manchester with Istanbul. Specimen prices: Capital Flights (0171-209 4000) is selling return tickets from Manchester on 1 July with Turkish Airlines for pounds 219, and from Heathrow on British Airways for pounds 174.

For destinations beyond Istanbul, it is worth checking direct with Turkish Airlines (0171-499 4499); a flight via Istanbul to Adana costs pounds 290 for departures in early July.

Charter flights are widely available to destinations around the coast of Turkey, particularly Antalya, Dalaman and the new airport at Bodrum. Check for late deals with a High Street travel agent, or look at the advertisements on ITV Teletext. You can expect to pay about pounds 180 return (including tax), though cheaper last-minute bargains may be available.

Cut-price Istanbul city breaks will be offered once again this winter by Suntours (0171-434 3636). Weekend departures begin on 7 November, and cost pounds 156 for three nights in a three-star hotel, including flights from Gatwick and tax.

GETTING IN Because Britain levies a fee on Turkish visitors to the UK, British tourists have to pay pounds 10 on arrival for a visa.

MONEY Do not change money in advance. The Turkish lira, currently at 230,000 to the pound, depreciates rapidly against sterling, and exchange rates in the UK rarely keep pace with the fall in value. It is a much better plan to wait until you arrive in Turkey, and then to change small amounts. Banks keep short hours. If you can't find one open, souvenir shops or hotels will give you reasonably competitive rates.

GETTING AROUND Domestic flights on THY are relatively cheap (about pounds 35 for the Istanbul-Ankara hop, for example), but the main mode of transport is the express bus. These are huge, air-conditioned conveyances with an on-board courier who dispenses free soft drinks and eau de cologne to passengers. On main routes, buses run frequently - at least every 15 minutes on the six-hour trip between Istanbul and Ankara.

Services are run by numerous competing companies, and at some of Turkey's livelier bus stations it is easy to be hijacked by a tout who steers you towards a particular operator; shrug off all offers of "help" and check all the ticket offices yourself before buying a ticket. Fares on long- distance runs tend to be about pounds 1 per 100km (60 miles).

Shorter trips are operated by minibuses, generally in ramshackle condition. The name for this type of vehicle is dolmus, meaning "stuffed", which also applies to collective taxis - generally a stretched Mercedes that can take seven passengers on a good day.

Car hire is easy and relatively cheap, but be warned that the roads in Turkey are dangerous.

Rail travel has all but died out in the face of competition from buses, but services on the main line east from Istanbul to Ankara and beyond have survived. See the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable for details; this line is not included in the European Timetable.

ACCOMMODATION There are two basic options: hotels, which are cheap, and pansiyons, which are cheaper. Turkey seems to have an over-supply of accommodation, so you need not book in advance. One exception is Istanbul, where many travellers prefer to have a room reserved in order to minimise hassle on arrival.

In Istanbul, a room in a comfortable but not overly luxurious hotel will cost about pounds 15 for a single, pounds 25 double; elsewhere, you can expect to pay about half as much. Pansiyons charge about pounds 3 per person per night.

LANGUAGE Few British visitors master Turkish successfully; if you want to have a go, a useful introduction is the BBC's Get By In Turkish book/audio pack. The most widely spoken foreign language is German, but many locals speak a smattering of English.

BELLY DANCING Rose Rouse paid pounds 295 for her one-week course at Huzur Vadisi. This included transfers, instruction and full board, and was based on three people sharing a yurt. Flights are extra. Further details from Huzur Vadisi, 64 Cornerswell Road, Penarth, South Glamorgan CF642WA (01222- 704380). The same company arranges courses in activities ranging from pottery to tai chi.

Karine Butchart, who teaches Middle Eastern dancing in Britain, can be contacted on 0117-963 5967.

MAPS AND INFORMATION The Turkish tourist office in the UK is on the First Floor, Egyptian House, Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (0171-629 7771). The brochure request line, for maps and other published information, is 0891 887755; calls cost 50p per minute.

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