Welcoming Unicorns: A Male Belly Dancer’s Tips for Inclusiveness – ALLAF 024

Belly Dance Podcast hakan

Why is it so hard to say “dancers” instead of “ladies”? Male dancers have to train even harder not to be a spectacle, and lady dancers can help too. Listen to Hakan tell us how.


I am delighted to share this interview with our first featured male belly dancer, Hakan. Hakan is part of the dance community in Pittsburgh, which is the closest city to this two-week medieval festival you’ve heard me talking about called Pennsic War. Hopefully you heard and enjoyed the interview with Pittsburgh’s Maria Hammer in show number 22 which was also recorded at Pennsic. Maria is one of Hakan’s teachers.

Soon I will share one more Pennsic interview with Roxanne, an amazingly talented hurdy gurdy player and belly dancer who sings in many languages and makes a living playing music at Renaissance festivals and touring around. She is a tart and you will love that interview as well.

Back to Hakan. On Hakandances.com, Hakan’s website, his bio states that his dancing is a combination of American Tribal Style with a hint of Turkish style, and he’s greatly influenced by Zafira’s romantic belly dance. Now, Zafira is one of the troupes of Maria Hammer. Hakan and I had a wonderful conversation at Pennsic that I later discovered was truncated by the tent flaps hitting the microphone and loosening the cable. So much of it was lost and I’ll fill in the parts that I remember as best I can.


Hakan’s danceable ritual is so clever and simple that I bet you will always remember it. Hakan likes to dance a little bit when he’s driving. Have you ever noticed the construction signs that say shoulder work on the side of the road? Yep. You guessed it. When Hakan sees the sign that says shoulder work, he works his shoulders. So next time you see the shoulder work sign, start working those shoulders. Do some shoulder rolls, some shoulders shimmies horizontal figure eights, accents, draw circles with your shoulder blades. Just loosen up your upper body while you’re driving and make sure you give the shoulder above your non-dominant hand some love too. So let that be a danceable ritual that you can try. When you see that shoulder work sign, move those shoulders.


We’re actually recording at Pennsic in between some tents, so sorry if you hear some tent noise and some wind noise. It’s really fun to record this in the energy that is Pennsic and all of this dance energy, all of this costume and play all around us. Hakan you a male dancer who identifies as male and you are often the only man on the dance floor and you dance beautifully.

Do you have any suggestions for how dancers and dance teachers who identify as women can be more inclusive of dancers who identify as men?


The speech it’s used, I’ve been at many classes where the teacher would say, “Okay ladies”, and sometimes they’ll go, “Oh and Hakan.” The best classes I’ve been to were the ones where the teacher went, “okay dancers,” or “okay performers”.

Dancers, I think is the best one because it’s a non-gendered word. It fits everybody who is on that dance floor and in that studio.

And I think the crux of it is understand that there are people there that might not have a certain shared experience as well. And frequently, some of my teachers will say, “Okay this move that we’re doing from our back now focus on where your bra strap attaches” and I kind of sigh and go, okay, where on my body would that correspond, because I do not have a physical piece of cloth to represent where a bra strap is. All right, visualize. Great. Now we can do the move.

There are other terms that can be used, other references, the small of the back between the lower shoulder blades, things like that. That’s the main crux of it.

Understand what are not shared experiences. Or what is a term that is not going to be inclusive of all the people in the room.

I have never felt unwelcome in the dance communities or on the stages. When I was starting out in my dance career I was still trying to figure out what do my costumes look like. What am I going to make that’s flattering and appropriate on my body? So my costumes weren’t always that great. And there were women of the equal costuming skill levels, but they had a bare midriff. They had beautiful cleavage. They had beautiful hips. And the photographer would go down the line, take a picture of this female student, pass me over, take a picture of another female student. And I accepted that. I actually considered it a challenge because I looked at them and went, I want to be good enough in my dance form that people want to take pictures of me, not just because of how I look, but because I’m doing something interesting enough that they want to have a physical record of it. I didn’t treat it as a, “Oh, they’re slighting me”. I treat it as “I should be better”. That’s the way I’ve been looking at it.

Alicia Free:

Nice. We had one male belly dancer in our town, Michael, and he doesn’t dance anymore. He moved on to other projects and other fun things that he does, but my husband would always say, all these women are dancing and I can’t help but watch the only man. It’s like a very shared experience. I get so excited when I see that there’s a male belly dancer. I just want to see what they’re going to do. I want to see how they’re going to translate the move on their bodies. It’s interesting with the photographer that would give less attention because I would hope that in a lot of contexts you actually get more attention cause you’re kind of a unicorn in a way, you know?


And now that in itself has been a challenge because it’s forced me to work on my technique and my skill level.

Because I don’t want to be the token male. “Oh look, the guy he’s trying to dance, look at that”. I want to be able to stand on that dance floor to be a peer to the people who have trained as long as I have and not to be the spectacle.

It is also the reason why, while I have learned how to drum, I do not drum on stage. This is a personal preference because I’m also not a very good drummer. But the minute I pick up a drum on the stage, I go from being a dancer to a drummer who dances. The perception is if I’m a guy on the stage then I am a drummer, I’m a musician, I’m not a dancer. I have respect for drummers. I have respect for musicians, but that’s not where my training is. That’s not where I am putting my emphasis and I don’t want to be misrepresented. So, I want people to recognize that I am a dancer first, potentially a decent zill player, but a mildly competent drummer.

Alicia Free:

Hakan was telling me about his trip that he took in 2013 where he went all around the United States.


Every city I stopped in, I met with the dance community there. And got a chance to meet dancers from all across the country. Every stop I took. I met with the dance community in that area. I either went to a dance class, taught a workshop, sometimes I just had dinner with some of the people in that community. When I went to Billings, Montana, they threw me a hafla in two of the cities. I was there for actual scheduled performances. It was just an incredible experience. I learned that one month is not long enough to circle the United States, but it was a fantastic experience.

Alicia Free:

Cool. So Hakan is based in Pittsburgh with a lot of our other favorite dancers and performers in the Northeast. Do you want to say something about the dance community in Pittsburgh?


The dance community in Pittsburgh is a really open and welcoming community. We’ve gone through some shifts and changes in the 15 years that I’ve been there, but one of the high marks of that community is that every year there’s two hosted events that are open to everyone in the community.

An anti Valentine’s day hafla in February and a Halloween hafla in October, that just brings the community together and there’s a lot of love and support in the community.

Alicia Free:

Wonderful, do you have live music at these haflas?


Sometimes we do have live music. We are blessed to have Melissa of Ishtar, well Ishtar itself is based in Pittsburgh, so on occasions they will perform for shows. Thanks to Joanna Abel Ancien comes to Pittsburgh occasionally and so we get them performing for shows.

Alicia Free:

Can you spell that?


It is ancient without the T, Ancien.

Alicia Free:

Hakan. What do you love about belly dancing? What inspires you to dance?


It is the joy of movement that inspires me to dance. I love moving to the music. I love live music. I love great canned music. I love moving the music through my body and expressing myself through a movement vocabulary.

I also love the community and dancing with other people and seeing how my movements become reflected in someone else and then come back to me in a completely different way. Translated through their body, through their experiences and just through themselves.

Alicia Free:

And you started dancing before you started coming to Pennsic, correct?


I did. I took ballet classes when I was in high school. I took a year of ballet because they were giving free classes to guys if they did pas de deux. And then way back in the mid nineties, I did English country dance with the SCA and that was my first experience with Pennsic, Pennsic 25. After Pennsic 34 was when I had decided that was the time for me to dance. It was right after my first teacher, Kari Merlina had come back from Pennsic and I got my first class with her. Her entire class went with her to Pennsic and so I got a full year of belly dance class before I realized, you know what? Now I need to go back to Pennsic.

Alicia Free:

I have always been happy to watch you dance at Pennsic. Tell us something that you learned about dance at Pennsic.


Dancing around the fires, I met a man who was a reflection of the music itself. Just very natural. And he gave me this advice. “Listen to the music, just let it flow through your body and then just move, just dance”.

Now, at that time, I didn’t have the movement itself. I didn’t have the way to express myself, the ability to let it flow out and I needed the training and the classes in order to make it come, but the crux of it was the music is what tells you how to dance. Listen to that and everything else flows through.


Alicia Free:

What danceable song would you like to share?


Anything by Djinn, “Storming of the Temple”. The song that’s on the belly dance superstars, any of their songs, I will gladly dance to.

Alicia Free:

The song Hakan was referring to is “Burning of the Temple” and it’s on the Spotify playlist now. I agree that I love dancing to every song that I’ve ever heard from Djinn. I don’t think that they’ve been active as a band since 2014 and I miss them.

The hurdy gurdy player in the band and Melissa Kacalanos sang as I danced down the aisle at my wedding. She was part of the klezmer band that we hired. Anyway, Melissa is another musician who also belly dances and had many fun years playing at Pennsic. I contacted Carmine Guida and Melissa to see where the song came from. I thought it was traditional, but Melissa actually created the song in her head. It’s never been notated and she wrote that the title expresses how she feels about organized religion. And the song is played in the maqam, or scale of Hijaz.

Melissa doesn’t just play the hurdy gurdy, which she calls, “the reason medieval Europe didn’t need the electric guitar”, she’s really funny. You can visit Melissatheloud.com her website and see all the different instruments she plays. She also taught dance. I don’t know if she still teaches, but she’s pretty talented person. In the song “Burning of the temple”, the hurdy gurdy grinds in circles and drones low and invites the Jinn or the genies or the ghosts in me and around me to dance. Seems like there are many concepts associated with the word djinn, which is also the name of this band. It starts with a D. D-J-I-N-N. the D is silent.

I was in a mosque during Ramadan in Indonesia once and the men briefly turn their heads to the side while they were praying. I asked my Bahasa teacher why. She said there was something about a Djinn. I never found out more, but it’s an intriguing concept.

It can be pretty interesting to see ancient supernatural beliefs incorporated into religion, especially when religions come after those beliefs were already part of life and then they continue today in our modern times. In the case of the Djinn it spirits, that people believed in before Islam was born. These spirits can be good or bad and I think that’s part of why Djinn is a great name for a band cause it can be demons or other kinds of good spirits.

You can buy recordings of Djinn online. Their songs are fantastic buy the whole albums and you can also listen to them on Spotify. Carmine Guida is another member of the band Djinn and I can’t wait to invite him on the show sometime soon. There’s actually a great photo of Carmine playing the davul on the cover art for Episode 17. Another great show that will teach you a lot about drumming if you check it out.


Hakan chose the jewel as the damn sexy dance move for this episode. It’s a little tuck with a residual jiggle accent and you can add it to accentuate the end of a horizontal hip figure eight or a hip circle or a crescent if you like. If you want to try it now, stand up and get your good belly dance posture on, feet spread shoulder width apart. Roll your shoulders back. Open your chest. Take a nice deep breath, chin up. Knees are soft pelvis tucked.

Do a regular, even horizontal figure eight with your hips starting forward with one hip and swooping back behind you. That’s what some people call a back figure eight. Your weight should be shifting from your right foot to your left foot, to your right foot, to your left foot. With each figure eight. Half of the figure eight is on each foot.

Now, try doing a whole figure eight leaning more to one side and putting weight on that foot. As always, keep both knees bent, pelvis slightly tucked already and be gentle with your lower back. This lean is not a lean where you tip your shoulders or your hips. Both your shoulders and your hips are still parallel to the ground. Your weight is just centered predominantly over one foot, instead of your weight being evenly distributed between your two feet. Your figure eight is now lopsided. One of the circles on the figure eight is bigger than the other.

The hip in the direction you are leaning is drawing a bigger circle, and on the hip on the unweighted foot, there’s a smaller circle being drawn. The hip with the smaller circle gets the tuck or the jewel as we’re calling it here. You do one big circle and your figure eight on your weighted foot, and then one little circle sweeping back on the rest of your eight on your unweighted foot and then tuck. Some people do a jewel with a little twist rather than a tuck. Either way you contract one hip and shift your weight. I apologize if this explanation of the dance move was lost in the recording process, so I’m trying to do my best to represent what Hakan was describing.


Alicia Free:

What is one vegan whole food ingredient that you would like to share?


The cashew nut. That is one of my favorite general go-to snacks and ingredients for my meals.

Alicia Free:

Do you ever cook with cashews?


I’m going to have to say no because I don’t cook very much. Mostly it’s in trail mixes and things like that.

Alicia Free:

I was so glad that Hakan chose cashews because they are the secret creamy ingredient and my Alfredo sauce and the satisfying crunchy topping on my banana rice breakfasts.

Parmesan-Free Cashew Pesto

There’s a recipe for Parmesan free cashew pesto on my site, so vegan pesto and a great salad that I make with sweet potatoes and avocado and spinach and red onion and cashews. It’s so pretty.

Sweet Potato Avocado Salad with Cashew & Tahini Drizzle

The famous Moosewood restaurant is in my town and I remember a woman I met complaining that Moosewood cooked their cashews. First I thought she was a little out there and then I actually tried a raw cashew and then I got it. Raw cashews are delicious. I do love dry roasting cashews and then leaving them out on the counter in a bowl to snack on. Because I don’t add salt or oil or sweetener to the cashews, they’re not addictive. I won’t overeat them if they’re just dry roasted or raw.

In our co-op they sell both whole cashews and cashew pieces. The cashew pieces are less expensive and again it makes it easier not to overeat them because they’re these little chunks. They’re not big juicy cashews with salt and oil on them.

Cashew trees are tropical and they’re native to Brazil actually. The Portuguese took cashews to Goa and Southern India and the 1500s and then they spread to Southeast Asia. The cashews that I buy on the ferry boat dock from the mainland in Southern Thailand on my way to the islands are the most delicious cashews I have ever had. It’s like those little crescents symbolized paradise to me, like a moon hanging over the soft warm night on the beach.

There’s this spicy Thai cashew salad that’s not usually on Thai restaurant menus in the US. It’s so good. It’s just cashews, lightly fried in oil and then mixed with dried chilies, green onions and salt. Squeeze some lime on there. It is on the moon delicious. “Meh(t) mah-moo-ahng hee-mah-pahn” that’s what it’s called. And of course there’s more processed cashew milk and yogurt out there that’s good.

And Miyoko’s Creamery uses a lot of cashews in their gourmet vegan cheeses and they are divine. I’ve got to crack open my Miyoko cookbook someday and figure out how she does her magic. Thank you for choosing cashews Hakan.


Alicia Free:

Do you have any costume tips for us?


The best costume tip I have is double stitch your seems and always, always, always test your dance twice with your costume before you go on the stage.

I’ve only had two or three costume malfunctions in my history. I’m always concerned about my female dancers when they have their costume malfunctions. I want to see things presented to the audience in the best way that we possibly can. So, making sure that all the stitches are tight, all the snaps are snapped together and things like that. This is probably my best advice.


The saint of truth for this show is going to be that the feel good look goddess habit, would definitely be more inclusive if it was a feel good look good habit. Hmm. So I just sent a message to the Arabic speaking voice over artist Abdel Rahman that recorded all the clips, introducing the segments of the show, and asked him to rerecord that one and he already wrote back and said he’s going to do it. So in future episodes, you will hear that gendered language taken out. I’m going to get better at this every time. I want everyone who is attracted to this podcast to feel good about listening to it. Thanks so much for listening.