At a dance, fear the man in patent leather shoes. Everyone else may be dancing to have a good time or maybe to blow off some steam, but the man in patent leather shoes has come here to work. The dance is the highlight of his week and whether his shoes are a shiny black foundation for super-skinny jeans or a shimmering track suit, he will command the sort of respect that will remind you of how medieval lords led their charges into battle. In Trabzon, the largest city of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, shoes make the man and these leather shoes mark the manliest of men.
Trabzon is about 300 kilometers of mountain passes from the nearest large Turkish city, Erzurum. Trabzon is only 200 kilometers of shoreline from Batumi, the Georgian city of real estate speculation and kachapouri (bread baked with salty cheese, butter, and egg). Trabzon thankfully takes cultural cues from the latter and indeed was the Europe-facing port for the Caucasus, filling the coffers of the wonderfully-named Trapizuntine Empire from the 13th through 15th centuries. From the Ottoman conquest through the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Trabzon was the greatest gem of the Black Sea ports and worth the struggles for Russian and Ottoman suzerainty alongside not just Poti and Sukhumi but Varna, Costanta, and even Odessa. Like any of those ports, Trabzon was a wonderful mix of Pontic Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews, and Georgians as well as local populations of Hemşin and Laz. And like any decent port, the nights were full of drinking and posturing and dancing.
Trabzon today is mostly concrete apartments and factories, broken up by a few parks and pine trees that grow like weeds. The port is still active, but its rusted utilitarianism makes it a tough tourist draw. Trabzon may be an unremarkable slice of seaside urbanity, but this is a place best defined by its dance.
Trabzonian dances come in many shapes and sizes, but the king of them is the Horon. The dance is made up entirely of various leg stomps and arm raises while everyone links pinkies to create a line. It looks a bit like a group of people stomping grapes and holding on to each other for support. The economy of movement means that one can get some friends together and do a Horon anywhere, and they do. The term “Bize her yer Trabzon” means, roughly, “We Trabzonians are everywhere” alluding to the thousands of migrants who have left the region for work since the 1950s. The Horon can be danced even on a ferry to points unknown.
The beat is kept by the electric-seeming kemençe, a small lute played like a cello. A good kemençe is a live-wire and the star of the show, speeding up to challenge the dancers and slowing down to catch their feet unawares. The name of the instrument comes from Persian, but belies its essentially Greek history. The Trapizuntine Empire was Greek by language and religion, and though the Pontic Greek community has since assimilated or emigrated, the music stayed. Even the name “Horon” itself comes from the Greek “Horos” (meaning circle), alongside the Hebrew “Hora.” The official history of the dance by the Turkish Ministry of Culture explains it as a soldier’s dance and attributes the name to the locals’ strange pronunciation of Turkish. The Greek community roots the dance in pagan worship ceremonies. Adjarians call it a hazing ritual for new troops. It’s a good thing that dance has no language, because then everyone would argue over it.
There is no fighting at Zigana, perched high on a cliff face with only a thin parking lot full of Renaults and university charter busses between it and the seaside highway. If it wasn’t a nightclub, Zigana would make for quite the evil lair. But as it stands, it’s a nightclub (albeit atop a cliff facing the Black Sea) and one with a small metal door with raucous banging and clanging behind it. There were tables, but few people sat at them. There was tea, drank in energy-drink portions as a performance enhancer. There were suits, shiny and barely containing the men checking their phones when not watching the dancers.
The man trying to get in the women’s circle is a boor, the American woman dancing like she was on Telemundo is tolerated
More than any of this there was the searing zing of the kemençe and the roiling floor being struck by a hundred feet. A common mistake by foreigners is to assume that you must dance with or at the person you are trying to impress. Oh no, the men and women dance in concentric or congruent circles, only joining for the main events. The man trying to get in the women’s circle is a boor, the American woman dancing like she was on Telemundo is tolerated. But otherwise, the organization at Ziguna would make a synchronized swimmer squeal with delight. The new entrant finds a group of people they think they might keep up with, and they try to do just that.
Which is not to say that there aren’t pauses. At around 10pm, the musicians stop and people return to their benches for tea, yes, and phone-checking, of course, but also rice pudding. The pudding, called sütlaç in Turkish and of a local variety from Hamsiköy that is lighter on the rice and dusted with crushed hazelnuts, is eaten up quickly. But in the lull, a woman with dyed-blond hair, 5-inch stiletto heels, and a dress that looks like it was made out of Soviet-era windowdrapes comes out to wild applause.
The night’s singer works the two-storey crowd warmed by tea and a fireplace in Ziguna’s cliffside tent. Photo by Asher Kohn.
I never find out who she is, since all of my questions lead to either equally ignorant shrugs or eyes rolled at my ignorance. But she can work a crowd, singing what are apparently standards in front of two storeys of widening eyes. In the nick of time, she asks around, “would anybody want to help the musicians in our next song?”
There have never been so many spoons used for so many purposes. Spoons for eating, spoons for percussion, spoons for baton-twirling, spoons for adornment. With tables full only with tea and pudding, spoons are the only extant weapon and they are wielded magnificently. The scene is reminiscent of 2010’s Av Mevsimi (“Hunting Season”), an incredibly popular Turkish neo-noir film that got its emotional pull from the first serious role of comedian Cem Yilmaz’s career. Portraying Idris, the hot-headed cop with a marriage on the rocks and an inability to play by any rules but his own, Yilmaz ate stuffed grape leaves and spoke Laz onscreen. This was the first time a Black Sea character was portrayed as anything but a yokel and at all sympathetic. Early in the movie, Idris single-handedly starts a party using only his sleepy-bear body, a good measure of raki, and spoons:
Back at Ziguna, there are two focal points. One is a girl wearing a moddish Rize-patterned scarf in black, yellow, and red, graced with gobs of makeup and a shirt with “WHO CARES” spelled out in sequins. She has mastered the art of moving her legs while keeping a mask-like face, giving the impression of a cheerleader performing surgery. While she dances with her friends, a group of men from Ardahan dance viciously in a circle, working as hard as they can to get her to raise an eyebrow in their direction.
“Testosterone flies along with sweat as their heels hit the ground like butchers’ blades”
It can be a bit alarming to feel like the only one who doesn’t know the song. America’s “Cotton-Eyed Joe” has no match for any of the suite of dances performed by the men of Ardahan, and once a song starts to feel familiar the kemençe can switch and leave one’s legs akimbo. Among the Ardahanli, two in red assert themselves most and get in the center of their own circle. With their waists, torsos, and heads ramrod straight and feet mirroring each others’ as if in a duel, the testosterone flies along with sweat, the emotion heightened by resplendent thwacks as their heels hit the ground like butchers’ blades. Their eyes stay locked and their friends don’t leave the circle, except for a few scouts to spread word if the girl asking “WHO CARES” cared to look in their direction.
A midnight bathroom break was precarious. With all the music and dancing, the tiny toilets remind me of an airplane potty in a jet going through heavy turbulence. How the dancers, plied with tea as they are, don’t need to use the facilities astounds me.
Want to find the manliest man in Trabzon? Look for the cockiest dancer
It is the true mark of a man in Trabzon how few bathroom breaks he needs, how cleverly he can move his feet, and how surely he can exert his dominance on a cliffface tent. A good shorthand for this is the make of his shoes. The man in sharp shoes (patent leather preferred) is there to be seen, to exert dominance. Want to find the manliest man in Trabzon? Look for the cockiest dancer.
It’s a different sort of masculinity than the swaggy posturing in shiny suits common in Istanbul or Ankara and even further from the mustachioed chain-smoking common in the Anatolian steppes. A Trabzon man knows how to dance and how to involve everyone else in dancing and revelry in a way peculiar from the rest of the country, and there’s a real worry that the farther these men get from the cliffs and the kemençe the farther they will fall from their essential weird Trabzonness. But wherever he goes in the country or the world, the patter of shiny shoes will follow.