The Magic Hips of Eshe Yildiz
Eshe was living in Tokyo in 2006 when she met Turkish belly dance legend Sema Yildiz at a workshop in Aoyama, near Shibuya. It was one of those inspiring encounters that most people might let slip by. Not her. There, among a group of about 50 women that had gathered to learn traditional Turkish Orientale Dance techniques, Eshe was picked out of the back row to dance for everyone in the room. Though she was incredibly nervous, her hypnotic hips worked their magic.
After the dance, Sema asked Eshe’s teacher Mishaal: “Who is that girl? She's beautiful and she dances beautifully.” Mishaal told Eshe about the exchange a week later, bringing her to tears when Sema left Tokyo. Sema Yildiz, you see, is nothing short of an icon, so the gravity of the complement was not lost on Eshe. “Her dance was so raw, so feminine, so lovely that I just wanted her to stay,” she remembers thinking.
Breaking into the dance scene is incredibly difficult. It takes time and effort to convince people you are professional, dedicated and sincere. In this brand of dance, there are no milestones like in other art professions. Those bonds, especially in the arts, are not easy to form – and most fail. Dancers, said Eshe, need to be vouched for by someone local to the scene.
Her budding relationship with Sema was indeed significant.
That Tokyo encounter was the impetus for a trip to Istanbul, Turkey, in December of 2009, where she wanted to study with Sema and other famed Turkish belly dance teachers Princess Banu and Reyhan Tuzsuz. She didn’t expect to perform, but she brought her costume nonetheless. It was a good thing she did.
There, Sema arranged a performance for Eshe at Gar Casino. Before the show, Eshe was nervous because Sema had been insisting she drink raki (it’s Turkey’s version of soju, but it’s much more lethal). Sema told Eshe, “I’m the mom and you’re the baby. When mom says ‘drink the milk’ you do it.” She caved, telling Sema she’d have a glass of white wine, instead. Sema ordered red.
She may be famous and respected, but Sema still likes to party like a rock star, Eshe discovered.
Sema liked the performance so much that she gifted Eshe the name Yildiz, which means “star” in Turkish. Until then, she had only used the name Eshe. “It was really touching. Sema also commented that I was a natural princess. She told me I am one of her daughters now and next time I go to Turkey I must stay at her home,” said Eshe. “I do miss her.”
Skipping ahead a year, Eshe found herself on the same stage as the most renowned belly dancer in the world.
In 2010, the American belly dancer Jillina cast Eshe as a performer in her Bellydance Evolution dates in Seoul and Bali, Indonesia. “It’s a touring act made up some of the most famous belly dancers in the world with a backing cast of local dancers. I was dancing alongside belly dance royalty. That was pretty amazing,” Eshe said. Preparation required eight hours of rehearsals every day for a week. “My feet split open from so much dancing, but it was incredible.”
Though she won’t admit it – she is very competitive, saying she’s too young to feel like she’s "made it" – dancing with belly dance royalty is indicative of Eshe’s status.
“Although I treasure getting to meet, study, and become friends with my belly dance idols like Sema Yildiz, Jillina, Raqia Hassan, and Mishaal,” she said. “I'm proud to have been featured in Apollo18's "Orbis" music video. They penned the song after watching me dance. It was part of their award-winning Blue album.”
In February, Eshe became the first foreigner to open a dance studio in Seoul. Officers at the Korean Immigration Service, however, took it up themselves to suggest she change her occupation to teaching English. “They kept saying ‘Wouldn't you rather teach English? It's much easier!’”
Soon after moving to Seoul in late 2007, Eshe became a member of world fusion music band Orgeltanz as the act’s belly dancer. Through 2010, Orgeltanz and Eshe performed on Korea’s biggest stages (Pentaport Rock Festival among them), were featured in the country’s biggest magazines (Vogue Korea, Harper’s Bazaar) and made an appearance on MBC, the national broadcaster.
Orgeltanz, however, amicably disbanded last August.
Eshe, originally from Hamilton, Ontario, owns and operates Dream Dance Studio in Mangwon, Seoul. In addition to teaching belly dance, it offers hula hoop, hip hop, and swing dance classes. She directs two performing troupes, Navah (which means "beautiful” in Hebrew and "tune" in Farsi) and Mahadevi (which means "Great Goddess" in Sanskrit).
Dream Dance Studio, said Eshe, is the only place in Korea offering American Tribal Style and ITS (Improvisational) classes. In this style, dance is created on the spot; no choreography is involved. She says she teaches a body language that students use to "speak to one another. I'm currently writing and teaching my own unique vocabulary.”
She also offers the only place in Korea to get Romani (traditional Turkish Gypsy) dance lessons. “It's a 9/8 beat often categorized as being in the limping or hiccupping rhythm family. It's an interesting mix of cultural and also a street dance. Many of the moves are inspired by everyday life: doing the laundry, having a baby; taking a bath. It's a beautiful art,” she said.
Who is Eshe? Most people don’t know that her maternal grandparents are Scottish country dancers and teachers. After they immigrated to Canada with her mother, they decided to study and share dance. When they first opened their studio, they would wait in the lobby of the hall waiting for enough people to show up to make a big enough group.
Aside from that, Eshe said she’s an open book. “I don't think I have many juicy secrets. I love everything. I love life. I love Korea. It's such a blessing to be able to work and enjoy life overseas. I take time in each and every class to say a silent ‘thank you.’”
The only secret she has is her age.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about belly dance is that they lead glamorous lives. Eshe said she loves being an artist, but it is difficult: Costumes, music, travel and study can be very expensive (new costumes are often upwards of 600,000 won. “I'm lucky that I can live off of my art. I know a lot of artists who cannot, so even when they are difficult to endure I'm grateful for my struggles.”
Barrels of ink have been spilled over the plight of Korean artists, who must be the poorest among their peers in any developed country. But imagine making a living as a foreign artist in Korea. Yes, Eshe is beautiful, but looks don’t account for talent (and business sense). There is a lot of real work involved in being an artist, she says.
A friend once told Eshe that dance is a gift from heaven. “If you aren't constantly giving it away, your inspiration might dry up. So I'm always giving to my students and my audiences. There are times of course that I feel tired but it's an enjoyable exhaustion.”
In June, she and her girls were scheduled to perform in China, but the Community Party of China shut down the festival and pulled its funding. Nevertheless, Eshe said she is hopeful the show will go on in the fall.
“I'm interested in taking dance to the next level with my students. Of course, the causal dancer who just wants to shake their booty is welcome in the studio. But for me, the more interesting and rewarding work is in creating dancers -- whether they perform for themselves in their living rooms or on stages around the world.
“I love my students. I love my troupes Navah and Mahadevi. I'm proud of the work they do. They continuously surprise, inspire and delight me. I was blown away that they were invited to China with me,” she said. “It's incredibly humbling that my students were invited to perform overseas. I love everything about belly dancing. It's a celebration of the body. It's a cultural and musical experience. It's mind and soul nurturing. It's a release.”
Eshe’s ultimate goal is to popularize belly dance as a rich cultural and moving artistic phenomenon. “I would love to expose more women to the beauty residing inside of them.
“Someone commented this year that I must be the youngest company owner in Korea. I don't know if that's true, but it's fun to hear. I have no silent partners or shareholders. It's just me.”
Eshe and will perform with her troupes on May 21 at Guitar Men & Hippie Girls (formerly known as Vintage Mama). Two shows will be performed, one each at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Cost is 10,000 won, which includes one drink.