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“Dance Saved My Life”: Kadir Memiş’s Life Story and
the (Re)Framing of Identity through Dance
To cite this article: Berna Kurt (2020) “Dance�Saved�My�Life”: Kadir Memiş’s Life Story
and the (Re)Framing of Identity through Dance, Dance Chronicle, 43:1, 63-90, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01472526.2019.1708140
Published online: 04 Mar 2020.
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“Dance Saved My Life”: Kadir Memis¸’s Life Story and
the (Re)Framing of Identity through Dance
A Turkish artist living in Germany, Kadir “Amigo”Memis¸is
known for choreographies that combine street dance or
breaking with traditional dances of Turkey. His story in
Germany began with social integration problems and the
trauma of losing his brother, but it continued with his adapta-
tion to the diaspora through the medium of dance. Using
thematic analysis to construct a life story based on Memis¸’s
self-narratives, I aim to demonstrate how the artist’s engage-
ment with hip-hop culture in the diaspora helped him
overcome his troubles and construct a new, artist’s identity.
narrative; life story;
A self-reflexive prologue
By way of introducing a personal context for studying this topic, I first
position myself, identifying personal characteristics that could influence
my approach to this research.
I initiated contact with Memis¸ eight years ago, after watching
Zeyb(r)e(a)k, which he performed as part of the “Dans Platform Istanbul”
program within the framework of events celebrating Istanbul as the 2010
European Capital of Culture.
I also attended his post-performance talk,
and, two days later, during the coffee break of a dance forum in the same
program, we briefly talked about popular hybrid folk dances in Turkey.
At that time, I was a performer in the dance group BGST Dansc¸ıları, which
had a growing interest in the urban, hybrid, improvised, and stylized
versions of traditional Anatolian dances. As a group, we were taking
ß2020 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
Dance scholars Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young summarize the historical context of such a reflexive
approach in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity, ed. Anthony Shay and Barbara
Sellers-Young (London: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199754281.001.0001. They
state that research in dance ethnography was challenged in the 1970s and 1980s by cultural critics such as
Bob Scholte, who contended that ethnography as praxis was culturally mediated, contextually situated, and
relative. In the 1980s, George Marcus and others continued this reorientation toward self-reflexive
ethnography. Marcus noted that ethnography had evolved from the travel writings of the nineteenth century
that exposed scholars’assumptions about the primacy of Western notions of knowledge. To mediate potential
biases, dance ethnographers began to position their personal history as a means of identifying characteristics
such as ethnicity, race, class, and national origin that could influence their approach.
2020, VOL. 43, NO. 1, 63–90
some street dance courses and collectively reading about hip-hop culture;
we planned to publish a special edition on hip-hop in Folklora Do
journal of the Bo
gazic¸i University Folklore Club (B
UFK). We communi-
cated with Memis¸ and sent some questions by e-mail, but ultimately we
were unable to include this correspondence in the special edition.
Six years later, I watched Memis¸’sRed Bull Anadolu Break choreography
and his related documentary film project, and I reinitiated communication
with him via social media and e-mail.
As we continued our long-distance
communication, I reviewed written and video materials about him. Finally,
when he came to Istanbul to give a workshop and a Zeyb(r)e(a)k perform-
ance in November 2017, I conducted an interview with him, and we par-
ticipated in a radio program together.
Most recently, when he stayed in
Istanbul from January through May 2019 as one of the artists-in-residence
at the Tarabya Cultural Academy, I met him several times and watched his
At this point, it is important to address why I took an interest in his
performances and what role my own identity played in this research.
An overview of my personal preferences and priorities as a researcher
illuminate the focus of my research.
I have been involved in various dance contexts since 1994. As
a performer of folk dance, I have always been interested in, performed, and
taught some of the improvised, urban(ized) versions and fusions of the
traditional dances of Turkey. I therefore found Memis¸’s creative way of
combining different dance genres and his improvizational skills impressive.
I have been particularly interested in the fusion of the dances of Turkey
with breaking—as opposed to Western theatrical dance genres—because
such improvised dances are very popular in amateur social dancing
contexts in Istanbul. Moreover, while trying to learn some “street dances,”
I have been especially attracted to breaking—a popular dance genre that
originated in the cultures of “other people,”similar to received notions of
Moreover, as a feminist scholar, I have long been interested in the
presentation of unconventional gender roles onstage. I was surprised when
Memis¸’s performance did not reproduce the mainstream, aggressive, male
style of the solo zeybek dance in Turkey, which I discuss in the
Both breaking and “ethnic dances”—i.e., the dances of “ordinary people”—tend to be excluded from dance
history literature, which focuses primarily on ballet and modern dance. For some critical approaches to the
hierarchy in dance genres inherent in the field of dance studies, see Andr
ee Grau, “Myths of Origin,”in The
Routledge Dance Studies Reader, ed. Alexandra Carter, 197–203 (London: Routledge, 1998); and Theresa
Buckland, “All Dances Are Ethnic, but Some Are More Ethnic than Others: Some Observations on Dance Studies
and Anthropology,”Dance Research 17, no. 1 (1999): 3–21, DOI: 10.2307/1290875, https://www.jstor.org/
64 B. KURT
Finally, given my background in political science and history, I view
dance aesthetics through a social science lens. I am especially interested in
analyzing “presentational”dances rather than “participatory”ones.
Memis¸’s performances took me by surprise. Elements that particularly
attracted my attention were his artistic creativity enriched by the diversity
of his multiple identities, his personal history, and his alternative approach
to life and choreography. I wanted to analyze the reasons for my deepening
Breaking, zeybek, and zeyb(r)e(a)king
In this section, I provide some background information on breaking and
zeybek, the two dance forms that I examine when exploring Memis¸’s life
Hip-hop culture—which Memis¸ entered after his settlement in the
diaspora—is composed of four elements: deejaying, emceeing (rapping),
b-boying, and graffiti.
Ethnomusicologist Joseph Schloss states that it
emerged as a sociocultural movement around 1974 and that an associated
musical genre developed in 1979.
B-boying—known to popular audiences
as “breakdancing”—emerged as a dance form in New York City in
the early 1970s.
Although it emerged in the context of block parties and so-called “park jams”where a
variety of popular dances were performed, b-boying now exists primarily in the
context of “battles”or formal contests. . . . Battles consist of competitors (individuals
or groups) taking turns dancing within a circle of onlookers [called the “cypher”]fora
pre-determined number of rounds, at the end of which designated judges decide
Schloss adds that b-boying, or “breaking,”saw a brief moment
of extreme popularity as an international fad in 1984. Most contemporary
b-boys associate the term “breakdancing”with the more commercial
aspects of b-boying that emerged during that period and reject the term
on that basis.
For this reason, I use the term “breaking”in this article.
According to dance historian Sally Banes, breaking—the newest element
Ethnochoreologist Andriy Nahachewsky defines four dance categories: (1) participatory dances, such as
spontaneous social dances, in which the dancers focus their attention on their interaction with each other; (2)
presentational dances, pre-prepared and rehearsed for an external human audience; (3) sacred dances, in
which the message is intended for supernatural beings; and (4) reflexive dances, in which each dancer focuses
on his/her own kinesthetic experience. See Andriy Nahachewsky, “Participatory and Presentational Dance as
Ethnochoreological Categories,”Dance Research Journal 27, no. 1 (1995): 1–15, DOI: 10.2307/1478426, https://
Joseph Schloss, “Like Old Folk Songs Handed Down from Generation to Generation: History, Canon, and
Community in B-Boy Culture,”Ethnomusicology 50, no. 3 (2006): 413, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20174468.
Memis¸ states in his TEDx talk that one of the basic rules of breaking is to respect the rival and that it is
forbidden to touch each other during battles. See Kadir Memis¸, “Zeyb(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ j
TEDxBahcesehirUniversity,”YouTube video, 19:12, a TEDx talk, posted by TEDx, April 20, 2016, https://www.
DANCE CHRONICLE 65
of hip-hop culture—was what made hip-hop a media obsession. In the
beginning, practitioners and aficionados called it “breaking,”“b-boy,”
“rocking down,”or even “that kind of dancing you do to rap music.”
After the early 1980s, the media hype about breaking changed both the
form and meaning of the dance. Originally, breaking was a kind of serious
game; a form of urban vernacular dance; a fusion of sports, dancing, and
fighting whose performance had urgent social significance for the dancers.
After the media attention, it became a theatrical art form with its own tech-
nique and vocabulary while retaining the element of competition.
Interdisciplinary scholar Imani Kai Johnson, who holds a PhD in
American studies and ethnicity, states that the key elements of breaking
“include toprocking (rhythmic dancing upright to the music, situated at the
beginning of the performance); footwork or floor work (on-the-floor
aspects displaying one’s style and skills, including acrobatic and aerial
‘power’moves); and freezes or blow ups (poses or acrobatic moves, respect-
ively, at the end of a set).”She adds that these components are guiding
principles rather than strict structural rules.
Banes claims that breaking’s main source of movement is black dance or
She states that “breaking is a way of claiming
the streets with physical presence, using the body to publicly inscribe the
identity on the surfaces of the city, to flaunt a unique personal style within
a conventional format. The body symbolism makes breaking an extremely
powerful version of two favorite forms of street rhetoric—the taunt and the
boast”—in the form of insulting gestures aimed at the opponent and
acrobatic virtuosity, respectively.
She adds that, in the early days, most of
the breakers were male, and part of its macho quality was linked to the
physical risk involved—including the risk of real fighting that might erupt.
Another part was linked to the desire to impress women.
Black popular culture scholar, dance educator, and choreographer Halifu
Osumare states that hip-hop culture today represents “connective margin-
alities,”which she defines as “social resonances between black expressive
culture within its contextual political history and similar dynamics in other
nations. Connections or resonances can take the form of culture itself
(Jamaica and Cuba), class (North African Arabs in France), historical
oppression (Native Hawaiians in Hawaii), or simply the discursive
construction of ‘youth’as a peripheral social status (Japan).”
Imani Kai Johnson, “B-Boying and Battling in a Global Context: The Discursive Life of Difference in Hip Hop
Dance,”special issue “The Other Americas,”Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 31 (2011): 173–95, https://
For a detailed movement analysis of breaking in historical context, see also Jorge “Popmaster Fabel”
Pabon, “Physical Graffiti: The History of Hip-Hop Dance,”Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner, 1999, accessed May 28,
66 B. KURT
A much older and very different culture, which emerged in the Western
Anatolian region of Turkey, was home to Memis¸’s local tradition: zeybek.
Zeybeks were a group of es¸kıya (bandits) who lived in the mountains and
revolted against Ottoman rule (1299–1923).
Zeybeks would collect goods
and money from villagers and the rich in exchange for defending them
against other bandits.
After the Zeybeks participated in the War of
Independence and the period of national construction that followed, people
in Turkey accepted them as “national heroes.”Several people attributed
emotional values to them and their dance form, also known as zeybek.
Their dance has been heavily loaded with several symbolic meanings, such
as chivalry, bravery, dignity, vanity, solidarity, heroism, love, victory, and
In the early twentieth century, the zeybek performances of
Republic of Turkey founder and charismatic leader Mustafa Kemal Atat€
also helped contribute to this symbolism. In addition to all those attributed
meanings, many Turkish scholars claimed that the dance was an abstrac-
tion of eagle movements. This kind of abstraction also bestowed certain
connotations on the dance, such as having a warriorlike, aggressive, and
Zeybek is performed with wide arm and leg movements in a very slow,
syncopated or irregular, nine-count rhythm. Onstage it is usually repre-
sented as a male solo dance. In a rural context, its traditional performance
is not so aggressive, and some women also perform the dance. After the
modernist national construction period—of the 1920s and 1930s, which
allowed for some advances in gender equality—and especially by the end
of the 1970s, more women began participating in zeybek performances.
Nevertheless, the masculine heroic character of the dance (represented
through storylines, posture, and attitude) has always been predominant,
and women’s performance never transcended beyond representations of
characteristics attributed to women, such as fragility, femininity, passivity,
and so on.
Memis¸ took both of these dance forms—zeybek and breaking—and
altered them to create Zeyb(r)e(a)k as a unique vehicle for his own identity
construction. He focused on the similarities between the two genres: solo
performances by men, improvization, performing in a circle, starting by
walking around and appropriating the space, and acting as if in battle.
More specifically, Memis¸ built on the two forms’similarities in tech-
nique. He states, for example, that the technique used in breaking’s pop-
ping and zeybek’s finger snapping (parmak s¸ıklatma) are comparable and
During this period, dance and gymnastics instructor Selim SırrıTarcan initiated a social engineering attempt
and invented a couple dance tradition—similar to the waltz of the Western world—based on the zeybek
dance form. For more information on “Tarcan Zeybek,”see Arzu
urkmen, “Modern Dance ‘Alla Turca’:
Transforming Ottoman Dance in Early Republican Turkey,”Dance Research Journal 35, no. 1 (2003): 38–60,
DANCE CHRONICLE 67
that both dance forms have wavy movements. He worked to establish fluid
transitions between them.
Zeybek suddenly gives up all of the energy and power he gathered up. In hip-hop,
we use the “pop”both in the beginning and in the end. We call “freeze”the
movements we make at the end of the fluid and undulating arm movements. . . . I
dealt with these poses. I turned the finger snap in zeybek into a circle. I’m beginning
with popping elements, the waves, then pass through the finger snapping or vice
versa. ...Ireally enjoyed this process and advanced it in time.
He also took gestures, knee movements, and floor work from breaking.
When he is dancing, his transitions between breaking and zeybek steps are
wavy, unpredictable, and very precise. His style is characterized by free-
flowing and undulating arm and upper-body motions ending with sudden,
unexpected freezes or turns.
In Turkey, postures and gestures of most male zeybek dancers are out-
wardly aggressive—as if they danced to threaten a fictive enemy. But
Memis¸ reinterprets this dance to attain a highly different effect, using
upright posture but without an outward-oriented torso and exaggerated
body language. His facial expression is primarily inward looking and dra-
matic. His uncompetitive virtuosity is based on free, light, and fluid arm
movements. His style, not acrobatic, is still visually spectacular. He has said
that this unconventional male dancing style is not something he purpose-
fully developed. His primary goals were to feel the deepest emotions of
Zeybeks and to improvise around those sentiments, as well as their stories,
music, and culture. He wanted to present the heroism of the Zeybeks, as
well as the deep sadness and joy dancers feel when dancing.He establishes
very subtle and fluid transitions between the two dance forms, creating a
unique style that echoes both without quite representing either.
Narrative of life experiences and the construction of identities
According to dance anthropologist Andr
ee Grau, “Identity is not an obso-
lete concept.”Stating that we understand ourselves by listening to the
other, Grau proposes that identity and alterity are pertinent concepts for
understanding the world we live in, as well as for imagining other worlds.
Grau criticizes the postmodernist tendency in dance studies, which negates
Kadir Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
or for Ac¸ık Radyo radio station, broadcast
on November, 15, 2017, on the Ac¸ık Dergi-C¸ıplak Ayaklar’la Dans program, 30:11, Istanbul, Turkey, http://
acikradyo.com.tr/podcast/197816. In a post-performance talk, when asked about the meaning of what he
called “deep sadness,”he replied that Anatolian people suffer all the time (Kadir Memis¸, talk after his
Zeyb(r)e(a)k performance at the German Consulate, in the framework of the special event “Processes of
Creativity in Turkish-German Life Spaces,”Istanbul, Turkey, May 9, 2019). He added that zeybek dance is like a
wedding representing very complex emotions, and that it’s the most beautiful dance in this world. He
described very old zeybek dancers: they drink and listen to the tune of the music; they get into the mood for
dancing very slowly; and their dance represents very deep and complex feelings, both joy and sadness in
68 B. KURT
the compartmentalization of everyday life and forever “deconstructs”the
world of dance, thereby creating another kind of intellectual imperialism
that is divorced from dancers’lives and their daily experiences. She adds,
It is crucial to carry out more empirical research and listen to what dancers have to
say about their experiences so as to better understand, through rigorous
documentation and analysis, how they find their place in the world and how their
experiences of gender, race, identity, or other, are, or are not, invoked in their
In my interactions with Memis¸, I sought to understand his experience of
multiple identities in relation to his artistic practices. As dance researcher
and anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna recommends, I accepted dance as
“a marker and symbol of identity.”
Dance constructs, reinforces and deconstructs or questions traditional and changing
identity. People have multiple identities that can be expressed in the same or in
different dances. There may be a difference between dancers’expressions of identity
and audience perceptions. Continuity and change can occur over time and
Refraining from essentialist approaches and accepting that “identities are
never completed, finished . . . always in process,”
“always in part a narra-
tive . . . a kind of representation,”
I adopted cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s
approach and took identity to mean “something which is not formed out-
side and we tell stories about it, but narrated in one’s own self.”
Exploring Memis¸’s self-narration about his past as a “retold, rediscovered,
as Hall suggests, I followed the dancer’s
“routes”of artistic production:
Though they seem to invoke an origin in a historical past with which they continue
to correspond, actually identities are about questions of using the resources of
history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not “who
we are”or “where we came from,”so much as what we might become, how we have
been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves. Identities
are therefore constituted within, not outside representation. They relate to the
invention of tradition as much as to tradition itself, which they oblige us to read not
as an endless reiteration but as “the changing same”(Gilroy, 1994): not the so-called
return to roots but a coming-to-terms-with our “routes.”
Undertaking essentially qualitative research based on visual resources (a
very rich collection of performative and documentary videos), secondary
written resources, personal interviews with Memis¸, and observation of
some of his live performances and workshops, I have come to see that his
autobiographical and bicultural Zeyb(r)e(a)k choreography was the result of
his endeavor to come to terms with his “routes”and overcome his feeling
of in-betweenness. As my work advanced, I realized that his construction
of a new, “artist’s identity”through this choreography helped him to cope
DANCE CHRONICLE 69
with personal troubles—that I will discuss later—related to the context of
Based on his repeated narratives of his personal experiences and choreo-
graphic work, I constructed a narrative of his life story. To analyze the data
I collected and the narrative I constructed, I needed to get acquainted with
the literature on life history research.
In this field, educational studies scholar Sidsel Germeten states that using
narratives is “one of many modes for thinking and for organizing knowl-
Sociologist and social worker Catherine Kohler Riessman explains
that narratives are a particularly significant genre for representing and ana-
lyzing identity in its multiple guises in different contexts.
study of the narratives of personal experiences and meanings enables us to
study “the power of stories to create and refashion personal identity.”
since “narratives do not speak for themselves,”we need to interpret them
when using them as data in social research.
Educational studies scholar Maria Helena Menna Barreto Abrah~
that narratives “carry a strong personal meaning and articulate the present,
past and future, instigated by remembrances, telling not a life as it really
happened but a life remembered by the ones who lived it.”
stories are the result of reconstructions of the past, through a sample of
memorized acts. Sociologist Marta Cuesta explains that “memories entail
processes of remembering events in life and how acts are internalized by
individuals”and that “to remember entails associating events of importance
for individuals (or for societies).”
Therefore, “experiences are chosen, go
through social constructions and become social representations.”
Riesmann argues that the meanings of life events change when they are
influenced by subsequent life events. As we make sense of those events,
relate them to our current selves, discover connections we were previously
unaware of, and reposition ourselves and others, we change their mean-
Similarly, Germeten posits that people telling their life stories and
the researchers studying them are looking back and viewing the past in
light of today and the future.
By looking at the “turning points”in personal life stories—defined by
Riessman as “the moments when the narrator indicates a radical shift in
the expected course of a life”
—we can see how identities can shift over
time. These turning points can radically change the meaning of past experi-
ences and, consequently, an individual’s identity.
scholars Goodson and Numan define such moments as “critical incidents,”
stating that we often construct, build, or make narratives from such inci-
dents in creating our lives.
Accordingly, in this article, I suggest that Memis¸’s engagement with hip-
hop culture in the diaspora, his founding of the professional breaking
70 B. KURT
group Flying Steps, and his Zeyb(r)e(a)k choreography were the “turning
points”in his life story narrative, because they contributed both to over-
coming his personal troubles and to the construction of a new,
Exploring Memis¸’s life story narratives, I conducted a thematic analysis
focusing more on the content of the text—what is said rather than how it
is said: the told rather than the telling. Thus, I identified some core con-
cepts and themes and then created some conceptual groupings following
Since “the construction of a narrative segment
for analysis—the representations and boundaries we chose—are strongly
influenced by our evolving theories, disciplinary preferences and research
questions,”as Riessman states, I “infiltrated”the text.
ing both my personal and Memis¸’s perspectives, I present a “positional and
subjective”rather than an objective approach.
I followed Memis¸’s self-narration of events and the meanings he attrib-
uted to them without altering his personal expressions. In this article, I
have included lengthy excerpts from his interviews to allow the reader to
better comprehend some important details. To quote Abrah~
ao, my central
aim is not “knowing what or how facts ‘really’happened, but how the nar-
rator [Memis¸] thought about it at the time and how he remembers it in
To construct a historical context for the analysis, I referred to some
of the literature on Turkish citizens’immigration to Germany and their
“diasporic”youth culture in Berlin. Most of the studies were on hip-
hop culture and rap music groups—such as Cartel and Islamic Force. I
discussed Memis¸’s narratives of identity and artistic production in rela-
tion to his experience of “free migration”within a context defined
We need to situate the debates about identity within all those historically specific
developments and practices which have disturbed the relatively “settled”character of
many populations and cultures, above all in relation to the processes of globalization
. . . and the processes of forced and “free”migration which have become a global
phenomenon of the so-called “post-colonial”world.
A brief account of “Turkish”diasporic hip-hop culture in Germany
Communication scholars Serhat G€
uney, Cem Pekman, and B€
state that Turkish citizens’immigration to Germany began in 1961 with
the German government’s recruitment of guest workers, and it continued
until 1973. Some of those workers returned to Turkey, but many others
stayed and, in time, also brought their families to Germany. There, they
were part of an “obligatory integration”process, and for most of them the
DANCE CHRONICLE 71
idea of returning back to the homeland became a kind of myth rather than
a concrete life plan.
According to literary scholar Heinz Ickstadt, the first generation of guest
workers was totally alienated from German society, not only because of
language problems but also because they were unprepared for a totally dif-
ferent geographical, social, and cultural climate.
uney, Pekman, and
Kabas¸ add that the immigrants experienced intergenerational conflicts with
their children—the second generation Turks born in Germany. In the
1980s, most of the immigrants tried to establish a secure space against their
exclusion and the aggression of skinheads.
If the problem of the second generation in the 1980s was illiteracy and existence in a
no-man’s land between two cultures; that of the third generation of the 1990s, is one
of unemployment. Unemployment among young Turkish-Germans is more than
twice as high (30%) than that among young Germans.
Anthropologist Levent Soysal calls the early 1990s, which became known
for youth gangs and violence, the “Gang Episode.”According to Soysal,
this period was followed by the “Hiphop Episode”in the mid 1990s, when
attacks on foreigners by neo-Nazi youths became more violent. It was also
during this period, in 1994 to be precise, that the multicultural group
Cartel—in which Kadir Memis¸ also participated as a breaker, or b-boy—
was formed, in response to such attacks. Cartel was to become very popular
Soysal states that in those years, various state institutions responded to
the violence by trying to educate youths and by promoting hip-hop
as a comprehensive solution to the problem of youth violence. Thereby,
hip-hop became the pedagogical tool for social workers and governmental
officials to channel youth away from the street, drugs, and violence and
into productive artistic endeavors.
In “Cartel: Travels of German-Turkish Rap Music,”in “Trafficking and Transiting: New Perspectives on Labor
Migration,”Middle East Report, no. 211 (1999): 43–44, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3013340, Alev C¸ınar states
that some band members had been affiliated with Turkish anti-racist groups in Germany organized to fight
neo-Nazi skinhead assaults on Turks: “One of the band members, Abdurrahman says he joined the anti-Nazi
organization because ‘we need to be like a single fist against the skinheads who are attacking our families,
raiding our homes, beating up Turkish women. Now we see that music allows us to do this much better than
Levent Soysal, “Rap, Hiphop, Kreuzberg: Scripts of/for Migrant Youth Culture in the World City Berlin,”in
“Multicultural Germany: Art, Performance, and Media,”New German Critique, no. 92 (2004): 68–70, https://www.
jstor.org/stable/4150467. Roberta Shapiro explains a similar process of government support for hip-hop dance
in “The Aesthetics of Institutionalization: Breakdancing in France,”Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society
33, no. 4 (2004): 319–20, accessed October, 28, 2018, DOI: 10.3200/JAML.33.4.316-335. She states that, initially,
around 1983, some educators and social workers with positions in social and cultural agencies in working-class
suburbs near Paris or Lyons formed the first stable breakdance groups:
For them, breakdancing was not just fun; it was “art”that could be fuel to reconstruct the social bond”
in low-income neighborhoods. At a time when a new generation of Frenchmen of Arab and African
descent were coming of age, when protest against racial discrimination was rife, and unemployment on
the rise, these educators organized and directed the young dancers in a militant perspective....Bythe
end of the 1980s, small breakdancing groups . . . received organizational or financial support through
72 B. KURT
In the second half of the 1990s, Berlin—and especially the district of
Kreuzberg, the former Turkish immigrant settlement—was transformed
into a cultural center. G€
uney, Pekman, and Kabas¸ state that the third-gen-
eration immigrants’lifestyle and expectations differed from those of their
parents, who were oppressed by problems of identity, belonging, and in-
betweenness. Youths were able to construct a cultural identity around
hip-hop by means of the German government’s integration policies
adopted in the 1990s.
For example, Soysal found that there were twelve
youth centers in Kreuzberg’s Koko Street alone,
the most popular of
which was Naunyn Ritze, which offered activities such as breaking, capo-
eira, body building, taekwondo, mountain climbing, graffiti, painting, and
Ickstadt remarks that the third-generation Turkish immigrants in
Germany consider their state of cultural in-betweenness in terms of enrich-
ment, economic opportunity, and personal freedom rather than alienation.
They accept Berlin as their home and do not want to go back to Turkey.
Soysal suggests accepting them as “actors in their own right,”not as the
embodiments of their cultures, stating, “Their cultural productions display
a diversity of experience, and their experiences are displays of diversity.”
It is impossible to judge them as “relentless agents of revitalized
Turkishness or Islam in the midst of European modernity”
Rather, as participants at several social and cultural borders, they generate their
visions of political and cultural identity from a repertoire of contemporary identity
politics, through processes of selection, modification, and enactment. Particularly
significant for their cultural projects and productions are the affinities of
transnational cultural flows and local social spaces, which engender their presence in
the public spaces of Berlin and complicate “national”configurations of belonging and
conventional conceptions of Otherhood.
Ickstadt also emphasizes that members of this third generation play with
stereotypes (i.e., of how Germans stereotype Turks and vice versa, or of
how Turks stereotype themselves) and assume different roles. This is a free-
dom their parents never had: “As one young Turkish-German woman said,
this sitting between two cultural chairs does not necessarily imply falling
into empty cultural space but is a challenge to find a third chair to sit
Memis¸ was one the young immigrants able to “find a third chair”in the
cultural field. His life story, which I outline in the following section,
sociocultural programs or community activities supported by local and national governments . . . . By 1990,
local, regional, and national government agencies regularly allocated funds for hip-hop events . . . . It had
previously been viewed mainly as a tool for social workers and youth counselors and a means of expression
and integration for their constituents. By 1992 . . . new practices promoted a conception of breakdancing as an
art independent of its social usefulness. Ibid., 319–20.
DANCE CHRONICLE 73
represents an experience of a member of a minority community in the
diaspora gaining “respect”through dance and constructing a new identity
for himself. His creative way of coping with his deep sense of in-between-
ness, limitation, and melancholy, as well as the trauma of losing his
brother, illustrates a unique, but inspiring, diasporic experience.
The life story of Kadir “Amigo”Memis¸
Embedded in the lives of the ordinary, the marginalized, and the muted, personal
narrative responds to the disintegration of master narratives as people make sense of
experience, claim identities, and “get a life”by telling and writing their stories.
In “writing the story”of Memis¸ and constructing a narrative about his life
and work, I want to explore how, for him, dance has served as a marker of
identity. I based this narrative on my collection of personal notes taken
from a number of different resources about him.I chronologically organ-
ized his different narratives of personal experience in conjunction with his
later choreographic works—especially Zeyb(r)e(a)k and Red Bull Anadolu
Break. Because I made minor revisions after receiving his feedback, I con-
sider creation of the narrative a process of co-construction.
I follow Riessman’s methodology: “the events of this narrative are
selected, organized, connected, and evaluated as meaningful for a particular
My selection and organization of Memis¸’s stories resulted in a
“life story, woven from the threads of interviews”and visual and written
documents, a constructed text for further analysis.
In this section, I dis-
cuss three important episodes in the process of Memis¸’s identity construc-
tion: his early childhood years in Turkey, his first years in the diaspora,
and his construction in the diaspora of an identity as an artist.
Early childhood years (of a Turkish boy in his native country)
Memis¸ was born in 1974 in the village of Danis¸ment in the district of
Bilecik, Turkey, where he lived until 1984: “I was a shepherd. I found
silence there. And in that silence, among the sounds of ringing bells and
among all the different colors, I had many experiences, like imitating ani-
mals. I learned about silence.”
When he was a child, he had his first stage experience in his village,
playing a bear during the month of Ramadan. He wore a bearskin and
improvised, imitating the animal and chanting manis (traditional verses in
Most of those resources were originally in Turkish, except for a video documentary about Memis¸ in German
with subtitles in English and Ickstadt’s article in English about three representatives of third-generation Turkish
immigrant rappers (Memis¸, Ercie E., and Aziza A.) in Germany. See Heinz Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference:
Turkish-German Rap,”Amerikastudien/American Studies 44, no. 4 (1999): 571–78, http://www.jstor.org/stable/
41157976: 576. All translations are my own.
74 B. KURT
Turkish) alongside the Ramadan drummer to wake up fasting people for
the predawn meal.
Pounding the sunflowers to prepare them for eating
was another (and rhythmic) factor that brought him closer to the act
My childhood was like a dreamland. It was the peak of my life. Melancholy, sadness
. . . also love. All the colors of the world mixed together. . . . We would collect and
dry the sunflowers in the village. I was the one who had to pound them. It was like
playing drums: You hit with your right hand, you spin with the left. . . . I probably
would never have learned to dance without this experience of pounding [the
sunflowers] and would never have discovered the rhythm inside me.
Memis¸’s father went to Germany with the hope of buying a house and
taking better care of his family; Memis¸’s mother joined him afterward.
Because they were unable to find anybody to look after their two sons in
Germany, they had to leave them in Turkey. Memis¸ remained in the vil-
lage, but his parents sent his brother Ali, who was five years younger, to an
uncle’s house in Eskis¸ehir. Although Memis¸’s parents regularly sent money
for his brother, he lived in very bad conditions, and his uncle did not send
him to the school. Memis¸, meanwhile, had to live in the village without the
protection of a family, and he faced violence at school.
First years (of a Turkish minority group member) in Germany
In 1984, just before he reached the age of ten, Memis¸’s family brought
him—and then some years later, his brother—to Germany where they were
sent to primary school. At first, this boy who had until then been walking
barefoot in his village “felt restricted under the gray walls of a city”
tried to find some traces of his former home in Berlin. For example, when
jogging near the zoo, he would be reminded of the smell of his village.
His parents, who always worked and socialized with other members of
the Turkish diaspora, did not learn the German language. Illiterate and
communicating only in Turkish, Memis¸ suffered greatly during his first
two years at school—he was able to translate just two words, duvar (wall)
and ekmek (bread), into German!
Meanwhile, he discovered his interest in the performing arts, a form of
expression communicated through the body, not spoken language. He had
been impressed by a schoolmate who, wearing white gloves, had given a
mime performance: “At that moment I also wanted to be such a magi-
His friend was doing a “hands on the window”movement, a pop-
ping movement borrowed from the art of mime. He began to learn this
and other similar movements from his school friend, after which that kind
of dance became a hobby for him; he began to go to rehearsals and thus
found himself in the world of hip-hop.
DANCE CHRONICLE 75
Over time, Memis¸ also learned German:
Ididn’t know where I belonged: a Turkish boy speaking with a German accent?
A German speaking with a Turkish accent? Who are you? This question was always
on my mind.. . . We both had problems in primary school. I just about coped with
it, but my brother could not. They had to send him to a private school. . . . Three or
four months later, they found his dead body in Wannsee, in the middle of a forest,
in a hidden corner. They diagnosed death by suffocation [below ground]. They found
him by chance, first seeing his finger from a distance. . . . If I could have taken
better care of him, brought him to my school, that wouldn’t have happened. . . .
When I lost my brother, I really dedicated myself to dance. I didn’t want to lose
myself. Otherwise, I would be lost in the darkness. . . . Dance saved my
After this traumatic event, Memis¸ dedicated himself to both dance and
calligraphy.Abroad, he had grown up in a state of melancholy; his heart
and soul had partly remained in Turkey, and he felt as though he could
never fully settle in Germany. Before his performances, he would listen to
Turkish folk music; he was living in Turkey in his mind but was actually
living in Germany:
It was as if I was looking for all those colors, smells, and flavors from my village in
this new city. I felt like a little bird, but one who was unable to fly back to his
village! On the one hand, I was homesick; on the other, I was struggling to adapt
and take root in this new land. Meanwhile I discovered hip-hop in the city, and it
was there that I found myself. . . . We didn’t engage in the world of hip-hop to earn
money. It was like a passion, a great love. This new foreign culture gave us new
friends, a new family, but above all an identity.
From breaking to zeyb(r)e(a)king: The construction of an “artistic identity”
During his first years in Germany in the mid-1980s, Memis¸ practiced
different breaking styles on the streets and in youth clubs. Hip-hop was an
inclusive culture for him, accepting everybody from different cultures,
races, ethnicities, religions, and so on.
As is common in the hip-hop
world, he had to define his “artistic identity,”and he wanted to be like
Django, his talented, Turkish, dancer friend who was very popular in
Berlin. Incidentally, he chose his artistic nickname “Amigo”while watching
the cowboy film Django versus Amigo on television:
“When you take the
In a documentary, he expresses this dedication as follows: “The line [in calligraphy] means life. A life can be
very simple. It can end suddenly. It can begin very low, then rise and burst suddenly . . . . All these lines really
unburden my mind. A life consists of lines; it has depth and length. The lines are sometimes long and thin.
For me, they are like the visualization of the pain.”“ZEYBREAK Documentary,”YouTube video, 44:31, posted by
Kadir Amigo Memis¸, November 10, 2013, accessed June 8, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
TgL40M8O2V0. He also states in a radio program that today he gives precedence to tagging—which he
defines as a kind of signature and a branch of graffiti—over dancing and defines his creations in this field as
the “movement of letters”(Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
or). Because the
scope of this research is his choreographic work and life, his creations in tagging will not be explored.
76 B. KURT
first step to hip-hop, you need to give yourself an artist name. You must
have an identity. I turned Kadir into Amigo, and so my second identity
As a result of socializing with friends from different countries in Berlin’s
youth clubs, Memis¸ eventually founded the Flying Steps urban dance group
with Birol (Turkish), Vartan (Armenian), Ali (Turkish), and Michael
(German) in 1993.
The group won four world hip-hop championships,
and one group member, Benny Kimoto, “was the first B-Boy to present
multiple air twists in a row and holds the Headspin World Record (60
In 1995, Memis¸ participated in a concert tour in Turkey by
the famous rap group Cartel. However, while performing breaking around
Turkey with those musicians, his interests began to change.
He no longer
felt motivated by the hip-hop community and show business, and he began
to feel the need to create his own artistic identity:
I started to deal with my own roots and my culture. It was time to learn from the
roots, time to bring something new to the table. . . . My purpose was to combine
two different cultures, two parts or two bridges. . . . In the zeybek culture alone,
there are more than 300 dances, songs, and stories. It’s very rich, I think. Why
shouldn’t I work on my own culture? If you don’t know where you come from, you
can’t know where to go. . . . Everyone is creating something new. The world is a
melting pot, and it’s impossible to distinguish what’s in it. That’s why I say, that’s
When listening to t€
us (folk songs from Turkey) in Germany, he asked
himself, “Is it possible to mix these with hip-hop?”In 2000, he came up
with the idea of combining breaking with the traditional dance form zeybek
from his homeland.
He then went to the city of Izmir, where he took zey-
bek dance courses from teachers such as Abdurrahim Karademir in the
Turkish Folk Dance Department of Ege University. There, he learned the
basic postures around which to improvise, with no intention of performing
a perfect (or authentic) zeybek. He gave precedence to the energy and
action of the dance, rather than become stuck in perfecting the steps them-
selves. His starting point for this new project was to focus on similarities
between breaking and zeybek.
This process resulted in Zeyb(r)e(a)k, an hour-long stage performance
that premiered in January 2009. It was first performed by two dancers—
Memis¸ and Yavuz Topuz (Risc One)—and four musicians—Topo Gioia,
Bettina Hartl, Wolfgang Musick, and composer Nevzat Akpınar. Since
2009, it has toured in both Europe and Turkey.Memis¸ attributed signifi-
cant meaning to this performance: “It can be a small story for others: an
Memis¸ states that he has had a very mixed audience; Germans, Turks, youths, and elders have watched the
performance (Memis¸, post-performance talk, 2019). He adds that he has received very positive feedback from
audience members. After his Zeyb(r)e(a)k performance in Germany, he also began to teach in HZT Berlin
ubergreifendes Zentrum Tanz Berlin).
DANCE CHRONICLE 77
ordinary man comes to town. . . . But for me it’s an achievement. I’ve been
really proud to tell my own story and share it with others.”
Memis¸ states that he invited his close friend Yavuz Topuz to dance
with him because the traditional dance he chose could only be performed
with someone he trusted:
Yavuz is like my alter ego in the performance . . . sometimes just a shadow.
Sometimes I am him, sometimes he is me. Sometimes we are far from each other,
but we still have a connection, just like two souls in the same body. I chose a special
zeybek dance for this game: G€
uvende means a trusted
friend. When it is performed by two people, it’s called
or Dostlar (Friends).
Memis¸ states that the 1984 song “Unity”by James Brown and Africa
Bambaataa was very important for the hip-hop culture and that lyrics
from the song “Peace! Unity! Love! And Having Fun!”became its
founding principles. According to Memis¸, the most important words
here were “having fun,”which is important both for zeybek and
He states, “Whatever you do, it is beautiful when you really
believe in something.”He also emphasizes that in the zeybek culture,
belief is very important. When dancing, energy is taken from and
returned to the ground:
In zeybek, before dancing, there is a touching-the-ground movement. It’s like taking
a blessing from nature and saying, “I am moving on.”That really attracted my
attention. You can also see this in films like Gladiator: the fighter unsheathes his
sword, but before starting, he touches the ground. Therefore, there is a kind of
a circle, a belief in the zeybek culture.
Heaven and the mortal world come together. You go down on the ground, take
a blessing, and, at the end of the dance, you leave your sweat on the ground. Thus
the circle is completed. That’s what zeybek means to me.
Another of his projects that combined different cultures was the
documentary Red Bull Anadolu Break,whichpremi
ered at the !f
Istanbul Independent Film Festival on February 16, 2015. The docu-
mentary was directed by Taylan Mutaf and was promoted as “ajourney
into the spirit of dance and Anatolia.”Memis¸’s starting point was
to create more fusions between breaking, zeybek,andothertraditional
Anatolian dances. To achieve this aim, in 2014, Brazilian b-boy
Neguin and American b-boy Roxrite from the Red Bull BC One All
Stars traveled to Anatolia, Turkey, with Memis¸ to discover different
traditional dances from three cities: Aydın, Antalya, and Kars. In this
project, the dancers communicated and performed with local people,
ultimately creating a fusion film that sought to bring together members
of different cultures and to establish communication and understanding
among them through cultural and artistic exchange.
78 B. KURT
Following this documentary project, Memis¸ held an audition for the Red
Bull Anadolu Break stage performance. Nine dancers—four b-boys, one b-
girl, two modern dancers, and two folk dancers—were cast in the show.
They rehearsed for two months. At the beginning, they shared their differ-
ent movement experiences: breakers practiced traditional Anatolian dances,
folk dancers practiced breaking, and so on. They then had the difficult task
of improvising on these newly learned movements and making some
changes in the rhythms and steps of the dances.
This show, which I had
a chance to watch on November 24, 2015, represented a multiplicity of
dance genres onstage. It was a dance of coming together, a dance of dia-
logue and peace performed to music that was as diverse in genre as the
dancers were in the backgrounds.
Memis¸ describes Red Bull Anadolu Break as a stage performance combin-
ing both theatrical dance and performance that aims not only to entertain
but also to make the audience think. He asserts that breaking is not just a
commercial dance or a form of entertainment. He wants to reveal the
different dimensions and the depth of street dance, to make it more popu-
lar for a wider audience in Turkey, and to help end prejudices surround-
Memis¸ continued to organize Funkin’Stylez competitions with his friend
Takao Baba to develop this genre. Together they tried to revive certain
dance styles, such as krumping and voguing. Memis¸ states that when they
included voguing—which is considered to be a “gay dance”—in their com-
petitions, they received many negative reactions.
In doing so, however, he
asserts that they succeeded in breaking down some of the homophobia in
In addition to such stage projects, Memis¸ also runs short workshops for
refugee children in different cities of Turkey, such as Gaziantep and
as well as five-week workshops on locking, popping, house, hip-
hop, zeybek, and zeyb(r)e(a)k at the HZT (Hochschul€
Zentrum Tanz Berlin).
Rather than as a dancer or choreographer, Memis¸ defines himself as an
“urban nomad,”a city traveler looking for inspiration across cities, trying
Kadir Memis¸, Red Bull Anadolu Break (performance booklet), Maslak TIM Show Center; Istanbul, October 24,
2015. When I asked him about such prejudices, he explained that, after watching the film Paris Is Burning
(1990), he became aware of LGBTI culture (Kadir Memis¸, in discussion with the author, Istanbul, Turkey, April
22, 2019). When rehearsing some movements he saw in the film, he discovered the feminine aspect of his
body and realized that zeybek dance also contained it. Memis¸ adds that even just five years ago, voguing was
part of a very closed, black, gay culture, and even white gays were not allowed to participate. Now, partly due
to his and his friends’efforts, heterosexual white women participate in the competitions in Europe, and
women have formed some groups, such as House of Melody. In a talk after his performance at the German
Consulate in Istanbul, he also stated that a voguing ball is organized in Berlin each weekend. Homosexual
culture has been part of hip-hop culture, and he and his friends paved the way for it (Kadir Memis¸, post-
performance talk, 2019).
DANCE CHRONICLE 79
to catch the specific souls, colors, scents, gestures, and human expressions
of those places.When he has an idea in mind, he begins to work with
music and dance, preferring live music and real vibrations on the stage that
engage in a dialogue with the dancer. In his collaborative projects, he col-
lects material from dancers rather than imposing certain movement pat-
terns on them; he calls the latter practice “dictatorship.”
“Who am I?”: (Re)framing of identity through dance
To discuss a number of issues, such as in-betweenness, belonging, trauma,
and sociocultural and artistic identities, I now explore Memis¸’s life story
narrative construction, with direct references to his statements and in
relation to a wider cultural, political, and social context.
“I didn’t know where I belonged.”
Cuesta states that “experiences are chosen, go through social constructions
and become social representations.”
Accordingly, I consider that Memis¸’s
“chosen”experiences as an immigrant child in Germany have determined
his life and artistic choices. His narrative description of his first years in
Germany reveals a very difficult integration experience. Following
Germeten’s statement that both researchers and narrators are “looking back
and viewing the past in the light of today and the future,”
I look at
Memis¸’s past in light of his artistic works today, and I find evidence of
how his integration troubles or feelings of in-betweenness influenced his
choreographies. I take into consideration Mishler’sargumentthat“as we
make sense of events and experiences in our pasts and how they are related
to our current selves, we change their meanings.”
Accordingly, I interpret
Memis¸’s narrative of childhood problems as an inner struggle prompting a
search for an artistic identity in later life. I also consider that his experiences
might have triggered an artistic search and resulted in his bicultural artistic
“Dance saved my life.”
Memis¸’s problems with belonging worsened when he lost his brother.
Taking shelter in dance, he describes breaking as his lifesaver: “I didn’t
In his recent choreographic project BOUZUQRR (2018), Memis¸ combines different forms of expression from
hip-hop culture, such as breaking and tagging, and performs as a calligraffiti artist. Such interdisciplinarity and
changing of roles is a common practice in hip-hop culture. In this respect, dance scholar Mary Fogarty states
that hip-hop culture consists of more than breaking, and in particular the constraints resulting from the aging
of participants often lead to alternative modes of expression within the culture. See Mary Fogarty, “‘Each One,
Teach One’: B-Boying and Ageing,”in Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity, ed. Andy Bennett
and Paul Hodkinson (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2012), 54. Aging dancers tend to change roles, becoming DJs,
coaches, mentors, judges, or musicians. Ethnomusicologist Joseph Schloss also points to the changing of roles
in hip-hop culture and states that many DJs are current or former b-boys or b-girls (Schloss, “Like Old Folk
Songs Handed Down,”411).
80 B. KURT
want to lose myself. Otherwise, I would be lost in the darkness. . . . Dance
saved my life somehow.”
The power of dance as a healing process is explored by many social sci-
entists. For example, dance scholar Judith Lynne Hanna presents four ways
in which getting a sense of control through dance may enhance healing:
“1) possession by the supernatural who manifests itself in dance, 2) mastery
of movement, 3) escape or diversion from stress and pain, 4) confronting
stressors to work through ways of handling their effects.”
She states that
when it is impossible to fight or flee from stress because of the impossibility
of physical action, “biochemical elements of energy can remain in the body
and cause harm. Exercise absorbs this energy. Moreover, exercise can provide
distraction, reduce muscle tension, alter mood, improve mental health, and
blunt the stress response”:
Exercise may lead to emotional changes or even altered states of consciousness.
Exercise apparently releases a copious quantity of opiate beta-endorphins, which are
magical, morphine-like brain chemicals that dull pain, distract one from problems,
produce feelings of analgesia, euphoria, calm, satisfaction, and greater tolerance for
. . . The embodied practice of dance performance may spotlight themes such as
the forbidden, sexuality, oppression, self-identity, aging, death, and other possible
stressors. In this way these themes may be scrutinized and imaginatively played with,
distanced, and consequently made less threatening. Thus there are engagements with
meaning, accomplishment, and positive emotion through dance.
Memis¸ likely used dance as a vehicle for escaping pain, and he probably
profited from the aforementioned positive effects of dance. Moreover, by
creating dance scenes symbolizing death and loss, he could have projected
his pain onto dance.
Riessman cites sociologist C. W. Mills, who states that “‘personal trou-
bles’are located in particular times and places, and individuals’narratives
about their troubles are the works of history, as much as they are about
individuals, the social spaces they inhabit, and the societies they live in.”
Accordingly, it is possible to contextualize Memis¸’s narrative about this
tragic experience in light of a general sociopolitical conjuncture. In 1990s
Germany, increasing attacks against immigrants engendered similar
problems for many members of minority communities. As a member of one
of those minority groups, Memis¸ reacted to such attacks by participating
as a b-boy in the music group Cartel.
Over time, after adapting to the city, learning German, and, most
importantly, socializing in youth clubs, Memis¸ began to express himself
through breaking. He states that hip-hop was an inclusive culture for him
and other immigrants, accepting everybody from different cultures, races,
ethnicities, and religions.
A number of researchers have noted this positive
DANCE CHRONICLE 81
element of hip-hop culture. Sally Banes, for example, states that both in rap
and in the dance there exists “a sense of inclusiveness, of all being in on a
fun time together (‘Everybody say ho!’‘This is the way we rock the house!’
Physical education scholars Tonje F. Langnes and K.
Fasting found that, in Norway, almost all breaking crews—small units that
organize social relationships within the subculture of breaking—were multi-
cultural in composition and that, within this subculture, there existed an
ethos that everybody could make it regardless of social background. One of
the breakers they interviewed said, “If you have prejudice against ethnicity,
breaking is not for you . . . the hip-hop culture is all about unity.”
though some power dynamics existed in breaking crews, these scholars con-
cluded that dancers were able to construct an alternative identity detached
from other social categories. Through the empowering and liberating poten-
tial of dancing, break-dancers also resisted social oppression, stigmatization,
and stereotypical prejudices regarding gender and ethnicity.
educational anthropologist Donna Deyhle states that breaking reduced gang
fights through competitive dancing and expressed a spirit of liberation
among those embedded in the social reality of subordination and domin-
ation. She adds that the Navajo and Ute youth that she studied were clear
about why they were break-dancers: “Break dancing is being used instead
of fighting. In the city there were gangs. But now they break. It’s’cause we
like competition. It gives us a place to compete.”
In an interview with interdisciplinary scholar Imani Kai Johnson,
renowned b-girl Rokafella expresses a similarly positive attitude
I think it’s great. I think we’ve been able to save a lot of people, save a lot of lives. I
don’t mean to say we; I think it. Hip Hop has managed to save a lot of people from
the oppression, from loss, from drug addiction, from all these things, you know—
drugs, wars. It’s such a good release. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Arabic, or
French, or Chinese. This dance has a way of just allowing you to be . . . As long as
As mentioned above, this feature of hip-hop culture has also been exploited
by German state officials who tried to facilitate the integration of immi-
grants by opening youth clubs. They utilized this culture as a pedagogical
tool to channel youngsters into productive artistic endeavors. In this con-
text, political scientist Ayhan Kaya states,
The dance-floor has a three-fold function for the diasporic youth. Firstly the dance-
floor provides the Turkish youth with a substantial ground for the homing of the
diaspora because they appeared to be the “hosts”in the dance-floor. Secondly the
dance turns interethnic confrontations from fighting to dancing. . . . Finally the dance
is also another source of distinction that the boys tend to use against “others.”
82 B. KURT
Kaya adds that breaking “as a distinction was convertible to economic
capital: some of the Naunyn Ritze youngsters have made some money from
participating in the break-dance competitions organized in Berlin.”
similar assessment is made by sociologist Roberta Shapiro, who states that
breaking in France originated among youngsters raised in working-class,
immigrant neighborhoods and served as a vehicle for individual social
mobility, just as theater and ballet did for working-class women in the
Langnes and Fasting also state that established
dancers consider breaking a possible means of improving their lives: “In
order to get a better life, they practice breaking really hard.”
their claim by referencing earlier studies. For example, social anthropologist
Viggo Vestel argues that breaking “was a way of getting prestige for the boys
from the ‘slum,’” and sociologist Sarah Thornton states that the subcultural
capital can be transformed into social or economic capital.
Fasting also add that many breakers were able to make a living from dancing
due to reality television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance,improv-
ing the breaker’sstatusinmainstreamsociety,aswellastheirstandingwithin
In one of the earliest studies on breaking, based on dance anthropo-
logical fieldwork carried out among a group in New Zealand, choreog-
rapher, director, and anthropologist Tania Kopytko found, in 1986, that the
dancers mostly came from “problem homes,”were failing at school, and
faced discrimination because of their social or class position and their eth-
nicity. However, they were able to find a positive identity as a member of a
team, gaining the attention and admiration of audiences. Kopytko states
that these dancers could not earn such achievements through conventional
channels—school, sports, and the advantages of social position—nor from
knowledge of their (Maori) culture.
“Hip-hop gave us new friends, a new family, but above all, an identity.”
Memis¸ was one of the young immigrants who managed to improve his sta-
tus through involvement in hip-hop culture. He “found himself in it,”
marking a turning point in his life.
“This new foreign culture gave us
new friends, a new family but above all, an identity,”said Memis¸.
Another important “critical incident”
in Memis¸’s life story came in
1993 when he and some friends founded the multinational dance group
With this group, Memis¸ attained a new level of professional-
ism and was awarded numerous prizes worldwide.
Although he states that
his reason for becoming involved in the hip-hop culture was not to make
he was able to convert his artistic activities into economic capital.
DANCE CHRONICLE 83
Memis¸’s breaking career can be considered a success story, but he was
also interested in other aspects of dance, such as theatrical dance and
choreography. His need for authenticity—that is, for creating his own artis-
tic signature—can exemplify Grau’s argument that the hierarchy established
among the many elements that make up individual identity can change
according to social-historical context and, in particular, individual circum-
After gaining credibility as a breaker, Memis¸’s new priority
became developing his individual presence in the artistic field. Searching
for a new way to express himself, Memis¸ wanted to create an “artistic iden-
tity”in the field of choreography. Ickstadt expressed this new priority in
Memis¸’s process of identity construction, as well: “[He was] obsessed with
the idea of doing something that would distinguish him from others.”
According to Ickstadt, Memis¸ didn’t want to be lost somewhere in a cul-
tural no-man’s-land like most of his Turkish-German peers. To learn about
his cultural roots, he studied Turkish history, customs, and folklore.
Choosing to stay in Germany instead of going back to Turkey, he was con-
cerned about creating “respect”: to gain the respect of his parents and his
German environment. Understanding “respect”as a commitment to a sense
of craftsmanship, he considered himself an artist with a distinct signature.
To construct such an authentic artistic identity, Memis¸ worked on
different elements of his native culture, “learnt from the roots,”and “built
a bridge between his different cultures.”
Zeyb(r)e(a)k performance borrowed elements from both his native dance
culture zeybek and the breaking that he first practiced in the diaspora. This
choreography can be considered an attempt to “come to terms with his
Speaking of this process, Memis¸ himself has said that he was
really proud to tell his own story and to share it with others.
In this way, Memis¸ was proudly communicating a message: “Here, . . .
these are our beliefs, our traditions; this is what we are.”
ence of cultural diversity enriched his artistic creativity, enabling him to
create a hybrid choreography.
Like many other immigrant choreographers, Memis¸ combined features
of his ethnic identity with his aesthetic identity, as he wanted to be seen as
an independent artist using a variety of movement vocabularies without
In 1999, Ickstadt stated that Memis¸ had been in Germany for fifteen years and was still unable to obtain a
German passport—probably because the German bureaucracy did not consider his status as an independent
artist a steady enough source of income (one of the requirements for gaining citizenship): “He very much
wishes he had been born in Berlin, because then he would be a German citizen and would have no trouble
getting an American visa”(Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference,”572). Memis¸ now has dual citizenship in Turkey
Rebecca Rossen, “Dancing Jews and Jewesses: Jewishness, Ethnicity, and Exoticism in American Dance,”in The
Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity, ed. Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young (London: Oxford
University Press, 2016), 17, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199754281.001.0001. This quote refers to how Rossen
defines the choreographies of Dvora Lapson, who aimed to make a place for Jewish expression on the
American concert stage.
84 B. KURT
denying his roots. The change in his artistic priorities over time set a good
example of identity as something that, in Grau’s words, “is ever shifting
and exists only in context.”
Memis¸, an artist who incorporates multiple identities and skills, expressed
pride in being able to share his own story on the dance stage. Using another
medium—writing and analyzing the narrative of his life story—Ihavetriedto
I constructed the narrative of his life story and analyzed it by focusing on
his process of identity construction in the diaspora. By looking at how he
remembers his past and by following his self-narration of chosen events and
the meanings he attributes to them today, I tried to understand how he estab-
lished his place there. Looking back and viewing the past in light of today, I
connected his early troubles of belonging, in-betweenness, and identity to his
choreographies. I identified three phases of his process of identity construc-
tion—his early childhood years in his native country, his first years in the dias-
pora, and his construction of an “artistic identity”through the medium of
dance—all of which contributed to how he coped with the personal troubles
Today, an increasing number of people experience forced and free
migration, and many have to deal with extremely traumatic events. I hope
Memis¸’s life story gives inspiration and hope to the dancers, immigrants,
and all other people around the world who are resisting the discrimination,
injustice, and inequalities that they face.
The author wishes to thank Kadir “Amigo”Memis¸ for his kindness and help during the
research process, as well as the editors of Dance Chronicle and two anonymous reviewers
for their very useful comments.
1. Zeyb(r)e(a)k, an improvised solo dance performance by Kadir Memis¸, live music by
Nevzat Akpınar, Cemal Res¸it Rey Concert House, September 20, 2010.
2. Red Bull Anadolu Break, choreography by Kadir Memis¸, Maslak TIM Show Center,
Istanbul, November 24, 2015.
3. Kadir Memis¸, in discussion with the author, Istanbul, November 5, 2017; Kadir
Memiş, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
or for Ac¸ık Radyo
DANCE CHRONICLE 85
radio station, broadcast on November, 15, 2017, on the Ac¸ık Dergi-C¸ıplak Ayaklar’la
Dans program, 30:11, Istanbul, Turkey, http://acikradyo.com.tr/podcast/197816.
4. Joseph Schloss, “Like Old Folk Songs Handed Down from Generation to Generation:
History, Canon, and Community in B-Boy Culture,”Ethnomusicology 50, no. 3
(2006): 428, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20174468.
5. Ibid., 411.
6. Ibid., 430.
7. Sally Banes, “Breaking,”in That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, ed. Murray
Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13.
8. Ibid., 13–14.
9. Ibid., 18.
10. Ibid., 14.
11. Ibid., 17.
12. Halifu Osumare, “Beat Streets in the Global Hood: Connective Marginalities of the
Hip Hop Globe,”Journal of American Comparative Culture 24, no. 1–2 (2001): 172,
13. Okan Murat
urk, “Zeybek K€
gi”[Zeybek Culture and Its Music],
summary (master’s thesis, Hacettepe University, Social Sciences Institute,
Ethnomusicology and Folklore Department, 2003), iii.
Ozbilgin, “Differences of Creative Processes in Local Communities on
Stage with the Example of Aegean Region Zeybek Dances,”in International Council for
Traditional Music 20th Ethnochoreology Symposium Proceedings (Istanbul: Bo
University Press, 1998), 323, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0RWbLIC7N9gbV9
15. Banu Ac¸ıkdeniz, “Nationalization of Folk Dances in Greece and Turkey: The Case of
Zeybek and Zeibekiko”(master’s thesis, Istanbul Bilgi University, Social Sciences
Institute, Cultural Studies Program, 2009), 89.
16. For details, please see ibid., 91.
17. Ibid., 96.
18. Kadir Memis¸, “Zeyb(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ jTEDxBahcesehirUniversity,”YouTube
video, 19:12, a TEDx talk, posted by TEDx, April 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.
19. Kadir Memis¸, in discussion with the author, Istanbul, Turkey, April 22, 2019.
ee Grau, “Dance, Identity and Identification Processes in the Postcolonial
World,”in Dance Discourses: Keywords in Dance Research, ed. Susanne Franco and
Marina Nordera (New York: Routledge, 2007), 203.
21. Judith Lynne Hanna, “Identity in African Dance: Myth and Reality,”in “Crossing
Borders,”ed. Ofosuwa Abiola, special issue, Evoke: A Historical, Theoretical, and
Cultural Analysis of Africana Dance and Theatre 1, no. 1 (2019): 39, https://dh.
22. Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”, 1997, accessed May
4, 2018, https://pages.mtu.edu/jdslack/readings/CSReadings/Hall_Old_and_New_
23. Ibid., 49.
25. Ibid., 58.
26. Stuart Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?,”in Questions of Cultural Identity,
ed. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 1996), 4.
86 B. KURT
27. Sidsel Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History Research,”Scandinavian
Journal of Educational Research 57, no. 6 (2013): 612, DOI: 10.1080/
28. Catherine Kohler Riessman, “Analysis of Personal Narratives,”April 20, 2000, 24,
accessed May 23, 2018, http://alumni.media.mit.edu/brooks/storybiz/riessman.pdf.
29. Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman, quoted in Riessman, “Analysis of
30. Catherine Kohler Riessman, “Narrative Analysis,”University of Huddersfield, 2005,
2, accessed May 23, 2018, http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/4920/2/Chapter_1_-_
31. Maria Helena Menna Barreto Abrah~
ao, quoted in Maria Helena Menna Barreto
ao, “Autobiographical Research: Memory, Time and Narratives in the First
Person,”European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults 3,
no. 1 (2012): 36, DOI: 10.3384/rela.2000-7426.201231.
32. Marta Cuesta, “How to Interpret Autobiographies,”(2011): 2, accessed May 5, 2018,
33. Ibid., 5.
34. Elliot George Mishler, cited in Riessman, “Analysis of Personal Narratives,”21.
35. Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History Research,”615.
36. Riessmann, “Analysis of Personal Narratives,”21.
37. Ibid., 22.
38. Goodson and Numan, quoted in Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History
39. Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History Research,”622.
40. Riessman, “Analysis of Personal Narratives,”11.
41. Ibid., 19.
ao, 2003, quoted in Abrah~
ao, “Autobiographical Research,”30.
43. Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?,”4.
44. Serhat G€
uney, Cem Pekman and B€
ulent Kabas¸, “Sokaklardan ‘Club’lara: Alman-T€
uveni”[From the Streets to the “Clubs”: The Musical Journey
of German-Turkish Youth], Sosyoloji Dergisi 27, no. 3 (2013): 255, 256.
45. Heinz Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference: Turkish-German Rap,”Amerikastudien/
American Studies 44, no. 4 (1999): 572, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41157976.
uney, Pekman, and Kabas¸, “Sokaklardan ‘Club’lara,”257–58.
47. Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference,”573.
uney, Pekman, and Kabas¸, “Sokaklardan ‘Club’lara,”268.
49. Levent Soysal, quoted in Onur S¸enel, “T€
urk Diaspora Genc¸li
u: Hiphop, Entegrasyon ve E
anları”[The Transformation of
Cultural Identity in Turkish Diasporic Youth: Hip-Hop, Integration and
Entertainment Venues], UluslararasıSosyal Aras¸tırmalar Dergisi 37, no. 8 (2015):
50. Kaya, cited in S¸enel, “T€
urk Diaspora Genc¸li
51. Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference,”571, 573.
52. Levent Soysal, “Diversity of Experience, Experience of Diversity, Turkish Migrant
Youth Culture in Berlin,”Cultural Dynamics 13, no. 1 (2001): 23, http://journals.
53. Ibid., 9.
DANCE CHRONICLE 87
55. Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference,”578.
56. Kristin M. Langellier, quoted in Riessman, “Narrative Analysis,”1.
57. Riessman, “Narrative Analysis,”1.
59. Memis¸, “Zey(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ jTEDxBahcesehirUniversity.”
60. Kadir Memis¸, post-performance talk with the author after his Zeyb(r)e(a)k
performance, Cemal Res¸it Rey Concert Hall, Istanbul, Turkey, September 20, 2010.
61. Kadir Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary,”YouTube video, 44:31, posted by Kadir
Amigo Memis¸, November 10, 2013, accessed June 8, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/
62. Kadir Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
or, for Ac¸ıkRadyo
radio station, broadcast on November, 15, 2017, on the Ac¸ıkDergi-C¸ıplak Ayaklar’la
Dans program, 30:11, Istanbul, Turkey, http://acikradyo.com.tr/podcast/197816.
64. Red Bull, “Kadir Amigo Memis¸ Hik^
ayesini Anlattı”[Kadir Memis¸ Told His Story],
Red Bull, May 6, 2014, accessed June 28, 2017, https://www.redbull.com/tr-tr/kadir-
65. Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
66. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
68. Red Bull, “Kadir Amigo Memis¸ Hik^
69. Kadir Memis¸, public workshop (performance and interview) with Kadir Memis¸on
Zeyb(r)e(a)k and Movement of Letters, Istanbul Technical University, Turkey,
November 5, 2017.
70. Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
71. Memis¸, “Zeyb(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ jTEDxBahcesehirUniversity.”
72. Memis¸, public workshop.
73. Katie Dravenstott, “Q&A: Michael ‘Mikel’Rosemann,”Theater Jones, January 13,
2017, accessed October, 26, 2019, http://www.theaterjones.com/ntx/features/
74. Memis¸, “Zeyb(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ jTEDxBahcesehirUniversity.”
75. Memis¸, post-performance talk, 2010.
76. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
77. Memis¸, public workshop.
78. Memis¸, post-performance talk, 2010.
79. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
81. Memis¸, “Zeyb(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ jTEDxBahcesehirUniversity.”
82. Memis¸, post-performance talk, 2010.
83. Memis¸, “Zeyb(r)e(a)k jKadir Memis¸ jTEDxBahcesehirUniversity.”
84. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
85. Kadir Memis¸, Kadir [ Amigo ] Memis, personal website, accessed December 15,
86. Kadir Memis¸, Red Bull Anadolu Break (performance booklet), Maslak TIM Show
Center, Istanbul, October 24, 2015.
87. Tv 360, “Red Bull Anadolu Break Sahne Arkasıbelgeseli yarın saat 18:00’de 360
ekranlarında . . .”[Red Bull Anadolu Break Backstage documentary will be
broadcasted tomorrow at 18.00 on Tv 360], Facebook, April, 8, 2016, https://www.
88. Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
88 B. KURT
89. Memis¸, public workshop.
90. Memis¸, in discussion with Mihran Tomasyan and Duygu G€
92. Cuesta, “How to Interpret Autobiographies,”5.
93. Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History Research,”615.
94. Mishler, quoted in Riessman, “Analysis of Personal Narratives,”21.
95. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
96. Judith Lynne Hanna, “The Power of Dance: Health and Healing,”Journal of
Alternative and Complementary Medicine 1, no. 4 (1995): 325, DOI: 10.1089/
97. Judith Lynne Hanna, “Dancing to Resist, Reduce, and Escape Stress,”in The Oxford
Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing, ed. Vicky Karkou, Sue Oliver, and Sophia
Lycouris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 104.
98. Ibid, 104–5.
99. C. W. Mills, quoted in Riessman, “Analysis of Personal Narratives,”2.
100. Memis¸, public workshop.
101. Banes, “Breaking,”17.
102. Tonje F. Langnes and K. Fasting, “Identity Constructions among Breakdancers,”
International Review for the Sociology of Sport 51, no. 3 (2016): 360, DOI: 10.1177/
103. Ibid., 349.
104. Donna Deyhle, “From Break Dancing to Heavy Metal: Navajo Youth, Resistance, and
Identity,”Youth & Society 30, no. 1 (1998): 23–24, DOI: 10.1177/0044118X98030001001.
105. Imani Kai Johnson, “B-Boying and Battling in a Global Context: The Discursive Life
of Difference in Hip Hop Dance,”in “The Other Americas,”special issue, Alif/Journal
of Comparative Poetics, no. 31 (2011): 188, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23216052.
106. Ayhan Kaya, “Constructing Diasporas: Turkish Hip-Hop Youth in Berlin”(PhD
diss., Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick, 1997), 212,
accessed June 20, 2017, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/36252/1/WRAP_THESIS_Kaya_
107. Ibid., 212–13.
108. Roberta Shapiro, “The Aesthetics of Institutionalization: Breakdancing in France,”
Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 33, no. 4 (2004): 325, accessed
October, 28, 2018, DOI: 10.3200/JAML.33.4.316-335.
109. Langnes and Fasting, “Identity Constructions among Breakdancers,”361.
110. Viggo Vestel, quoted in Langnes and Fasting, “Identity Constructions among
111. Tania Kopytko, “Breakdance as an Identity Marker in New Zealand,”Yearbook for
Traditional Music, 18 (1986): 21–28, accessed May 23, 2018, DOI: 10.2307/768516,
112. Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History Research,”22.
113. Red Bull, “Kadir Amigo Memis¸ Hik^
114. Goodson and Numan, quoted in Germeten, “Personal Narratives in Life History
115. Memis¸, public workshop.
116. Memis¸, post-performance talk, 2010.
117. Red Bull, “Kadir Amigo Memis¸ Hik^
118. Grau, “Dance, Identity and Identification Processes,”192.
119. Ickstadt, “Appropriating Difference,”576.
DANCE CHRONICLE 89
120. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
121. Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?,”4.
122. Memis¸, “ZEYBREAK Documentary.”
ee Grau, “Contested Identities: Gaining Credibility as a Dancer”(23rd
Symposium of ICTM Proceedings, 2004, Monghidoro [Bologna], Italy), accessed
September 10, 2018, http://www.oberlinlibstaff.com/acceleratedmotion/primary_
BERNA KURT has been involved in various dance contexts as performer, instructor,
dramaturg, critic, and researcher. She holds a PhD in the history and politics of folk dance
choreographies in Turkey and has authored a book entitled “Ulus”un Dansı:“T€
Icadı(The Dance of the “Nation”: Invention of “Turkish Folk
Dances”Tradition). She is currently working in the Arts Management Department of
Istanbul Aydın University.
90 B. KURT