Author performs where?
photos of author by Rachel
describing forms of ethnic dance in Arabesque, editor Ibrahim
Farrah added parenthetically after Gypsy dance: “whatever
that is supposed to be”.[i] Because the label “Gypsy” encompasses such diverse groups of
people and because it is frequently misused in the dance world,
its meaning in America has become vague and muddled. In 1924,
Irving Brown estimated 50,000 nomadic Roma (Gypsies)
lived in America and Canada. Currently there are one million Roma
in the United States, yet virtually all the performers who label
their dance “Gypsy” are non-Roma women. Eastern European (using
a liberal definition of Eastern Europe and including Turkey) in
particular have become the archetypical “Gypsy dance” and grabbed
the imaginations of American performers. So what is “Gypsy dance”
and why does it hold such appeal for American dancers who have
had little to no contact with the real thing?
is Roma Dance?
For many, 'Gypsy dance" brings to mind a dancer playing
tambourine and swirling her skirt.
Roma dance is more than skirt-swishing and the tambourine playing
is wholly a fantasy. Although it is permissible within Roma
dance for a man or woman to play tambourine, to do so would
be very unusual.
There is not
a strict corpus of movements in Roma dance, but there are distinct
regional styles and specialties. Skirt manipulation, for example,
is not done universally.Spanish Gypsies sometimes use their skirts
in dance as do those in Turkey. However, that there are no absolutes
in Roma dance, and Roma women in Istanbul's Sulukule ghetto have
been known to perform in shorts. Roma dance is thus both international
and highly regional.
often been one of the sole livelihoods available to the Roma.
In many countries, Roma people are hired to perform at weddings
and also danced at clubs, parties and in public places. America
does not have the same tradition of street dancers and the customary
wedding and party entertainments do not usually include ethnic
dance performances. In addition, many Roma have come to the United
States fleeing persecution from Nazis, Albanians, and other groups.
Accustomed to racial persecution, they want to be as invisible
as possible and do not make their ethnicity publicly known. Persecution
can continue even in the United States. In “American Gypsy,” a
Rom palmist spoke about participating in a community fair in Washington
to educate people about his culture. He endured constant
shouts of “Baby stealer!” and “Hitler should have killed you all!”[ii]
Thus, an apparent
lack of an audience and a mistrust of outsiders mean that few
Roma dancers perform in America. Patrin and Voice
of Roma, two of the major Roma websites in the USA, do not
even mention dance in their arts pages.
styles are not often transmitted to non-Roma. In Europe and America,
teaching takes place within a Roma family or community and the
Roma caste system can inhibit transmission even within the community.
Although some non-Roma Americans are interested in learning the
dance, there are cultural barriers that prevent the dance from
being taught to outsiders. There are external barriers as well:
one of the few dancers in the U.S. who teaches “the real thing”,
explained that the Roma do not have dance performances in the
community the way a black community might organize an evening
of African dance.
don’t do ‘dance events’” she said. “That is a very recent and
very gadje [non Roma] thing.”
For the few
Roma who become involved in the broader arts community, finding
funding is a challenge. “They don’t give us arts grants,”
she says. “There were no grants for Black/African dance
till the late seventies/early eighties, no grants for Pacific/Asian
[dance] till late eighties/early nineties.”[iii]
American Perception of Roma Dance
Ruth St Denis
have long had a troubled relationship with dance. Until Ruth
St. Denis, staged dances were considered low entertainment.
This seems to stem from the Puritan mistrust of the body and discomfort
with human sexuality. Dark-skinned dancing bodies are especially
problematic because they are often associated (by racists and the
misinformed) with a greater sex drive and a lack of sophistication.
fifteenth century to the present, ‘graceful’ has been the single
adjective most often used to describe good dancing.”[iv]
dance, however, looks graceless to many Americans.
This is probably
due to the earthiness of the dance and the lack of balletic, or
otherwise “graceful”, arm extensions. While the aesthetic of ballet
is tied to the upward movement of slender bodies, the aesthetic
of Roma dance is earthier. On an accented beat, the dancer will
put her weight down, whereas in ballet, the dancer is more likely
to leap up. Roma dance also allows for a range of ages and body
types that makes some observers uncomfortable.
some Roma dance uses a movement vocabulary that includes
hip articulations and torso undulations--moves that might seem
lewd to some Americans. In World Dance, Fernau
Hall writes that “A certain seductive manner of shaking
the shoulders is to be found in most European gypsy dances”[v] and in Gypsy Fires in America, Iriving Brown describes
two children dancing at the wedding: “Two little tots had taken
their mothers’ crimson diklos and were dancing voluptuously,
prolonging the undulations of their supple bodies with the snake-like
movements of their kerchiefs.”[vi] Throughout the twentieth century, Americans have viewed Roma
dance as erotic. Brown’s eroticized description was written
in the 1920s, Fernau’s in the 1950s, and this view is continues
perception of the dances as not just ecstatic but as uncontrolled
and barbaric is influenced by American perceptions of the Romani
the Roma from “civilized races”[vii] and attributes some of their difference to “topsy-turvy principles.”[viii] Ideas such as these often influence the way Americans see
and describe the dance.
Performance of “Gypsy” Dance
Americans have been drawn to Roma movement, both for its beauty
and for the cultural mythology with which it is associated. Modern
dancers began performing Roma-influenced dance early in the century.
Isadora Duncan performed an “Hungarian Gypsy
Dance” and Martha Graham performed a St. Denis
chorography called “Gypsy Dance.” Isadora Duncan and Ruth St.
Denis, who both performed "Gypsy" dances, tried to free
women from Victorian roles. They “offered up sensual expression
of the body as a cultural endeavour.”[ix] “The Gypsy Dancer appears to be free from societal constraints.
Gypsy as the Wild Woman archetype has magical powers,
powers which make her dangerous. She is out-of-control, or at
least beyond the control of the patriarchy. She evokes fear, especially
in the subconscious where the Wild Woman lurks within us all.”
Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, the Romni was a symbol of sexual assertiveness,
passion, and free-spiritedness. When the burlesque dancer Ellen
June Hovick changed her first name to “Gypsy” in the
1920s, she was surely drawing on the same ideas.
perhaps St. Denis, had seen actual Roma perform but could not
reproduce the movements because their style of movement was often
incompatible with Romani movements. For example, in her interpretation
of a “Hungarian Gypsy Dance”, Isadora Duncan created a dance based
on balletic leg movements with virtually no movement of the torso.
Although they labeled their choreographies “Hungarian Gypsy Dance”
and “Gypsy Dance” respectively, Duncan and St. Denis were modern
dancers whose goal was not to reproduce authentic ethnic dances.
sometimes show more accuracy in the titles they give their dances
-- for example, adding the word “fantasy” to their interpretive
dances. However, this not always the case. Eva
Cernik, an American dancer who is an authority on
Roma dance, writes that she has seen many American dance troupes
who have a “Gypsy Dance” in their repertoire.
the dances are often beautifully choreographed, and costumed,
“the dance has nothing to do with the way Gypsies dance. It is
more like Hollywood’s version.”[xi]
Victoria Gray, and American, is known for her performances
of Russian Rom, or Tsingane, dance. In an article for Habibi
magazine, she writes:
enough, my earlier “fantasy” Gypsy dances never received any criticism
from the public but my later, carefully researched pieces have
come under fire…I realized that the more authentic dances shattered
people’s stereotypes. They wanted to see brunettes jumping around
holding tambourines,[xii] like Esmerelda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. They wanted
everything to be fast, cute, but never threatening.”[xiii]
and an audience to support Roma dance is made additionally difficult
by the disparity between real Roma dance and the public perception
of what it “ought” to look like.
why non-Rom who label their style “Gypsy” are so unconcerned with
authenticity, Morocco pointed out the lack of access to authentic
dance instruction. Mislabeling the dance, she says, is an “easy
way out.” “Most [of these performers] are simply fantasists playing
a role with their dance, not necessarily caring about or
knowing the real thing.”
why almost all Roma dance in the United States is “fake,” she
wrote: “Because they do not know us, are not willing to make the
effort and prefer to believe the racist/fantasy version because
it suits their own fantasies.”[xiv]
In her article
“Gypsy in Their Souls: The West Preserves Gypsy Dance Traditions,”
Laurel Victoria Gray expresses similar views.
It is difficult
for Americans to take Gypsy dance seriously because the very concept
of the Gypsy is so bound up with romance and fantasy. As with
Oriental dance, the mention of studying Gypsy dance, whether as
an academic topic or an art, often produces giggles.
are a handful of both Roma and non-Roma performing real Roma dances
in America, the majority of women performing “Gypsy dance”, as
Morocco quipped, “would not know the real thing if it bit them
on the butt.” The Roma are present in America in great numbers,
remain an ethnic group onto whom Americans can still project their
fantasies without reprobation.
can celebrate the freedom and sexual power the “Gypsy woman” archetype
stands for, but they shouldn’t do so at the price of misrepresenting
someone else’s culture.
[i] Farrah, Ibrahim. “Cairo in the Hudson; San Francisco on the Nile.”
Arabesque: A Magazine of
International Dance 10.4 (Nov-Dec 1984). 7.
[ii] “American Gypsy.” University of California Center for Media
and Independent Learning. Littledust Productions, no release date.
[iii] Morocco. Email interview. 20 April, 2005.
[iv] Wagner, Ann. Adversaries of Dance From the Puritans to the
Present. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
[v] Hall, Fernau. World Dance. New York: A.A. Wyn Inc., 1954.
[vi] Brown, Irving. Gypsy Fires in America. New York and London:
Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1924. 63.
[vii] Brown, 59
[viii] ibid. 102
[ix] Buonoventura, Wendy. Something in the Way She Moves: Dancing
Women from Salome to Madonna. Cambridge: The Da Capo Book
Group, 2003. 14
[x] Gray, Laurel Victoria, quoted in “The Gypsy Connections.” Belly
Dance UK. 20 April 2005. <http://www.zehara.freeserve.co.uk/>
Gray is an American performer and researcher specializing in Persian
and Tzingane dance.
[xi] Gray, Laurel Victoria. “Gypsy in their Souls: The West Preserves
Gypsy Dance Traditions.” Habibi 15.1 (Winter 1996. 9.)
[xii] Which is not part of Roma dance, regardless of what
Victor Hugo might say.
[xiii] Gray, “Gypsies in Their Souls”, 6
[xiv] Morocco, e-mail interview.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Dance in Israel by Orit Maftsir
dancers are the hottest trend at the moment, unlike the totally
frozen attitudes towards the Arab culture in Israel.
Belly Dancer of the Year
2005 Grand Dancer, more Duos, Trios & Troupes photos by
May 28, 2005, San Ramon, California.
Arabesca: A Different Approach to the Student Recital by Vashti,
Photography by John Steele
the student recital. There is nothing like watching fledglings
leaving the nest, discovering their own creative wings and flying
off into the wonderful world of belly dance.
Rakkasah West Festival
2005 Photos- Saturday & Sunday Page 2 photos by GS Staff
Belly Dancer of the Year 2005
Page 1 Duos, Trios & Troupes photos by Monica
May 28, 2005, San Ramon, California.