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Lunatique performs a Turkish Romany Dance at the 10th annual Herdeljezi Rom Festival in Sebastapol, CA.
(left to right) Mary Skiles, Grace Liu, Artistic Director Amy Luna Manderino, Lisa Snodderly, Victoria Drake.
Gilded Serpent presents...
What is
Gypsy Bellydance?

by Amy Luna Manderino

As the artistic director of both Shuvani (performing dances of the Romani Trail) and Lunatique (performing various styles of bellydance), I am often asked "What is Gypsy Bellydance?" I believe we can point to various reasons for this confusion and for the overwhelming temptation in the ethnic dance community to pair the word "Gypsy" with the word "bellydance"-- some historical and some archetypal.

Arguably, two of the most established urban centers for bellydance in the East are Cairo, Egypt and Istanbul, Turkey. Since dancing in public in these Muslim countries has historically been frowned upon for "good women" looking to marry one day, the task of public entertaining and dancing fell to the Romani communities in those areas.

Not living with the same religious taboos as their Muslim counterparts, Romani women were free to make a living practicing these arts.

Since the Roma were often prohibited from working in most professions in these communities, dancing meant being able to help support one's family in an environment hostile to Roma. These dancers were known as the Ghawazee in Egypt and Rom in Turkey, who came from the Sulukele district in Istanbul. As mentioned, being outside the mainstream meant these women could dance and move freely without prohibition and their dances (tame by today's standards) became famous (infamous?) and enormously popular in both the East and West. With urbanization during the 20th century and the influence of Hollywood, these folk dances influenced the styles evolving in the nightclubs and cabarets which became the glamorous evening entertainment we now know as bellydance in the West. Thus we see the connection between Romani dance and the historical development of bellydance. But where is the elusive "Gypsy Bellydancer" today?

This brings me to my second point. The archetype of the Gypsy and the Bellydancer are so fundamental and primal that they induce an irresistible temptation to emulate.

Both suggest a sexually alluring woman, powerful and independent--which is a pretty accurate description of the possibilities available to women in today's post-feminist West.

It's important to note that this is a new and extremely rare position for women throughout most of patriarchal history where sexually aware and strong women were outsiders in their community at best and outcasts at worst. Today, in the West, we are claiming our ancient right to be powerful and sexual, in the tradition of many pagan Goddesses of old such as the Nordic Freya, Egyptian Hathor, Hawaiian Pele, Aztec Xochiqutezal, Greek Aphrodite--the list goes on and on and on...

But where does that leave us with respect to dance? Is there such a thing as Gypsy Bellydance from a dance ethnography standpoint? Many Tribal style Bellydancers use the word "Gypsy" in their troupe names or in their marketing. Is their any connection between the dances they do and Romani dance?

In a sense, any dancer doing any style of bellydance can trace the proud torso posture and pelvic isolations back to Romani dance--but the various forms of bellydance have become so stylized that it is problematic to call the dance Gypsy.

Some dancers may use the term because they incorporate costume elements and movements from countries along the Gypsy Trail in their performances. But using this reasoning is questionable; a hand gesture from Kathak, a classical Indian dance, is not Gypsy just because it comes from a country on the Gypsy Trail. Undeniably, there is something about the Tribal fusion dancer that suggests the Gypsy archetype--the fusing of various cultural influences into a bohemian aesthetic that is earthy, proud, and passionate is certainly a distant cousin of the Romani arts, if not a direct descendant. Yet, this presents a problem also, because dancers are using an ethnic label to market an art form based on an archetype and not an authentic lineage.

Perhaps more importantly, it is a sore point for representatives of the Roma community whose advocacy groups are very clear on their preference for the term Roma or Romani and consider the term "Gypsy" to be suspect when used outside their own community.

Where does that leave us? Paradoxically, all styles of bellydance have Gypsy roots and yet today's highly evolved and fused Western styles (cabaret and tribal included) have so many influences and permutations, that it's difficult (and, some would argue, disrespectful of the Roma) to call any of them Gypsy.

But one thing is certain. Ancient archetypes are powerful--perhaps the most powerful force we know--and, problematic though it may be, I am quite sure we haven't seen the last of the Gypsy Bellydancer for a long time to come!

Click for gorgeous enlargement!

The cast of Shuvani at the 27th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The countries represented in the women's costumes from left to right are Spain, Russia, Turkey, India. Performer's names (l to r): Azriel “El Moreno,” David McLean, Holly Shaw, Vladimir Riazantsev, Karen Oakley, Tim Rayborn, Hannah Romanowsky, John Waller, Artistic Director Amy Luna Manderino, Javad Butah, and Michael Davis.

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Ready for more?
11-29-01 Nomads of the Spirit by Sierra Suraci
Know what are you contributing - either to their dilution as a people or the strengthening of their true image.

4-25-04 Shuvani: Music and Dance inspired by the Roma "Gypsy" Trail Photos by Jan Dvorak, Captions and Photos provided by Amy Luna Manderino Saturday, February 21, 2004 Cafe de la Paz, Berkeley, California

5-13-03 Fusion Category added to Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition by Luna. "You know, we're really making history here..."

10-5-06 From the Land Down-under, Part 3: More of Our West Coast Dance Adventure by Trisnasari
"Hi, I'm Suhaila's mum; I hear you Underbelly girls are good zillers!"

10-3-06 Rhea: Greek Flavor and Flair Article by Rebecca Firestone, Photos by Carl Sermon,
Rhea & Laikis Orientale and Greek Folk Dance Workshop sponsored by Ma*Shuqa, held Saturday, August 19, 2006, at the Empire Buffet restaurant, in San Jose, California


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