a Transcendent State
posted October 22, 2009
They call it chelum, another Turkish term in the Eastern Macedonian dialect. It refers to a transcendent state of dance and music enjoyment fueled by tapanje, zurli, darabouki, tamburi, and of course the ubiquitous Rakija.
I was to meet this word a lot during my now-annual August festival season in Macedonia. For six sunny weeks I danced, and I danced, and then I danced some more. For the past three years I had returned four times, to support the Ethno Camp festival, to research and learn the traditional dances, to perform, to enrich my musical knowledge, and to build my Balkan-Oriental fusion style. This season held amazing surprises and offered rich rewards.
For starters, I was a guest at quite a few Roma weddings, raucous street affairs attended in the hundreds, constantly running out of beer and food but never ever short on amazing music. Roma weddings overflow with chelum. It is not hard; their music’s brassy, in-your-face spice has a way of setting fire to the body, invoking motion in ways that can’t be described. It must be felt, experienced directly, lived in the moment: pure chelum.
We would start in the circles. I learned spicy new step combinations that just beg the hips to play along. Rhythmic circles of fifty, sixty people dancing together, spiraling in and out to rich music spiked with a generous dose of Oriental flavor. There is something about a circle dance; you are part of a larger organism, you lose yourself in the bigger picture, you are connected to every other dancer in the circle, vital to the whole but not on the spot.
Until that mischievous trumpet or darabouka player decides to step into the middle of the circle and begin calling individual dancers out, stepping things up a notch. Or two. Or three. They themselves are moved by chelum, and it’s hard (and unseemly) to ignore their beckoning because they play, essentially, for you. I was constantly called out into the middle of the circles to dance with the musicians, and I would soon find myself ensconced in a swarm of Roma women and girls stepping and gyrating along with me, clapping their hands, twirling their wrists and shouting "Mashallah!" Rakija poured down my throat, burning through whatever vestiges of inhibition I may have felt, and before I knew it, the surging crowd would lift me onto a table and let the drummers have their way. Money would somehow start to fly, hoots and shouts filling the air as the circle, now a distant memory, dissolves into a hot cauldron of energetic chelum. For hours on end, till the sun came up and the head began to throb.
I had no time for the merciless Rakija hangovers as I was fully engaged in the preparations for the Ethno Square Festival, the current incarnation of Ethno Camp, which started as a cultural exchange program for teens and has now grown into a World Fusion festival cross-pollinating Balkan music and dance with various other forms. This year, we had Jazz delegates from Slovenia and Austria, who worked with our local Roma musicians in a weeklong fusion workshop. We had a massive percussion exchange, uniting local tapanje with djembes, tablas, flamenco boxes, even Caribbean steel drums for extended jams that made my hair stand on end. Groups from all over the Balkans turned out to represent their respective styles of folkloric dance, but this year in Berovo I was offered a unique opportunity to showcase all three of my areas of dance training: Duncan, Folkloric, and Oriental.
Since the festival coincides with the annual pilgrimage to the Virgin Shrine, which draws thousands of visitors, the Town Hall planning committee asked me if I could present a dance in tribute to the Virgin Mary. Nothing could have thrilled me more, since I had just finished my fourth intensive season of Isadora Duncan training, and felt ready to choreograph something in the spirit and technique of Isadora.
The call of the Muse was heeded. Three lovely girls joined me, all incoming high school seniors and members of the local folkloric troupes: Dragana Mladenovska, Angela Zdravkovska and Aleksandra Gerinska. We worked intensively for eight days on my original choreography to Schubert’s "Ave Maria", which we presented the opening night of the festival. I must admit, part of me didn’t know if sleepy little Berovo in its mountainous corner of Macedonia was ready for something like Duncan dance, but our "molitvena igra" or "prayer dance" was a complete hit. In simple white tunics, we danced to a beautiful rendition of the song by Sarah Brightman. I arranged the choreography with Duncan elements such as the Universal Gesture, the Adagio, the "caroling" attitude from the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and movements learnt from "mother" dances such as the Brahms Lullaby and Ave Maria itself. Not only did we receive deafening applause and astounding compliments, but Macedonian Channel 5 did a segment on me and the "molitvena igra", which I performed solo for them at the monastery.
I was also able to cross-breed the lyricism of Duncan with the earthiness of local folklore. "Vai Dudule" is a traditional prayer for rain which is sung through the streets of the town by a young woman dressed in green clothing accented with green leaves.
People sprinkle water after her as she dances her way through the streets, singing "Vai Dudule, dai Boze dos.." (please, God, send rain!) The song is highly evocative and mystical, sung in the high-pitched drone peculiar to Balkan female choirs. We presented the song live, with young Zora singing and Dragi on the flute. Here I was able to fuse earthy steps from Balkan dance to lyrical arm shapes gesturing from Sky to Earth, as if to draw down the rain. Since the Vai Dudule tradition involves sprinkling, I incorporated sprinkling hand gestures into the bigger arm shapes, miming the falling of rain from a cloud and the landing of raindrops on thirsty leaves.
But for my solo on closing night, I broke out "Ciganka Sam Mala" (I’m a Little Gypsy Girl), in which I mix Balkan footwork with Oriental hips, lyrical arms, and recently added sassy skirtwork. The crowd went wild, and I have to admit, I felt my cup brimming over with chelum if I do say so myself, and we’ve all been there.
You’re on, the crowd’s feeling you, feeding you energy, and you’re spinning it all back. They began to chant "Ayshe! Ayshe!", which in Roma is a name meaning "beautiful gypsy girl", and so the town nicknamed me this year. Aw, shucks!
But shucks or no shucks, this year the media paid mad attention; reporters from all over the country came to write features on our festival and specials on the various artists involved. I was featured in six national papers and 1E Magazine, which is equivalent to a "Look" or "Ok"-type celebrity tabloid. I was largely presented as a “World Macedonian”, with focus on my world travels and work in various dance fields, with no small measure of pride in the fact that I strive to integrate my ethnic roots into my work around the world. I was labeled a “Svetska Tanzerka” – “World Dancer”, which to me rings quite
true as I find my dance identity evolving into a hybrid of my three main areas. It was an amazing payoff for the past three trips I have taken to Macedonia to work on the Ethno Camp festival, now EthnoSquare Festival. A new mayor this year also cleared the way for us, giving us much better financial support, equipment, sponsorship, and amazing help in City Hall in the person of Marin Demirovski, project manager for the town of Berovo.
The rest of the time, I picked raspberries, barbecued peppers for ajvar, (a rich, smoky pepper/eggplant spread), hiked the hills, did yoga in sunny meadows, and traveled the region with my adopted Roma family. Milo and Destan on Zurli (local Mizmars), Jaffer and Nehru on tapanje, Ice on wind instruments, and Lato on Darabouka. They played and I danced for parties, weddings, and parades. For me, it was a big experiment and a fantastic, constructive learning experience. Even though the music is highly Oriental in character, its indelible Balkan-ness demands stepping footwork and arm/hand gestures that invoke chelum, along with the peculiar little locking and whipping pelvic movements that Roma girls dance at weddings, which I happily picked up.
True to Roma form, these gigs were almost always spontaneous, with me essentially being highjacked from a street cafe, packed into a van, and spirited off to some restaurant or hunting lodge somewhere to dance, often not even in proper costume, but in jeans and a t-shirt. But what the heck, it was unforgettable, and I even made a few euros here and there.
An unforgettable season in the Mother Country. Doors opening, progress being made, hands clapping. Having wrapped up the festival, I attended one more wedding before leaving the country. Dancing till my hair hung in wet strands, a grandmother grabbed me and kissed me. “Ti si chelumdjia bre!” (you dance with such chelum) she shouted as she squeezed my cheeks and patted my behind. I stopped for a moment to savor the compliment, then a flock of dancing girls swept me away into the night, into the heart of the music and back into that trance, not thinking, not caring about tomorrow, just dancing.
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