Bringing Gypsy Dance to the People
by Maria Grayson
posted August 4, 2011
Recently, I had an incomparable opportunity to participate in a weekend of Oriental Gypsy music and dance, featuring the teaching of Ahmet Ogren of Istanbul, Turkey. He is a world-renowned dance master who excels at the Turkish Gypsy style of Belly dance, or as they say in Turkey, “Turkish Roman”. The focus of the weekend was an intensive workshop, exuberantly taught by this dancing legend. During eight hours, we learned as much as we could absorb, about this expressive, yet little known style of Oriental dance. In Ahmet’s capable hands, we got a solid introduction to the style; which is fun; theatrical, and usually fast, with a lot of animated footwork. At times, the dance seems almost irreverent, but delightfully expressive when executed well.
Ahmet’s friend, Ali Yenigun, (who is also from Istanbul but now resides in New Jersey) travels with him as his translator for describing the more complex ideas about the dance. Ali was always available to answer questions.
Ahmet starts by breaking down the rhythm of the Turkish 9/8 rhythm in a simple way, and teaches how to move with it like a Gypsy.
We learned the difference between Turkish 9/8 and Gypsy 9/8 dancing.
Next, we learned moves and combinations, starting slowly to get the footwork and the timing down solidly. Ahmet made sure everyone got it! We drilled hard on the choreography that he has created with these moves. It was called an intensive workshop, and intensive it was!
Ahmet combined teaching us some subtleties of the moves with more fun moves and another choreographed dance on day two. The moves and style are fun, and as I said before, at times irreverent, and exquisitely expressive when executed well. Tirelessly throughout the workshop, Ahmet demonstrated how to execute perfectly each move and combination. That in itself was a thrill to me!
Ahmet is a sexy and masculine dancer who combines a sense of playful humor and has the dedication and drive of a consummate professional. He pushed us hard, laughed, and encouraged us.
Ali was always available throughout the weekend to answer any questions we had about the dance (or anything else). An amiable man, he is an outgoing and has a quick smile; he is a treasure trove of information about life in Istanbul, the Gypsies who live there, and Gypsy culture in general.
Ahmet gave us a rare treat when he danced spontaneously for us at the hafla party on Saturday night. After the workshop, I was privileged to interview Ahmet and Ali, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them both.
The workshop and surrounding festivities (sponsored capably by local teacher, Joan Kafri) took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the spring of 2011.
Maria: Have you always done this style of dance, and are there other styles that influence you?
Ahmet: “I started just doing regular dance, and have always loved to dance
Like going out to dance to the popular music?
“Yeah! My special style is Belly and Gypsy and that is what I do professionally. I only teach this style, this combination of Turkish Belly and Gypsy dance styles.”
What gives you inspiration in your dance? (Here, I needed to define my term “inspiration”.)
After some more translating, Ali tells me: “I express myself with dance.Yes, when I listen to the music, my body moves.”
I was planning to ask you what your favorite music is for dancing, but now that I’ve taken your workshops, I know the answer to that. It’s all about the 9/8 rhythm; it is a lot of fast, slow, and medium tempos, all done in the Gypsy way of using the rhythm. Including that important little pause, as compared to the Turkish style. From your workshop, I understand this so much more.
What is your favorite listening music?
“Music is international. I listen to music from all over the world. If I hear it and like it, I enjoy listening to it. Even if it’s different and in a language I don’t understand, like Greek or other music. If I like it, I like it. I always enjoy hearing a variety of different music.”
Where are you going next on this workshop tour?
“I am going back home to Istanbul, then on to Australia, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Greece, and finally, Marakesh in Morroco. I spend only 3 months on tour, then I return to teach in Turkey for most of the year.”
That’s fantastic! You are sharing this wonderful style with the world! What do you have planned after the tour?
“Istanbul! …performing, and teaching in Turkey. One renowned event there is a festival that is the biggest Gypsy festival. I teach and perform there.”
How did you get started in dance? Is it part of your family or familia?
“No, I’m not Gypsy. I learned to love this Turkish Gypsy dancing from when I was very young. Gypsies live all over Istanbul. From an early age, we always hung out with Gypsies in their camps and neighborhoods. I watched and learned this dance from them. I’ve always loved to dance for fun. I was sixteen when I started dancing professionally. I have been doing the Turkish Roman style dance professionally for 20 years.”
What is the difference between this style of moves for women and for men?
“The moves are all the same for men and for women. The difference is how they do it. The men do it more macho. The women do it more sexy, … like the way women are in life!”
Can you talk about men in Belly dance and how male dancing fits in the cultural traditions of the Roma life in the Middle East? Also, in the U.S.A., men are not used to doing much dancing; how can teachers encourage them?
“It is part of the culture, not just Belly and Gypsy style. Folk dancing too, it is different in each different area. When people see men dancing, they don’t think of it as “gay”. Also, men who dress like a woman dance; it is like theatre …called ‘Kotcheck’.”
It is like theatre, isn’t it?
“Yeah! …like theatre. It comes from the tradition against women dancing in public. It is not considered “gay”. Now, dance is becoming more closed to men. Things are being influenced more by fundamentalists. As for the cultural hangups here, they are a huge obstacle! It is a whole culture. Maybe you can do something to change it… I just bring this dance to people, and they learn it if they want.”
Are there some moves, and also costumes that are offensive to Roma or Gypsies when non-Gypsies are seen doing (or trying to do) them as ‘“Gypsy Dance”?
“I am into sharing this great dance style with anyone who wants to learn it. In Turkish Roman
dance there is no skirt swirling, but in other countries, like Russia and Spain, yes. My personal opinion is that the swirling of a skirt is just an easier way to keep up with the music than actually keeping the beat with your footwork.”
Do you know if Spanish flamenco has evolved from Turkish Roman dancing? I saw your video on YouTube and you were doing that rhythmic, stomping kind of footwork, tapping, and stomping with your boot-heel and toe.
“That is just me, having fun with the Gypsy musicians and the crowd. I was being playful, playing with the musicians and the crowd; creating rhythms and having the drummers go along. I don’t do it as any style like Flamenco.”
Can you talk about what is most important to you to give to your students, and what you enjoy most about teaching workshops?
“I offer the dance and make it available to anyone who wants to learn. If students take what I give, it makes me happy. I enjoy very much to see the students work so hard to learn what I am teaching to learn this style of dance.”
What is most important to give to your audience?
“When the audience enjoys it, I enjoy it more. Like all performers, when I get a big response, it is more fun for me and satisfying to know that what I am giving is being received and appreciated.”
How do you feel about spontaneous performance vs. choreographed performance?
“Spontaneous dance is better. It’s not mechanical like choreographed dance is so much (except when it is done really well). For workshops though, one must teach using choreography. It is like you have to learn the alphabet first with choreography. Spontaneously is how I always dance when I am dancing solo. Gypsies always dance spontaneously when dancing solo. When dancing with a partner, then there must be some choreography.”
Do you have anything to say to teachers about how to teach students to dance spontaneously?
“The key is:
1. I can demonstrate spontaneous dance, and I can teach you the moves,
2. …but I cannot give you emotion, …feeling. This comes from the individual dancer.”
Thank you both very much for coming out here and doing this. It is a great opportunity to learn this wonderful style of music and to learn more about Istanbul and the Gypsy people.
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