Fiery Fusion Flavors for Oriental, Tribal, and Gypsy Dance!
by Paola Blanton
posted August 7, 2012
In 2007, I revisited the land of my birth, Macedonia, in order to revive my connection to its musical traditions and to produce a documentary film on the journey. Not only did I rediscover my passion for Balkan music and dances, but I began to fuse Balkan dance with Oriental, taking Balkan Fusion belly dance to various festivals such as WAMED, IBCC, and CID-UNESCO. The film, “Raq’n the Roots with Malesh Roma”, sparked a yearly festival in my hometown of Berovo. Now in its fifth year, the “Ethno Square” festival hosts musicians and dancers of world genres for a long weekend centered on Balkan culture - traditional, modern, and fusion.
The hot music of the Balkans has been steadily making its way into the World Music scene over the past decade, with bands like Balkan Beat Box, Slavic Soul Party, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Warehouse Orchestra, and others showcasing its sounds throughout the underground music scene. These “globalized urban mashups” are a lot of fun to listen and dance to, and are gateways for some more “roots” Balkan artists to find wider appreciation. Goran Bregovic, Emir Kusturica, Dragan Dautovski, Kocani Orkestar, Fanfare Ciocarlia, and Boban Markovic are just a few in a growing list of Macedonians, Serbs, Bosnians, Bulgarians and Romanians bringing the complex rhythms and celebratory spirit of this music to the world stage.
When we hear the earthy drumbeats, lively melodies and evocative voices of Balkan music, we are musically transported into a Mediterranean hill culture of planting, harvesting, flocks and herds. The wheel of the year and the harvest are major cultural themes and the connection to the Earth’s cycles is evident in the dances, which emphasize stepping combinations in the circular format; the organic dance of communal celebration.
The bounty of the land bursts forth on Balkan tables, piled high with cheeses, fruits, wines, spirits and roasted meat. Celebrations, like weddings, are gastronomic, Dionysian affairs that go long into the night to the sounds of “tapan” drums, zurlas (a cousin of the mizmar), brass, accordions, kavals (flutes) clarinets, gajdas (bagpipes), tamburas, or violins depending on the regional influences.
The Balkans are a major geographical crossroad that bridges Eastern and Western cultural influences – historically flavored by the Ottoman occupation, the amalgamation of Slavic peoples, the Romany Trail and the various European groups that traversed the region on a regular basis. A karsilama rhythm can pop up alongside Slavic accordion motifs or mournful gajda pipes before giving way to one of the complex local rhythms and then slowing down to Tchiftetelli. Or some pumped-up Gypsy Brass can spice up a traditional anthem with a DJ mixing in some ska or hip hop to make the whole thing a bit younger and clubbier, but still unmistakably Balkan.
The Balkan spirit brings Mediterranean fire to Slavic earthiness to Byzantine mystery. Balkan music and dance weaves these elements together in the strong and purposeful rhythms and steps of the circles.
There is hardly any upper body movement in a traditional Balkan “oro” or “kolo” – they are really foot dances. But the Balkan Gypsy varieties such as “chochek” bring Turkish and Greek inflections that could express through hands, shoulders, and improvisational arm attitudes that suggest ecstatic abandon and inebriation.
The spirit is something quite apart from a technical consideration of the steps – it derives from a love of the music, the often bawdy lyrics, and the cultural theatricality inherent to the region. It’s hot, earthy, celebratory, and often tragic at the same time, just like the people, and the mood on the dance floor can often migrate through many emotions on one night.
The more that Balkan music fuses to other forms, the more creative we can get with the dances. I like to choose music that transmits the celebratory, Dionysian mood of a wedding or drinking party – strong drums, brass, roots instruments and high spirited lyrics and voices. In my Balkan Fusion workshops, I feature brassy chocheks layered over heavy drums along with infectious DJ mashups that take the Gypsy to the streets with shades of hip hop, ska, or dancehall styles.
The fundamental component is in the foot patterns that express the complex rhythms – to that are added moves from Oriental, jazz, tribal and other contemporary forms to interpret lyrics, melody or accents.
The floor plans are based on the circular form in order to pay homage to this root, but can flow into various patterns used in folkloric troupe choreographies. When I go to Macedonia, I take lessons in Balkan dance and troupe choreography and observe professional folkloric troupes such as “Tanec”, the national folkloric dance troupe, in order to get ideas on how to arrange bodies in space.
In a modernized version of a Balkan classic, such as a wedding chochek, we could hear Balkan drums, Turkish melodies and/or darabuka, and Gypsy brass all in one song. My Balkan Fusion choreographies start with a traditional stepping combination for that particular song or rhythm, and then add hip accents, turns, stops, and arm or hand moves, if appropriate. I try to read each culture present in the song and respond to it in the choreography, but in a balanced, coherent way. Often I will interpret a bridge in the music with a short theatrical vignette which serves as the backdrop for interaction or improvisation.
So, the base for my special mix are the footwork and floorplan that are unmistakably evident and Balkan-flavored. Spicy accent notes come from belly dance and Gypsy moves along with characterization from Greek and Turkish dances – echoing the cultural and ethnic mix of the region Topping Balkan Fusion off is a generous helping of high spirits evoking a balmy summer feast in the land that bridges East and West – spirited, spicy, and earthy!
This is “Caravan” by Boban Markovic, a famous Serbian Gypsy Brass band and Guca Trumpet Festival veterans. It’s a high-energy Balkan take on a classic dancefloor number, with a hint of comedy and Gypsy mischief; a real fusion piece. I blended big stagey moves with sharp directional changes and Balkan footwork, including a nod to Greek Syrtaki during the “Misirlou” bridge. Several combinations merge hopping, kicking, and hipwork for a real Balkan Fusion feel.
“Turbo Gypsy” is set to the song “Jungle Shadow” by Kiril Dzaikovski, a Macedonian American who fuses Balkan music with techno, hip hop, ska, and other contemporary forms. The troupe is “PindjuR” – my group of Macedonian teenagers that I work with every year during the “Ethno Square” International festival. We go from a circular format to a zipper to a vignette and back to a circle. These are arrangements I’ve observed in folkloric troupes and I punched them up for this fast-paced number, adding jazzy moves to hops, skips, hips and chain steps. “Turbo Gypsy” has been taught at many world dance festivals – people love its energy and dynamism!
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