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“Gypsy” Dance
in America

by Caitlyn
photos of author by Rachel Ong

When 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?

What is Roma Dance?
For many, 'Gypsy dance" brings to mind a dancer playing tambourine and swirling her skirt.

Yet 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.

Dance has 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 and

trying 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.

Roma dance 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: Morocco, 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.

“We 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]

Ruth St Denis
The American Perception of Roma Dance
Americans 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.

“From the fifteenth century to the present, ‘graceful’ has been the single adjective most often used to describe good dancing.”[iv]

Roma 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.

In addition, 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 today.

The perception of the dances as not just ecstatic but as uncontrolled and barbaric is influenced by American perceptions of the Romani people.

Brown distinguishes 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.

The American Performance of “Gypsy” Dance
Many 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.

The 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.” [x]

To Isadora 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.

Duncan, and 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.

Today’s performers 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.

Although 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]

Laurel Victoria Gray, and American, is known for her performances of Russian Rom, or Tsingane, dance. In an article for Habibi magazine, she writes:

“Interestingly 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]

Finding funding 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.

When asked 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.”

Asked 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.

Although there 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.

Our dances 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, 1997. 396.
[v] Hall, Fernau. World Dance. New York: A.A. Wyn Inc., 1954. 297.
[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. <> 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.

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