April 1, 2022

Romani Dance

Reflections and Resources

At age 20 I began my exploration of belly dance and folkloric dance from North Africa and Western Asia with my first teacher of these traditions, Katarina Burda and her Aywah! Ethnic Dance Company performance ensemble. A large part of our repertoire included songs and dances of the Balkan Roma. It was Turkish Romani dance that most caught my attention, with its sassy exuberance, punchy gestures and dramatic shifts of mood. I relished in the spirited flavor and rhythm of this dance that allowed a shy person like me to express a myself wholeheartedly.

Thus began my love affair with Romani dance and interest in the traditions and history of the Roma.

Are you curious about Romani dance?

Perhaps you are wondering, who are the Roma anyways?

First of all, Roma and Roman in this context has nothing to do with Rome. Rom (singular) and Roma (plural) is a general term that refers to an ethnic group originating in Northwest India who left their homeland 1000 to 1,500 years ago, and moved west across Central Asia and into Europe and beyond.

Learn more about the Roma

They go by different names, according to their clan affiliation, language spoken, and the country in which they live. Romani means relating to the Roma. Some terms that signify the Romani people include: Sinti (Germany), Manouche (France), Kalo (Finland), Romanichal (Britian), and Gitan (Spain). In Turkey, there is a Romani population called Roman. The Roma may be better known to some as Gypsies, though this term is considered derogatory and it is best for non-Roma to avoid using it.

The Roma are identified with certain traditional professions that were conducive to life on the road, including horse-trading, tinkering, fortune-telling, and music-making.

Learn about Romani Customs and Traditional Occupations

With a reputation for being uniquely skilled musicians and entertainers, the Roma have been instrumental in developing and transmitting some of humanity’s most outstanding intangible achievements: music, song, theater, and dance. Like people worldwide have done through time, the Roma have expressed their shared life experience through the performing arts within their community, perhaps picking up an instrument or singing a soulful song after a family meal cooked over a campfire.

Many have also performed professionally for gadje (non-Roma) as singers, dancers, and musicians. Given the Roma traditionally possess an oral history with no written culture, the performing arts were not only an occupation appropriate for life on the road but a powerful vehicle for self-expression and community identity.

Ever adaptable, the Romani people have created new musical forms by combining their unique flavor with the traditions of the cultures they encountered. Given the Roma were generally unwelcomed in many of the lands they entered and their lifestyle was so at odds with that of settled people, conflicts ensued. The Roma have endured a great deal of persecution. These experiences inform their music and dance, which embrace and transform pain into a transcendent poetic art form.

Like African American blues and jazz, Romani music emphasizes improvisation and emotional intensity as a cathartic means of transcendence and has had a comparatively powerful effect on world music traditions.

Romani music and dance is often characterized by strong emotions of exuberance, celebration, and pathos. Think of the cante jondo (deep song) of flamenco, a form associated with the Spanish Gitana (another Romani sub-group), that, through the expression of deep emotion, can reach such heightened states for performers and audience alike. In fact, in its traditional context the distinction between performance and dance and audience is illusory, as all are participating in a shared experience of living art.

Along with cathartic emotional expression and improvisation, another characteristic of Romani music and dance is body percussion in the form of clapping, stomping, snapping, and body-slapping. This feature may relate to the fact that bulky and more costly instruments were often not practical or available to nomadic people with limited resources.

Turkish Roman Dance

So what is Turkish Roman dance?

Turkish Roman music is famous for its signature 9/8 rhythm that lends a spunky feeling to the dance. The dance highlights intricate pelvic isolations, including tossing the belly and expressive gestures often mimicking aspects of life, such as playing instruments, cleaning clothes, churning butter, or drinking coffee. Delightfully cheeky and playful, this solo improvisational social dance provides an opportunity for each dancer to show off their personality, and each dancer’s unique expression within the form is highly valued.

True Roman style, as done at weddings and other community celebrations in Turkey, is improvised and very earthy with pelvic isolations and punchy hand gestures. A few dance artists and researchers are well versed in this more authentic style. For good resources on authentic Turkish Roman dance, I recommend checking out the work of my colleagues Elizabeth Strong and Jessaiah Zure. Both were students of Reyhan Tuzsuz.

Ruska Roma Theatrical Dance

The Ruska Roma is the largest Romani group in Russia and thought to be the first to arrive in the 18th century. Some of them have become famous as musicians and dancers, and have even enjoyed public esteem in film and art. The Ruska Roma have had a higher standard of living than most Romani groups due to their admiration as performing artists among the Russian populace.

The Russian gadje (non-Romani) people felt an affinity to the nomadic Gypsy’s romantic image and their perceived carefree life. They were free to do as they pleased and engage in passionate self-expression through music, song, and dance. This happy fantasy was not the reality for many Roma who historically faced persecution. However, this idealized image suited the Russian temperament, whose elite during the 19th century engaged in lavish dinner parties that featured entertainment by the crowd-pleasing Gypsy choruses. To “go to the Gypsies” was a common phrase associated with leaving one’s cares behind and indulging in music, drink, and the company of alluring exotic women imbued with magical powers of seduction.

Following the Gypsy choruses came the Romen Theater, which opened in Moscow in 1931 and featured ensembles of dancers, singers, and musicians performing operettas with Romani themes.

Romen Theater Office Website

Russians composed songs on themes of idyllic Gypsy life. The Roma, playing into the stereotype reflected in popular music, literature, and films, incorporated these songs and their romanticized images into their repertoire. The Ruska Roma made a substantial living adapting their presentation to suit expectations of their culture’s romantic image. Because of this, they were able to integrate into Russian society more than other groups. The Romen Theater continues to be a central feature of Romani culture in Russia, and is the largest Romani theater in the world.

With an established history as a theatrical genre, Russian Romani dance blends traditional elements, such as foot-stomping, with theatrical staging and takes inspiration from Russian aesthetics. Joyful and energetic, the Ruska Roma women’s dance uses a wide full skirt in large graceful swirling movements, expressive arms held high over the head, exuberant turns and backbends, and exciting percussive footwork.

Traditional Romani dancing involved bare feet stomping exuberantly with expressive arms, and snapping fingers held high. The skirt was not used as a prop, though it is a central feature of today’s theatrical dance form.

Films Featuring Romani Music & Dance

Tony Gadlif has made several films that prominately feature Romani music and dance. Latcho Drom, perhaps his best known, is a musical journey traversing many countries. Gadjo Dilo is another charming favorite of mine.

The first clip below is a splendid scene is from the Soviet-era film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven (also known as Satra: Queen of the the Gypsies) by Emil Loteanu in 1976. The film is replete with music and dance, with songs sung by Roma theater performers from the historic Romen Theatre in Moscow.

The second clip is from Time of the Gypsies is a critically-acclaimed film by Serbian director Emir Kusturica (1988). It features the hauntingly tender traditional Romani song Ederlezi. Learn more about the song

Dancing with a skirt

Inspired by the performance genre of the Ruska Roma, who are no strangers to stage theatrics, non-Roma dancers have taken up the flamboyant use of skirts in Turkish Roman to accentuate the dance’s character on the stage.

While traditional Romani women’s attire would indeed consist of a long full skirt, they are not worn universally. In Turkey, the preference is loose drop-crotch shalwar (sometimes called Turkish or harem pants). In modern times, many Roma follow contemporary fashion. Colorful fabrics and patterns are preferred.

Here are some archival videos of me dancing to 9/8. The first is a compilation from Aywah! Ethnic Dance Company in the late 1990s, when I was just starting out in my Near Eastern and Balkan dance training. The videos that follow are from the early to mid 2000s.