Reflections on Turkish Roman Dance

August 15, 2018


Hannah in Turkish Roman attire

This summer (2018), I enjoyed teaching two workshops at the Austin Belly Dance Convention and performing in their Saturday evening show with live music by Badrawn. It was a fun treat to dance Turkish Roman style, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do in a while. At age 20, when I began my exploration of belly dance and folkloric dance from the Middle East with my first teacher Katarina Burda, it was Turkish Roman dance that caught my attention the most. I enjoyed the sassy exuberance, with its punchy gestures and dramatic shifts, that allowed a shy young woman like me to express a part of myself that otherwise stayed hidden.

That is the healing power of dance and how it has enriched my life – allowing me to access, embody, and reintegrate unexplored aspects of myself. As a living art, every dance I’ve encountered has gifted me with new insights into the world’s unique ways of being. As a representation and embodiment of culture, every dance contains encoded wisdom about how to relate to our environment.

So are you now curious about Turkish Roman dance?

So who are the Roma? They are an ethnic group that originated in Northwest India, left their homeland about 1,500 years ago, and moved west into Europe and elsewhere. The Roma (also known as Gypsies, though this term is often considered derogatory) have played an essential role in developing the world’s musical and performing arts traditions.  Music-making and dance have been among their traditional professions, along with horse-trading, tinkering, and other endeavors they could do on the road while living a nomadic life.

Romani guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt

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

As a point of comparison, American blues is also a performance art that reflects life’s hardship, particularly for African Americans. American jazz, which emphasizes improvisation, shares similarities with Romani music. Legendary French Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930’s drew inspiration from American jazz to create jazz Manouche or Gypsy jazz.

Whether from Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Spain, or elsewhere, Romani music and dance possess specific characteristics, including strong emotions of exuberance and celebration and pathos. Think of the cathartic power of flamenco, a form associated with the Spanish Gitana (another Romani sub-group).

Another characteristic shared by Romani dance from
different countries include 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.

So what is Turkish Roman dance, specifically? 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 dance provides an opportunity for each dancer to show off their personality, and each dancer’s unique expression within the form is highly valued.

Here is a video of me in the late 1990s, when I was just starting out in my Near Eastern and Balkan dance training, as a member of Katarina Burda’s Aywah! Ethnic Dance Company. This performance was in San Francisco, and I perform Turkish Romani dance to the classic tune “Mastika.” The videos that follow are others in my archives.

Note that the skirts in the previous videos are a theatrical addition.  While traditional Romani women’s attire would indeed consist of a long full skirt, they are not always worn in contemporary times. In Turkey, the preference is loose drop-crotch pants (sometimes called Turkish or harem pants).

Borrowed from Russian Romani dance and flamenco, non-Romani dancers took up the flamboyant use of skirts in Turkish Roman to accentuate the dance’s character on the stage. True Roman style, as done by the Roman in Turkey at weddings and other community celebrations, is very earthy with pelvic isolations and punchy hand gestures.  A few dance researchers and performers stay true to this more authentic style, which is essential for education and showing respect for the dance’s cultural heritage.  However, dance is a living art form that undergoes changes and adaptations, and there is a place for including a skirt as a theatrical prop.

So would you like to learn some Turkish Roman dance yourself?  Here is a teaser, a few minutes of me teaching basic footwork to some of my students.

To learn more contact me for private lessons (in San Rafael CA or on Zoom).

Just for fun, here are some other archival videos of me improvising to traditional Russian Romani tunes performed by Helm. Enjoy!

Hannah dancing to “Ochi Chorniye” by Helm at the Sleeping Lady in Fairfax CA (April 2013)

Hannah dancing to “Shto Mnie Gorie” by Helm