Russian Romani Dance

September 11, 2020


Russian Romani Dance

Photo of Hannah Romanowsky by Tanya Constantine

The Roma (Gypsies) 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 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. Some of them 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. Like American blues, Romani music emphasizes emotional intensity as a cathartic means of transcendence and has had a comparatively powerful effect on world music traditions.

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.

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.

Hannah and colleagues performing Russian Romani dance at Google holiday party. Photo by Eye of Passion

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.

This splendid scene is from the Soviet film “Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven” (also known as “The Gypsy Camp Goes to Heaven” and “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.

Here’s a fun clip of Tom (my partner) and I performing a suite of Romani-inspired dances with friends.

To see more clips of Russian Romani dance visit: http://english.svenko.net/dance/index.htm