Reflections on Turkish Roman Dance
August 15, 2018
This summer I had the pleasure of 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 in the show, which is something I haven’t had 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 I was most drawn to. I enjoyed the sassy exuberance, with its punching 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 own life – allowing me to access, embody, and reintegrate aspects of myself that had been suppressed or at least unexplored. (I have more to say on why I believe studying dance from other cultures is valuable for self development, but will save this topic for another time.)
So are you now curious about Turkish Roman dance?
First of all, let me point out that “Roman” refers to a branch of the Roma who settled in Turkey, not to be confused with Rome in Italy. So who are the Roma? They are an ethnic group that originated in Northwest India, who 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 now considered derogatory) have played an essential role in the development of 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.
Ever adaptable, the Romani people have been instrumental (excuse the pun) in creating new music and dance forms through combining their own unique flavor with the musical traditions of the cultures they encountered. Much like jazz and the African American experience (which legendary French Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930’s drew inspiration from to create Jazz Mancouche, or Gypsy Jazz), Romani music and dance fiercely embraces the pain of an existence living in a state of persecution and racism, and transforms it into a state of transcendence.
Whether living and creating in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Spain, or elsewhere, Romani music and dance that can be seen as possessing certain characteristics, including strong emotions of exuberance and celebration, as well as pathos. Think of the cathartic power of flamenco, a form associated with the Spanish Gitana (another Romani sub-group).
So what is Turkish Roman dance, specifically? Turkish Roman music is known for its signature 9/8 rhythm that lends a spunky feeling to the dance. The dance is characterized by complex pelvic isolations, including tossing of 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 her or his personality, and uniqueness of expression within the form is highly valued.
Here is a video of me in the late 1990s as a member of Katarina Burda’s Aywah! Ethnic Dance Company. This performance was in San Francisco and I am performing 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 skirt they are not so commonly worn in contemporary times, and in Turkey loose drop-crotch pants (sometimes called Turkish or harem pants) are preferred. I’m wearing a similar style in this video:
Borrowed from Russian Romani dance (a staged form) and flamenco, the flamboyant use of skirts in Turkish Roman was taken up by westerners to accentuate the character of the dance 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. There are a few dance researchers and performers today staying true to this more authentic style, which is really important from the perspective of educating about and being respectful of the culture. That being said, from the perspective of the audience and my enjoyment as a performer, I’m partial to using skirts.
So would you like to learn some Turkish Roman dance yourself? Here is a teaser, a few minutes of me teaching the basic footwork to some of my students.
To learn more contact me for private lessons (in San Rafael CA or on Zoom), or join us at Scheherazade’s Dream Retreat September 22-23 where I will be teaching Turkish Roman dance!
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