Gypsy in Their Souls
Gypsy in Their Souls
The West Preserves Gypsy Dance Traditions
by Laurel Victoria Gray
My first personal contact with Gypsies took place in my hometown of Spokane, Washington. The World’s Fair held in Spokane in 1974 featured an American Folklife section. Our local Gypsy population agreed to participate in the festival, marking the first time they would share their culture with outsiders. I visited them with my mother and they told our fortunes, after the ritual “crossing the palm with silver.” This was strictly a nominal fee. (Later I encountered similar traditional exchanges of a small amount of money while living in Central Asia.) But a few days later we read in the newspaper that the gypsies had left the fair. Officials objected to this exchange of money, insisting that all aspects of the Folklife exhibit remain free of charge. The Gypsies’ explanations fell on deaf ears, so they left.
We knew this was a tragic mistake on the part of shortsighted officials. The Gypsies’ decision to participate in this sort of public gathering had been truly historic and it was frustrating to think that a cultural misunderstanding had ended it. My mother, an articulate and fearlessly outspoken woman, immediately headed for her typewriter and wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper. The day it appeared in print we received a phone call from a man who identified himself as the head of the Spokane Gypsies. He invited us to his home because he wanted to thank us in person for our letter of support. He was astounded that an outsider could understand their point-of-view and come to their defense.
This meeting was the first in a series of experiences which gradually erased the stereotypes I had about Gypsies. Our host’s home was immaculately clean and decorated in what I found to be a rather fussy baroque style, complete with flocked wallpaper and gilded mirrors. The woman of the house wore a stylish, low-cut sheath and heavy makeup as if she were about to attend a cocktail party. Her lovely hair was piled up on her head and her manner was welcoming yet demure.
Since that first encounter, I have met many other Gypsies — dancers, musicians, friends, and acquaintances — in the United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union. Sometimes it is simply a chance encounter, because regardless of whether I am in Seattle, Cologne, or Tashkent, Gypsy women frequently approach me on the street. But I cannot say that I know them completely; I always sense there is a hidden corner to their lives and I must respect that private place. History has taught them bitter lessons. At one time in England, it was a capital offense punishable by death to simply be a Gypsy. Why should we ever expect them to trust an outsider?
For many of us, it is the intoxicating music which draws us to explore Gypsy culture. Even as a young child, I was fascinated with all things Russian and soon discovered that many of the most beloved Russian songs known as romances were actually of Gypsy origin. Throughout Russian literature, the portraits of Gypsies have been woven through the plots. They were sought after entertainers, especially by the young officers who whiled away their time with vodka and gambling. Slavic melancholy found a kindred spirit in the mournful longing of the Gypsy songs. And any Russian folk dance troupe worth its salt had a Gypsy dance in its repertoire, usually placed to end the first or second half of a concert with a wild flourish. So naturally, as I began to perform Russian folk dances, I was introduced to the Gypsy dance as well. Through international folk dancing I learned Serbian and Macedonian Gypsy dance with their unusual 7/8 and 9/8 rhythm patterns.
My training as a classical violinist also introduced me to asymmetrical rhythm patterns. I remember one day being forced to learn how to conduct Tchaikovsky’s famous waltz in 5/4 before I could leave the classroom. Later, when studying Balkan, Turkic, and Central Asian dance, I encountered not only 9/8, but 7/8 and even 11/16. These were joyous departures from the Western tyranny of 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures.
Later, during my trips to the former Soviet Union, I was able to study Russian Gypsy dance at the Choreographic Institute and commissioned a group choreography which I performed in concert and on television with eight of my students. My costume was designed at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater for Opera and Ballet named for Alisher Navoi, by People’s Artist Zinaida Kuryshch. But, just to make sure every detail was accurate, I checked with a Gypsy friend living in Tashkent who had been a soloist with Moscow’s Gypsy Ensemble. She spotted a few elements which were not correct and we changed the costume accordingly. Later, when I had learned enough to attempt to choreograph a solo for myself, she also gave her stamp of approval , but only after correcting my tendencies to clench my fists in an attempt to show passion or frustration. “We Russian Gypsies don’t do that,” Tanya admonished and then placed my hands in the correct position.
The Wild Woman Archetype
One reason the Gypsy dancer has such a powerful hold on our imagination is that she summons up the archetype of the “wild woman.” To an outsider ignorant of Romany culture, the Gypsy seems to live on the edges of civilization, beyond its normal rules. In this romanticized view, the gypsy dancer appears to be free from societal constraints. The Gypsy as the Wild Woman archetype has magical powers, powers which makes 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. We are afraid to let her out because we may lose control.
The Wild Woman Archetype is so powerful that it seeps into our popular imagination. I have seen evidence of this when performing my Russian Gypsy dance. At times, audience members actually recoil when I walk to the edge of the stage. The aggressive gesturing disturbs them. Women hold on to their dates as if they think I am trying to steal their men. For them, I am not just a performer. I have summoned up the Wild Woman Archetype and it frightens people.
Interestingly enough, my earlier “fantasy” Gypsy dances never received any criticism from the public but my later, carefully researched pieces have come under fire from the ethnic police. This proved both puzzling and frustrating until I realized that the more authentic dances shattered people’s stereotypes. They wanted to see brunettes jumping around holding tambourines, like Esmeralda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. They wanted everything to be fast, cute, but never threatening, never dangerous. And certain elements, like the fortune-telling sequence, was simply beyond their understanding. One woman in Germany thought I was playing a card game! She also objected to my red hair (again the stereotype that all Gypsies are dark-haired) not knowing that some Gypsy women color their hair with henna. She found the choreography “strange,” again, as if I had just invented it myself. The unusual splayed hand position, the extreme sideways leans from the waist, the intricate skirt work — none of which matched her preconceived notions of what a Gypsy was and so she rejected it. Perhaps the authentic dance was all too real and threatening because it touched the Wild Woman archetype at the very foundation of our personal psyche.
Researching authentic Gypsy culture
During one of my European performance tours, friends in Germany told me about “Magneten,” a special concert of Gypsy song and dance from all over the world. Tickets were much in demand, but we managed to get seats and made a pilgrimage to Munich just for this performance. Produced by Andre Heller, the concert started low-key and was, for the most part, extremely understated. In this way sensationalism or stereotypes were avoided. The music, songs, and dances were so powerful in themselves that they needed no elaborate sets and innovative lighting. The Russian Gypsy group “Loyko” opened the show, then sat on risers on stage while the next group performed. Each successive group remained on stage when their set was finished, creating an international Gypsy camp with performers from Russia, Hungary, Albania, Spain, Egypt, India, Rumania, and Macedonia.
The entire concert was done without intermission and, after many spectacular high points in music and dance, ended poignantly, with a haunting song called the Gypsy anthem. But the most electrifying moment came when the dancers from India, Albania, and Spain took the stage simultaneously for just a few minutes, each interpreting the music and rhythms in her own individual way. While regional differences were clear, the common roots of these dances came sharply into focus in a way that volumes of scholarly research could never convey. The kinetic language of the body was more real and convincing than the written word.
The Magneten concert proved so popular that it later went on tour. It was just one of many recent manifestations of a growing global interest in authentic Gypsy culture, along with films such as Latcho Drom and The Romany Trail. Although this growing awareness has made new information available to us, there are members of our dance community whose dedication to studying Gypsy culture predates this current wave of popularity. Three of the best known dancers in the Gypsy genre are Elizabeth “Artemis” Mourat, Eva Cernik, and Dalia Carella. Their goal to both literally and figuratively dance with the Gypsies deserves recognition. Their stories reveal lost pages in the development of Oriental dance in America.
Elizabeth “Artemis” Mourat
Although my research has primarily focused on the Russian Gypsy tradition, Elizabeth “Artemis” Mourat has spent years investigating Turkish Gypsy history and dance. She is working on a documentary video on the history of Turkish Gypsy dancers from the sixteenth century to the present based on research she has done for a book she is writing on the history of Gypsies in Turkey. She has done field research in Turkey, including in Sulukule, the Gypsy ghetto in Istanbul, which she says “is not for the faint of heart.” She has collected over one hundred antique illustrations of Turkish Gypsy dancers, and many vivid and historic descriptions, saying their dances would “melt a stone.” In addition to her work on Gypsies, over the past thirteen years she has collected over two thousand antique pictures and illustrations of women from North Afrrica and the Middle East. She has also recently finished a sixteen year project on the history of the veil.
LVG: How did you first become interested in Gypsy dance?
EAM: When I first began studying Oriental dance in the early 1970’s, my first teachers danced in the Turkish style. Then, my most powerful dance influences were from a Gypsy named Pandora and her best friend, Yildiz, who had learned from the Turkish Gypsies in New York City in the 1960’s. I studied with them for several years.
I think there is always a deep and enduring link with our first dance forms. It is akin to our “mother tongue” for most of us — a first love, our roots. My attachment to this style of dance went even deeper than that. It fit my temperament and my energy level. Plus, my family are Greeks from Turkey; they lived there for over three hundred years and became quite Turkish in culture. When my grandfather worried about things, he would put music on and dance to karsilama around the living room table. This was his cure for depression.
LVG: I also began studying Oriental dance back in the 1970’s and recall that the nightclub style was quite different from what it is now. What is your recollection?
EAM: Back in the 1960’s, most of the dancers in New York danced in the Turkish style. Then in the 1970’s, there was much more awareness within the Oriental dance community that there were other styles of Oriental dance. Most of us who danced in the Turkish style were criticized. We were told that the dance we did was undignified, incorrect, and “not the real thing.” Our critics were very judgmental; they were learning Egyptian styles and concluded that what we were doing was wrong because it did not look like the dances they were learning.
Looking back at it all now, I realize that they did not know any better than I did because my dance was springing from Turkish soil and theirs was coming from North Africa. Neither dance form was superior; they were simply different and distinct art forms. Both are vital, legitimate and historically significant.
In the years that followed, as I became a dance ethnologist, I learned about the differences in these dance forms. I also learned to celebrate the differences between them. I learned to dance in the Egyptian style too, but I continued to dance in the Turkish style with pride, as this was my first love. I also studied in earnest the dance of the Turkish Gypsies which is, of course, the root dance of the Turkish Oriental style.
LVG: What do you see as the trends for this dance — past, present, and future?
EAM: Before the 1920’s, the Gypsy dancers were everywhere in Turkey. They had become a part of everyday life. Their wonderful dancing was in the cafes, tavernas, parks, theaters, bathhouses, as well as at parties, festivals, and in the homes of wealthy people. Then came Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. In his determination to modernize and nationalize the country after the Young Turk revolution in 1924, he discouraged Arabic music from being played on the radio, allowing only European and Turkish music. He put funds into reviving and honoring Turkish folk dances and brought ballet and ballroom dancing into the universities. Things would never be as they were before. The Gypsies were still around but were no longer part of everyday Turkish culture.
In the 1960’s the Turkish government discovered that there was money to be made from the tourist trade. They bowed to the demands of the foreigners to “bring on the dancing girls” and put dancers in the big nightclubs. Many of the dancers in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Turkey were quite good. They were not all Gypsies but their style had a lot of Gypsy in it.
In the early eighties, the Turkish people were amazed by the appearance of Turkey’s most famous dancer, Nesrin Topkapi performing Oriental dance on television for the first time in Turkish history. They were impressed by her artistry and shocked that this dance form was allowed on their strictly censored television. No one would have been surprised by the artistry of Oriental dance before the 1920’s, when everyone knew how great it was. But the Turkish people were removed from it by then.
Now it is a whole different story. In their efforts to further modernize, the media is imitating the style and costuming of Hollywood, New York, Las Vegas and European theaters. The dancers are wearing less and less and averaging in age from eighteen to late twenties. Some are so young that their mothers accompany them to the clubs as chaperones. They all have these skinny little teenage bodies and they are hired for their glamour appeal and flawless beauty, not for their dancing. The dance is getting farther and farther away from its Gypsy roots. These girls shimmy and undulate a lot, do simple traveling steps and fairly simple but continuous hip work. They are doing less veil work but most of them still play zills and do floor work and they dance in high heels.
LVG: There is a general impression that the dance has declined in Turkey.
EAM: I have heard people who have been to Turkey say that there are no good dancers in Turkey. This is an appalling statement. My response is that they didn’t look hard enough. After all, I have seen some pretty amateurish dancing in Cairo too but I would not draw a general conclusion from that. It is true that it is difficult to find good dancing in Turkey but not impossible if you do your homework and you know who to look for. One of the dilemmas that the performers there face is that dancers have to retire at such an early age. The professional “life span” of a dancer is very limited. They don’t have time to mature as dancers and as women, unlike in Egypt where the top dancers often reflect years of growth and skill. And now because Oriental dance is on television, the dancers are all beautiful but do not need to be good dancers.
LVG: And what about the future?
EAM: I am concerned that the new girls learning from some of the older dancers will learn only from the current young and immature generation that is now dominating the theaters and television. There is a trend now toward what I would call “fusion” dance. Burcin Orhon is a fine example of this style. She fuses ballet, modern dance and even some jazz into her Oriental dance. She is extremely popular in Turkey. They call her “Bambi” because she has very long legs and big brown eyes. (see Habibi, Vol. 14, No. 4)
Another type of what I would call fusion dance is the exquisite dance style of Dalia in the United States. Her dance style fuses different Gypsy styles in what she calls Dunyavi (World) Gypsy dance. She has studied the Gypsy dances of such places as India, Spain, and Turkey. This has a powerful significance from a historical perspective. It is, in a sense, indicative of some of the migration patterns of the Gypsies.
LVG: And what about the Gypsies themselves?
EAM: I also see that there is a desperate need to preserve Turkish Gypsy dance. Gypsies fall prey to the ravages of racism and class bias wherever they go. Turkey is by no means an exception. Also, as you know, life is becoming increasingly more difficult in Egypt because of growing Islamic fundamentalism. These conservatives are also a threat to the freedom of Turkish women and art. This, coupled with the popularity of very young and inexperienced dancers on the Turkish stages, has put Turkish Oriental dance, and Turkish Gypsy dance in particular, in jeopardy. The end result may be for Egypt , as well as for Turkey, that it will be up to the dancers and dance ethnologists of Europe and the United States to carry the torch.
An example of this is the tireless efforts of Eva Cernik who just came back from six months in Turkey where she was studying Turkish Oriental dance and doing field research with the Gypsies. She also has video footage and is teaching workshops all over the United States on Turkish style Gypsy dance. Eva is very conscientious about teaching “the real thing.”
LVG: Have you noticed growing interest in some of these non-Egyptian forms of Oriental dance?
EAM: In the United States, I think there is a resurgence in the interest in Turkish style dance and also in Gypsy culture. The feedback I am getting is that although people will always love their Egyptian dances, they are interested in studying something new and different. Only now, they want real Gypsy, based on accurate material, not fantasy Gypsy based on what people think Gypsy dance looks like.
I think it is essential that there are serious workshops on Gypsy dance in the Oriental dance community. Many troupes in our country have a Gypsy dance routine in their repertoires. I have seen many of these dances. Some are beautifully choreographed and lusciously costumed but the dance has nothing to do with the way Gypsies dance. It is more like Hollywood’s version, and we all know how inaccurately Hollywood portrays things.
LVG: Yes, I have to admit that — many moons ago — when I was experimenting with choreography, I was one of those pseudo-Gypsy dancers. I created a piece heavily based on the “Gypsy” dances from the old movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And our music came from the sound track of the Ten Commandments. How Hollywood can you get? One of my troupe members, Michele Boucree, had grown up with Gypsies in New York. She kept cautioning me to avoid stereotypes and to do my research. Her words of wisdom did not sink in at first, but now I know better. However, some people are disappointed when there is no flailing of tambourines; they question the authenticity of the dance. Old stereotypes die hard.
EAM: I don’t place any blame on the dancers or their choreographers for this. You see, ever since the seventies, we have lost touch with the generation of dancers who can still dance in the Turkish style. Unless you were lucky enough to learn from people like Anahid Sofian in New York City, or Yildiz in Puerto Rico, or Pandora — wherever her wandering Gypsy spirit has led her — you are depending on a generation of dancers who are removed from the originals. These so-called Gypsy troupe dances are based on this derivative material. The teachers taught their students that this was authentic Gypsy dancing because THEY were taught it was real Gypsy material. This is all followed by two or three generations of dancers who are learning this material and embellishing it with how they think Gypsies dance.
Now there are opportunities to learn historically and ethnically correct Gypsy material. So, we finally have within our dance community the ability to resurrect and preserve a dance style that is in desperate need of serious study.
Eva Cernik also fell under the spell of Gypsy music and, interestingly enough, she too has a Slavic connection through her Czech blood. She likewise first became acquainted with Gypsy dance through her folk dance activities and later encountered the power of prejudice, which seems to perpetually cloud the perception of Gypsy culture by outsiders.
LVG: Eva, how did you first become interested in Turkish Gypsy dance?
EC: When I found out that most of the music I liked to dance to was played by Turkish Gypsy musicians, and that the 9/8 rhythm that I love so much is a favorite among them. Two of my favorite instruments are clarinet and violin, which are also common in Gypsy music.
My first solo performance ever was at the Czech social club which my family attended in New York City. I was a member of the folk dance troupe, but they picked me out to do a dance to live Gypsy violin music, for which I represented a vila (nymph) or vision which appeared to a shepherd who had fallen asleep. I wore a full red skirt and white embroidered blouse as I leapt about the floor free from the choreography of traditional folk dances.
At that time I had little idea of what a Gypsy was. One of our Czech friends was a Gypsy and he was dark and handsome and very feisty. A famous Czech folk singer called Matuska, also a Gypsy, was dark and handsome, and extremely rebellious. He used to change the words to traditional songs to show his hatred of the communists. (For example, a red scarf would be changed to blue.) My mom would always call me a Gypsy when I came home dirty or refused to bathe. However, she had all of Matuska’s records…so there was something about the Gypsies she liked.
In New York City, my younger sister used to play with a Gypsy girl whose mother never put her in school; and when I lived in Brazil as a small child, whenever Gypsies passed through town and set up a camp in a field near our house, I would run and hide under the bed anytime the doorbell rang. There were rumors that Gypsies stole children. My mom would say that it was just a Gypsy woman coming to fill her canister of water. “Rats! Another chance lost to see a real Gypsy.”
LVG: So it was initially the music which drew you.
EC: Yes, in the mid eighties, at the height of popularity of the Cairo Cabaret style in the U.S., I naively entered the Miss America of the Belly Dance Contest. I asked a good friend for advice and she told me: “Just do what you love the most, it’ll show in the dance.” So I put in my time choreographing a three minute Soheir Zaki song. After performing it, I dutifully took off my zills for veil work (which I had always skillfully done while wearing them). For the veil and the grand finale (four minutes) I chose the piece of music that moved me the most. Since it was by the Freddie Elias Ensemble, who I believe is Lebanese, I thought it qualified. (It was one of his first recordings, pre-volume two). It was very heavy on violin and became increasingly wild and fast at the end. I loved it, but the judges didn’t. Recently, I’ve been using the same piece of music while dancing at my usual gig in a Moroccan restaurant where one of the waiters is a Czech immigrant. I overheard him saying: “she’s dancing to the Gypsy music again…” So there you have it. It’s something in the music I love. Perhaps old Freddie loves the very same thing.
LVG: How did you link the Gypsy element with your Oriental dance?
EC: When I found myself studying Oriental Dance with my teacher Anahid Sofian of New York, who taught Turkish style, it was only natural that I would be most fascinated with the Turkish Gypsy music. Even though Gypsy music has diverged considerably as they spread and then regrouped all over the planet, there is something elusive about their music which touches me.
LVG: So how did you finally meet face-to-face with the Gypsies?
EC: I temporarily relocated to Istanbul. Even though Gypsies where everywhere, it took months before I was able to visit them under proper conditions. In Turkey, as in other countries, I was constantly warned not to mix with the Gypsies, not to take anything valuable with me if I did go, and to watch what I ate or drank at their home. In every rumor there must be a sliver of truth, so I took care to find just the right person to take us to the right place. A good friend and dance researcher, Edwina Nearing, was visiting at the time. She has zero fear when it comes to these things and she helped a lot to push this to happen. According to repeated accounts from various Turkish sources, there are at least three areas in Istanbul where Gypsies live close together. One is Tepebahce, near the Pera Palas hotel, where I was told the worst drug dealing goes on; the other area is an area on the other side of the tracks of the Orient Express from Sultanahmet, where I was told the worst (or best) thieves lived; and the third was Sulukele where the best dancers and musicians were said to live. I’m glad I asked!
When we arrived, just as we had been warned, we were inundated with aggressive invitations to go to this house or that. I was glad we had a specific contact and a goal. The experience we had that day in Sulukele was enough to convince me that their dance and music is still alive but not well. Sadly, there was evidence of years of “adjusting the performance to suit the audience, with minimal effort.” The Gypsies we dealt with were decent people and what we were able to extract was good and it was enough to whet my desire to continue my search and documentation, and possibly even preservation of their dance.
LVG: Do you see any particular trends in the Turkish style of Oriental Dance?
EC: I must distinguish here between Turkish Gypsy dance and Turkish Oriental dance. We may discover that they are branches of the same tree, or better yet, that one extends from the other, but for now, there are still many Turks who believe they are different. Watching a performance by the Gypsy Zinnur Karaca (pronounced Karaja) there is a distinct moment when you know that she has changed from “Oryantal” to Gypsy. When you observe a Turkish wedding or circumcision party, there is an obvious transformation in the mood of the room when the Gypsy dance is done. It’s all in the music.
LVG: When I first started to study Oriental Dance in the seventies, my friends sometimes referred to a style they called “dirty Turkish” because the movements were so earthy.
EC: The Turkish Oriental style was alive and practiced in nearly every Middle Eastern cabaret, even on TV talk shows, in Los Angeles and New York City throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. Then it nearly fell out of sight when the belly dance craze came to a peak in the late seventies and throughout the mid-eighties. Though there were many serious and devoted dancers, by and large most people who took up Oriental dance did it for fun, fitness, or fantasy. Turkish style was too athletic and physically demanding with its fast pace and floor work. It was too time consuming — you had to learn zills. And movies like Cleopatra fed the fantasies of many women and their husbands, while movies like Midnight Express took its toll on all things Turkish.
LVG: Yes, something similar happened with Persian dance during the Iran hostage crisis. We can never fully divorce Middle Eastern dance from the American political current.
EC: And it was around this time that travelers to Egypt saw that even the most famous dancers did not have to have slender bodies nor perform any acrobatics. The Egyptian style seemed more accessible and thus flourished. Eventually the novelty of belly dance wore off and the burst of Arab oil money leveled off. As reports of terrorism and war increasingly mentioned Egypt and other Middle Eastern lands, the fascination of the general public not only wore off, but in some cases was replaced with antagonism. Oriental dance is here to stay, but those few who stick with it and weather comments of coworkers in their “real” jobs, and the devoted dancers who are actually making a living at it are much more dedicated dancers than the great numbers of hobbyists I mentioned earlier.
LVG: So what do you see for the future?
EC: Now the stage is set for a Turkish style to reemerge. Some of the original core of dancers are curious about exploring another style and many new dancers are more than willing to accept the vigorous demands of Turkish style “Oryantal.”
As for the trends in Turkish Gypsy dance, I know it used to be done in New York’s 8th Avenue Middle Eastern clubs in the seventies. Sabah, a dancer from the time (who I met recently as my drummer for a gig) said, “We used to be tacky,” referring to the gestures commonly used in the dance. After that time, I believe it all but disappeared from performance. Now it is resurfacing, but with great difficulty.
Here and on Istanbul’s stages, those who perform the gestures keep them subtle, not from shyness, but for protection of the dance by the uninitiated public. The only association our culture has with gestures (which in Gypsy styling are sometimes hard and strong) is with vulgarity. Also the 9/8 rhythm is still difficult for Western ears and our symmetrical expectations. However, with World Music reaching more people, 9/8 is not as weird as it used to be, and with the new “Goddess awareness” the gestures are more acceptable and “clean.”
LVG: How do you account for this new attitude?
EC: Please let me say here something that will explain the new interest in Gypsy dance in general. In the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, there was Orient-alism. The Orient was a far away place from which people returned bearing exotic objects and colorful stories. The East was intriguing and different, yet reminiscent of fairy tales heard in one’s childhood. From this web of mystique and fantasy emerged the image of Little Egypt.
LVG: And while most have heard of Little Egypt, few know that the term was used as far back as the Middle Ages by a Gypsy man who called himself “the King of Little Egypt.”
EC: Our own belly dance, no matter whether Turkish or Egyptian in style, was based on this romance and very little truth. Then we as dancers started to travel to those lands ourselves and searched everywhere for authenticity. We learned the dance well. Meanwhile, the general public was entranced by paintings, novels, even some written documentary accounts and posed photographs representing the Middle East. Much bias and subjectivity can enter into these media.
As the media changed to motion photography and TV footage, and as Middle Eastern cities slowly rebuilt the modern architecture and the inhabitants adopted Western dress, the fantasy was dispelled. People lost their fascination for all things Middle Eastern, Egyptian or Arabic after seeing the streets of Baghdad or Cairo or Beirut, very much like ours, shown on television — only the streets were strewn with dead bodies, bombed cars, and devastated buildings, and were inhabited by angry people.
What is left after our beloved images of a mystical East and exotic Orient have been blasted? How about a people with no country to show, no late breaking news? How about the Gypsies? The average person has little or no idea of what a Gypsy looks like, what they do, or how they live. Sweet innocence. We can fantasize again.
One dancer who has been working on the archetypal aspects of gypsy dance is Dalia Carella. She has taken elements from various gypsy cultures and fused them together into a new genre which she has named Dunyavi Gypsy dance. Dunyavi is a Hindi word meaning “world.”
LVG: What first sparked your interest in Gypsy dance?
DC: I was studying Oriental Dance in the Buffalo, New York area for several years. The dance community would organize haflas and bring in local musicians. At one of these parties, I had the pleasure of hearing Ibrahim Turmen play darbuka and doul with Ross Chirico. I was totally blown away by Ibrahim’s skill as a musician and his charming personality. Then at another hafla, I saw Ibrahim Turmen and Faruk Tekbilek perform. What a combination! It is such as loss that they are not performing together very much any more.
These two musicians both became my guides to what my soul had been seeking for many years. Through Ibrahim and Faruk I met Faruk’s wife Suzanne, who was also Ibrahim’s sister. She was the catalyst which opened my eyes to Turkish-style Oriental dance and put me on my path to create Dunyavi (World) Gypsy Dance. Suzanne is an extraordinarily talented natural dancer. She does not perform or teach professionally; she is Muslim and is not allowed. To be honest with you, I have not seen a Turkish dancer yet who can compare with Suzanne’s passion and interpretation for the music. It is definitely in her blood!
I practically lived at the Turmen’s household for a year and a half. I was part of the family. I had the honor and pleasure of watching Suzanne dance in front of me for years. A lot of my training in her Gypsy style was in the Tekbilek’s living room or at Turkish weddings or parties. I would beg Suzanne to dance for me all the time and would watch her intensely. It wasn’t just her movements that I was after, it was her feeling and playfulness with the music that was so extremely special to me.
LVG: You mentioned that you first studied Egyptian Oriental dance. Was the Turkish Oriental/Gypsy style of dance challenging for you?
DC: At first this style was very challenging to me. I was used to dancing to 4/4 beledi and the saidi rhythms for years. Getting used to the 9/8 rhythm and not looking like a locomotive while doing it was my biggest challenge. I have to be quite honest. In the past, Turkish Oriental dancers from Turkey never quite did it for me like the Oriental dancers from Egypt and Lebanon. But when I met Suzanne, I felt differently about Turkish music and dance, especially the way Suzanne did it. She showed me how the Gypsies would dance. Her father was a drummer and would play for the Gypsies. Suzanne told me that she and Ibrahim would go along sometimes and would watch the dancers. She would always mimic them. So that’s how I learned to dance that style — I would mimic Suzanne. But she was kind enough to do things over again if I asked her. I feel I received very good “at home” training in this style.
You really have to listen a lot to Turkish Gypsy music from Sulukele (where most of the Gypsies live) in order to grasp the feeling for this style of dance. There is a definite difference between Turkish Gypsy and Egyptian/Arabic music. Turkish Gypsy music is brighter or should I say “hoppier” than Egyptian/Arabic music. Oriental music is more grounded or heavier in a way. (Please note that I am talking about classical Turkish music.) I had to practice very long hours and many, many years to really feel comfortable dancing to 9/8 karsilama Turkish Gypsy rhythms. I am very lucky to have musician friends who play Turkish Gypsy style music and have also made tapes for me from their collection. I would also like to thank Artemis for turning me on to some Turkish music!
LVG: Since you began as an Egyptian style Oriental dancer, what made you create Dunyavi (World ) Gypsy Dancing?
DC: I had this craving inside of me for a new style of dance, still in the Middle Eastern Dance genre. Although I love Egyptian style Oriental dance (it is my heart), it wasn’t enough for me. Since 1985, I start creating my Dunyavi style of dance (my soul.)
The first dance style that I zoned in on was Turkish Gypsy dancing. At the time I started on the Middle Eastern Dance circuit in 1983, I didn’t know many dancers who were pursuing Turkish styles of dance, so it was hard for me to really get a lot of information about this style. I didn’t know Eva or Artemis at that time. So this was a whole new journey for me. I loved Turkish Gypsy dance but came to realize that I wanted to expand this art form to other styles of Gypsy dancing.
I was very attracted to Flamenco. Every time I heard Flamenco music my blood would boil. Then I was drawn further to where Gypsy dancing was born. I started taking private lessons in Kathak to get a feeling of how these movements were similar to the other styles of dance that I was studying.
I was also very interested in tambourine work which my teacher at that time was doing.
In actuality, what I do is go to the source of these dance styles, take private classes, and carefully blend them together to become a whole vision. So it is safe for me to say that my Dunyavi Turkish Gypsy style is deeply rooted in Turkish Gypsy dance with influences from Flamenco and Kathak dance. It’s a different style from Turkish Oriental. What I am trying to express in this art form is, in a way, a journey on the Romany trail. I have done a lot of research on Gypsy culture (especially the Roma, the Gitanos, and the Gypsies of Turkey.) When I dance this style, all my feeling about those cultures come through my body. I feel so connected to various Gypsy cultures, especially those that I have studied. So when I dance this style, I literally lose my own personality and something bigger takes over — something over which I have no control.
LVG: I have noticed something similar when I perform Russian Gypsy. From the moment I put on my costume I become more aggressive, more expressive. It is almost as if a chemical alteration happens within me on a cellular level. I can feel the adrenaline pumping through me.
DC: It’s hard to explain what happens. I have tried to put this into words without sounding quasi-spiritual, and so far have not yet come up with the right words. I feel actions speak louder than words.
As Eva Cernik so succinctly worded it, “now the stage is set for a Turkish style to reemerge.” We need to more fully explore the historical contribution of Turkish culture to the art of Oriental Dance, as well as the role of the Gypsies as cultural transmitters of dance. By opening ourselves to these related genre, we can expand not only our dance vocabulary, but our awareness of the intricate cultural tapestry from which contemporary Oriental dance is woven.
Scholar, performer and choreographer Laurel Victoria Gray has toured the U.S., Canada, Australia, Tasmania, Uzbekistan and Europe. She has been published in Dance Magazine and the International Encyclopedia of Dance. www.silkroaddance.com