Nomads of the Spirit
by Sierra Suraci

Dance and art have long shared a combined history of utilizing creativity and diversity. Within this scope, there is the beauty of creating a blend of stories, tableaus, and personal reflection. There are no restraints in the arts, only your imagination and spirit of creativity to take you to the edge of a limitless scope of possibilities. There are many pioneers in the field of dance, who captured the world with their own interpretations of the spirit and the music. For example, Isadora Duncan revitalized the myths of Grecian and Roman styles, using a freedom of movement and expression unlike anything that had been seen before her time. Togas and tunics of flowing, gossamer fabrics swirled upon the Victorians while liberating dances of joy and life. Ruth St. Denis, whose fantastical tableaus brought the mysteries and exoticness of Eastern worlds into a theatrical form of dance. Costuming from the Ballet Rousse seemed to make Middle Eastern fantasies come to life.

Without freedom of expression and personal display, there would be oppression in creativity. Though we are allowed license without boundaries in what we create (or call our "masterpieces"), there is still one glaring flaw:; cultural assimilation and stereotypical romanticizing of real cultures that belong to real people. I don't propose that everyone should create only anthropologically researched material, but what I advocate is a dance based on reality.

Dancers in the Middle Eastern field of dance tend to romanticize a mythical concept to the point at which it becomes a caricature of reality .

Because so few of the latest "Tribal" and/or "Gypsy" styled dances have been truly researched or taught by a mentor from that culture, the so-called styles become assimilated into the dance community currently as a "genuine style " of dance, only emphasizing this disparity. New members to the art of dance believe this popular stylizing is a genuine rendering of gypsy dancing. Many dancers follow along, blindly, without giving any thought to the original people and culture from which this dance springs.

The Romany people or "Rom", commonly known as "Gypsies", are a multi-faceted people with a diverse culture that contains their main cultural identity as the holding thread in their tapestry of life. When we appropriate art of another culture, and portray it as our own fantasies would wish it to be, we rob the Rom of their rights and identity. We owe responsibility towards understanding and knowing more about a group of people upon whom one decides to build a fantasy representation!

The swirling five-layered skirts, and ribbon bedecked tambourines are no more true to the actuality of gypsy life or dance, than if we had done this same dance in a traditional Egyptian cabaret costume.

Western culture is often guilty of "borrowing" from the most grotesque areas in life around cultures that are beyond our own Anglo sphere.

The role of one who romanticizes is a great menace to the roots of traditional people and the generations that come after them. It has always been through stereotyping, whether positively or negatively, that the much damage is done. If you love dancing "tribal" or "gypsy" style, take the responsibility to know what those words mean, and whom they represent.

Know what are you contributing - either to their dilution as a people or the strengthening of their true image.

People like the Rom, the Native Americans, and other indigenous people are the peoples of the world who have been "marginalized". Most people have heard of them, but either they believe the engineered stereotype of their culture in regards to art and religion, or prefer to think they don't exist at all. They are usually treated abysmally in their native countries and relegated to forced assimilation and hatred for their ways. They are purposely not counted as part of the populations and atrocities have been perpetuated upon them, just because of their existance.

Wherever Gypsies gather, villagers and people of the area ascribe to them titles of thief, liars, dirty wanderers , confidence artists, and violence. They are prohibited to camp in certain areas in Europe, and many still live poor lives due to the harsh transition from Communism to Democracy. Because of their low rate of school attendance, they are unable to get jobs or are placed in schools for the learning disabled due to language barriers. Many are trying to follow the dominant cultures ways, but it is hard in a world that has long shunned Gypsies as pariahs. Hostility to Gypsies has existed almost from the time they first appeared in 14th century Europe. They live under a clan system, based mostly on their traditional crafts and geography. There is a commonality in the distrust and hatred towards the "Gadjo" (non-gypsy, outsider, or stranger). The gypsies are a nomadic tribe, which has caused them to be persecuted throughout history, especially throughout Europe. At various times they have been forbidden to wear distinctively bright clothing, to speak their own language, to travel, to marry one another, or to ply their traditional crafts. In some European countries, many Romany women were forced into sexual sterilization by governmental authority. In some countries, the Gypsies were reduced to slavery. In Romania, it wasn't until the mid 1800s that they were freed from their slave status. Many people, unfamiliar with the history of this last century, do not realize that many Roms perished under the Nazi's "ethnic cleansing". Half a million of the Romany were persecuted, tortured and killed in the concentration camps, along with the Jews, Catholics and homosexuals. The Gypsies, as “Porriamos”, know the Holocaust as “The Great Devouring”.

Gypsies no longer live in horse drawn caravans as they once did. Now they live in homes, motor homes, and apartments. Yet, frequently, they are still portrayed as itinerant, colorful wanderers of the world in their brightly painted caravans. This romantic stereotyping is brought into clear consciousness because of the myriad of "gypsy style" dances that are currently being performed by the Middle Eastern dance enthusiasts. Most, but not all of these dances, have no clear resemblance to actual gypsy dancing! Like any regional group of nomadic people, their dance style reflects the region in which they live. It is music, and the Roms’ own identity with it! A mournful, lamenting cantos (song) usually accompanies most dances, which reflects the pain and suffering in a long tribal history.

Gypsy performers scoff at the idea of being "trained" in dancing. Much like the nomadic or village dancers in Egypt and North Africa, they are not trained. They are raised to dance, from being part of an environment that is based upon music, dancing, and story telling. As a gypsy performer said, "I don't need to train to be a dancer. Training! That's for people who aren't Gypsies." A young Romany man says," I'm afraid we don't all have campfires, wagons, bandannas, earrings, or violins. We don't steal babies or pick peoples’ pockets! Maybe we're not 'Gypsy' enough for you?"

Ask yourself: What is your idea of the Gypsies? Is that faux 'Gypsy' your allusion when you present a dance under the name of a group of people who have their own unique culture?

Dancers must remember the dignity and respect when they dance under the guise of a real group of people who have a distinct culture and history. One may do more harm by not knowing the pertinent history, thereby romanticizing the Rom into obscurity.

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