Vol 2 No 4 Spring/Summer 2006

Dances of the “Roma” Gypsy Trail From Rajastan to Spain:
Turkish "Roman" Dance

by Miriam Peretz

Turkish Gypsy dance has been mislabeled karshlamar in the U.S. Karshlamar in the U.S., also refers to the 9/8 rhythm that Turkish Gypsies are famous for dancing. The term karshlamar in Turkey actually refers to the folk dancing of North-Western Turkey. According to Reyhan, a Gypsy dancer living in Turkey, karshlamar relates to a certain type of partner dancing where dancers face one another. The correct term according to the Gypsies in Turkey for this dance style is Roman. Roman, meaning Gypsy is connected with the root Roma. The 9/8 music of the Gypsies is called Roman music, and not Karshlamar. Another term for Gypsy used in Turkey is “Cingene.”

Before my first visit Turkey, I thought this was the perfect name for a performance of Turkish Gypsy music and dance that I was producing with several musicians. While in Turkey, I was surprised to learn from my dance teacher Reyhan, as well as several others, that there is a big difference between the Roman and Cingene. I was told that Roman Gypsies are more settled, clean, civilized, and respectable people, whereas the Cingene are considered “lower class gypsies.” The cingene are commonly unsettled, poor, drug-addicted- many of them live in the slums of Sulukule. Reyhan explained that it is an insult to call them by the name Cingene, and that their correct name is Roman. Although it was somewhat difficult to understand one another since Reyhan spoke very little English, and I spoke no Turkish, I am quite certain that I understood them correctly. I also checked with other English speaking Turks who seemed to agree to some extent on this difference.

There are many other differences between the “American” Turkish Gypsy dance style and the Roman, authentic Gypsy style in Turkey. In the U.S., dancers tend to over-exaggerate the gestures of this dance style, and add lots of fancy jumps, leaps, and spins. While in Turkey, I did not see any of these movements and was laughed at when showing them to people. I believe that these adaptations are somewhat reasonable in that the dance form was not originally meant for big stages and was most often danced within the home/family environment or within the cafes. It seems only natural that when a dancer has more space to dance in that she will exploit it to its fullest. I believe that there is a way to do this without completely losing the authenticity of the form, just as Mahmoud Reda has done with his Egyptian Folkloric Company.

During my stay in Turkey, I was blessed to have the opportunity to take private lessons with Reyhan, a teacher who had been recommended by my friend, Elizabeth Strong. Elizabeth is a beautiful dancer who truly embodies the Turkish Gypsy spirit. She has given me much inspiration in my dancing. Reyhan is married to an amazing Roman violinist Husnu, who has been a teacher to many of my musician friends from the Bay Area. They live just outside of Istanbul in a Gypsy neighborhood near Gazosmanpasha. They live in a tiny house, very poor by my standards but possibly well off in comparison to other Gypsy families. They live in a tight community surrounded by their family members. Over the course of a couple of weeks I spent hours each day both learning from Reyhan as well as absorbing the culture, eating with them, and trying to use a dictionary to communicate. One of the most exciting, daily highlights of this experience was watching groups of Gypsy musicians playing in the streets, the sounds of the base drum and brass instruments filling the air. On my second trip to Turkey, Reyhan was overjoyed to see me and was happy to see that I had absorbed some of the Roman spirit in my dancing.

The instrumentation of the Roman music can include any combination of the following: clarinet, zorna, violin, dohol (base drum,) darbuka (drum,) saz baglamar, and the kanoun. The most common rhythms that are danced are 9/8 and 8/8, which is called Ciftetelli.

Reyhan is an excellent dancer who perfectly embodies the spirit of the Roman dance style. Her style involves a few somewhat basic footstep patterns with an accenting hip/pelvic movement. Although the movements themselves seem simple, fitting them gracefully into the 9/8 rhythm is not. She also layers the feet and hip movements with various gestures. More than half of the dance style is about the gesturing, which often imitates the daily life of Gypsy women. Examples of these gestures include: washing the clothes, hanging the laundry on a line, throwing out the water, shaking out carpets, washing the body at the hamam (Turkish bath,) grinding and stirring coffee, holding candles, showing off ones body and jewelry, wiping the sweat from the brow, blowing kisses, flying an airplane, shooting a gun, slapping the thighs, slapping the back of the neck, hitting all parts of the body, playing a musical instrument, and many more. There are also many gestures that I am unsure of their meaning, many of which seem to have some erotic connotation such as rubbing/vibrating the belly with the hand and pounding the fist into the lower abdomen. There is a very strong focus on the abdomen and its power through being the source of all life. Lastly, there is hand clapping and a certain type of finger snapping known as beshkan in Persian and Central Asian dance. I learned to copy these gestures by following Reyhan, although I found it difficult to reproduce the same qualities of strength and subtle playfulness that she had.

In my performances of Turkish Roman style, I blend both what I have learned from Reyhan with what I have learned from many of the teachers in the U.S. I think that Reyhan’s style is awesome, but to recreate it on a stage might not be as impressive and I therefore think that it is somewhat necessary to incorporate some of the bigger, flashier movements. In the U.S., Turkish Gypsy dance often becomes Gypsy “skirt dancing.” This refers to dancing in big colorful tiered skirts that look especially impressive when spinning, jumping, or swishing the skirt around. This style has become especially popular in the Bay Area with Fat Chance Belly Dance Company, Dalia Carella and many others setting the trends.

Because Roman dance is usually danced informally in Gypsy homes and celebrations, there is no specific costume style. In my research, I have found numerous different styles of costuming used over time in Turkish dance. Roman dancers wear anything that they like, most likely colorful skirts and tops with coins and jewelry to embellish. Reyhan mentioned that red roses are popular as well as tiered skirts that flare. Working with “Aywah” I adopted their style of wearing an under the bust vest over a lace blouse with big colorful tiered skirts. The under the bust vest style is not only Turkish but is also worn all over the Balkans as well as in parts of Europe. In Russia, the Gypsy dancers also wear big-tiered skirts, flower patterned fabrics, and lots of coin jewelry. Gypsy dancers from all over the Balkans, Turkey, and Russia also commonly wear scarves wrapped on the head, around the hips and sometimes tucked into the skirt to add color. The tradition of wearing layers of long skirts derives from an ancient Gypsy taboo about the power of woman’s “potent magic.” The Gypsy woman wears layers of skirts to both respect and protect her powers.

Another costuming style that I have learned from working with “Aywah” is the Turkish coat. My teacher Katarina Burda graciously passed down to me her beautiful Turkish coat that has years of dance history woven into its precious cloth. This style of coat comes from the period of the Ottoman Empire. It is not specifically worn by Gypsies, but by different dancers throughout the region that the Ottoman Empire conquered including Egypt. There are many oil paintings from the Ottoman period of Ghawazi, Gypsy dancers wearing the Turkish coat. They are an especially beautiful costume for more elegant, sedate dances where the long sleeves accentuate the movements of the hands and arms. “Aywah” often used the coat for “balancing dances” where a dancer moves gracefully isolating the torso and hips, while balancing a tea tray, pot, or sword on her head, or dancing balancing on wine glasses.


1. Interview-Reyhan (Turkish Gypsy dancer)
2. Interview-Mustafa Hepokur (Turkish Gypsy Musician)
3. Interview-Katarina Burda (Director of Aywah Ethnic Dance Company)

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