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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Romani, Domari, and Lom People: What Belly Dancers Who Want to do 'Gypsy' Dance Need to Know

 

by Kristin Raeesi

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

There are three groups who comprise the main divisions of the peoples that are commonly referred to as "Gypsies":

  • The Romani. They are found mainly in parts of Europe, the Americas and Turkey.
  • The Domari. They are found mainly in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • The Lom/Lomavren. They also called Bosha; an Armenian population.

Each group took a different route of migration from Northern India, and each developed different linguistic and cultural traditions over time. All three groups have our own separate languages, sometimes with many sub-dialects. There are also different traditions around foods, dress, and of course variations in our music and dance.

Roma are currently the largest ethnic minority in Europe; in the U.S. there are an estimated 1-1.5 million Roma.

Within each of these three larger divisions, there exist smaller sub-groups that are identified with different names. Internally people identify with the name of their sub-group or, for lack of a better term, "tribe". Our communities are very diverse, despite our common origins and what is true of one community may not be true of another. Although many people may see us a monolith, that is not the case.

For example the Domari in Egypt have this kind of organization of sub-groups. Although all the groups are under the umbrella of Domari, there are smaller groups such as the Nawar, the Halabi and the Balawan that are distinct. There are also regional divisions and further divisions by family. Once someone understands more about internal affiliations it becomes easier to narrow down exactly who someone is in the community.

We (Roma) also have distinct group affiliations. Our naming conventions can be derived from our traditional occupations, the region we are from, or sometimes from our own language. For example the Romani sub-group, the "Machwaya" is a group that is affiliated with the region of Machva in Serbia. My own group, the Boyash (also known as Ludar/Ludad or Rudari), was named after our traditional occupation of mining, and our name is based on a Romanian word meaning "ore". Internal group distinctions are very important internally and are something we are all conscious of. Some groups have traditions that are more closely related, while others are vastly different. Knowing what group another Romani person is from can provide a baseline for understanding our relationship to one another.

ABOUT THE FLAG: This flag was adopted in 1971 by the First World Romani Congress in London, England to represent the Romani people worldwide.

Romani Flag

About the Sinti

The Sinti are a sub-group of Roma. However, they do not always identify as Roma, but rather as a separate group. This community desires the separation partly because of the political designation they sought after World War II, as minority political status was one of the requirements for recognition, and ultimately reparations, from the German government for Holocaust victims.

The Sinti have the unfortunate designation as being one of the Romani communities which was hardest hit by the Nazi's targeted attempt to wipe out Europe's Roma population during the Holocaust. Estimates of their losses range from 75%-95% of the entire community. In many extended families, only a few individuals survived. Exact percentages of Sinti and other Romani losses during the Holocaust has been difficult to determine because many Roma were killed in forests or fields where they were captured. Also, sometimes they were identified as "asocials" and not "Roma" due to the belief that we are inherently criminal by virtue of our birth.

In another act of discrimination, the German government ruled that all action taken against Roma in the Holocuast was due to "criminal offenses"; although it is difficult to imagine what babies and small children also killed could have possibly been guilty of. It was not until 1982 that Germany recognized Sinti/Roma as being part of the Holocaust on racial grounds although by that time many who may have been eligible for reparations had passed away. However, since that time many survivors and their descendants have worked to honor the memory of those that were part of this genocide.

To date, no reparations have been made to Romani victims of the Nazi Holocaust or to their families.There are organizations in Germany who can provide more information on Sinti, and many of these organizations are Holocaust-focused.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: I have traveled to further my knowledge of dance and culture, as well as to visit family in the Middle East. In this photo, I am standing in front of the Shah Mosque (also known as Imam Mosque) in Isfahan, Iran.

Are they "Gypsy"? About the Kawliya of Iraq , Kowli of Iran, Irish Travelers, and Pavee

Many belly dancers ask about the "Kawliya" of Iraq or the "Kowli" of Iran, because that dance style has become popular among dancers around the world. "Kowli" is the Persian word for "Gypsy", but the question here is, is that the actual name the people of this sub-group use to identify themselves? Or, is it a term that has been assigned to them by the dominant population? Also, are they truly of Domari heritage, or have they simply been labeled as "Gypsy" simply because they are leading a nomadic lifestyle? (There are still groups of pastoral nomads in Iran and beyond who are not of Domari blood.) Answering this takes a more intimate knowledge of the community in question. When in doubt, it is respectful to refer to actual Domari people with the term Domari, or Dom, or by their sub-group name if you know it. If possible it's even better to ask the people themselves, what their preferred term is. 

Keep in mind, though, that due to continued negative stereotyping and discrimination, many people do not feel comfortable revealing their ethnicity publicly. It's also good to use sensitivity and discretion when asking these questions.

Also, some people have incorrectly stated that the Irish Travelers are Sinti or Roma. The Irish Travelers and the Pavee are neither Sinti nor Romani. They are completely separate people, and Travellers in Ireland have recently been recognized as a distinct ethnic minority.

The Romani group usually associated with the regions of England, Scotland, and Ireland is Romanichal.

Kristin

 

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Resources for Learning More About Romany and Domari People

A valuable starting point is an article by Ian Hancock titled "On Romani Origins and Identity". It covers the migrations of Romani, Domari and Lom/Lomavren peoples. Although its approach uses a linguistic analysis, it can provide a good foundation for understanding the formation of the three primary groups.

Romani Resources

Blogs

This blog, written by a Romani person, gives a personal take on some of our cultural traditions and outside challenges:

  • Kopachi. Written by Ronald Lee, a Romani elder and rights activist in Canada: http://kopachi.com/

Web Sites with Basic Information

These web sites provide a basic overview of history and culture.

  • Patrin. Although Patrin is an older web site, it arranges articles by category which can be helpful when you are looking for a specific topic: http://www.oocities.org/~patrin/
  • ROMBASE. This site contains extensive detailed information about history and cultural practices: http://rombase.uni-graz.at//
  • Rroma Foundation. This is a current site with basic information (focused primarily on Romani rights in Europe): http://rroma.org/en/
  • Mundi Romani. "World through Romani eyes" features many videos on Romani people / groups worldwide. http://www.mundiromani.com/

Books

I would also recommend the book We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock, who is considered one of the foremost scholars on Romani culture and history, and who is himself Romani. Hancock is a linguistics professor at University of Texas in Austin, and served as a rights activist for several years. I would recommend anything by him, but We Are the Romani People provides a good starting point.

I cannot tell you how much I truly cringe at Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca. I feel it's a horrible book filled with stereotypes that many of us find offensive. This is a book that most of us want to forget! I think it's better to read material that is written by our own scholars / authors.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In this photo, I am dancing in a pop-up showcase with a diverse cast of local Alaskan artists.

Domari Resources

For Domari (Middle Eastern "Gypsy" populations) content, a good place to start is the Dom Research Center web site at http://www.domresearchcenter.com/ . I recommend exploring all of the articles in the Kuri Journal tab, which you can sort by Volume number.

Kristin

 

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Learning About Romani or Domari Dance

I see no problem with non-Romani people learning and performing Romani dance.  The important issue for me is: "What is the level of cultural and technique competency of the teacher in question?"

For a student who wants to perform, I think there should be some leeway given, though she should try to stay with the technique and vocabulary that is true to the style. We are all in process of learning, and it's acceptable to perform what you know to the best of your ability.

Is This Teacher Qualified to Teach this Style?

Teaching a specific style, such as Turkish Romani, is a whole other story. In my opinion, teaching carries much more responsibility and weight than performing at the student level. This is especially important if you are not from the culture of origin, even if you are Romani but not Turkish Romani.

A potential question to use in evaluating a possible teacher might include: Who did she learn from, and how long has she been studying this style? I think the same goes for any dance style.

Before someone starts to teach any ethnic dance style, including Romani, that person should:

  • Have a firm grasp on the music
  • Understand the culture (both dance and related issues)
  • Master the movement vocabulary
  • Be able to explain all of this for students

It is essential for a dancer who wants to learn a certain style to study in person with someone who is an expert, especially if wanting to eventually teach it.

Recommended Teachers

Turkish Romani Style

People I know personally and can highly recommend are:

  • Reyhan Tuzsuz. A dancer who is Turkish Romani and is amazing. If you ever have the chance to study with her, do it!!! Her workshop was one of the most fun that I have ever taken!
  • Artemis Mourat. A dancer who needs no introduction! She has a wealth of knowledge to share and is delightful in person.
  • My friend Rabia Guletekin Duddy who is originally from Turkey and has been dancing since childhood. She teaches Turkish Oriental, Turkish Romani and several different styles of Turkish folk dances.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: I have been fortunate to be able to study dance with some amazing Romani artists. In this photo, I am with Reyhan after her Turkish Romani workshop in Anchorage.

Egyptian Ghawazee (Nawari) Style

There are many dancers in North America who are recognized for their expertise in this style. I have listed below the ones I have personally had the pleasure of working with:

  • Morocco. Morocco herself is Romani, and has spent extensive time in Egypt studying with Khariyya Maazin (Nawari) and other Egyptian dance artists.
  • Aisha Ali. I had the opportunity to get acquainted with Aisha through an article that we worked on together about Ghawazee (Domari, Nawar) dance. She has devoted several decades of dedicated study of Ghawazee dance and music, lived in Egypt and studied extensively with the Maazin sisters.

Other Romani/Domari Artists/Styles?

Please ask me! I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to know several incredible artists through my work as an activist and as a dancer. I will only recommend people that I am 100% confident in; not everyone. I might even tell you what I "really think"!

Kristin with Reyhan

 

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Naming Your Business as "Gypsy"

Many people use the term "Gypsy" to label everything from dance to sausages (yes, seriously!) However, the origin of this term dates back to our arrival in Europe. We were given this name based on the mistaken idea that we were "Egyptians". However, as stated earlier, our peoples have origins in Northern India, a fact that is also backed by genetic and linguistic evidence.

Unfortunately, through the years due to stereotyping this term has taken on divergent meanings. On one hand, it is used for describing dishonesty; i.e., "Gypped" or "Gypsy cab". On the other hand, it is used to describe a carefree / wandering / fortuneteller / wild / (fill-in-the-blank) lifestyle.

As dancers, it is important to understand the historical origins of this term, to understand that it is a term outsiders assigned to us, and that it is also a misnomer. It is equally important to recognize that the term is loaded with stereotypes. I would urge any dancer to think carefully about choosing to use this term in her dance projects, thus perpetuating these offensive ideas. Know that another person's culture and history is not your plaything. When you choose to use this term, despite its many negative connotations, you are also choosing to represent a real ethnic group and culture you many not be part of.

When somebody names an event, a product, or a dance troupe "Gypsy", here is the question I would pose:

What about it makes it "Gypsy"? Are there Romani, Domari, or Lom people here? Is some aspect of our traditional art being presented?

If not, it is completely inappropriate to label it that way. What do they want the term to convey?

When a person says, "I'm a Gypsy," I say "No." Unless you have Romani ancestry you are not. Belly dancing and enjoying eclectic art does not make someone Gypsy. No more than dancing hip hop and listening to rap makes someone Black or eating bagels makes someone Jewish.

These bizarre associations really leave me scratching my head.

Another question to raise: "Would it be acceptable to use the name of any other ethnic group as a substitute for your skirts, your dance troupe, or your event? Why not the "Ultra Mexican", "Urban Mexican", or "Mexican Caravan" dance troupe run by non-Mexicans with no Mexican music or dance technique? Would that be accepted? I doubt it.

The problem is that many people don't see us a "real" ethnic group and so why respect something that doesn't exist. It's the worst kind of erasure.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo was taken during a presentation I delivered at the Opre Khetanes IV Concert and Conference on Romani (Gypsy) Musics and Cultures at New York University in 2016.

Kristin

 

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Frequently-Asked Questions

Question: Some people say the word "Gypsy" is a slur and we shouldn't use it. However, we have seen some Romany people identify themselves using the word, such as the musicians who call themselves "Gipsy Kings". Is it really a slur or not?

Answer: Some people in the community use the word "Gypsy", especially with outsiders, so they know who we are/what group is being spoken about. However, that is a conscious decision by us to portray ourselves in a particular way. It is not for other people to co-opt this term to suit a fantasy. Herein lies the difference in the power dynamic — who is using the term and why are they using it. The "Romani Kings" is less of a signifier for the majority of the general population, so I think this choice was to identify the group creating/playing the music and to broaden the appeal to a general audience who may not be familiar with the term "Roma/Romani".

Question: Someone I loved very much nicknamed me "Gypsy", and it hurts to hear that I shouldn't use that name any more. Do I have to stop?

Answer: I am sure this discussion is sensitive for you because you think about the term in another way. Your engagement with it is something positive and I really doubt the person who nicknamed you that had any ill intent toward the Romani people when he chose to call you this. At the same time, I think the fact that this has hurt you shows that you are a caring person and can see why some see this term as problematic.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In this photo I am performing as the opening act of Princess Farhana and Issam Houshan's BaLAdi Tour for their Anchorage show.

Kristin

 

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Closing Thought

I think the litmus test is this: if you care more about your own investment with the term or your brand than how Romani peoples and cultures are portrayed, after fully understanding its history and connotations, you are morally bankrupt.

My approach has been to try and educate, provide resources, hunt down information where I can and to share it. Some will listen and some won't. I have to care about the ones that will.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: I have been studying vintage American belly dance costume design, and made this costume (everything except the veil) for a local show called "Istanbul Nights".

Kristin Raeesi

 

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About the Author

Kristin Raeesi is a Romani / Métis researcher, activist and performance artist.  She holds a master’s degree in Communication with an emphasis in critical and cultural theory and audio-digital storytelling.  Raeesi has been involved in activist work on behalf of the Romani community, serving on the Board of Directors for the California-based non-profit Voice of Roma and as an independent consultant, lecturer and administrator/creator of a free online GED program geared towards Romani adult learners. She has been a panelist at Romani Studies conferences at University of California Berkeley and New York University. In 2017 she presented at the at the Fifth Annual Roma Conference “Culture Beyond Borders: The Roma Contribution”, at Harvard University to mark International Roma Day.  She has also given media interviews and written op-eds for national news outlets on the topic of Romani rights and representation.

Raeesi is also a performance artist who believes in using music and dance to bridge cultural divides and promote greater understanding and appreciation for a diversity of cultures through the arts.  She is especially interested in educating dancers about both Romani and Domari culture/s, music and dance. She is currently publishing an article series in The Belly Dance Chronicles magazine on the influence of Romani and Domari peoples on folkloric dance and music in the Middle East/North Africa.

If youu would like to contact Kristin, you may email her at kristin.raeesi@hotmail.com, or reach her via Facebook.

Kristin Raeesi

 

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