(2016), Romani Dances: Treasures in the Dark

(a German excerpt of this new article will appear on in November 2016.)

Thirty years of dancing Romani dances has led me to see them as an embodied spiritual practice – a form of yoga in movement, in my opinion – which, like yoga, can activate a tremendous heat in the body. In my 2011 article ‘Healing and Homecoming: Roma Dances as a Pathway to Joy’, I described the healing energy which Romani dances can help us channel. In this article I would like to continue to explore this process, and to briefly describe how I came to bring the Romani dances into the heart of our circle dance network.

Starting in 1987, I found many opportunities to dance with Roma in the international folk dance scene in the United States, In those early years I learned many Romani dances from teachers including Elsie Dunin, Carol Silverman, Steve Kotansky, Šani Rifati, and others, and exulted in the unforgettable, electrifying atmosphere of live Romani music with Yuri Yunakov, Ferus Mustafov, Ivo Papasov, Esma Redžepova, Zlatne Uste and others in Balkan camps and New York nightclubs in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as in my extensive travels in Greece and the Balkans, and from 2000 onward, in Findhorn, Glastonbury, Grossrussbach and other European venues and in Australia with my good friends in the Balkan and Gypsy dance band Xenos. 

From the beginning I observed that Romani dances have a particular ability to raise energy for personal healing and community blessing. Entranced, I made them a focus of inner and outer study. For years I practiced endlessly at home, danced them deeply in my workshops and groups, spent a fortune on music, travelled widely, and – this was before the internet – read every book and article on the Roma I could find. When, in the late 1980s, I began to bring Romani dances into the circle dance repertoire (where at the time they were completely unknown) the dances at first met resistance from some who considered dances with hip movements to be insufficiently ‘spiritual’! Happily, many more responded as I did: with enthusiasm, exhilaration, and an instinctive understanding that the sacred union of sensuality and spirituality is exactly what makes the Romani dances so valuable and special.

The main Romani dances – Valle, Čoček, Čupurlika, Jeni Jol, Sa – are, like the Roma people, very ancient. They belong to the three-measure dance family which I identify with the Tree of Life, a symbol also signifying the Great Mother Goddess. The Tree of Life pattern in Romani dance offers us an image of wholeness, balance, symmetry, and growth. They invite us to feel our energetic roots in the earth – they are very earthy dances, though they also have a lightness – with our trunk and limbs reaching to the sky. This union of earth and sky generates an awareness of the energy of creation, a warmth we can feel like a flame in the temple of the belly and the heart.

The ‘inner fire’ of Romani dance, in the phrase I coined many years ago, is kindled through this activation of chi within the belly and root chakra centres, which rises to awaken the solar plexus, heart, and other chakras in turn. Any dancer with experience of yoga, t’ai chi, or qi gong can discern this energy for herself.  Attention is focused on the pelvis and hips, both inwardly, because the cocek dance style uniquely invites the hips to move, and outwardly, because traditional Romani dress emphasises and draws attention to the hips and belly, the roundness and abundance of which are considered to be the epitome of female beauty. The powers of creation and sacred sexuality are thus more directly activated in Romani dance compared to other traditional Balkan dance styles, in which hip movements are not encouraged. These belly-centred movements for both women and men generate a perceptible warmth which is aligned with the life force, as sacrament and celebration.

Danced correctly, the women’s movements are refined and restrained, so this warmth does not arise from athletic exertion. This is important, because it means the dances are accessible to everyone of any age: nobody is excluded because of a sore hip or knee, or because they are a grandmother or great-grandmother. Paradoxically, the women’s Romani dances are both gentle and full of inner fire, so are suitable for women of every level of ability (the men’s dances, dance style and variations have large, faster, more springy steps and higher lifts – just watch Šani Rifati dance to see this style in action.)

The movement towards personal healing and transformation, which this inner fire symbolises and enables, is among the greatest gifts of Romani dance. In my Ausbildungen in Women’s Ritual Dances, where I have trained hundreds of women to engage with and honour these dances as a deep spiritual practice, our intensive exploration of Romani dances is always among the deepest experiences of the 2-year training. Most women in the west carry deep scars to do with sacred sexuality, and the dances provide a safe space and a profoundly healing balm with which to lovingly tend these old wounds. Our sexual energy in the dance is invited to emerge from the shadow and reveal itself as a holy radiance, a joyful source connecting us to the cosmos and our own creativity – whether we express it through procreation or in more metaphorical ways. 

There is also a political dimension to Romani dance, which I have emphasised since the very beginning of my work with the dances of the Roma and other peoples without a homeland. This has to do with the historical and contemporary persecution of the Romani people. On the one hand, learning these dances engenders respect for the rich and beautiful culture of a unique people with extraordinary music and dance traditions; this can bring healing to the old insult and injury where the Roma (and others) have been marginalised and cast into shadow. On the other hand, the inner process of the dance helps us welcome back into wholeness parts of ourselves which have been cast into shadow, in our psyches and in our society: our bodies, our bellies, our sexuality, our femininity, and our connection to the earth.

Through this movement toward wholeness, we can come to understand the ‘shadow’ as a place filled with treasure. In the mysterious darkness we find a link to the saint the Roma venerate most in Europe, the Black Madonna Sarah-la-Kali at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the south of France. In her dark visage many see a link to Kali, the dark goddess of India. In my earlier article I mentioned how the word for the Christian cross in Romani language, trushul or trishul, is a Sanksrit word from India, where the Roma have their roots, signifying the trident of Kali’s consort Shiva. This cross / trident motif is another manifestation of the Tree of Life. So at the heart of Romani spirituality we find the veneration of the divine feminine, the sacred marriage, the dance of transformation, the holy fire, and the redemption of all that has been cast into shadow.

In this way the themes of exile and homecoming, and the inner homeland of the dancing body, are key themes of the Romani dances. They enable us to make peace with whatever may have happened to us and around us. From this peace we can reclaim our true creative power – not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of all women and men everywhere who need this healing to take place in the world.

Quite simply, if we can build a secure sense of home within ourselves, we will be more flexible, more generous and more able to share the space of our external home with all the others who are here with us. This in turn will give us courage to stop the terrible dynamic of exclusion and persecution – against minority groups, against parts of ourselves and our bodies, against those around us who should be cherished as friends, neighbours, companions and colleagues – which is having such tragic effects in our world today. 

What is the best way to build that secure sense of self and inner homecoming? Of course, by dancing.

Laura Shannon © 2016