Roma are a very diverse people, due both to their diverse origins (see Roma or Gypsy – why 2 names & where do they come from?) and to the influence of the many places they settled. Speaking of Romani music or dance is like speaking of Eurasian music or dance. The excellent film Latcho Drom, which chronicles Romani music and dance from India to Spain, is a prime showcase of this diversity. Here are some excerpts:
Rajasthani (India) Roma
It has been said the Roma have no music of their own. What they have is an amazing ability to absorb the music around them, infuse it with the Roma’s intense emotions and passion for life, and expand its possibilities through outstanding virtuosity. Gadje (non-Roma) come to prefer Roma musicians’ interpretation of gadje music. Roma also have their impenetrable-to-gadje language, so when they add Romani lyrics to a gadje-style melody, it becomes a Romani song.
DANCE – If Romani music is a heightened form of gadje music, why doesn’t Romani dance follow the same path? Why don’t you see Romani line dances, for instance? Perhaps an explanation can be partly found in the Romani concept of marime. VERY simply, marime is ritual pollution – whether something or someone or some action is pure or impure. Roma spend much of their time and energy trying to maintain ritual cleanliness, and avoiding being polluted, and their ideas of cleanliness are very different from us gadje‘s (whom they consider very unclean). [See Roma (Gypsy) Culture’s Central Value – Marime – under CULTURE, Ethnicity, etc for more details].
Though Roma is usually considered a male-dominated society, women have awesome ritual power, and men must take great care not to become marime by them. Women from the waist up are wuzho (pure) – thus there is little shame in exposing the breasts – they’re for feeding children (a pure act), not sex objects. Women from the waist down are marime – thus long skirts are always worn to hide legs (knees are considered ugly) and to protect legs from touching (defiling) others. Even being touched by a skirt can be considered marime, since it probably previously touched the legs.
Thus, dancing in lines, Balkan-style, would be too risky. Even holding hands can be a problem, because you don’t know where they’ve been. Note that all the examples of Romani dancing that I’ve posted show people dancing as individuals.
Times they are a’changin, marime is no longer as dominant a force as it once was, and its practice and interpretation varies greatly from tribe to tribe. Nevertheless, I believe it had a strong influence or the formation of Romani-style dancing.
The other distinguishing feature of Romani dance is improvisation. They dance to express themselves, show their skills, and to communicate with others of their tribe, but the idea of a public performance, where a field or stage is filled with people synchronizing their pre-choreographed moves is another one of those gadje ideas.