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Romany (Gypsy) Dance, Music and Culture

Following the Romany Trail... from a comfortable chair...

In the past 40+ years several World Romani Congresses have convened, at which the representives of Romanies from many countries (9 in 1971, 34 in 2013) adopted resolutions intended to contribute towards the recognition and protection of the Roma. The first Congress proposed that the word "Rom" or "Romany" be used to describe them all, in lieu of other traditional terms (such as "Gypsy") which often have misleading historical connotations. The fifth Congress, in 2000, produced the Declaration of Nation, in which they claim non-territorial nationhood.

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Romany Trail
Image source: Wikipedia Commons.


"The mediaeval Gypsies of Europe were the last wave of Aryan emigration that flowed westward during the early fifteenth century and this wave was possibly preceded by more than one similar exodus."— Richard Burton.

"The Romani, the largest European minority group with approximately 11 million people, constitute a mosaic of languages, religions, and lifestyles while sharing a distinct social heritage. Linguistic and genetic studies have located the Romani origins in the Indian subcontinent... Our analyses based on genome-wide data from 13 Romani groups collected across Europe suggest that the Romani diaspora constitutes a single initial founder population that originated in north/northwestern India ~1.5 thousand years ago (kya). Our results further indicate that after a rapid migration with moderate gene flow from the Near or Middle East, the European spread of the Romani people was via the Balkans starting ~0.9 kya.— Mendizabal and Lao.

"Academic consideration of Gypsy music— beginning at the start of the 19th century and tied to rising interest in Romany people overall— would culminate in two models; those of assimilation and nonassimilation. Both aimed to situate Gypsies and their music within European culture... Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the assimilative model was based on the concept of nationality propagated within the whole of Europe. As such, Gypsy music was presented as an integral component of European culture, a form that joined with local musical idioms to create national musical traditions in individual countries, especially those with high proportions of Romanies. Meanwhile, within the nonassimilative model, Gypsy music was presented as belonging to a distinct culture whose outlook was inherently alien to European civilization... Especially beginning at the end of the 19th century— driven by various peoples' search for noble roots in the ancient world— it [race] became of special importance for European history. To emphasize one's own racial purity could mean denigrating the Other, with Gypsies and their music often the casualties of academic writings having such a bent... A notion of European exceptionalism, among nineteenth-century intellectuals and others, guided such views.

"Contemporary research is conducted within two parallel currents; one focuses on the musical practices of particular Romany groups, and analyzes their musical traditiona; the second seeks to assess Romany music as a comprehensive phenomenon. These two tracks, while not contradictory, reflect the elusive, generalized nature of the term 'Gypsy' or 'Romany,' which refers to the collectivity of nomadic groups. Likewise, so-called Gypsy music is not monolithic... it constitutes a conglomerate of varied musical traditions. Some groups, although settled for generations, have revived their music and developed their own idiom, as a result of intense pressues associated with acculturation. Other groups have remained migratory and have absorbed musical styles from other ethnic groups with which they have interacted... What we might call inter-Romany exchange in a given geographic region has also been powerfully important in creating a musical language."

"Accordingly, reserachers of Romany music have emphasized its intensely varied strains: from Spanish flamenco through Bulgarian wedding reception music to the choirs of the Russian Romany and right up to the music of the Hungarian Gypsies performed for restaurant guests. These adaptations of musical language have meant that no single, dominant style of 'Gypsy Music' exists, nor does a common model for musical adaptation unite all Romany gruops... This ability to adapt and diversify explains the huge scope of the influence of Romany music, not merely in its commercial popularity among the non-Romany, but also in its emotional nature and power for a variety of listeners.— Anna Piotrowska


  1. Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month website.
  2. Romany life, experienced and observed during many years of friendly intercourse with the Gypsies published in 1915, author Frank Cuttriss.
  3. Romany Road UK
  4. The Gypsy Lore Society, founded in 1888 in Great Britain. One hundred years later, it moved headquarters to the US in 1989.

Eastern Europe

Romafest Gypsy Dance Theatre performing a staged Romanian dance.


Under threat of persecution from church and state authorities in Spain during the 16th century, "Gitanas", Muslims, and Jews came together to help each other survive, and within this melding of cultures Flamenco was born. Flamenco dancers physically interpret the music of the singer and guitarist through movements which include percussive footwork and intricate hand, arm and body movements, the most inspired of which will conjure the "duende" or magic, of the dance. --


The popular image of the "snake charmer" originates from the Kalbeliya tribe of Rajasthan in Northern India, thought to be the "Gateway of the Gypsies" due to the belief that the Roma diaspora began there in the 11th century. Kalbeliya dancers wear black in homage to the Mother Goddess Kali, from whom the tribe derives their name. In this dance, performers twirl ecstatically and stomp the earth in costumes of ornate embroidery and intricate beadwork while conjuring 'kundalini' or 'serpent power.'—

  1. Rekha solo dance to live music at a festival.
  2. Solo dance to female singers. Black and silver costumes.
  3. Duet to folk song from Rajasthan
  4. Latcho Drom: famous clip of Rajasthan dance and song.
  5. Kalbelia Dance solo from Rajasthan. Suva Devi is the dance artist. Her dance is intended to represent the movements of a mischievious snake.
  6. Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan. UNESCO production. Kalbelias are described as a community of snake charmers, musicians and dancers. The video provides a brief overview of occupations, food, costume and music.


The Russian styles of Romani dance are famous for whirlwind spins, flamboyant skirt flourishes and graceful arm movements influenced by Russian ballet. Also drawing on the tradition of Russian Character dancing, the performers often act out specific situations in character using pantomime and comedy to enhance the dance presentation. The variations in tempo, from slow and deliberate to a frenzied finish,convey both the artistry of the dancer and the cathartic release of the dance. --

Laurel Victoria Gray, in an interview in the Crescent Moon magazine in 1995: "There are several styles of Russian Gypsy dance. One is a very theatricalized style that you might call a character dance. And so you really would have to have ballet training to do some of the movements that are required in this. So, I purposely left out those movements in [my] choreograpy because I wanted a more authentic piece.

"[Russian Gypsy dance] is very passionate and expressive, smoldering and has really fast little shoulder shimmies. There is some foot work, spins, skirt work. There is an arched back and a very proud carriage. There are extreme leans from the side that are very dramatic. And even if you don't want to do Russian Gypsy dance per se, these movements, especially the carriage of the torso and upper body, can add a whole new dimension to your Oriental routine.

"Gypsies are much more outgoing and aggressive in their dances than a typical woman would be in her Oriental dance style or in her deameanor. In Gypsy styles of dance you can be more aggressive. You have permission because you are playing a character."

Theatre Roman video clips from the 1940s:

Svenko, a Russian Romany dance and music theatre group.


Migration milestones:
11th Century
Central Europe.
Switzerland and France. This migration was probably the result of enslavement in Romania.
Romany acrobats and palm readers are reported in Paris.
Middle 15th Century:
Romany skill on stringed instruments earn them recognition.
Professional Romany musicians migrate to Ferrata, an Italian cultural center renowned for music.
Eighteenth century:
Gypsy musicality becomes a focus of European academic research.
Nineteenth century
Sterotypical image of the solitary Romani musician as a romantic hero emerges. Western music research attempts to establish a monolithic, holistic view of Romany music.


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Latest revision: 2015.11.22
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