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In whatever country they landed and stayed, the gypsies assimilated and modified the indigenous dances and music to make them closer to their root aesthetics – Indian dance. For example, one thread that runs through all gypsy styles of dance is foot stomping – you see it in the Ghawazee. In flamenco – the opening ”Ay, ay” in cante flamenco comes from the musical genre of Rajasthan. It’s also in opening songs in Turkish music with “Aman, Aman”, or the Arabic “Ay”.

Like most immigrants gypsies were relegated to the fringes of societies where they are often persecuted and eventually driven out by locals. Read this excerpt of my History of Belly Dance, Part 2 for more information.

Gypsies and Roms

Arabic music and dance have roots in the music and dance of India, brought across the Silk Road through Persia, to Turkey and beyond, with the Gypsies. These early Gypsies were from Singh, a large province in Pakistan and Punjab, a province in India. In Singh they were called Kathaka or Gitan and were traveling minstrels. In Rajasthan they are the Kabeliya gypsies. In Punjab they were known as the Bazigar, and were members of the royal courts. There, they were revered for their artistry, and held in the highest respect, until they were caught stealing, and were expelled from the courts.

Between the 6th and 11th centuries, the gypsies left India and Pakistan and migrated across Central Asia into North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The world-wide name for them was Gypsies, however, they identify themselves as “Rrom”, which in the Romani language means "man". The words Rrom , Rom, Dom and Lom are used to describe Romani peoples who diverged at this time. Because of this, it was initially believed that they were a branch of the Romani people. But recent studies of the Domari language suggest that they departed earlier from the Indian subcontinent, than the Romani. Nonetheless, in Persia and Turkey, Gypsies are called Dom or Rom. In Egypt they are called Nawar. In Spain Calo.

As they traveled they made their living as entertainers, (singers and dancers). Wherever they settled they assimilated the local music and dance and modified it into their own dynamic style. The countries they settled in in the Middle East, are considered the countries of origin for belly dance - Persia, Turkey and Egypt. Because the Rom have an oral tradition and express their culture and history through music, poetry and dance, they became the curators and librarians of each countries version of belly dance.

Their variations on belly dance were a fusion of the local folk music and dance, infused with their own Indian style. In Turkey they used the fast version (Gordel) of the folk dance known as Karsilama, to create a cabaret-style 9/8. In Egypt they blended Saidi folk music and dance into the classic style of Egyptian belly dance known as Balady. But there was a cross to bare being a gypsy because, unlike their Persian counterparts, the Turkish Rom and Egyptian Nawar, were looked down upon and marginalized by local cultures.

Turkish Rom or Cengi

The Gypsies/Rom settled in Istanbul after Sultan Memet II conquered the city in 1453.They settled mostly in a slum known as Sulukule. They made up the majority of public dancers in this period, and were called gypsies or, Cengi (chen-geh). In an effort to fit in, they adopted the belief of Islam, but were reluctant to adopt the social rules, instead following their own traditions. These traditions allowed freedom for artists to do as they please in public and to embrace music, dance and the arts - freedoms denied to Muslims.

The Cengi formed an association of artists called a Kol (troupe). There was a chief, an aide and 12 dancers. A group of musicians called Siraci (person in the row), accompanied the dancers. The musicians were also women who played drums, tambourines and a violin.

The aide began the show with a slow dance, followed by younger dancers who played with wooden castanets known as clappers, and did a series of faster more athletic dances.

The audiences of the Cengi were wealthy women who engaged the troupes at bath parties or in harems (the women's quarters of the home) for their personal entertainment. They also danced at weddings, circumcision ceremonies and men's private events. They were so in demand and loved by their audiences they often covered their faces so that they would not be hounded by avid admirers.


The neighborhood of Sulukule, Istanbul, is known as the one of the oldest Roma settlements in the world. Romani coming from India during the Byzantium era are believed to have settled right next to the city walls of Istanbul. In this place musicians and dancers kept the culture of Turkey alive, nurturing it into its current popular form expression.

They became famous for their fusion of local folk music and dance, most notably the Karsilama and variations of this 9/8 genre. Roman belly dancers were the first to bring belly dance to the stage in Turkey. Then, after Attaturk secularized Turkey in 1920, and prohibitions against women dancing in public were cancelled, non-gypsies began dancing publicly.

In 2006, the place was declared a “renewal zone” by a decree of the Turkish cabinet. In 2009, the local Romani formed the “Sulukule Platform” to have their voices heard and oppose the destruction of Sulukule. However, without waiting for the outcome of the lawsuits opened by the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, bulldozers entered Sulukule, destroying ancient ruins, razing their homes and shops and brutally forcing the Rom out of their centuries-old home. Already desperately poor and struggling, the people of this sub-culture were driven into greater hardship and strife.

American belly dancers have Turkish dancers to thank for their contribution to the American style of belly dance. It was this style that first came to the US and prompted a fast-burning fire of passion for the art from the 50's-70's. Today, many American and European dancers make regular pilgrimages to Istanbul seeking famous Rom dancers to enhance their own skill and knowledge of the art.

The Ghawazi

In Egypt it was the Ghawazee/Ghawazi who contributed most to preserving what we know as Egyptian raqs sharqi, or "Modern Egyptian" belly dance. Ghawazee (Arabic: “invader”) were a matriarchal tribe of Nawar, (Arabic: Gypsy) who settled in Cairo in the eighteenth-century and became a sub-group of the Almah – Egyptian courtesans.

The Almahs

The Almah, much like the Japanese Geisha, were educated to sing, recite classical poetry and converse with men for their pleasure. Because the Almah had education and were Egyptian, the local Egyptians accepted them in society as a necessary evil. However, because the Ghawazee were gypsies, were uneducated, were not Egyptian and did not conform to the accepted codes of behavior for their place [and gender] in Egyptian society, they were relegated to a lower class of courtesan – just dancers. Instead of being invited into homes and theatrical settings, like beggars, they performed in outdoor courts of homes or in the street, before a door, or, on certain rare occasions of festivity, into the harem. They were rarely admitted into a respectable harem. They were also frequently hired to entertain a party of men in the selem (men's quarters). As with the Cengi of Turkey, both women and men enjoyed their entertainment, but with reservation and discretion.

The Said [sigh-eed]

In 1840, Mohamed Ali expelled the Ghawazee from Cairo for being a nuisance to the French soldiers. They were re-settled in Luxor and the surrounding Said area where they live to this day – what’s left of them. The Said is a region of Upper Egypt (the south, because the Nile runs north) with rich and varied dance and music traditions known as “Saidi”. Saidi music includes a variety of rhythms and instruments such as the Mizmar (Obo) and the Rabab (single stringed instrument played vertically). The Ghawazees dance is a sub-genre of Saidi music and dance. They dance with zagat (finger cymbals) and use sticks and canes in their shows, as a parady of the men’s stick dance, Taktib.

Modern Egyptian Belly Dance vs. Traditional Egyptian Belly Dance

The Egyptian style of dance done by the Ghawazi has been the same for three centuries and is considered by dance ethnologists as the original “Balady” or, homeland dance, popularly known as “belly dance”. It is distinguished from “Modern Egyptian” cabaret belly dance, or Oriental dance or Raks Sharki, in that it has no outside influence from other cultures. It is the foundation of all modern Egyptian style belly dance. It is "Belly Dance Puro".

Benet Mazin

The last remaining family of Ghawazee are the Benet Mazin (daughters of Mazin). They no longer dance. However, dancers around the world carry on their tradition in classes and on stages world-wide. The Ghawazee are one of the contributors to American Tribal Style belly dance as developed by Carolina Nereccio.

The world has a tremendous debt to the Ghawazee, the Roma, The calo and all the other gypsies who kept the indigenous forms of dance and music alive - not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. Like all immigrants, their contribution to society is no less valuable that the indigenous populations.

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