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Dancing out your cultural differences

By Laura Finmand
On November 5, 2009

Students walking past the Cooperage last Tuesday evening may have seen something a little unusual. After all, 30 or 40 students and faculty all dancing in circles and shouting in a different language would make even the most jaded of people do a double take.

Last Tuesday evening, I attended a Romani dance workshop that brought members of the SSU community together to celebrate the art of a different culture.

Participants in the workshop were taught eight different dances, each with their own cultural significance. For example, one dance designed for women had movements inspired by household chores, such as washing clothes or making food.

The workshop is part of an ongoing program revolving the University library's art exhibit, "Live-Dance-Paint: Works by Ceija Stojka, Romani ("Gypsy") artist." Stojka is a self-taught artist who describes her life as a traveling Romani woman before and after World War II and the trauma and suffering she and her people endured in the Nazi concentration camps.

Our teacher was dancer/choreographer Sani Rifati. He is a Romani activist, writer and lecturer from Kosovo, now living in Graton, California. He is also the founder and President of Voice of Roma (VoR), a non-profit advocacy group working on behalf of Roma in Kosovo and Romani refugees living throughout Europe.

Michaela Grobbel, German professor and organizer of the event, has known Rifati for years, and was excited to have him here at SSU.

"Because of my interest in the Romani culture, I was happy to contribute this to the program," said Grobbel.

According to Rifati, the Romani people are one of the most misunderstood cultures in the world.

There is a disconnect between who the Romani people actually are, and what the rest of the world perceives them as. The Roma are a distinct ethnic minority with a common cultural heritage and language. They are not "Gypsies."

Historically, the term "Gypsy" came from the mistaken assumption on the part of Anglo-Europeans that Roma originated in Egypt. However, the Roma originated in the Punjab region of India. Their migration began in the 12th century, when they traveled through the Persian Gulf, Egypt, Turkey, eventually spreading all over Europe.

The real problem with the word "Gypsy," according to Rifati, is the association with beggars, swindlers and thieves. For example, the phrase "I've been gypped" is directly descended from the inaccurate stereotypes. While Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority, they remain the least integrated and the most persecuted people in Europe today.

Senior dance major, Gloria Rubio was moved by Rifati's history lesson.

"I had no idea who these people are," said Rubio "I think it is great that they brought something so unknown to campus. Bringing awareness to a lesser known persecuted culture is extremely important." She was excited at the prospect of Rifati delivering that awareness through dance.

The dancing centers on the Mahala, or the community. They are preformed in circles or long spiraling lines with participants holding hands. The dancers were apprehensive at first, but became curious and even enthusiastic as the night progressed. And as my fellow participants and myself joined hands and proceeded to hop in a circle around the Cooperage, the sense of togetherness was easy to pick up. Romani shouts and calls were ringing around the room, and although nobody entirely knew what we were doing, it didn't stop us from having a good time.

We learned that the Romani dances were created from the blend of several European styles, due to their people's prominence in many different countries. It is a unique type of dance consisting of smaller, quicker steps, but the important thing to remember is the role of free form.

Romani dance is counter culture to the traditional dance that we know. Dance in the United States has minimal cultural significance. Those who dance are held to academic standards and expected to adhere to certain technical standards. Anyone who has ever taken a ballet class knows what I'm talking about.

Here, dancing is not something everyday people think they can do. Dance has become something for the elite and highly skilled. People need to take classes to be considered a "good" dancer. The point of Romani dance is not how well you can perform it, but the feelings it brings you and your fellow dancers. It's about fun, and Rifati continued to encourage us to have a good time even if we weren't getting the steps right.

Although the library exhibit closed on Saturday, there are still two more film viewings scheduled for the event: "Black Cat, White Cat," directed by Emir Kusturica (1998) on Nov. 12, and "Vengo," directed by Tony Gatlif (2000) on Dec. 10. Both films will be shown in Darwin 103 at 7 p.m. and are free of charge.

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