I Believe in Gypsies! But Not as a Style of Belly Dance

Anyone who has surfed the Internet, joined discussion groups, or researched belly dance in any depth, will have seen the horror and fury that can be induced by posting a video of “Gypsy belly dancing”, asking for the best vendors for “Gypsy skirts” or (deep breath) offering to teach a “Gypsy workshop.” I have read many times that “Gypsy” is a bad word because they prefer to be called “Rom.” Therefore, it is disrespectful to use the word in any form. I beg to differ.

You see, Gypsies do exist! I have seen them. I have Gypsy blood. I just think that some belly dancers are confused about who they are defending.

Let me first clear up the bit about Gypsy blood I have just claimed: the man who contributed it to my family, sadly, or maybe not so sadly, didn’t stick around to add any culture, history, or parenting skills to his DNA. That was not a Gypsy thing, or a man thing, or a British thing. It was just “a thing.” Short term relationships, resulting in babies happen all over the world, and have happened throughout history. I won’t pretend to have any understanding of Gypsy culture beyond that which everyone in the UK has, although I did get to go to the fair in Somerset a few times and was introduced to a huge number of “Aunties” and “Uncles” in my childhood. I don’t remember now which part of the family they came from. It hardly counts.

However, what I do know is that in 2011, about 58,000 people self-identified their ethnicity as Gypsy/Irish Travellers in the UK Census.

Despite estimating that their people had been in the country for more than 500 years, before 2011 there was no official box to tick that recognized this group as an ethnicity. In the run up to the 2011 census there was much discussion about what name could be used as an umbrella term for the many groups of British people who wanted to be included in this identification. They use a huge number of terms to self-identify; some are Rom, but others aren’t. In the end they chose the term “Gypsy/Irish Traveller”, and it was added to the census alongside the designation “Arab,” which was considered also to be a culture that was not previously represented on the form.

What this means for the Gypsy/Irish traveler community is that the UK government can now use these statistics to build a much clearer understanding of life expectancy (very low) education levels (also low) and average age (26), enabling it to provide the facilities needed to serve the people. Bureaucrats can look at the birth rates and subsequently build new schools and hospitals as needed. They can look at the population clusters and provide housing, counselling and support where it is appropriate. The Gypsy/Irish Traveller community is finally going to count!

What this also means is that there is an official term for this group of people: “Gypsy/Irish Traveller”. It might not be the way that every person in that group wishes to self-identity, (Each ethnic group has blurred lines, where parents of different cultures have come together, or where children have grown up in a place a long way from their parents homeland.) but we should respect the name that they have chosen for themselves. Just as the people from many diverse countries and cultures now have the option to list themselves as “Arab,” so can the many people who identify with “Gypsy/Irish Traveller.”

How does this relate to Belly Dance? Fundamentally, it doesn’t–except where we make it an issue. Gypsy should not be a derogatory term unless it is used with hatred.

Sadly, it has been used in hatred, anger, and as an excuse to persecute throughout history, but if a group of people want to claim it as their name, to own it and to gather under the banner, then it is not our place, as outsiders, to limit its use. We should not call the Rom “Gypsies”, but we should also not presume to call the Gypsies “Rom”.

That does not imply that the British Traveller community has made any major contribution to belly dance as we see it today. In fact, the Travelers community is very private and not known for sharing their dance and culture with outsiders.

Calling a multi layered skirt a “Gypsy skirt” is lazy! It is inaccurate, and it should probably stop. (How about substituting: full, multi-tiered, gathered, dance skirt in mixed fabrics?) Nonetheless, arguing that there is no such thing as “Gypsies” is also wrong, uninformed, and insulting to those who gather their family under the title with pride. As a community, we dancers should move away from using the word “Gypsy”, but in doing so, we should respect those who own the term and are finally being recognized as a culture in the UK.

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