Čoček: A Balkan Romani Dance
Eastern Europe has a large Romani community. According to Elena Marušiakova and Vesselin Popov, the arrival of Roma in Bulgaria dates back to the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, but there is speculation that they may have arrived as early as the ninth century. Marušiakova and Popov divide the community into three distinct groups that have many subgroups (not listed here but identified in Aleksandar Marinov’s 2016 doctoral thesis):
The metagroup community of settled Roma or Yerlia is the most numerous and varied one. These are the descendants of the first Gypsy migration wave, who speak different dialects of the Balkan group of Romanes. Significant parts of them settled in Balkan town or village mahalas [gypsy quarters] as early as the time of the Ottoman Empire. The community of ‘Yerlia’ is divided into two main subdivisions – Dasikane Roma/‘Bulgarian Gypsies’ (Christians) and Xoraxane Roma/‘Turkish Gypsies’ (Muslims). [...] A second major and very distinct metagroup community among Bulgarian Gypsies is the one of Kaldarasha / Kardarasha, descendants from the third wave of migration. [...] A third major and distinct metagroup community is the one of Rudara (called Vlax [Wallachian] Gypsies or Vlaxs by the Bulgarians). The Thracean Kalaydzhia (Tinsmiths) have a very specific place between the two major metagroup societies (Yerlia and Kardarasha).
Marušiakova and Popov, ‘The Bulgarian Gypsies’, 2000
This overview of Bulgarian Roma offers an insight into the waves of migration that have shaped the Romani community. Marinov (2016) writes that Roma in Bulgaria, like those throughout the world, often prefer to hide their ethnic identities for one or another reason, which is perhaps why music and dance serve as ‘hard copies’ (Whatley, 2014) of this layered and culturally diverse and rich past. Mary Ellen Snodgrass writes in the Encyclopedia of World Folk Dance that the Romani presence in Bulgaria fused a minority folk strand with the ethnic music of Sofia. Called chalga, this genre of music features hedonistic lyrics and interweaves the Greek and Byzantine cultural heritages:
At Balkan banquets and weddings in the early nineteenth century, the čoček, a popular Croat-Serb chain dance for cross-dressing males, derived from Muslim Roma belly dance tradition and Ottoman military brass bands. Some historians trace the čoček’s pumping rhythm to the Vedic dances of 1700 BCE honoring Hindu gods. The original čoček linked community dance to Bulgarian healing rituals bringing rain and promoting fertility in herd animals. (Snodgrass, 2016, p. 262)
Miriam Peretz (2006) writes that many specialists think that the origins of many Roma dances are ritual and that in some way they serve as an everyday rendering of the sacred dances of Vedic India. A modern-day example can be found in Bulgaria, where female Romani dancers are sprinkled with water during a dance called the paparuda to encourage the rain to start.
The focus of the Portugal section of this article is the čoček, which is danced by Turkish and Balkan Roma. Carol Silverman (2012) states that the čoček – cucek in Macedonia and Kosovo and kyuchek in Bulgaria – is the most characteristic Romani solo dance and can refer to the line dance. In its solo form, it is improvised and features hand gestures, pelvis, abdomen and shoulder isolations as well as shoulder shakes. It also includes jumps, spins and intricate footwork. Both men and women tend to hold up their arms and use both shoulder isolations and finger snapping. Women also tend to make use of hip movements, albeit much subtler than those used in Middle Eastern dance. The male dance is especially energetic and dynamic, featuring jumps, squats, body slapping, stomping and other percussive body movements (Peretz, 2006).
In 1967 the dance ethnologist and choreographer Elsie Dunin travelled to Skopje, Macedonia and for decades she digitally documented Romani dances. She was able to track and follow the changes and deviations between ‘originals’ and what was later ‘staged’. In her field research, she noted that in the past, the solo dance had been performed only at private events:
The solo was danced only during private segregated occasions, such as part of the five-day wedding cycle, or a three-day cycle for the circumcision of a son, or at the naming of a newborn child. During the event, every female at the party was expected to rise up from her floor-seated position to dance a type of ‘belly-dance’ producing a vertical up-and-down movement of the abdomen (in Labanotation terms this is a somersaulting movement of the pelvis); the arms are moved in an improvised range at about shoulder level, with snapping fingers, while the feet are stepped in place to the rhythm of the music – usually in a 9/8 meter. The music accompaniment was by a hired Romani woman, who sang and held a tambourine in an upright position with her left hand, while tapping the skin with her right hand; more affluent families used a phonograph player for 45-rpm records of Turkish melodies in 9/8 meter. (Dunin, 2006, p. 183)
For her part, Silverman (2012) details how these Balkan dances are ‘consumed’ and ‘reproduced’ in modern-day contexts. She goes on to examine how communities internalise and, in some cases, appropriate both these dances and the music.
It is worth noting that Gergina and Trojan are the parents of Azis, the Bulgarian Romani pop singer whose original name is Vasil Trayanov Bojanov and who is known for his eccentric stage presence and pushing of gender boundaries. In her article for the Ontario Folk Dance Association article, From Spain to Bulgaria, Cohen relates how she met Trojan. The article is also part of the Judith Cohen Collection.
We know our friends there from Spain, where Trojan was playing virtuoso accordion in the main square of Madrid some years ago and I stopped to add some rhythms on a frame drum I had with me by chance. We did a couple of concerts together and stayed very good friends. (Cohen, 2006, p.6)