Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros

Italy and Serbia: the Ivana Nikolic Collection

Ivana Nikolic: Erdelezi ethnic #2

unknown | Ivana Nikolic: Erdelezi ethnic #2 | photography | Italy | 2015 | dan_00226 Licensed by: Ivana Nikolić — Ternype Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Ivana Nikolić – Private Archive

Serbia Overview

The arrival of Roma in the Balkans dates back to the fourteenth century. Jelena Čvorović (2009) writes that ‘the first written document referring to “Gypsies” in Serbia dates from 1348. In Serbia, as in other South Slavic countries under Turkish rule, “Gypsies” constituted a separate ethnic group; they lived apart in mohalas, in towns or in isolated village areas.’

While according to official statistics there are some 149,000 Roma living in Serbia, making up 2 per cent of the total Serbian population, other estimates suggest that there are at least 500,000 unregistered Roma living in informal settlements. Given the stigma attached to their identity, many Roma try to engage in ‘ethnic mimicry’, identifying themselves as part of the majority population.1 Several migration waves of Roma to Serbia are recorded from Romania, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina but the exact numbers of Roma entering the country are unknown.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia, the former six republics became several different countries and hence nationalities, and ethnic minorities found themselves in a new and difficult social and political reality. Roma dance, music and culture were no longer located within the Balkan area but rather, as families were displaced and migrated to other countries, their art and culture likewise evolved in the new host countries.

The Collection

The compiler of this collection, a young Roma dancer from Serbia, Ivana Nikolic, whose family migrated to Turin, Italy, as the former Yugoslavia dissolved into political mayhem, is completing her dance degree at a prestigious Italian university and as an activist and artist is working to use dance as a tool for social change.

This collection contains more than forty-five colour images and a few short films of her dancing on stage and in public spaces. There are a dozen images of her traditional costumes, which capture the colourful dresses and tiered skirts of her Roma background.

Serbian Folk Dance

A number of popular Balkan folk dances are performed in the region. The kolo, in which a chain of dancers holding on to each other dance in a circle, is considered the most popular. After the kolo comes the lesa, where the dancers form a chain in a single line or in two parallel lines, moving to the left and the right, back and forth. Both folk dances are danced in Serbia but solo or couple dancing is rarely seen in central Serbia.

The ritual dances called dodole, lazarice and kraljice are very old dances and have traces of pagan fertility and rain rituals. They are sometimes performed on occasions such as births, initiations, weddings and funerals.

Carol Silverman (2012) states in her book Romani Routes that Roma perform line dances to čoček music that vary in style and steps and that change depending on the geographical location, age and subgroup. The most common line dance, in 2/4 time and found in Macedonia, Kosovo and southern Serbia, is a three-measure dance sometimes called the oro, whose footwork and rhythm change frequently depending on who is performing.

As mentioned in the Bulgarian section, the čoček line dance is also prevalent among Serbian Roma. The čoček is a style that is danced among Turkish and Balkan Roma. Silverman (2012) states that the čoček, called cucek in Macedonia and Kosovo and kyuchek in Bulgaria, is the most characteristic Romani solo dance and can refer to the line dance. As a solo it is improvised and uses hand gestures, pelvic and abdominal isolations and shoulder shakes. The style also includes jumps, spins, fancy small footwork patterns and shoulder isolations. Both the men and women tend to hold their hands and arms up, use shoulder isolations and snap their fingers. The women’s dance has some hip movement but this is much more subtle than in Middle Eastern dance. The male dance is especially energetic and dynamic with jumps, squats, body slapping, stomping and other percussive body movements (Peretz, 2006).

In 1967, Elsie Dunin travelled to Skopje, Macedonia, and spent several decades digitally documenting Roma dances. She was able to track and follow the changes in and deviations between the ‘originals’ and what later became ‘staged’. Her field research noted that the solo dance was in the past performed only during private occasions:

‘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: 183

Silverman (2012) outlines in detail how these Balkan dances are ‘consumed’ and ‘reproduced’ in modern day contexts while also looking closely at the communities that internalise and in some cases appropriate the music and dances.

unknown | Ivana Nikolic Dance Costume #15 | photography | Italy | 2017 | dan_00264 Licensed by: Ternype Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Ivana Nikolić – Private Archive

Ivana Nikolić

Ivana Nikolić is a dancer, artist and social activist who learned to dance from the elder women in her family (her mother, aunts and grandmother) and was taught the typical dances of the Balkans from a very young age. At the age of fifteen she started dancing on the street and also helped to run a social centre for families from lower economic backgrounds. At the centre Nikolic learned Hip-Hop while also teaching Roma dances to non-Roma people attending the centre. The exchange between the young people was inspiring and encouraged her to attend formal dance training for a couple of years. She states that she ‘loves to fuse different dance styles together and not only learn about the history of the other art forms but mix them into her own contemporary dance works’.

She is a contemporary Roma dance choreographer who has combined her Roma dance background with African dances, Indian dances, folk dances, belly dancing and also other art forms. She has collaborated with a ballet dancer and produced a contemporary work that has been performed throughout Italy. One of her solo works, Ederlezi, is a prime example of contemporary dance that honours her Roma background. The piece sees Nikolic dancing traditional Roma steps combined with modern gestures.

Ederlezi is a popular traditional folk song of the Romani minority in the Balkans. The song got its name from Ederlezi, a spring festival, celebrating the return of springtime, which is largely celebrated by Roma in the Balkans and Turkey. Ederlezi is the Romani name for the Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian Feast of Saint George. It is celebrated on 6 May or approximately forty days after the spring equinox. The various Balkan spellings (which include Herdeljez as well as Erdelezi) are variants of the Turkish Hıdırellez (external link), a holiday marking the beginning of spring, which is celebrated on the same day.

unknown | Ivana Nikolic: Erdelezi ethnic #2 | photography | Italy | 2015 | dan_00226 Licensed by: Ivana Nikolić — Ternype Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Ivana Nikolić – Private Archive

Nikolic is a humble young dancer who is curious and inspired by the potential of dance but firmly claims that her Roma background is a source of pride and inspiration. She comes from a mixed background, having a Bosnian Muslim mother and a Serbian Orthodox father who she claims taught her the basic principles and traditions of the Roma community. She grew up with a family who had spent ‘many years between the Balkan War, being locked in the “Gypsy” camps in Italy. Despite all the difficulties my parents have faced they are incredibly strong and inspirational. They taught us respect for diversity, curiosity and humility.’

Ternype Dance Company

As a young professional dancer Ivana Nicolic formed her own dance company called Ternype Dance Company in 2015. It is directed by Nikolic and includes her choreography. Roma and non-Roma dance together and the company has been invited to several national and international dance festivals. Her mission with Ternype Dance is to convey the beauty of Roma culture, using dance to break down prejudices and show the community in a positive light. She believes that dance has no boundaries and that it celebrates humanity and that the word ‘Rom’ means simply ‘to be human’.

unknown | Ternype Dance Group #10 | photography | Italy | 2017 | dan_00244 Licensed by: Ivana Nikolić — Ternype Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Ivana Nikolić – Private Archive
unknown | Ternype Dance Group #8 | photography | Italy | 2017 | dan_00242 Rights held by: Vincenzo Maiorano | Licensed by: Ivana Nikolić — Ternype Dance Company | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Ivana Nikolić – Private Archive

The Film Opre Roma!

Ivana Nikolic was a main protagonist in the film Opre Roma! (Italy, 2017) directed by Paolo Bonfanti (Calamari Union Productions).

Director Paolo Bonfati writes that the film retraces the origins, history, customs and traditions of the Roma people but also portrays directly the experience of some individual Roma. By showing Roma history, art, music, culture and everyday life the film seeks to counter their negative image and to avoid reducing Roma reality to social problems, as often happens.

The film is divided into two ‘parts’ that alternate and intertwine: the first is purely cultural-historical and the second is biographical and focuses on the living testimonies of some Roma people, telling both ordinary and exceptional stories, often marked by a difficult past related to their ethnic/cultural identity but also by a positive epilogue.

Ivana Nikolić – Ternype Dance Company | OPRE ROMA Movie Clip Ivana Nikolic-Ternype Dance Company and Paolo Bonfati | Non Fiction | Italy | 2017 | dan_00231 Directed by: Paolo Bonfanti | Licensed by: Calamari Union Production (Bergamo/Italy) | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Ivana Nikolić – Private Archive

The Aim of the Film

The aim of the project was to shoot an innovative film about Roma culture, by letting Roma tell their own unique stories. Our goal was to use documentary as a medium to communicate the richness of Roma history and culture and as an educational tool for all those interested and engaged in intercultural education and integration. As such the film is also conceived as a socially useful project. Despite being subjected to suspicion and harassment, persecution and genocide, the Roma people are one of the oldest, most dynamic and rooted minorities on the old continent.

Without denying the complexities of Roma reality and without indulging in rhetoric, we are convinced that knowledge is the most important thing for understanding and becoming more familiar with other peoples. This helps us to recognise the common humanity of people beyond their group identity and to fight stereotypical categorisation and consequent dehumanisation.

Opre Roma! was born of Paolo Bonfanti’s idea to create tools and opportunities to allow people to get to know Roma culture as it really is, going beyond the clichés and giving space and a voice to the life testimonies of people who are part of it.

Rights held by: Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros | Licensed by: Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 3.0 Germany | Provided by: RomArchive