The United Kingdom is an important country in the history of the Roma community. In 1971, the International Gypsy Committee organised the first World Romani Congress near London. This was a historic turning point for Roma as it marked the use of the Roma flag as a national emblem, and the Roma anthem, ‘Dzelem dzelem’, was adopted. Furthermore, the United Kingdom has a rich history of Roma dance, music and culture. The collections in this section include Howel Wood’s Clog dancing and a film by Damian Le Bas, which visually documents Riley Smith’s legacy. Each section featured showcases various aspects of the diverse groups located in the United Kingdom.
Folk and Clog Dancing
Traditional folk dance has survived for centuries, in part because it has been handed down orally and by demonstration. In Wales, dance continues to thrive despite the country’s political past. Welsh folk dance has always been seen as a dance of the ‘common folk’ and dates back to the twelfth century. As Emma Lile wrote, ‘Giraldus Cambrensis’ Itinerarium Cambriae of 1188 is believed to provide the earliest written record of dance in Wales’ (Lile, 1999, 7) and was typically tied to social or seasonal events. Folk dance and music in Wales were also linked with the Roma community. In 2012, Yvonne Cheal conducted a detailed investigation of the UK’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller1 community, and her work has helped to make a timeline of the community’s arrival in Wales. 1579 is the earliest recorded reference to the Roma in Wales.
The Roma who came to Britain spoke at least two different dialects of their language and called themselves by two different names, Romanichal and Kalé. The Romanichal travelled mainly in England, and the Kalé eventually decided upon Wales. It was the latter dialect that became ‘the dialect of the Gypsies of Wales’. The most likely entry point for the Kalé was via Spain, France, crossing to Cornwall, and then to the Welsh borders and various towns in Wales (2012, 37).
While we can place the arrival of the Roma community in Wales in the late sixteenth century, the country was at that time living a form of Puritan censure, which affected many leisure activities, dance being one of them. During this religious period, dance took a unique place in society where it was no longer part of social gatherings and was seen as a ‘religious sin’ (Lile 1999, 18). Despite enthusiasm for folk dance and music decreasing, Clog dancing was still an art form in Welsh society.
The history of Clog dancing is very exciting. It is thought that ‘clogging’ came to England as early as the 1400s. It was at this time that the original completely wooden clogs were replaced by leather shoes with wooden soles. In the 1500s, they changed again, and separate wooden pieces were used to make the heel and toe. This early dancing was less complicated than the later Clog dancing.
Clog dancing is most notably associated with the nineteenth-century Lancashire cotton mills, with towns like Colne. It is here that the term ‘heel and toe’ was first used, derived from the changes made to the clog in the 1500s. Coal miners in Northumbria and Durham developed the dance too. The independent Welsh dance artist Angharad Harrop states that Clog dancing survived the Methodist Revival and is Wales’ only unbroken dance tradition. Lile states in her book A Step in Time: Folk Dancing in Wales that the reason clogging survived was largely due to the ‘Gypsy families’ who were less influenced by the condemnation of religious leaders (Lile, 1999, 34).
As Cheal (2012) states, there were many different family groups who traversed England and Wales, but the family that became most renowned in Wales for its trilingualism and musicianship was the Teulu Abram Wood (family of Abram Wood) and its descendants.
Originally each Gypsy family restricted its wanderings to an established and well-defined circuit which, in the case of the Woods, must originally have included the whole of Wales. The Woods were apparently the first Gypsies to adopt Wales as their home, but as other families followed them they tended to limit their wanderings to North Wales. It is probable that Abram Wood and his family entered Wales from Somerset.
The principal source of knowledge of Abram Wood and his family is Dr. John Sampson, a Romani scholar from the University of Liverpool. He spoke Romani fluently (having learned it from European Roma) and had studied the customs and remnants of the language of the English ‘Gypsies’. The Wood family plays an important role in dance in Wales and one person in particular, Howel Wood, is featured in the Archive.
Howel Wood is best known for his Clog dancing, which is one of Wales’s oldest living traditions. Originally performed by farmers, slate quarry workers and colliers in pubs or in the home, dancers competed to show their skill, athleticism and tricks – snuffing out a candle, jumping over a broom or leaping high into the air. Vital to the survival of this tradition was Howel Wood of Bala, a member of the famous Welsh Gypsy family. His talent was captured in the film The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), starring Richard Burton. He inspired a long line of Clog dancers in Wales and his obituary in 1967 described him as ‘a fiddler, dancer and fisherman’.
Riley Smith and Damian Le Bas
Damian Le Bas, an English Romany poet, author and film maker, was born in 1985 into a large Gypsy family. He is a native speaker of the Romany language and read theology at Oxford, where he graduated with the top First in his year. Damian has been widely published as a poet, journalist and dramatist.
He is currently writing a book about a year-long quest to find the old Gypsy ‘stopping places’, to be published by Chatto & Windus in 2018. Damian won a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction in 2016 and has been a midweek guest at the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre in Hebden Bridge, home of creative writing.
Riley Smith who is an English Gypsy from Edenbridge, Kent, is also a notable dancer. Smith began dancing at the age of ten and learned to dance from his father whose family was renowned for their dancing at shows throughout the UK. The film Riley Smith - Portrait of an English Gypsy Tap Dancer (United Kingdom, 2014) directed by Damian Le Bas, captures the legacy of Riley Smith’s dancing. The short film looks closely at how one family has helped keep the tradition of British Romany dancing alive.
We have been able to secure a commentary by Damian Le Bas for the film. The Director’s note was written in the United Kingdom on 20 September 2017.
‘I first met Riley Smith at a talent competition for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. It was almost all singers, a few musicians, and then there was Riley. Nobody could believe how well he kept time, and how fast he could dance. Fewer Romany Traveller people are doing the traditional step-dancing and tap-dancing these days. Suddenly there was a teenager in front of us who wasn’t just a throwback – he looked like he was probably even better at dancing than his forebears had been.
Riley was with his Dad. I could see how proud Riley’s Dad was of him, and of his dancing. That was what really interested me about it. English Romany men have a reputation for being tough, as many undoubtedly are. Riley’s dad looked tough but he was also clearly delighted to watch his son tap-dance for a crowd. Watching him stand up to clap and cheer as Riley won the competition, it seemed like the tension between masculinity and the arts was just a mirage.
I called Riley up and rokkered (to speak) to him about the possibility of making a film. He said he was up for it and wanted to know if it would be like a film called *Cherry Orchard* that the Romany journalist Jake Bowers had made about Riley’s uncles when they went to pick cherries. I said yeah, it could be a bit like that, and reassured him that the quality would be good. As DoPs I would have two seasoned short film directors – Charles Newland, also a Romany Gypsy, and Phillip Osborne, an old friend of mine and my family’s who I trusted to understand the cultural sensitivities. So we had a great team who all knew the culture intimately.
I had an image in mind of Riley tap-dancing under a tree at sunset but we didn’t manage to get that shot – I explained the idea and I think he thought it was a bit weird. But I think the shots we did get were strong. I particularly like the one of Riley’s dad kissing his baby grandson while we can hear the tap dancing in the background. It’s just a side of Romany men that the public never gets to see. You could argue that the shots with the horses are stereotypical, but the Romany relationship to horses is very important to us and I thought it set the scene.
We made the film for a pittance: the price of our diesel whatever we might have lost by taking the time off to make it. Riley’s mum kept us fed all day with tea, cake and stacks of sandwiches.
I had another motivation for making the film. Through years of working as a journalist and sometime Romany rights activist, I had been in contact with Roma people from many different countries. On one level this was amazing: it broadened my horizons and helped me see how diverse our community was, and I made some great friends. But at another level it was depressing. People constantly questioned the cultural authenticity of British Romany people, largely based on our skin colour, our command of the Romani language, and the fact that musicality didn’t seem to play a central role in our culture. It was assumed that Eastern Europe – possibly alongside Spain – was the centre of Romany culture, and that our country was a backwater full of inauthentic ‘Gypsies’. There were cracks in this argument everywhere I looked – the Romungre Roma of Hungary do not speak Romani, and there were fair-skinned and blue-eyed Roma in every community I encountered ... But the assumption was still there.
With Riley and his family, I saw the opportunity to rebut some people’s assumptions about our community. Contrary to some of the refrains I often hear, many of us are dark-skinned and – due to this as well as our accent and the Romani dialect we speak – visibly identifiable as Gypsies to the surrounding community. And for some of us, music and dance are part of an ancient way of life. In these respects, I think the film speaks for itself.
And really, as its DoP/editor Phillip Osborne put it, ‘It’s really just a film about a father’s pride in his son’. We showed Riley’s dad some of the rushes after we’d shot them on the day. His face lit up, and he said ‘Cor, ain’t that clear?’
Damian Le Bas , London , 20 September 2017