Zambra Mora – Spanish Gypsy Dance

Gypsy people don´t have written records on their history, their culture, their traditions and manners, for the immense majority. Hence, it is an extremely difficult task to find accurate information on what happened to all of their tribes through time. Their tradition is transmitted orally, and, unless someone dares to put in down on paper it gets easily lost in translation.
I got lucky by being a diluted-blood Spanish gypsy girl. My great grandmother was Josefa Heredia, “de la raza cale” (from the Spanish-gypsy race) and thanks to that I’ve been able to ask and be given answers from other Spanish gypsy ladies about their dances, their songs, and their recipes!
With this introduction I would like to make the statement that what I am about to write is no more, no less, what has been passed onto me by the most diverse and blended sources. By all means I don´t intend this to be a history report (neither do I have the authority to do so) but a compilation of the information acquired. If any of the readers come across information that would complement or contradict, by all means – write to me! I am dedicated to find and preserve the history and art of this people whom I feel so close to (specially the “gitanos”- the Spanish gypsies)

Let´s start our journey:
The gypsies started their migrations during the VIII century for reasons that, still nowadays, are subject to controversy, from an area placed northwest of the Indian Subcontinent (which would be between modern India and Pakistan).
Possibly running away from the Muslim Empire expansions at that time, they fled through near Asia into different directions, hence having started their first diaspora. Through the VIII, IX and X century they would reach Norh Europe (nowadays Russia) , going down from there via Ukrania to Hungary, Romania, Turkey (also reached from the beggining of that diaspora) down to Greece and reaching (again by unknown means) North Africa, across it from Egypt to Morocco and crossing Gibraltar channel to reach the South of Spain on the X century. (I have another version that explains other clans or tribes reached Spain through Eastern Europe via North Spain untill they reached the south of the peninsula and I do wish to add that the most documented migration starts much later, on the XIV century, also finishing in South Spain in Renaissance times)
One thing is certain: these 200 years of diaspora and migrations were extremelly tought and painful for the gypsies. They were travelling across an Europe submerged in dark ages, the worst part of the middle ages in our history.
I want to ask the reader to imagine what would it be the experience of the colourful gypsies when clashing with the feudal system in Europe. Illiterated european peasants, full of the fear of God and eternal damnation, ruled by also ignorant, most of the times also illiterated noblemen, and counseled by an intolerant Catholic Church, promt to see witches and heretics everywhere they look, are confronted with these strange newcomers, who wear scandalous colourful clothes, read palms and cards, sing and dance wildly to their eyes…
The result, obviously, was not good: the gypsies are not well received, banished and prosecuted village after village. Hence for those clans who settled in the different European countries their emplacement would be the forests, not the towns, and here we can see the origin of many fearful miths that surrounded the gypsies of Hungary and Romania. It is also worthy to make mention that the famous Romani people are the clans of the gypsies who would settle in Romania, and that these were different families from the ones who continued travelling and finally reached Spain.
Finally, the lucky ones who dared to endure more travels, did reach the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula (nowadays Spain). They arrived to Al-Andalus: the vast territory of the Iberian peninsula dominated by the muslim Empire between 711 and 1452 aC. (See the map attached were “Califato de Cordoba” stands for “Califate-hence Kingdom-of Cordoba, also known, as mentioned, Al-Andalus)
Contrary to the rest of Europe, Al-Andalus was the most culturized, most tolerant, most civilized and advanced part of the world at that time.
The muslims had prosper inmensely, and the richest of the richer were leaving in the mild-climate Al-Andalus, leaving an inestimable wealth of architectural marvels (amongst them the palace of Alhambra), art of all kinds, science, math advances and a long list of etc.
Most importantly for our story, is to know that they were tolerant people, who appreciated art and science, and who had many ethnic groups living peacefully amongst themselves at that time. Jews and Christians were welcomed within the limits of Al-Andalus (so much that we have records of collaborations between muslim librarians and Franciscan monks, whose Abbeys were within the borders of Al-Andalus). Equally welcomed were the gypsies who arrived there.
Instead of the prosecution and the hate found in other places of the world, the gypsies are given solace and places where they can stay and be, as long as they obbey the civil laws of the empire.
Furthermore, their performing arts are in vogue to entertain diverse parties and receptions of the wealthy nobility! Hence an abundance of what we can start calling spanish gypsy (gitanos) music and dance is born.
The end result of it, many centuries later, would be the flamenco art: something so compelling and powerful that has been spread admired and loved world-wide,
So, reaching back into history, and through many many researchs, we can try to reconstruct the art-form of the spanish gypsies before it evolved into flamenco, an art form that has been baptized as Zambra Mora (from the ¨calo” or spanish gypsy slang meaning Moorish party)

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The Zambra: Spanish Gypsy Dance

Well explained the origins of this dance, and understanding how much Arabic influence would be flushed into a gypsy dance that would have many indian characteristics, we can trace a few elements that are unique:

 

  • Stomping the floor: what will become “taconeo” (heel stomping in flamenco) in the XVII century started as barefeet floor stomping, most probably from the Indian tradition.
  • Hand flourishment: “floreos” .The beautiful hand movements that are exclusive to the Zambra came from the Indian dance hand movements (who have their own kind of floreos) and were modified, less structured and allowed flexibility in their expression.
  • Skirt work: for most gypsies in other countries (like the romanis in Romania) women are not allowed to touch the end seam of their skirts in public (a taboo that comes form the believe that showing the legs brings lust to the men, and the end of the skirt is dirty). On the contrary, Zambra Mora does have lots of skirt work and skirt movement in their dance (grabbing it at the end of the fabric). It seems that the ¨gitanas” enjoyed a bigger freedom that other fellow gypsies when dancing.
  • Above all, one trace is unique: the body posture and arm posture and movements. In all spanish gyspy and posterior flamenco, the torso is held well upright, uplifted to the point that the upper torso is arched. The arms are held strongly creating volume, shoulders down, elbows up, with the entire upper arm rolled from the back in creating a very specific shape (See the traditional painting)

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What this posture-and the entire art form- transmits to the public is the feeling of pride, and the stablishment of boundaries.

All spanish gypsy conserves a softeness and openess in the lower torso (from their arab raks sharqui influence most possibly) and helds the upper torso and arms very strongly, delimiting the space almost like a barrier, yet an alive one.

Carrying further, as important as the posture and arm-hand movement technique, is the fact that the Zambra Mora (and the flamenco aswell) are nothing if not for the display and expression of strong emotion (a characteristic shared by the “cante” (singing) and the “toque” (music played).

In this art-form, the emotions are given a true space to be felt, expressed and transformed into movement, voice or music. We can easily see how the painful expressions could come from all those centuries of suffering prosecution and injustices, how the posture and arms seem to shout to the world “I´m still standing and I´m proud of who I am, I am proud of being a gitana”. Joy and passion for life are also depicted very strongly (it seems to say “I´m alive!!!-after all endured I´m alive!”).

Furthermore, if there is something of universal importance (flamenco was declared Universal patrimony of Humankind) is that the spanish gypsies were able to transform their suffering into art. Human beings, as they well showed the way, can experiment through life situations where they are told “you are not ok just for being who you are” . As they were, prosecuted and incarcerated, just for being gypsies. And the soul, who is compressed and suffering, can be set free by creating and performing art that expresses such suffering. In this incredible alchemy, the suffering gets moved form within us, to the art we create or interpret, and so powerful it is, that the recognition of the liberation of the suffering of the soul is not only for those who dance, sing or play, but also for everyone who is witnessing those performances.

Modern day gypsies: Recovering the Dance

When, as a dedicated bellydancer, started working in the field of “Spanish Arabic” dances two things grabbed my heart and fuelled my passion. One: how little it is known about it, and two, how much it spoke to my soul the powerful expression of human feelings in it: feelings that went straight to my soul and talked to my bones of my own history.

At that moment I decided I was going to research, perform and recreate as much as I could “Zambra Mora” dances to share them with the world. I must admit the response that the bellydance community at large (both cabaret and tribal) has been beyond my dreams (I find myself travelling across the Globe and spreading the knowledge of this art). With it, a particular kind of dance has been awaiting to see the light of my research: the partner dance (so similar to Sevillanas) that Spanish gypsy women dance with each other. This is the dance that is taught in the new DVD “Spanish gypsy passion”- a collaboration between the renowned Sahira and myself (after all, if you are going to teach a partner dance you need a partner right?). In it, we can see how dancing with another fellow sister in dance (or gypsy sister!) it’s a true celebration of life, joy, beauty, feminity, passion…It is full of well depicted “braceos” and “floreos” and has a good amount of skirt work: shall we shout ole?

(The DVD is available in both authors websites- see our bios at the end of the article- and through www.filmbaby.com)

 

Article by Silvia Salamanca Segui

Palma de Mallorca, 2011

Shunyata Belly Dance

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