There’s a long tradition in contra dancing of a particular move called a gypsy. Many people now consider the term gypsy offensive, however, because of the history of discrimination against people of Romani descent, long referred to as gypsies. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. We explain why they should. This is part of a complete episode.

4 Responses

  1. clidastes says:

    I would like to address the huge number of inaccuracies in this cast. I have done pretty extensive research on this subject, as it is something of great importance to me. To sum, Martha Wild called in about a beginner dancer who visited a contra dance and complained about our use of the word gypsy to describe a dance move, without any knowledge of the contra culture, history or anything. Since then, this has exploded into an absolute frenzy in the contra community that has divided what has always been a welcoming and warm community.

    First – maybe it comes from a different origin. I stated this. It is known for a fact that gypsy, along with several other moves in contra, were borrowed from Morris dancing. We do not know a lot about the origins of Morris dancing because nothing was written down, it was an oral tradition. We are fairly certain that the origins were either from the Moors or from the celts. There are strong relations to pagan ritual dances, especially surrounding such events as May Day and such. So, I looked into both languages. First, Moors. Moors are arabic. Arabic was easy, I have about a dozen Arabic students in my class. So I asked them. They do have words that sound like both gyp and gypsy. Gypsy means gypsum, highly unlikely. Gyp means pocket. Again, not overly likely to describe this move. So, then I turned to celtic. Celtic origins are hard to track, so I looked at modern languages and found gyp in Welsh, meaning gaze or glance. THIS IS WHAT THE MOVE IS (despite what people may tell you, it IS NOT WALKING AROUND YOUR PARTNER, it is looking at them). So, yes, it is true that the g in Welsh would be a hard g, not a soft g as we use it now. However, the first time that gypsy was written down in a contra dance or a Morris dance was in Cecil Sharp’s book in 1909. He wrote down words that the dancers of that time were using. Were you around in 1909? I know I wasn’t. So, we don’t really know how they pronounced it in 1909 do we? Maybe they pronounced it with a hard g. I am not “reaching”. I am making the point that this word most likely originated from a Morris word, which seems to be celtic in origin (not Romani – more on that later). Cecil Sharp diagrams, describes and uses both gyp and gypsy (interchangeably) in a dance that he calls “Hey Boys, Up We Go”. Ironically, he changed the name of the dance. This dance originated in the 1400s and was called Cuckolds All Awry. It was written down in the 1600s by Playford, but Playford did not use words in his book, so we have no idea what words were used to describe the move at that time. Is it possible the name was applied to the move later? Sure. But the dance pre-dates the arrival of the Romani in England.

    Gypsy was first used in the late 1500s/1600s in England to refer to the Romani people because they thought they were Egyptian, the word originates from the latin word for Egyptian. But Morris dancing and contra dancing in England is from at least the 1400s, which predates the Romani. So these dances DID NOT come from Romani traditions. Morris is likely celtic. English country dancing was a very common dance in England and contra evolved from that as a type of dance that more common folk could do.

    The Romani do in fact use the word gypsy to refer to themselves – A LOT. The representative of the Romani Society that was contacted about this (who is in fact not Romani) has written a book wherein she uses the word gypsy more than 90 times in just the first few pages. Romani refer to themselves as gypsies all the time. Some proudly claim to be gypsies. Gypsy jazz was invented by a Romani. There is an Association of Gypsies. There is as much of a split among the Romani about the use of the word gypsy as there now is in contra dancing!

    You mention that the American Heritage dictionary refers to the word as “often offensive”. You conveniently leave out the other three definitions of the word: A member of various traditionally itinerant groups unrelated to the Romani. One who follows an itinerant or otherwise unconventional career or way of life, especially – a part time or temporary member of college faculty and a member of a chorus line in a theater production. In complete, inaccurate information.

    Words change over time, in different cultures and in different contexts. Gypsy no longer refers to just Romani people. It refers to any migratory person.

    You ask what about the hundreds of years before. Well, unfortunately all that is lost to time. Very little is written about contra because it was a common folk dance and most people did not write. Playford made an attempt to record the dances in the 1600s, but he uses a tremendous amount of shorthand and does not use the name of moves. Cecil Sharp and his colleagues attempted to revive country dancing in the early 1900s and did very extensive searches in England and the Appalachias to find groups that still did the dances. He recorded the dances with the words he used, and he recorded gypsy. Of course we don’t know when the word originated, but we do know that one particular group of Appalachians had remained very isolated and were very English in nature, and so the word originated before they came to America.

    The move does not in fact mean to walk around your partner. There are related moves, such as gypsy star and gypsy chase where you do not walk around your partner at all. The move is looking at your partner – gazing at your partner. Do I have solid evidence that it came from a celtic origin? No, that is not possible since it was never written down. Do I feel that is pretty strong compelling evidence, yes I do.

    I do find it disturbing that it seems almost transparent that you were rapidly trying to do research on this subject while you were talking and as a result missed a lot of information.

  2. faresomeness says:

    Speaking of contradancing, a band from Seattle that did much to spearhead a “revival” of traditional music, square and contradancing in the 1970s was “The Gypsy Gyppo String Band”. The term comes from logging, and refers to a renegade, wildcat outfit such as the Stamper family in Ken Kesey’s Sometimeas a Great Notion.

    The word didn’t bother me at the time; I don’t think I’d use it in a band name today. However, there’s a whole genre of music called Gypsy Jazz, in honor of  the Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. And the name of a modern flamenco band from France? The Gipsy Kings. What are you gonna do?

  3. deaconB says:

    clidastes said

    Morris dancing and contra dancing in England is from at least the 1400s, which predates the Romani.

    There was a big group that arrived in 1513, but they’d been in Europe for 1000 years before that.  It seems highly improbable that none crossed the English Channel in that period of time.  DNA studies show that people migrated over vast distances.  The Cherokee originated in the mideast.  There are Celtic communities in Iberia.  The idea that the Romani would be hampered long by the English Channel, which can be swum across, is not credible.

    The Romani do in fact use the word gypsy to refer to themselves – A LOT.

    The Romani were a low caste of musicians and dancers in southern India.  People who respect book-learning are necessarily strong on oral histories, either.  Thirty-five years ago, 12 of my closest 13 neighbors were Amish, but these friends of mine claimed to know nothing of the origins of their community, although they happily volunteered details of events they have lived through. 

    You mention that the American Heritage dictionary refers to the word as “often offensive”.

    If you ask people to describe gypsies, they don’t describe hacks, nor itinerant dancers (although the Romani caste were itinerant dancers and musicians.) They describe an ethnic group of thieves, charlatans, prostitutes, and com-men.  There is much sympathy for Jews who died in WWII concentration camps, but a higher percentage of gypsies were “sent to the showers” than Jews.  It’s often how a word is used, not the word itself, that makes it offensive.  Nigger and ho are used by some in an affectionate manner, but if a stranger calls your girlfriend a nigger ho, it’s probably intended to be offensive, and nobody would fault you for responding with a “yo mama” insult.

     Gypsy no longer refers to just Romani people. It refers to any migratory person.

    I have heard a migratory ag workers called greasers, or beet hunkies, but never gypsies.  People are careful not to call Mexicans greasers or to call Hungarians hunkies, but they have the wrong looks to get called gypsies.

    I do find it disturbing that it seems almost transparent that you were rapidly trying to do research on this subject while you were talking and as a result missed a lot of information.

    It appears that Grant and Martha do a lot of research before they call back to record any segment.  They have too many details to be doing much on-the-fly lookup.  If they can research the segments for a one-hour show in less than, I’d be flabberghasted.  I’m certain they omitted much of the knowledge they learned in researching the subject, in the interest of being entertaining rather than drearily pedantic.  But your conclusions are built on a platform of assumptions, many of which are less than conclusive.

    Many of us on this forum post alternatives to what Grant and Martha suggest, and we discuss them.  As a result of these discussions, many of us hold G&M in high regard; they aren’t often wrong.  You’re welcome to join us here n a regular basis; I think you would make a welcome addition.  In any case, thanks for your post.    

  4. clidastes says:

    Actually, my comments are based on very extensive research, not assumptions. I started researching this when it first came to the contra dance discussion in October. I have references. I have a lot of information. AND I know for a fact that people who move around a lot are in fact called gypsies, or refer to themselves as gypsies, because I LIVED THAT LIFE. I had no home as a child. We moved constantly. We were gypsies. I always considered myself a gypsy. So, imagine my surprise when two weeks ago I learned that not only have I lived a gypsy life, I do in fact have gypsy blood. When I learned that, I did even more research. Where did these people come from? What was their migratory path? Why did they leave India? And even more – where did they come from before that? I traced their origins back to the STONE AGE! Guess what? Romani are more closely related to Europeans than they are to the rest of India. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to do research. I have a freaking PhD. All I do is research. And they are wrong, very wrong, on many of the comments that they made.

    And Gypsy Jazz does not just honor Django – he invented it.