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Reyhan Tuzsuz; our gift of Roman dance

By Jennet Shook

The 9/8, in some variations called the Roman, has long been a classic part of the Turkish Belly dancer's routine. Today belly dancers from around the world, practicing all styles, have begun to take an interest in the Roman as part of their core repertoire.

Roman dance of today is both a street dance, a folk dance and a performance art. It is solo improvisational, and often literally done on the street at weddings and events. In order to learn the most authentic form of this dance and to capture the essence of it, many dancers are coming to Istanbul, its natural epicenter. And in Istanbul, to take a class from a teacher who teaches in the way all Roman learn within a Roman neighborhood, one must take classes from Reyhan Tuzsuz.

A youthful and bright housewife, simple and sweet, Reyhan grew up in the same neighborhood as she still lives now, Gaziosmanpasa Istanbul. She lost her parents at a young age and was raised by her grandmother until marrying her husband Husnu at age 18. Their high school prom picture is the only photograph hanging from their walls.

Her life was a normal day to day sort, mothering her two daughters and taking care of the household as her husband supported them through professional violin playing at restaurants and concerts.

In 2001 things changed for this family. Through a mutual friend, Husnu was asked to give a violin lesson to a young American, and this Americans girlfriend asked if there were any women in the neighborhood teaching the traditional dance. Reyhan was not a teacher of course but had a reputation as an excellent dancer in the community, and so she consented to teach this young woman a lesson. What she didn't expect was for this dancer, Elizabeth Strong, to be such a determined learner and to be so well connected in the California dance community. When Elizabeth returned to America she began performing and teaching. Other dancers wanted to know more about the dance. Out of respect to the form and Reyhan, Elizabeth's first suggestion to a student would be to go to Istanbul and learn from Reyhan directly. Thus Reyhan began a very serendipitous career as a dance teacher.

Since that time, she has become a natural host to women from all countries. Her small collection of English words is miraculously adequate for meeting the needs of the students when they come to her home for their private lessons. From the first meeting in the town square through the market streets and down the tumbling, narrow stair steps into their neighborhood (where most Turks dare not go alone) She instructs her daughter to hold the students hand as they walk.

"Are there a lot of Roman dancers?" A dancer from the Czech Republic asked Reyhan.

Reyhan answers, "Yes. A lot of women are good dancers. But they are busy working at home. And they don't perform or teach class."

I ask, "do they want to teach classes?"

"Maybe, but they are incapable." She answers, "They get impatient and frustrated and annoyed."*

Reyhan says herself that before she was a dance teacher, she was also very frustrated and irritable, and considered herself less than cultured. Not only does the gratitude for her good luck keep her positive, but the many diverse students who come to her have taught her many things about the world and others, separating her from the rest of her community which is more sheltered, and certainly less cosmopolitan.

This impatience and frustration is not unknown to the Roman community. There is truth and perhaps reason to it considering the long history of persecution and marginalization against the roman. In turkey, Roman perhaps now more than ever have reason to be frustrated and feel persecuted as their neighborhoods are being systematically torn down.

Reyhan and Husnu recently lost their home; the home where she raised her children, the home where her husband grew up. The last few months have been a struggle for Reyhan and her family, readjusting to the ideas of bank loans, mortgages, a dispersed community and living in the center of town. During this time many of her beloved students and friends generously helped the family with the transition. All is not lost for them; with their new home comes great things; opportunities for a more diverse community, indoor plumbing, and the most exciting thing for Reyhan, a living room studio big enough for several students at one time.

Reyhan has no training or context for running a professional life as a dance teacher, her authenticity and energy and God given gift for movement keep the best Oriental and Roman dancers coming back to her year after year to examine her movements and add them to our repertoire (names like Artemis Mourat, Hadia, Eva Cernik, Helene Erickson are all admirers and students of Reyhan's).

"A choreographed Roman, is not Roman", Reyhan says as she refers to the immediate emotional content of the dance. And this is her opinion of how roman should be; you dance what is on your heart. She is a believer in the power of dance to heal. And although she has not directly admitted it to me, I have seen her acting out quite literally gestures related to the situations in her life, as if she can solve the problem there in that moment with the music.

Her commitment to improvisation is very apparent in the way she teaches her classes. No two classes are the same, and aside from the basic step, you may take a whole hour of class and not see a single movement repeated, let alone explained.

"Roman without passion is not roman at all" Reyhan says, as she instructs me on what this dance is really about. She defines its energy in the form of three nouns; "Strength, Freedom, Pleasure", also a reflection on the philosophy of a roman life.

Quite literally, the dance requires and creates those three things. The hips are open and relaxed as the whole body rests on top of loose muscles and strong bones. The kind of "throwing of the belly" that this dance involves cannot be done without real relaxation perhaps the greatest difficulty a student faces while trying to master multiple levels of footwork, hand gestures, pelvic thrusts and core spiraling. Once all these pieces are put together it seems as if they are dancing... but there is usually something missing; and perhaps it is the pleasure- an absolute core element.

"Everyone dances at weddings and circumcision parties. They all come out to dance and love to dance."

This is where Reyhan recollects her younger days, when at the wedding the women would call out her name and clear a space for her to dance. Being a professional dancer was not something she ever thought of, because of the negative connotation of being a professional dancer in Turkey. Only now does she look back and think of it as having been an option. But she says being a mother was the better choice for her. Even with her international accolades, Reyhan still to this day does not perform in Turkey. Her first professional performance was at the International Folk-Life Festival in Washington DC in April of 2007, at the age of 37. It was one of the better moments of her life.

Her desire to perform and be seen as a dancer is filled by her classes, where she puts on the music and improvises as we, her students, struggle to understand what is moving what and what is motivating what movement. If you ask, she will tell you. And if you don't speak Turkish, I am more than happy to come along and translate, as I never want to miss an opportunity to see Reyhan dance and shine, and watch a student discover such a beautiful form.

* this is not true of course, there are very capable and patient Roman dance teachers in the world. Reyhan is referring to her own community and experience.