STARA ZAGORA, Bulgaria – Donka Hristova lets her mother pull her skintight mini-dress a half-inch down her leg. Checking her makeup one last time, she joins her two younger sisters in a provocative dance.
The Gypsy girl knows she has to look her best. She is, after all, on an important life mission: catching the eye of one of the hundreds of young Gypsy guys prowling around what locals have dubbed the "bridal market" to initiate a complex ritual of haggling that could lead to marriage.
Love's not exactly for sale here. But in the litter-strewn parking lot that hosts the fair, amid blaring Gypsy pop and saucy flirtation, negotiations are churning quietly behind the scenes as families weigh their financial compatibility along with the merits of the prospective bride.
Often, the future of entire families is in the balance as these Roma, among the most poverty-stricken people in a deeply impoverished region, seek to forge mutually beneficial unions that will help them weather Bulgaria's brutal economic downturn.
Globalization adds to the economic pressures. The families gathered here are part of a community of about 18,000 Roma known as Kalaidzhi, who traditionally make a living as coppersmiths. That trade is dying out, in part because traditional copper pots and pans are being replaced by less expensive goods from China.
Still, a festive atmosphere reigns at the bridal fair.
Most of the girls, even those too young to be considered for marriage, wear gobs of mascara, flashy jewelry and towering high-heels. The colors of the mini-dresses are flashy: electric pinks, blood reds, canary yellows. The boys wear tight black jeans and muscle shirts, often topped with a black leather jacket. The bleak surroundings don't dampen spirits: Some 2,000 people have shown up, many in cars rigged with speakers on the hoods to pump out Gypsy pop at full blast. Boys and girls dance side-by-side on the cars, shaking their hips in frenzy.
The exuberance stems largely from the fact that, due to the community's conservative values, the youths are so rarely allowed to mingle with the opposite sex. Kalaidzhi, who are almost all devout Orthodox Christians, are known to remove girls from school at 15 or even earlier to keep them from mixing with boys.
"I hope to meet new people and to see the parents of the boys, so our parents can meet him," says Hristova, who, at 19, is prime marrying age. "It's a good tradition. It's easier for us if our parents approve."
It starts, like a high school dance, with groups of boys and girls in separate clumps, occasionally shaking hands and checking each other out — while mom and dad stay discreetly in the background.
Apart from these twice-a-year bridal fairs, boys and girls only have contact in Internet chats. So Hristova is happy to leave the realm of Facebook and meet real young men. And at the fair, there is no shortage of youths held in thrall by the way she dances with her sisters, who also wear their showiest clothes.
"I want to find someone who is easy to get along with," she says, taking a pause from dancing in high-heeled sandals — "someone whose parents won't interfere after we are together, and someone who's not too rich and not too poor and has a job."
The event's reputation as a "bridal market" goes back generations. It used to take place in a muddy open field next to a horse-trading market in a small village, until police moved it into the city this year to avoid tension between the two pursuits. A generation ago, brides-to-be stood on stage with suitors competing for their hand. Those days are over.
Still, the flirtations can lead to negotiations and a possible union a few months down the road. If the youths warm to each other, the fair can trigger complex financial negotiations about the price a young man's family must pay to a woman's parents if they are to wed.
The cost of a bride — between 5,000 and 10,000 lev ($3,000 to $6,600) — has dropped in recent years as jobs have dried up. And wedding festivities are much more modest with cash so tight. But prices still rise for a "very beautiful" young woman with many suitors, said Velcho Krastev, who has written extensively about the Kalaidzhi.
Some contend this is an innocent payment for the cost of a wedding dress and the elaborate wedding feasts Roma favor. Others call it is the price families are willing to pay for their sons to win a woman believed to be a virgin.
"We are maintaining the morals of the children by marrying them off at a young age," said Kosta Kostov, a spectator at the fair. "If she's not a virgin, the bride's family has to give the money back."
He said Bulgaria's crushing financial slowdown, and the near total collapse of the coppersmith industry, has made it virtually impossible for his family to raise the money needed to find wives for his three grandsons, aged 18, 20 and 22.
"They have no jobs and their parents can't pay money to the bride's family," he said. "It's a crisis now."
The idea that a young woman must be a virgin when she marries has generally faded in many segments of Bulgarian society during the last 50 years. But it remains strong among the tradition-minded Roma, particularly those who follow Orthodox teachings.
The Kalaidzhi, unlike other Roma communities, do not allow girls to marry at an extremely young age — most are 18 or older. And they have started to modernize: It is widely recognized that the young people need to have feelings for each other.
"That is the first and most important step now," said Krastev, a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. "In the past, parents didn't ask the young people whether they liked each other. But the second step is that when they have decided they like each other and the parents agree, they start negotiating what the price will be for the bride."
Talk of brides being sold causes bristling among the Kalaidzhi, who represent a small proportion of Bulgaria's 700,000 Roma. They say the marriage fair is a tradition that actually works, keeping communities and extended families intact for generations.
Indeed, it is easy to find men and women in their late 30s and early 40s who met at a bridal fair two decades ago and today are hoping now to make matches for their children. Many who found a mate here five or six years ago come back to help their younger siblings or cousins get hitched.
Pepa Georgieva married her husband Kolyo in 2008 after a courtship sparked at the bridal fair. She came to this year's event to help her 20-year-old cousin navigate the sea of suitors.
"She is nervous and there are several grooms possible," Georgieva said. "She has not decided, and she can't decide by herself. We are asking her opinion but she also has to recognize our opinion."
That opinion doesn't hinge on the groom alone.
"I am here to meet the families," she said — "to see if they have the wealth to support the bride."
Valentina Petrova and Veselin Toshkov contributed to this report.