BACK IN THE USSR
DANCING TO UZBEKISTAN
This is the last installment of a three-part series on Delilah’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1990. A portion of prior installments is repeated to bring the reader current with this issue. Delilah’s story is particularly important because this cultural exchange took place prior to the deterioration of the political structures and economic conditions in the former Soviet Union which made such mutually enriching exchanges possible.
Before I tell the story of my trip to the Soviet Union, I want to emphasize that it was a transformational experience. The trip was deeply rewarding on many levels, but its greatest effect on me was psychic and personal, and probably had little to do with Uzbekistan or the USSR. The story I’ll set out to tell you will be of the outer journey, for those interested in the mechanics of such a trip, and the evolution that such a delegation undergoes. But there was a profound inner journey made as well; this inner story will surface from time to time during my narrative. The trip had remarkable aspects, both positive and negative. The time, the conditions, the lessons, and experiences served as tools of insight and recognition. I’d like to thank Laurel Gray, from the bottom of my heart, for presenting me with this opportunity.
The story begins in Tashkent, the capital of the republic of Uzbekistan in the Soviet Union. There in January 1989, Laurel Gray received an invitation to bring a delegation of thirty performers, dancers, and theater representatives to the cities of Tashkent and Tbilisi, Georgia. It was to be a reciprocal arts exchange agreement between the Uzbek Dance Society in Seattle and the Union of Theatrical Workers in Tashkent.
Let me digress for a moment and say something about the dance form that was the seed from which this delegation grew. Uzbek dance is gathering a growing number of enthusiasts in this country, thanks primarily to the efforts of Laurel Gray to share her love of this dance and its culture. She has worked hard to bring this dance to our attention and to educate us about it; she formed the Uzbek Dance Society and publishes the bimonthly magazine Chasma to disseminate information about Uzbek culture.
Uzbek dance is not bellydancing; from my perspective, the two feel like different sisters. The Uzbek people are Central Asian, with Moslem and Turkic roots.
Like bellydancing, Uzbek dance is graceful, feminine, and exotic. It involves fancy footwork, spins, backbends, finger snaps, and an array of spirit-filled arm movements and hand work. The dance is emotionally centered in the heart chakra, and radiates out across the shoulders, through the arms and hands, and up the face and brow line. Bellydancing, by contrast is a dance whose emotional center is in the abdomen and solar plexus, and radiates up and out from there. Uzbek dance often feels blissful, modest, and girlish. It is a difficult dance to master, but a joy to study and watch. One of my functions was to present a traditional cabaret bellydance performance.
The night of our arrival in Tashkent each member of our delegation was faced with the challenge of bonding with his or her Soviet family. Each had begun this process with his or her brain chemistry a little altered. All were vulnerable and perhaps a little more accessible because of their exhaustion. We were in need of our families on basic emotional, physical, and intellectual levels. I remember so well meeting the eyes of the other Americans next morning at the union hall. They had this subtle enlightened look, having come through a transformational door. They had been allowed to finally get horizontal, acclimate, and bond with their families. The suggestion had been planted; we were all now members of the Soviet family.
The members of my family in Tashkent were European Jews. The two sons, Natoon and Sasha, were studying at the Medical Institute , and Ylena, the mother, taught music. The father, Feem, was a teacher and conductor of the orchestra at the institute. The boys had two friends that joined us most nights for dinner; Ed and Gary were Uzbek Jews. They explained that there were two synagogs in Tashkent, one European and one Uzbek, and that there were subtle differences between the two groups. Everyone in the family, except Feem, studied English; the boys were learning it at school and Ylena worked on it out of a book during her lunch hour. She was doing very well.
I must tell you that I fell in love with this family; I related to them as my own kin, my family for eighteen days. I never would have guessed that in my lifetime I would become that attached to citizens of the Soviet Union. They were very excited to have an American in their home. In previous years, it had been illegal for a foreigner to set foot in the private home of a Soviet citizen. They were eager to hear about life in America, asked many questions, and spoke openly about problems that they faced.
When I returned home in the evening after a busy day, they would lay out a delectable spread of chicken or fish, pickled vegetables, and bread. They strongly encouraged me to over-eat and poured me glass after glass of bottled water, Pepsi, and vodka. It was a great way to unwind after a crazy day with the delegation. We talked and laughed into the wee hours.
On the second or third night of my visit, Ylena asked Natoon to play the piano for me. He shyly sat down and began to play a song. It was a turbulent, passionate song which he sang in Russian; it was beautiful and heart-felt. I was awe struck, speechless. I felt compelled to dance for them in return, and asked if they had a cassette deck. They lead me to a small room with a bed on one side and their second piano on the other. They crowded in the doorway and along the windows so I’d have space to dance. I put on a tape of the new routine Steve had written for me for this trip to the Soviet Union, and danced in my street clothes. This was the first they’d seen me dance; my debut was rough technically, but thoroughly inspired. We all wept at the connection that had been made.
Sometimes our language limitations were a problem. They were trying to tell me about an uprising in Fangana where many people had been killed. They called it a war, but I’m not sure they chose the correct word. At other times, I wasn’t sure if “riot” and “demonstration” were words they easily interchanged.
Before the delegation arrived, we had heard stories in the news about uprisings. We quickly became oblivious to these stories, swept up with our own problems of language barriers, hunger, lack of sleep, excitement and performance commitment. As time went by, we became more and more aware of the dangers around us.
On the Sunday before we left there was a huge demonstration held a block or two from the Union Hall where we met every day. My family wanted me to spend the day with them, but I explained that I had a rehearsal and a show to do that night. They regretfully drove me to the hall. As we approached, there were military officers on every corner. The delegation hadn’t been told about the demonstration, and my family didn’t seem to know what was going on either. The Union Hall was locked, and as other delegates arrived, word came that we should not be on the street that day; it was not safe for Russians, whom we resembled. Some host families refused to bring their Americans into town. Two or three of the men in our delegation actually attended the demonstration. They reported that it was not violent, but was highly charged and exhilarating, as it teetered on the edge of violence.
There are many issues fueling the unrest in Uzbekistan, political, economic, racial, religious. The infrastructure of the Soviet Union is in flux. Many Uzbeks want the official language of the Republic to be Uzbek; they also want the Russians out. There are reports of Uzbek fanatics slashing Uzbek women with razors for not wearing traditional dress or for having Western hairstyles. One Seattleite returned home to report having seen three young Armenian women hanging by their necks in a tree outside of Tashkent.
At one time, my family called the Theatrical Union to find out where I was. Because they spoke Russian, the Union person who answered the phone would not talk to them. When I worked with both Uzbeks and Russians in a group, this kind of thing happened fairly frequently, and was very counter-productive.
The day we arrived in Tashkent, we flew away again for a day trip to the beautiful, ancient city of Keeva. We hoped it might give Laurel time to catch up with us before we were thrown into our performance schedule (it didn’t — she was delayed a week). It also gave the Union Hall time to translate our schedule into English so we could read it. When we got it we were pleasantly surprised to see they had made an effort to satisfy many of our desires and considerations.
As a group we decided to pool all money earned by performers, since not all delegates were actually performing, but we all needed rubles. The Theatrical Union had paid us each 100 rubles up-front when we arrived, so we felt under pressure to do as many performances as possible, especially the ones where tickets had already been sold.
But the Union also had unrealistic expectations about what we would be able to do, performing in two places at once, for example. We needed time to sit down and sort it out. Each day at 9:30 a.m. our host families would drop us off at the Union Hall, where we would count heads, address problems, and make the inevitable schedule changes.
We succeeded briefly in getting our schedule organized, only to have the Soviets rearrange everything again. It was frustrating; there was no place to store costumes, and I didn’t know what I would be doing before I left in the morning, so I found myself lugging a lot of stuff around all the time. I managed to pull my back out doing this; the pain gave a little extra spice to some of my performances.
We wanted to be a good, responsible delegation and comply with our schedule of performances. That didn’t seem to be a big priority with the Soviets, however. On one occasion, instead of taking us to the theater where we had to perform, the promoters took us to a party at a tea house and wouldn’t let us leave. At some theaters we weren’t supplied with technicians and had to do our own teaching as best we could.
I finally began to realize that the only response to the Soviet disorganization that would preserve sanity was to go with the flow. This is Alice’s Mad Tea Party, so just take all the craziness in and quit worrying about being too polite.
On the second night in Tashkent, Helen Noreen had to be taken to the hospital. During the night, a stereo speaker had fallen off a shelf above Helen’s bed and hit her face. Poor Helen; can you imagine such an accident so far from home, in your sleep, no less. Her nose was broken and she had to have stitches. In a typical miscommunication, the leader of the delegation was told that it was I who had been taken to the hospital. Helen almost went back to the States, but after conferring with a U.S. doctor, decided to stick it out and have her nose attended to when she got home. We took up a collection of flesh-colored bandages from our luggage so she could cover her bruises and dance when she felt up to it. One odd part of it was that her nose had healed before we left; it gave a strange sense of marking time to see Helen’s cut getting better each day.
The delegates had a wide variety of home-stay situations. Some stayed with Russians, some with Uzbeks, some with artists, some with police, KGB, Mafia, some we’re still not sure who the people were! Some host families caused problems by insisting their American guests accompany them to parties at times when the guests were scheduled for rehearsals or performances. A few delegates had to be moved from unlivable situations.
To have an American in your home was a prestigious thing; some of us were used as tokens of status. Some hosts even paid money to the Union to get an American visitor. Some Uzbeks were under the impression that if they hosted us, they would in turn get an invitation for a trip to the U.S., paid for by us! Eeek! Our exchange agreement was for performing artists, not host families. This misunderstanding between the Union and the hosts made things very uncomfortable for some of the delegates. I was one of the lucky ones; my family was very easy-going.
The performances themselves, as well as the venues, were quite varied. I had several pieces prepared:
-A nine-minute belly dance routine to new music written and recorded by Steve Flynn. I did this one sixteen times.
-A duet with Laurel Gray called “Dancing Detente,” to music by an Uzbek pop group called Yallah. We performed this twice.
– An interpretation of the flute solo “Syrinx” by Claude Debussy, recorded by David Schomer. Never did get to perform this one.
– A performance art piece entitled “Calling Up the Oracle for Peace”, done with Seattle visual artist Sarah Teofanov, to music written and recorded by Steve Flynn. Two art works used in the piece were community projects created in Seattle and Tashkent, and later given as gifts to the cities of Tashkent and Tbilisi. Other art works in the piece were constructed by Sarah out of found objects and local supples. We did this show four times.
One of our venues was a gigantic cinema house in which we did two shows a day. Kathy Balducci and Michelle Blackman would open, each doing a short dance number, followed by Robert Davidson’s unique and amazing dance done on low-flying trapeze. Then I would do my belly dance routine, followed by Tim Walsh’s 40 minute laser light show.
Sharlyn Sawyer and I performed with the Tashkent circus; this was a very exciting venue. They canceled all the animal acts that day and laid down a surface to dance on. I still ended up dancing on dog piddle. Oh well, it washed off! I was later told that this performance aired on Soviet television.
We did a show with a Uzbek pop band named Sado (“Echo” in Uzbek). The band is led by Vladimir Vladimirovitch Vladimirov, a very talented musician my husband met during his visit to Tashkent. The band played pop, rock and ethnic music. Other acts in the show were a popular female vocalist named Yulduz, a heavy-metal vocalist from Korea, an Uzbek male vocalist, Michelle Blackman singing jazz, an Uzbek belly dancer, and myself.
I also did an impromptu show at a tea house with Kizlarkahon Dustmukhamedova’s band. This one was it, very loose and informal, and the most fun I had belly dancing during my visit.
The most powerful shows we did were the two sold-out shows for women only at the Ilkhom Theater.
Delilah is an internationally recognized performer and instructor of bellydance. She is a partner in Visionary Dance Productions, which has produced her series of instructional and performance video tapes. Delilah holds an annual bellydance retreat in Maui. www.visionarydance.com