Uzbek Dance Part I
The Splendor of Uzbek Dance
Part One: Khorezm
by Laurel Victoria Gray
Imagine a captivating dance form possessing Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Indian and Chinese elements. Envision dances characterized by delicate arm movements, subtle shoulder isolations, dazzling spins, and animated facial expressions. Visualize soloists performing dainty head slides, dramatic back bends and sinuous arm undulations punctuated by unexpected staccato contrasts. Add to this combination a wardrobe of lavish Oriental costumes fashioned from brilliantly hued silks, sumptuous brocades and elaborate jewelry. The result gives a hint of the splendor of Uzbek dance.
But just who are the Uzbeks, and where on earth do they live? The answer creates confusion because Uzbekistan (once known as Turkestan) was one of the fifteen republics which comprised the former Soviet Union, causing some to assume that the Uzbeks are Russian. They are not. Like the United States, the Soviet Union was ethnically diverse, with over 100 different nationalities. The Uzbeks are a Turkic group related to Kirgiz, Turkmen, Kazakh, Uighur and others.
Traditionally, they are Muslim, although shamanism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity were once significant in this region. Although originally shamanistic, the nomadic Turkic tribes were extremely tolerant of other religions and some Turkic people converted to Buddhism. The Arab expansion into Central Asia brought Islam in its wake, and the Turkic peoples became Muslim. Arabic influences began to appear in language and culture. (Even today, the traditional greeting in Uzbekistan is the Arabic phrase “asalaam aleikum,” or “peace be unto you.”) In medieval times, some of the greatest centers of learning in the Islamic world were located in Central Asia.
The fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were important trade centers on the legendary Silk Road, a network of caravan routes which linked China with the Mediterranean. Only during the second half of the nineteenth century did Uzbek people come under Russian rule.
Three distinct political entities – the Khanate of Khiva, the Emirate of Bukhara, and the Khanate of Kokand – developed different dance styles: Khorezm, Bukhara, and Ferghana.
History of Khorezm Dance
Located in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan, the Khorezm region was once ruled by a khan. Its most ancient city is Khiva, which, according to legend, was founded by Shem, the son of Noah. In 1995, the city will celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of its founding, although the precise date is somewhat obscure. The inner city of Khiva, known as the Ichan-Kala, exists today as an outdoor museum and exudes all the flavor and mystery of an Arabian Nights fairytale. Not surprisingly, Khiva has been chosen for location shooting by several film companies. But this historic city is not an abandoned architectural site: nearly 2,000 people live within its walls.
Prior to the advent of Islam, inhabitants of Khorezm were Zoroastrians, or “fire-worshippers.” In addition to this religious link with ancient Azerbaijan, the dialect spoken by locals much more closely resembles Azeri Turkish than the Uzbek of Bukhara or the Ferghana Valley. With pride and self-awareness, Khorezmians remind visitors of their unique culture and traditions, dating back to their independent existence prior to their incorporation into the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.
Several famous Central Asian scholars hailed from Khorezm, including Abu Raikhan Beruni (973 – 1048 A.D.) and Abu Ali ibn Sina – known to the West as Avicenna – (980 – 1037 A.D.). The term “algorithm” derived from the name of the mathematician Al-Khorezmi, who identified the four branches of algebra.
Just north of Khiva lies the Aral Sea, scene of an ecological disaster of devastating proportions. This once huge inland sea is fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which have in recent times been diverted for cotton production, an extremely water intensive crop. As a result, the Aral Sea has shrunk and the runoff from pesticides used in the cotton fields has poisoned it. Fish have vanished from its water, ending a way of life for fishing communities. The salt left behind by the shrinking sea bed is toxic. Inhabitants in the area experience an unusually high cancer rate. Some mothers cannot breast-feed their babies because their own milk has become toxic.
Characteristics of the Dance
The Khorezm school of dance possesses a distinctive quality. While not as acrobatic as Bukharan dance, nor as lyrical as Ferghana style, the playful, even mischievous joyousness of Khorezm dance lends it a special charm. Several distinctive traveling steps are used which do not occur in the other styles; these steps share a bouncy, “up-and-down” quality. While the head movement is used only to accent a phrase or is the focus of a specific movement in Ferghana and Bukhara dance, Khorezm dancers often use head isolations simultaneously with other movements of the arms and feet.
Most famous of all Khorezm dances is lyazgi, not to be confused with the lezgi of the Caucasus (although some musicians have suggested a relationship). Highly individualized, the dance uses various isolations of the shoulders and head along with quick and intricate arm and hand movements. Traditional performers insist that the dance must be performed virtually in place, on a lagan, or platter. This element has almost vanished from contemporary performances. Khorezmians say that the way lyazgi is performed by the professional dancers of Tashkent disturbs them: “They run around too much. It makes us nervous. They don’t know how to dance lyazgi.” The ability to correctly perform the isolations and movements in an interesting manner while remaining in place serves as a mark of expertise.
Native performers of the dance impart a zany, frenzied, and often comedic feeling, absent from the polished presentations of many famous Tashkent soloists and dance companies. Some of the trembling freezes and the animal-like movements suggest a link with Central Asian shamanism with its trance state and animal spirit guides. Several Khorezmians asserted that lyazgi is a healing dance. (It certainly never fails to evoke a smile or laughter from pupils learning the dance, and perhaps this is the secret, since laughter has often been considered the best medicine.) Male dancers take the buffoonish elements of the dance to the extreme, mimicking cock fights or limping like a crippled person.
As elsewhere in Uzbek-istan, dance costumes derived from traditional clothing. The Khorezm chapan, a long-sleeved robe, was often made from adras, a silk and cotton blend woven in the flame-like ikat patterns. The chapan was worn over the everyday dress of men and women.
In Khorezm, men wore large sheepskin hats. Women wore different headdresses, often decorated with very elaborate jewelry. Typical for the dance was a large pillbox-style hat encircled with dangling pods which made noise whenever the wearer moved her head. A large, square, box-shaped amulet is attached to the top of the hat; this ornament was encrusted with pearls, turquoise, and other gems. The sides of the amulet were also decorated with tiny, musical pendants. Headdresses were embellished with eagle-owl feathers.
Another piece of jewelry hung across the breast, fastening into the chapan at the shoulders by means of sharp hooks. Three chains depended from these hooks, which were also ornamented with bell-like pods. Some of the breast pieces were quite elaborate and heavy, with pieces of turquoise, coral, and carnelian decorating the chains. All three of these semiprecious stones had “magical” properties for the people of ancient Turkestan.
Female Khorezm dancers sometimes wear bells, which add a percussive element to the hand movements and make the dancer also a musician. These bells, when combined with the special jewelry on the headdress and breast piece, literally amplify each tiny isolation and nuance executed by the performer. Modern costumes often dispense with these traditional costuming pieces altogether, with only a fluff of neon-colored dyed feathers to indicate a link with Khorezm.
Laurel Victoria Gray is President of the Uzbek Dance Society and Artistic Director of the Tanavar Dance Ensemble. Trained as an historian, she has authored numerous articles on various aspects of Middle Eastern and Central Asian culture which have been translated into German, Uzbek, Russian and Georgian. Laurel also created the video “Introduction to Uzbek Dance.” She has taught, performed and lectured extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, and the former Soviet Union. www.silkroaddance.com