Uzbek Dance III

The Splendor of Uzbek Dance

Part III: Bukhara

By Laurel Victoria Gray

This is the final article in a series describing three forms of Uzbek Dance: Khorezm (Vol. 14, No. 2), Ferghana (Vol. 14, No. 3), and Bukhara.

Historical Background

In October of 1997, the Uzbek city of Bukhara celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of its founding. Archeologists have found artifacts dating back to the third and fourth centuries B.C. As an important city on the Great Silk Road, Bukhara felt the influences of Greek, Chinese, Indian, Arabic and Persian cultures. Shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manicheism, and Islam have all been practiced here. Theories as to the origin of the name Bukhara bear testimony to the various peoples which have left their traces here. One account links the city with the term vihara which means Buddhist monastery. The Zoroastrian word bukhar, meaning “source of knowledge,” was mentioned by Hafizi Tanish in the sixteenth century as the root of the city’s name.

Laurel Gray (second from right) with Travis Jarrell (far left) on location in Bukhara for a TV shoot with local dancers.

Just before Bukhara fell to the Arabs in 708 AD, an able queen, known in historical annals simply as Khatun (literally, woman or wife ) ruled for fifteen years. She was remembered as capable and wise; her subjects were loyal to her. She held the Arab intruders at bay, making peace with them and sending them tribute. Khatun held court daily in Bukhara’s main square, issuing orders and proclamations. She also was known to give out robes of honor to those whom she deemed worthy, a custom still observed in present-day Uzbekistan.

After Khatun’s death, her son Tughshada came to the throne, but the city was seized by a vazir named Vardan Khudah. This internal strife made Bukhara ripe for plucking by the Arab conqueror Qutaibah, who captured the city and set Tughshada back on the throne. Tughshada converted to Islam but after his death his sons tried to return to the old religion. A revolt led by Muqanna and his followers—known as “people in white raiment”—tried unsuccessfully to rebel against Islamic rule of the Arab caliphate in Baghdad.

Yet another wave of invaders were the Mongols who devastated Bukhara in 1220. One of the gems of ancient architecture of the pre-Mongol period is a small tomb on the outskirts of town. Its out of the way location spared it from destruction by the Mongols, but eventually it was forgotten, neglected and covered with sand, only to be rediscovered in this century, perfectly preserved.

The conqueror Tamerlane, born in Shakhrisabz, made the rival city of Samarkand his capital. His vast empire included the territory of present day Iran and Uzbekistan. His descendent Babur (1483-1530) established the Mogul dynasty in India. Not surprisingly, the North Indian classical dance known as Kathak, which flourished under the Moguls, shares a kinship with Bukharan dance.

Bukhara endured the Mongol devastation and eventually reestablished itself as a power center ruled by an emir. The emirs of Bukhara frequently skirmished with the Khans of Khorezm and Kokand, two rival kingdoms in the territory of Turkestan.

Often referred to as “Holy Bukhara,” the city developed a reputation as a spiritual center. Not only was a major madrassah established here, but Bukhara became important to Sufism as well. The Sufi saint Bahauddin Naqshband (d. 1389/90), who wrote profoundly spiritual poetry, is still revered today, and his tomb near Bukhara is a place of pilgrimage.

Early in the 1700s, czarist troops began to launch attacks on Central Asian khans as the Russian empire pushed its borders eastward. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Khiva and Kokand fell to the Russians, as did Bukhara eventually. During the chaos which followed the Bolshevik revolution, there was a brief attempt to establish an independent Turkestan, but by 1924 the regions of Khorezm, Kokand, and Bukhara were absorbed into the new Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. It was not until August 31, 1991, that Uzbekistan achieved independence.

Until the recent waves of emigrations to Israel and the United States, Bukhara had a significant Jewish community. Many celebrated singers, dancers, and musicians were Bukharan Jews. Famed for their knowledge of dance, the Akilov family has given Uzbekistan many talented dancers and choreographers. All have emigrated to Israel with the sole exception of Violat (“Vika”) Akilova, who still teaches today in Tashkent. Her father, Isakhar, created many of the solo and group dances which are modern-day classics of the Uzbek dance repertoire.

Characteristics of Dance

Bukhara’s proud history seems to have been crystallized in its dancers. Carriage is regal and self-confident. Movement qualities range from soft and undulating to quick and staccato, providing unexpected contrasts. The folkloric style, as typified by the sozanda (female wedding performers), remains almost stationary at times, focusing instead on facial expressions and intricate movements of the hands and upper body. The heavy, elegant robes and headdresses lend even the most simple gestures an air of majesty, especially when performed by a group of women standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Wrist bells accentuate hand movements, which include wrist circles, undulations and flutters.

Sometimes the dance is performed only to the accompaniment of a solo doire, the Uzbek drum. Here the dancer must also become a percussionist, with her every movement making the wrist bells match the drum beat. Also used by folkloric dancers are flat river stones, known as kairoki, which are played like castanets.

The classical style of Bukharan dance is the most physically demanding of the three schools of Uzbek dance. Deep back-bends, running on the knees, sudden drops to the floor and other acrobatic movements require years of specialized training. Spins and turns, which exist in several variations, are especially important.


Persian miniature paintings, travelers’ accounts, historical annals and old photographs all help to piece together a picture of traditional Bukharan dress for women. Straight-legged pants were worn under silk dresses. Voluminous dresses or robes went over these garments. Made from heavy brocade or velvet, these robes and dresses were rich and sumptuous. The art of gold-thread embroidery known as zarduzi was once a closely held secret of Bukharan artisans. Embellished with elaborate designs, the embroidered garments were destined for the emir and his court. Strict sumptuary laws restricted lower classes from wearing garments above their social status. Jewelry was made from either gold or silver, and ornamented with pearls, and precious and semiprecious stones, often valued for their reputed magical properties.

Although women wore the crown-like tillyakosh (literally, “golden eyebrows’’), the tall peshanaband today remains most characteristic of Bukharan costuming. This embroidered piece of fabric is sewn on a stiff buckram backing. (Not surprisingly, the very term buckram derives from the word Bukhara.) Draped from the back of the peshanaband is either a fringed silk shawl folded on the diagonal, or one or more diaphanous veils.

Contemporary Bukharan stage costumes are often lighter and more form-fitting than traditional ones, with chiffon replacing the rich brocades and velvets of the past. Another alteration is the narrow fitted sleeve which eliminates the numerous gestures which incorporated the wide-sleeved robes of the past.

Laurel Victoria Gray is President of the Uzbek Dance Society and Artistic Director of the Tanavar Dance Ensemble. Trained as an historian, she has written 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. Her classes in Bukharan dance are part of the curriculum at the annual Central Asian Dance Camp in Santa Fe, NM.

Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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