A Short History
respond to the strings!
Hands respond to the drums!
At the first
sound of strings and drums, two sleeves were raised.
snow, so graceful,
revolving in the opulent dance!"
Juyi (772-846 A.D.)
As in bygone times, today's Uzbek dancer invites us to share in the
hospitality of the moment, to open our hearts and senses to the joy
of living, and to join in her celebration of the feminine. Her artful
and sensuous emotional and aesthetic expressions summon catharsis, awaken
archetypes and enliven the spirit. Uzbek dance has traded influences
with the dances of India, China, Persia and Arabia and elements of this
seminal tradition can be traced all the way from Japan to Eastern Europe.
Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic which gained independence
in 1991, is an Islamic country in Central Asia lying on the fabled
Silk Route and considered part of the greater cultural area known
as the Middle East. The native language of the Uzbeks belongs to
the Turkic family, but most Uzbeks are bilingual in Uzbek and Russian,
and many also speak the ancient Persian dialect of their culturally-related
neighbors in Tajikistan. Along with a rich reservoir of folk dances,
Uzbekistan is home to one of the world's oldest professional dance
traditions. Writings of Chinese poets and historians from the first
millennium A.D. show that the professional dance tradition of the
area we now call Uzbekistan predates the 6th century (and Islam)
when dancers and musicians from the legendary Silk Route centers
of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent were already resident artists
in Chinese courts.
Photo by Wojciech Fry-Lewis.
In contemporary Uzbek dance, the aesthetic integrity, rhythmic
and musical structures, and expressive qualities of the original
genre are maintained within a modern theatrical framework. Highly-regarded
professional dancers appear each day on television and throughout
the year in theaters and outdoor festivals and at celebrations
held in hotels, restaurants and homes. Take away television, and
for modern theaters substitute opulent palace halls, silk tents
and rich merchants' homes, then replace restaurants and hotels
with taverns, caravanserais, chaikhonas
(teahouses) and the ichkari
(women's quarters) and you will glimpse this Central Asian dance
tradition as it existed for much of its nearly two thousand-year
Today, this inherently female art is practiced almost exclusively by women. At the advent of the Soviet Era (1921-1991), however, and for hundreds of years before that, it was also practiced by professional dancing boys (bachas) who played an important role in their gender-segregated society. The bachas, who donned feminine wigs and silk dresses, performed publicly and privately, mostly for men-only gatherings, in chaikhonas, palaces and the homes of the wealthy. The domain of female performers, on the other hand, included private women's gatherings as well as private entertainments within royal and upper-class urban settings where men were present. It seems clear that the practice of gender segregation with regard to performing arts, which is largely attributable to Islamic convention (which penetrated the area by the late 8th century), has fluctuated somewhat in response to geographical, political and socio-economic conditions and has not been absolute, especially as applied to non-Muslim female performers (e.g., Jewish and Armenian).
whose primary goal was to be purchased or employed by a wealthy
master, became a casualty of the October Revolution of 1917, which
outlawed the buying and selling of human beings. The revolution
also set out to liberate Central Asian women from their cloistered
way of life and, theoretically, allowed them to perform in public.
Nonetheless, societal injunctions in place at the time of the revolution
required all urban women to cover from
head to foot when outside of the home. This was accomplished with
two garments which were worn over the woman's indoor attire. One
was the paranja,
a cape-like coat worn on top of the head and draping all the way
to the ground. The second was the chasmband--a
rectangular length of black mesh made of horsehair which covered
the face and neck. The woman, though entirely concealed by these
garments, could see clearly through the chasmband.
issue of veiling fanned the flames of opposition to public performances
by women. So fierce was this opposition that one of the first actresses
who dared to perform publicly under the new regime was murdered
by her own brother--with the approval of her husband. There were
several such incidents, but the crimes did not go unpunished by
the authorities and, eventually, old attitudes were overwhelmed
by many factors, not the least of which were Communist decrees
prohibiting the wearing of paranjas
and state sponsorship of performing arts schools and ensembles
where female artists flourished.
Contemporary Uzbek dance is classified into three styles--Bukhara, Khorezm
and Ferghana--which correspond to the three kingdoms that were joined
to form modern Uzbekistan early in the 20th century: the Bukharan Emirate
(which was divided between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with Uzbekistan
retaining the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand), the Khanate of Khiva
(the ancient kingdom of Khorezm) and the Kokand Khanate (situated in
the Ferghana Valley and containing the now-capital city of Tashkent).
These three refined styles are distinguished by variations in movement,
expression and costuming. Inextricably linked with the Tajik tradition,
the highly-rhythmic Bukharan style, which is usually performed with
wrist bells, is the most vigorous with its swift turns, plunging backbends
and rapid and angular head, arm, hand and torso isolations. The vibrant
Khorezmian style, another rhythmic style performed with wrist bells,
features complex quivering motions which were traditionally performed
in place. The soft, lyrical and elegant Ferghana style offers the broadest
range of emotional expression.
The evolution of Uzbek dance and its musical accompaniment have
been guided by a variety of cultural influences, including mystical
ones. Islamic spirituality is reflected in the many dances employing
movement and gesture expressive of classical songs with lyrics
from the Sufi (esoteric Islamic) poetic tradition. At the same
time, the folk and classical traditions of the Bukharan region
owe much of their development to Jewish artists who, beginning
with their migration from Persia more than 1,000 years ago, have
served in Bukhara as the primary performers for Jewish and Muslim,
secular and religious functions alike. Further, the varied, intricately
ornamented and dynamic movement vocabulary of Uzbek dance contains
evidence of Central Asia's enduring ties to its pre-Islamic, shamanistic
© 2011 by
Carolyn Krueger. All rights reserved.
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by any means constitutes violation of copyright.