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Uzbek Dance
A Short History


People's Artist of UzbekistanViloyat Akilova, circa 1966.


"Hearts respond to the strings!
Hands respond to the drums!
At the first sound of strings and drums, two sleeves were raised.
Like whirling snow, so graceful,
revolving in the opulent dance!"  
Bo 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 history.

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).





The bacha, 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.


The 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 chasmbands, 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 spiritual roots.










© 2011 by Carolyn Krueger. All rights reserved.
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