Lazgi is a must-see of Khorezm. Lazgi is the dance with a feel-good factor, making you feel a joie de vivre or zest for life. There is an opinion that the meaning of the ancient word ‘lazgi’ is ‘tremble,’ which describes a very energetic movement of the body along with the vibrant musical rhythms and expressive facial mimics.
Rosa Vercoe is an independent dance researcher. She is based in St Albans (United Kingdom). She is passionate about promoting Central Asian art and culture in the United Kingdom. Her main interest lies in Uzbek dance and its history and origins.
On 12th December 2019, during the 14th session of The UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Bogota (Colombia) the Khorezm dance Lazgi was inscribed onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICHH).
UNESCO recognizes the need for safeguarding certain forms of cultural production. They protect the local knowledge and authentic cultural practices against the erosive trends of globalization, to promote intercultural dialogue, build respect for diversity, and ‘other ways of life’. Lazgi fits all these criteria embodying the wealth of Khorezm history, culture, national character, and ways of life.
Lazgi is an ancient dance created by Khorazmians – inhabitants of the downstream areas of the Amu-Darya River, or Oxus/Ox as the ancient Greek authors termed it. The history of Khorezm Lagzi is closely linked with the ancient Khorezm, which ‘emerged in the junction of sedentary and nomadic peoples with different cultures and was located south of the Aral Sea, in the delta of the Amu-Darya River, in the oases surrounded by the large deserts –the Karakum, the Kyzylkum, and the Ustyurt plateau. This ancient kingdom occupied a vast territory including not only northern Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan, but also northern Turkmenistan and part of southern Kazakhstan’. The dance survived through thousands of years despite many wars, social upheavals, changes, and natural cataclysms that happened in The Khorezm Oasis.
The history of Lazgi is wrapped in a shroud of legends and myths, which makes it truly magical and mysterious. The most well-known legend is about how God created a human body that he could not bring to life because the soul did not want to enter the body. Everything changed, however, when the soul heard an irresistible melody: a soul, charmed by the energetic musical rhythms, entered the body gradually bringing it to life. That is why Lazgi starts with a slow introduction, then a dancer takes a static pose with the arm raised and directed to the Sun, followed by a sequence of the one-by-one movements: first fingers and wrists, then arms, shoulder, neck, torso, and legs: the whole body starts moving and trembling through the combination of spins, backbends, neck and shoulder slides. The rhythm of the dance gradually accelerates, fueling it with more heat and energy, bringing it at the end to a nearly ecstatic feel of pure joy and happiness. The legend about a soul merging with the body thanks to Lazgi rhythms is beautifully narrated and performed by a popular Uzbek singer Hulkar Abdullayeva in this video. No wonder, this dance helped the ancient Khorezmians to survive long harsh winters along Amu-Darya!
According to Gavkhar Matyakubova, the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, a Khorezm-based art historian, author, choreographer and the head of Lazgi School in Urgench (administrative centre of Khorezm), Lazgi is 3000 years old. Matyakubova has developed a classification of nine forms of Lazgi – “Maskharaboz”, “Qayroq”, “Surnay”, “Dutor’, “Saroy-bazm’, “Garmon”, “Changak”, ‘Chanak’, and “Khiva”.
Maskharaboz (Clown) Lazgi is an element of Maskharabozlik – ‘one of the types of Uzbek spectacular arts. In the past it was a demonstration of buffoonery, harlequinade and imitation. In other words, it was a performance of an actor in a mask (maskharaboz).’
Historically, Maskharoboz dances originated in an archaic pantomime and ritual dances of the ancient hunters who used to disguise themselves as animals covering their bodies with furs, and faces with animal-like masks. Ancient dancers were perfect in mirroring animals’ and birds’ behavior and imitating their sounds. Maskharoboz Lazgi is the reflection of totemic beliefs in a mystical connection between animals and humans. It is traditionally performed by men, and nowadays, it is particularly popular in the Monaq village of Shovot District, located just 37 km from Urgench. In the past, Maskharoboz used to entertain crowds in bazaars, squares, and courts. ‘At the turn of the XIX and XX centuries buffoonery began to be combined with the art of rope walking.[…] Also, the masks were subsequently replaced by original make-up’.
Despite the intentional ‘silliness’ and simple jokes, Maskharoboz demonstrates an amazing combination of skills – all blended in the form of a traditional outdoor circus-like theatre with dancers, story-tellers, jugglers, illusionists, puppeteers, mimes, acrobats, rope-walkers, stilt walkers and even fire-swallowers. Quite often, maskharoboz can make a mockery of the rich and powerful criticizing their greed, stupidity, and hypocrisy causing the crowds to roar with laughter.
Maskharoboz type of Lazgi is popular in Khorezm to these days as can be seen in this video taken by the author during the ‘Raqs Sehri’ (Magic of Dance) Festival in Khiva in September 2019. The dancers are wearing chugurma – a traditional Khorezm-style headwear for males.
Qayroq Lazgi gets its name for the use of qayroq – an ancient castanet-type percussion instrument, comprised of two pieces made from smoothened stone and a bar of metal – a perfect accessory for the dancers and the vibrant rhythmical accompaniment as demonstrated in this video by a young dancer from Khiva.
The name of Surnay Lazgi is associated with the surnay, an ancient musical wind instrument. In the past, the dance was performed by fighters before going to a war as a sort of a ‘warm-up’ to heighten their spirits and bravery. The dance was also performed after the battle in celebration of the victory (Matyakubova 1993: 29). With time, Surnay Lazgi became the dance for a special occasion or an important event: ‘as a rule, it [surnay] is used to notify about important events in someone’s life (about a wedding ceremony, for example), in the life of a community (about folk festivities, sayils, holidays such as Navruz, etc.); or about spectacular performances (shows of puppeteers, ropewalkers, etc.)’. Nowadays, Surnay Lazgi is very popular for its uplifting spirit, ideal for happy occasions and celebrations as it is shown in this video by Dilnoza Artikova, the winner of the national award ‘Nihol’ and one of the best performers of Khorezm Lazgi.
Garmon Lazgi is performed under accompaniment of the garmon: ‘Garmon (Russian diatonic accordion, which became widespread among Khorezmian khalfa’s in the XIX century) was popular with khalfa’s – female performers who are known as talented folk singers, musicians, composers and songwriters. In the past, due to Islamic traditions requiring segregation of women and men during celebrations, khalfa’s entertained women in the female share of the houses (ichkari). Sometimes they were invited by Khorezm shahs and officials to entertain women and girls living in the courts (Matyakubova, 1993:37). Often, khalfa would perform as part of an ensemble including musicians – doirachi or qayroqchi – and a dancer (raqqosa). Khalfa’s performances are popular in Khorezm to this day during weddings and other family and community occasions.
Dutor Lazgi is performed under a dutor’s accompaniment – a traditional long-necked two-stringed musical instrument popular in Central Asia. Dutor Lazgi is a female dance by which women can express their inner feelings, love, dreams and sadness with the body’s intricate movements and animated facial expressions.
People living in Oqdarband village of Qo’shko’pir District in Khorazm Region are famous for their Changak Lazgi (video). Khiva Lazgi style is popular in Khiva, particularly the dance on a plate, which is technically the most difficult dance requiring a dancer to perform vigorous dance movements while standing on a plate or a raised platform as demonstrated by Dilnoza Mavlonova, the Khorezm dancer in this video: Dilnoza is personifying the Zoroastrian Goddess Anahita, whose image in today’s Khorezm is still very important. There are variations of Lazgi, including a humoristic Poqa-Poq in this video performed by Hulkar Abdullayeva.
Saroy-bazm Lazgi was born in the post-Zoroastrian period following the introduction of Islam in Khorezm in the VIII century. The new rules, prohibiting female dancers in a public domain, reduced the dance into a private entertainment in the home environment, thus it was suitable for restricted spaces only. This type of Lazgi is now a historical past of Khorezm.
Khorezm Lazgi: how it all started?
In 1937, a well-known Soviet archaeologist, ethnographer, and academic, Sergey Tolstov embarked on a wide-scale ethnoarchaeological expedition to explore the mystery of the ancient Khorezm Empire: the expedition that executed numerous excavations and conducted intensive research (interrupted by war in 1941 -1945) ended in 1991, following the disintegration of the USSR. Tolstov was the head of the expedition for 50 years.
The discoveries of this remarkable expedition shed light on many aspects of the ancient Khorezm, including dance. Tolstov discovered numerous sites dated back to the Neolithic and Bronze eras, confirming that ancient Khorazmians performed pantomimes and ritual dances in masks mimicking animals and mythological creatures. With time, these primitive pantomimes developed into different groups of dances. According to L. Nasibulina, a lecturer from the State Dance Academy of Uzbekistan, Haivon ufari were the simplest pantomimes, openly mimicking the habits of animals, birds, fish but their actual purpose was to associate some animals’ habitual traces with human behaviour. Yusup Kizik Shakardjanov (comedian and dancer from Ferghana) and Rakhim Allabergenov (a dancer from Khorezm) – both well-known Uzbek folk performers of XX century – called these dances masalla (fantastic stories) due to their humoristic, farcical and satiric nature. Taklid ufori were farcical, humoristic, and satiric types of dances showing typical daily activities of people with certain occupations – fishermen, shepherds, shoemakers, cooks, barbers, hat makers – and associating them with the funny side of human characters (Ibid:21).
Syncretic by origins – wholesome by spirit
The Uzbek academic, Professor Isa Djabbarov, one of the key members of Tolstov’s expedition, describes the nature of religious beliefs of the ancient people of Central Asia as syncretic: the elements of primordial religious systems- totemism, witchcraft, cult of nature, animism – were observed throughout the whole ancient period (people neighboring Iran in the 1st century BC). According to Gleb Snesarev, another member of Tolstov’s expedition, ‘the supremacy of the developed religious system – Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and others – does not exclude a parallel existence of the relics from the pre-existing forms of religion at certain stages of social development’. He noted, for example, that in the past, the Khorezmians practiced some totemic rituals propitiating the Amu-Darya River by bringing to it sacrificed animals (a bull or a sheep). The rituals show sacralization of water resulting in a cult of Amu-Darya, associated with a general concept of fertility attributed to women and nature (Ibid: 238 – 239).
Professor Djabbarov interprets Anahita (the Zoroastrian Goddess of Water and Fertility) as a symbol of the matriarchate traditions of Khorezm. During celebrations dedicated to Anahita, the Khorazmians would pray, recite talismanic phrases, and perform various dances, which played an important role in the formation of the scenic dance of Khorezm (Djabbarov 2014: 242).
Ancient Khorazmians believed in amulets, protecting them against the ‘evil eye’. According to Matyakubova (1993:46), for example, a feather attached to the left side (close to the heart) of the traditional headgear worn by female Lazgi dancers, tah’ya pat bilan is a remnant of totemic beliefs as it is shown in the oil painting of a contemporary Uzbek artist, Dilorom Mamedova.
The invasion of the Arabs in Central Asia in VII-VIII centuries brought a radical change in the official religious beliefs and practices but it did not, however, achieved a complete erosion of the pre-Islamic rituals which over time received some Islamic overtones, and replaced images of the ancient mythology with the new ones, according to Snesarev (1969: 265).
He explained the remnants of shamanism in Khorezm due to the territorial closeness to the steppes occupied by nomadic tribes, which kept shamanistic rituals and totemic beliefs and slowed down the spread of Islam (Ibid: 20). Doira, for example, was the attribute of Central Asian shamans, used since the ancient times. With time, however, doira lost the connection with the shamanic rituals; it is considered as one of the must-have instruments for the Uzbek traditional dancers. Doira sounds hold together the rhythmical structure of the dance as it is demonstrated in the stunning duo performance of Tara Pandeya and Ustad Abbos Kosimov in this video.
Worshipping the fire
The body language of the ancient Khorezm Lazgi was influenced by Zoroastrian beliefs that worshipped fire and the Sun in the pre-Islamic period. Zoroastrianism was widely spread in Central Asia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. A number of scholars suggest that Khorezm was one of the oldest centers involved in the formation of the Zoroastrian religion. A number of kalas (ancient townships), explored in great detail by the Tolstov expedition, discovered petrographic drawings with dancing men and women. The Hall of Dancing Masks was part of a fortified citadel and township of Toprak-kala, the royal residence of the kings of Khorezm. This was a saintly place – its walls show sixteen male and female dancers dancing in pairs and wearing goats’ masks.
Ruins of Toprak-Kala. Credit: Dr Gai Jorayev
In Zoroastrianism, all seasonal celebrations and other important events of the community and families’ lives were held around the fire, that is why these days Lazgi has some elements resembling movement around a bonfire. Fire was perceived as a protective charm against demonic powers. An ancient healing ceremony (alas) performed with a flaming torch circling around a sick person’s body with some talismanic phrases was based on the belief in the sacral powers of the fire (Snesarev 1969: 40-41). Some relics of Zoroastrian rituals can be observed in Khorezm to this day: for example, new brides have to follow a special ritual around the bonfire before entering a new family house, etc.
In terms of the dance lexicography, Lazgi has obvious elements of fire worshipping: for example, the Lazgi dancers lift their arms upwards directed to the Sun, trembling their wrists similar to the rays of sunshine or bursts of flame, moving around the bonfire in a circle. The dance around the bonfire had a therapeutic effect on people’s mental state taking away worries and anxieties of everyday life. Professor Djabbarov mentions that some of the emotive language expressions, used in Khorezm to this day, are the remaining signs of Zoroastrian fire worshipping: ‘djakka’, ‘avva, hey, avva’, ‘kishtak-kishtak’, ‘oh, ohay, ohaya’ (Djabbarov 2014:245).
Suppression and segregation of women during public events lead to such a phenomenon as bacha dancers who replaced female dancers. In Khiva, they called them uglon bala whereas in Bukhara they called them bacha. The dances, traditionally performed by women, become an occupation for young boys dressed like women. In Khorezm, boys at the age of 8 to 10 would start their training under the guidance of the dancers and singers, who finished their performing career (ustoz). The apprenticeship would take from 4 to 5 years: as a result, these boys would become skillful dancers. Uglon bala wore a female dress, full makeup, long hair (his own or a wig), shokila – a Khorezm-style chest-covering jewelry set, and bracelets, zangs. The dancer’s head was covered with a shawl. During the performance uglon bala would get into the character of a woman (Djabbarov 2014:249).
Vasiliy Vereshchagin, a well-known Russian artist and traveler, describes the ambiguous role of bacha dancers. On the one hand, bacha dancers were treated with admiration and given presents, but on the other hand, they could be subjected to exploitation and discrimination (Vereshchagin 1883: 53-56). No wonder their photo images show signs of some sadness.
Bacha dancers played a very important role in preserving the art of the Uzbek dance. Without them, the traditional forms of Uzbek female dance could have been lost in their entirety.
Ever Evolving Lazgi
M. Kadyrov, a well-known researcher of the Uzbek performing arts, mentions that in the Middle Ages, Lazgi transformed into a series of dances from a sole chamber dance to a group dance accumulating hundreds of new movements, engaging the whole-body muscles, including facial muscles and mimics, eyes and eyebrows, and adding various intricate dance compositions. With time, Lazgi branched out into a system of different genres different in content and genre attributes, including common, ritual, heroic, lyrical, comic and caricature dance.
According to M. Kadyrov, in the XVI-XVIII centuries, Khiva became a cultural center of Khorezm accumulating the best of all arts and culture of that period, synthesizing all expressive means and, subsequently, creating a magic blend of musical, theatrical and dance actions, that brought a cohort of performers with multiple talents (Ibid: 66).
Skillful dancers could earn quite a good living as some Shahs used to give the dancers generous handouts and lavish presents. The most talented performers – singers, dancers, musicians and poets – were always an essential part of special receptions organized in honour of important guests and overseas visitors.
The syncretic performing culture of Khiva continued to blossom in the XVIII-XIX centuries: this was reflected in the records and commentaries by Russian and foreign travelers, who were amazed by musical, dancing, and performing skills of the local residents. Natural musical and dancing talents were apparent among all – professional performers in service of the courts, amateur dancers using their skills as a supplementary income, and ordinary residents of all ages and status.
In the Soviet Union
Lazgi became a stage dance in the mid-1930s thanks to contributions made by Tamara Khanum, Gavhar Rakhimova (sister of Tamara Khanum), Anash Chulak and Ravia Atadjanova. The performing style of Khorezm Lazgi was enhanced further thanks to contributions made by Komiljon Otaniyozov (1917-1975), the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan (1949), Turkmenistan (1964), and Karakalpakstan (1968). He composed a song (based on the poem of Komil Khorezmi) which for the first time set a precedent for using words of the song as the accompaniment for Lazgi, as demonstrated in this video with the famous dancer Gulchehra Ismailova. On the whole, Otaniyozov made a remarkable contribution to the formation and development of Khorezm Song and Dance Ensemble thus enabling preservation of the unique Khorezm folklore.
The humoristic film ‘Precisely at 7pm or Khiva-style Divorce’ shows the best features of the Khorezm dance, mimic, traditions, costumes and a charming humour of the Khorazmians. In 1975, Razia Karimova, the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, a well-known dancer, choreographer and actress published a textbook ‘Khorezmskii tanets’ [Khorezm Dance] that included a full collection of movements and positions typical for Khorezm dance.
The dynamics in developing Lazgi can be observed in the film Khorazm raqs san’ati ustalari shot in 1959-1960: it includes performances of such legendary dancers like Karim Ollaberganov, Yusuf Jabborov, Zarif Latipov, Jumaniyoz Esjonov, Yogubjon Temirova, Saraxon Xalfa, Tamara Khanum, Gulchehra Ismoilova, Gavhar Matyakubova and others, whose contributions were preserved and developed further by the current generation of dancers.
How do the Uzbeks preserve traditions and pass them on to the next generations?
It is impossible to disagree with Lubov’ Avdeeva, a well-known historian of Uzbek choreography, that Khorezm dance ‘creates a dynamic image of a continuous harmony of a human with the nature and poetic universalization of eternal timeless values of life’. It remains the best way of expressing love, kindness, happiness and community spirit of Khorezm to these days.
Dr Razia Sultanova, the UK-based musicologist and scholar of Central Asian music and musicology, explains the resilience of Uzbek traditional culture (including all genres and forms) which has survived throughout centuries in the face of numerous wars of conquest in the ancient past, and political upheavals in the IX and XX centuries. The power of traditions is rooted in Nazira – a medieval aesthetic code which means an unconditional respect for the older generations of masters ‘by creating one’s work within the boundaries set by their predecessors. Before self-expression through innovation, an artist first had to follow the rules founded by predecessors in that particular art form. Only then could deviations from the standard form be accepted. This practice preserved a strict framework for the content’ (Sultanova 2014:7). Despite the new socialist cultural policy of taking the art out of confined spaces and bringing it to the masses, this relationship of the old masters, ustoz and their young apprentices have kept the traditions alive. According to Dr Sultanova, the training system based on ustoz -apprentice relationship goes back to the early medieval times: ‘historically, there were a great many professional guilds [Mehterliks] in every single part of this area with its strong focus on traditional culture, and also around the courts and palaces, where knowledge transmission by the Ustad-Shogird method was considered to be the only way of teaching and learning’.
The success and originality of Khorezm Lazgi is rooted in the consistent following of the old masters of Lazgi that has been carefully adapted to the current performing practice. Lazgi continues to represent a splendid image of the rich history and culture of Khorezm, its spirit, traditions and love to people.
The author would like to express her acknowledgement and gratitude to Gulsara Dustova, Dilorom Madraximova, Dilnoza Artikova, Sherzod Kenjebaev, Shirin Jalilova and Dr Gai Joraev for their valuable advice and support.
 Matyakubova, G 1993, Ofatijon Lazgi. Gofur Gulom Publishing House, Tashkent.
 Nasibulina L 2019, Istoriya Uzbekskogo choreographicheskogo iskusstva [History of Uzbek Choreographic Art], Navruz Publishing House, Tashkent, pp. 16-17.
 Djabbarov, I 2014, Drevniy Khorezm – strana vysokoy kultury I unikalnoy dukhovnosti (Etno-istoricheskie ocherki [Ancient Khorezm – the country of a sophisticated culture (Ethno-historical essays)], IEA RAN, Moscow, p.63.
 Snesarev, G P 1969, Relikty domusulmanskih verovaniy I obryadov u uzbekov Khorezma [Relics of pre-Muslim beliefs and rituals of the Uzbeks of Khorezm], Nauka, Moskva, p. 23.
 Kadyrov, M K 2013, Trudy po istorii zrelishchnyh iskusstv Uzbekistana v 3h tomah, Tom III [Works on the history of visual arts of Uzbekistan in 3 parts, Part III], San’at, Tashkent, p. 62.
 Karimova, R 1983, Tancy Ravii Atadjanovoy [Dances by Ravia Atadjanova], Publishing House named after Gafur Gulyamov, p. 15.
 In: Karimova, R 1975, Khorezmskii tanets [Khorezm Dance], Publishing House named after Gafur Gulyamov, p.7.
Sultanova, R 2014, From Shamanism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Culture in Central Asia, L.B. Tauris, London, p. 66.