Dance is an integral part of life in Central Asia; it can be seen both in rural settings and on the proscenium stage, from highly developed virtuosic classical styles to nuanced and subtle folk-dance forms.
Western audiences might be surprised to learn that Central Asia has ancient and classical music and dance tradition, like ballet: Shashmaqam (meaning the ‘sixth maqam’ in Persian). This classical tradition was patronized in the multi-ethnic royal courts of Bukhara and Samarkand by the emirs, much like ballet was patronized in the French court of King Louis XIV.
Tara Catherine Pandeya is second-generation dancer, cultural activist, choreographer and bridge-building artist who is dedicated to the promotion of dance from the Central Asian Silk Road. As a principal dancer with Cirque du Soleil, she performed 1,500 shows on 5 continents. In 2015, she became the first Westerner to perform in ‘Lola’ the National Ensemble of Tajikistan. In 2017, Tara won prize at Berlin’s ‘Forecast’ Festival for ‘Raqsistan’, a one-woman dance piece, and got funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct dance research in Pakistan. She has performed in 35 countries for UNESCO, with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and given talks at at Cambridge, SOAS, Stanford and Panama Universities. Her choreographic and dance projects have been featured in the New York Times, on BBC and in ‘Dance Magazine’. She is the 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar at Roehampton University’s Center for Dance Research, pursuing an MA in Dance Anthropology.
As a second-generation dancer and foreigner who has been passionately studying, practicing, researching, seeking out and performing traditional and contemporary dance forms from the region of Central Asia for nearly two decades, I often hear, following my performances or after a social dance gathering, the phrase ‘it is in your blood’. Audience members often say ‘you must have some … (Uzbek, Tajik, Afghan, Uyghur or Persian etc.) blood in you to be able to dance the way you do!’ Although the statement is made with the intention of being a compliment, it also sheds light on the way our society devalues dance and dancers as skilled and disciplined working practitioners. Additionally, as a foreigner to these dance traditions, some may question my qualifications to undertake this dance work. But at the very least I can claim a long-term dedication to the subject, having invested my life, time, and limited funds back into a continual search for dance knowledge from master dancers in Central Asia and those from the Central Asian diaspora.
Zaragol Iskandarova, one of my dance mentors, was a revered and iconic dancer who came from the Pamir Mountains of Badakhshan, Tajikistan. When asked about dance, she said she ‘would become sick without two or more hours of dance practice per day’. Another example of this type of artistic discipline comes from the famed doira master Abbos Kosimov from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When I performed in Abbos’ jubilee concert this February 2020, I sat in on 5 to 8-hour rehearsals with him and his musicians. He mentioned in a rehearsal one day that he would practice alone 6-7 hours a day as a young doira artist. Abbos is a virtuoso of the doira and his artistic work habit and dedication, in the form of daily practice, remains unwavered today, as I observed first-hand behind the scenes of his last production. I myself have practiced 5-8 hours a day during intensive creation periods and a minimum of two hours a day daily for decades to maintain a creative and physical habit.
Countless examples of this dedicated work ethic in the performing arts include respected living dance artists such as Mamura Ergasheva, Qodir Momenov, Farohat Saidova, Malika Kalondarova, Dilafruz Jabarova, Sogdiana Israilova, Narziddin Shermatov, Zeynab Farzada, Amon Musov, Viloyat Okilova and so many others, whom I acknowledge, but cannot give a complete list in this short piece of writing. The nuanced work of these master artists is clearly reflected in the hours and decades of practice that they have invested into their art-making as contributors to performed heritages and creative contemporary dance works.
Read more: Shashmaqam – Music and Poetry of Central Asia
It is certainly true that some people are born with natural talents or propensities toward dance. But when a naturally talented artist couples her or his abilities with deliberate and sustained practice, the results are undeniably noticeable. In Tajikistan, for example, dance performed by the non-professional dancer may be understood through the concept of ‘hunar’, the Persian word for skill or talent, not as kasb, profession, relating to something of societal value which requires rigorous study and knowledge to acquire. However, it is a myth that a dancer with solely exceptional hunar (skills) can become kasbi (professional) without years of discipline in mental and bodily labor, which is required to prepare the dancer’s body for artistic performance work.
What does a person’s body go through to form a professional working dancer’s body? Dance training in Central Asia, for most dancers, begins at an early age. It requires total submission and discipline through which one’s instrument- in our case, our bodies- is molded. What might seem like an unnecessarily tedious and lengthy preparation, is a necessary labor for the dancer.
The task of dance artists in Central Asia is two-fold: 1) to execute the dance with the precision of movement and emotion and 2) for the dancer to continuously work to keep her or his mind and body sharp even in dormant periods between performances, learning to skillfully navigate complex socio-political, cultural, and economic contexts while still displaying professionalism in the face of widespread misconceptions surrounding the role of the ‘raqqosa’ (dancer) in society.
Intricate and traditional dance choreographies in Central Asia were created with thoughtful intention by individual artists. Traditional dance gestures are living, breathing forms that evolve with different bodies and once created, they do not stay frozen in time, like a museum piece.
For example, on my 2006 trip to the Pamir Mountains, I observed folk artist Oyatsho Shohidariyoe perform a spirited horse dance “raqsi aspak’, which he danced with pronounced vertical lines. Nine years later, in 2015, I reconnected with Oyatsho, and performed with him and his 14 year-old daughter during the Khorog ‘Roof of the World Festival’. I noticed his daughter interpreted the same traditional choreography with distinctively serpentine and horizontal lines, unique to her flexible arms, which her father mirrored, thus expanding and altering the quality of movement in this deeply traditional and signature ‘horse dance’ piece. This is a clear example of how traditional dance is not static, but rather it is shaped by things, such as individual bodies, the aesthetics of society, the periods with which works are created in, and the environment, creating nuanced and ever-evolving artform.
In order to subvert cliched and outdated narratives about dance, the art of dance as an intellectual pursuit must be recognized and supported by the communities from which these art forms spring. Dancers are theorists; we think on our feet while in action. Likewise, choreographers are writers. We use our philosophies to deepen our movement perspectives to create new works. As choreographers, we write our arguments and choices through arranging our bodies in space.
Why then is dance as an art form often marginalized and not appreciated as an intellectual act, requiring great discipline and intentionality? The fundamental perception of the body being inferior to the brain is an age-old prejudice: by privileging the mind and subordinating body, the body is forced to represent that which the mind is not, as a counterbalance.
There is a large disparity between how dance is used for art, propaganda, and cultural events when compared with the actual treatment of working dance artists. I believe we can change our thinking by giving greater respect and education to our respective performed heritages.
The stereotype that a ‘dance tune’ is necessarily upbeat, peppy, and happy perpetuates the myth that dance is a one-dimensional artform. It trivializes the vast capacity and repertories of dance. Particularly in Central Asia, dance forms exist for every occasion from rites of passage, to death dances, dances pantomiming folktales, daily chores, regional environments, indigenous animals, staple food crops, seasonal celebrations, and expressing the full range of emotions through poetry.
Cliches associating contemporary, innovative, and progressive attributes with the West, versus traditional, stagnant, and nationalistic qualities with the East, limit opportunities for artist’s individual expression and self-definition.
The lines between the traditional and contemporary are often seamlessly blurred by professional dance artists in Central Asia. Central Asia did not experience an industrial revolution on the same scale as Europe. Artists inhabit, embody, and understand both worlds; for example they might visit their family in a village on the weekend and live and work in an urban city exposed to pop culture and world trends through the internet during the rest of the week. For this reason, professional dance artists in Central Asia are well equipped to straddle the past and present, acting as time travelers, transporting their audiences into liminal spaces.
Here is master artist Sherzod Ergashev- playing a cover of James Brown’s ‘I feel good’ – reinterpreted for the Central Asian Tanbur:
Some might be surprised to know that some of the most celebrated contemporary dance artists and choreographic minds of the 20th century have origins in Central Asia and Caucasia. For example, Robert Joffrey of the famed Joffrey Ballet Company is a choreographer of half-Afghan parentage, George Balanchine, the Founder and Director of the New York City Ballet, was of Georgian parentage, the ballet virtuoso Rudolf Nureyev was of Tartar heritage, ballet superstar Tamara Toumanova was of Armenian-Georgian parentage and the former director of Marinksky Theater Farukh Ruzimatov was of Uzbek origin.
Inspiration for one of the most controversial and famed ballets, the ‘Rite of Spring’ by Vaslav Nijinsky, drew inspiration from ethnographic sketches of dancers from the Central Asian steppes and paintings by Nicholas Roerich. Nijinsky mined for the avant-garde in the antiquity of Central Asian dance imagery, regalia, and movement vocabulary to produce this iconic choreography, which was restaged by dance choreographer Pina Bausch, one of the most celebrated contemporary choreographers in the world.
Is the work of iconic dance artists purely in their blood or is it in their laboring bodies? Much sweat, blood, and creative thought was devoted to the production of these masterpieces which are recognized and performed around the world today.
Classical and contemporary, are borderless definitions of dance which have origins in Europe and the United States and therefore reflect European and American ideals, environments, culture, and aesthetics. These dance forms are not preceded by the adjectives ‘ethnic’, ‘character,’ or ‘folk’ and are recognized as international genres of dance. Central Asian dance forms require equal levels of artistic craftsmanship, however, these dance forms have not been accorded the same visibility and respect on the world stage as dance mediums which are part of our communal heritage.
In this era of heightened xenophobia, it is crucial to reveal intersecting points in our shared histories, to help remove the fear of ‘otherness.’ If dance practitioners are not recognized as actors of intangible heritage, vital pieces of our humanity and collective history will be lost. When dance forms like those of Central Asia remain unseen and marginalized, we in turn are deprived of vital pieces of cultural inheritance.
Inspired by the beauty of music and dance from Central Asia and using universal themes, I created an original choreographic production called ‘Raqsistan’ (Land of Dance), in collaboration with Central Asian musicians and singers Abbos Kosimov, Sardor Mirzakhojaev, and Rahima Mahmut. I conceptualized and choreographed the production based on the human emotions of fear, otherness, sadness, bliss, and anger. It used traditional Uyghur, Tajik, Afghan and Uzbek dance vocabularies and music in a contemporary setting- mining avant-garde concepts from antiquity:
I invite you, particularly communities of the Central Asian diaspora, to examine the lenses we use to filter the stories and histories we are told, about performing artists and perceptions about which mediums of art are seen to be ‘high art’. The spectrum through which our world dance heritage has been communicated, both on the world stage and in the field of academia, must be rebalanced and expanded. It starts with you – how will you contribute to a renewed perception and reorientation of your own enduring culture and its performed heritage?
Support dance artists, be thankful if you can return to work during this pandemic period, and keep in mind the next time you watch an ephemeral art form, which thrives on communal participation and viewership, the hours of sweat that were shed to create these fleeting moments of nuanced beauty.