Spiritual culture of our people has roots that go deep into the centuries, feeding its “juice” into the present-day art that develops following certain internal regularities and exists in complex interrelationship with social, political and economic environment.
Throughout many centuries the peoples of Central Asia and Turkey were connected by common history and culture, language and religion; both regions were often part of the same states, or, being divided by borders, closely interacted with each other. Central Asia and Turkey share many common traditions in the art of theatre and choreography. In this article we review the culture of dancing in Khorezm and Turkey.
There are few surviving evidence in the form of pictures or texts that prove the existence and development of the art of dancing in medieval Khorezm. Scarce information about dancing of that time compels one to resort to parallels in other art forms. Still one can safely say that the art of dancing in Central Asia never diapered and its traditions live on.
It is universally known that Central Asia is a historical homeland of Turks. Local Seljuk-Oguz tribes which created an advanced culture – a kind of a “steppe civilization” – had once left the boundaries of their native land and reached Anatolia where they founded a new state. In the 11th century the Seljuk state spanned across not only most of Central Asia, but also Iran, Iraq, large part of Caucasus and Mediterranean coast. The nation’s official religion was Islam. As a result, the Seljuk developed a peculiar culture in which Central Asian, Persian and Byzantine features are intertwined.
Although Islam partly allowed for music, it was strictly forbidden to write about the art of acting (1, p. 126). However, as some sources suggest, theatre and musical culture still developed in the palaces of local rulers of that time. For instance, the luxury palace in Termez built by sultan Mahmud Gaznevi and known as The Hall of Entertainment (2, p. 182) never did without actors, dancers and musicians. Historian Sadriddin Hussein also reports that the Seljuk palace hosted the performance of comedians (3, p. 23) in which dance is an essential component.
In late 11th century the dynasty of Khorezm-shahs came to power in Urgench and subordinated the entire north-western part of Central Asia, freeing Khorezm from the Seljuk. The state of the Khorezm-shahs reached it greatest might in early 13th century, with its boundaries stretching from the northern shores of Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, and from Caucasus to Hindukush. Medieval history upheavals, such as the establishment of strong nation-states, also influenced the development of art and all its forms, namely spatial, plastic, visual, as well as poetry, music and dance evolved in interaction. Creative ideas of the century played a cementing role in this process, encouraging the search for an integrated expression. As for the dance culture, there were two distinct trends in the way it was developing: a secular art of court dancing that reached its heyday in the 14th-15th centuries – the era of “Timurid Renaissance”; and a more democratic dance art that lived in urban trade and manufacture centres. In terms of its organizational form, it existed as professional associations of performers and musicians.
The art of dancing of that time is illustratively represented in oriental miniature that, despite all its poeticism and metaphor, allows an insight into medieval lifestyle with an almost photographic accuracy. Miniature gives us an idea about the type of dancing, the dancers, musicians, musical instruments, rope walkers, acrobats, etc.
Among the Uzbek schools of dancing, the one of Khorezm stands out in its remarkable uniqueness, rich and diverse heritage. Researching the dance art of Khorezm, the author discovered a rare edition of Turkish miniatures of the 17th-18th centuries. The comparison between dance elements pictured in these miniatures and contemporary movements of Khorezmian dancers recorded during field work in that area reveals similarities in their character, performance, costume and places of performance.
A 17th century miniature titled “Entertaining Evening” (4) shows a group of jesters moving in a circle in front of men sitting in a semicircle. The jesters are wearing (conic) hats and comic masks. The jesters make hopping moves, alternately raising one foot from the floor. The rhythm of movements is fast and energetic. The motion of a jester on the far left is particularly similar to a characteristic move in a Khorezmian dance irgitma ufar with its typical step when one foot is briefly thrust forward (5, p. 59). Amazingly similar are the elements of jester dance pictured in the miniature and Khorezmian dance maskharaboz ufori or gul ufori – a comic dance of the maskharaboz (comedians, clowns). Commonality is also found in costumes and head-dresses, but most importantly – in the type of movements and postures of the dancers. Remarkably, the maskharaboz are not wearing masks but have very expressive mimic of the face that was formerly covered by a mask.
Comedian and jester performance was quite common in Khorezm. Both in Uzbekistan and Iran these performances took place in a similar environment – on a small rug spread among the viewers sitting in a circle. The same kind of theatre-style performance once existed in Turkey and was know as orta-oyunu.
Social festivities or ceremonies such as weddings or traditional games could never be held without comedians, musicians and dancers. To become a comedian, one had to be witty and possess improvisation skill, be able to sing and perform pantomime jester dances, make funny movements, be a good imitator and perform acrobatic feats. Given such a diversity of skills that comedians must have, their mastery was always improving.
Clear impression about the character of the dance and dancers is given by the 18th century miniature “Dances and Games before the Sultan” (4). Already from the composition of the band and its sound (percussion instruments dominate) one can guess about the nature of the performance: rhythmically clear, energetic and passionate. A curious feature in how the dancers are pictured is the fact that, first, male dances are wearing women’s costumes (long skirts); secondly, they dance under their own accompaniment on kairak (castanets); thirdly, once can notice that the dancers have flexible and free-moving torsos and rounded arm line in the poses; transition from one pose into another is smooth and flowing. Another peculiarity is that all dancers are pictured in different poses – perhaps that was an improvisation dance? Jesters are in the front line: they are wearing men’s costumes and different head-dresses. This jester dance is different from the one described earlier as the movements are grotesque, with elements of imitation, play and pantomime.
Comparing the images of dancers and jesters, we find that dancers mainly work their arms and torso, and the amplitude of their movements and poses is greater and less constrained vis-a-vis jesters, whereas in the pictures showing jester dances we can see lesser amplitude and fast-changing movements and poses, as well as expressivity of arms and torso, but the arms movements represent day-to-day life gestures more than dancing motions. Here we can find more complex leg movement: knees half-bent, knees forward and knees sideward, with raising (or kicking) legs in the air backwards and forwards, probably while jumping. One should also note a similarity between movements and poses of the dancers in the miniature and the movements and poses of Khorezmian maskharaboz dancing: feet position in the jester dance is typical for the key leg movements in Khorezmian men’s dances.
Overall, the Turkish miniature provides a great aid for the studies of Central Asian art, including that of Khorezm, as the culture of both regions developed in interconnection. For instance, the 18th century miniature “The Performance of Acrobats and Dancers from Edirne” (4) gives an opportunity to see how the performances of rope-walkers, stilts-walkers, jesters and dancers were staged in medieval East. The miniature shows seven dancers wearing women’s attire: long skirts and round skull-caps with a plaited hair strand showing from under the caps. All of them dance accompanying themselves on the kairak. From the sight of it, their movements are soft and flowing. At the same point of the musical sound the characters perform different movements and poses as if in an improvisational dance.
The movements of a dancer second from left in the miniature present the most complete coincidence with the movements in Khorezmian norim-norim dance. The Turkish miniature also shows a rope-walker on a high tie-rope. We should note that rope-walking has always been and remains a very common and popular entertainment in Khorezm. Rope-walkers were even able to dance on the rope, performing different acrobatic tricks. People of this trade were raised and trained in several regions of Central Asia, led the life of ramblers and wanderers and were popular in Iran, Turkey and Caucasus.
Men wearing women’s dress was common in the performance of bacha dancers (in Khorezm they were known as uglon). The evidence of this is found in the memories of travellers and artists (A. Wamberi, A. I. Samoilovich, V. V. Vereshchagin, L. E. Dmitriev-Kavkazskiy).
We should note that information obtained from literary and visual sources and materials gathered by the author during expeditions to Khorezm provided a unique opportunity to analyse and draw parallels between Turkish dances pictured in the miniatures and traditional Khorezmian dances, which demonstrate the existence of ethnic and cultural connections between these peoples.
1. Рахманов М. Р. Узбекский театр от древнейших времен до 1917 года. Ташкент, 1981.
2. Пугаченкова Г. А., Ремпель Л. И. История искусств Узбекистана. М., 1965.
3. Sadriddin al Hyseyni. Ahbar uddevlet selcukijde. Ankara, 1943.
4. Ettinghausen R. Turkish miniatures. UNESCO, 1965.
5. Каримова Р. З. Хорезмский танец. Ташкент, 1975.
6. Martinovitch N. N. The Turkish Theatre. New York, 1933.