Migrations & Cultural Encounters: Uzbekistan
March 05, 2019
History of Silk Road cities in modern Uzbekistan
The “Silk Road” was a vast network of land and sea routes connecting great civilizations of the classical and medieval worlds. It was used from 130 BCE, when the Han Dynasty officially opened trade with the west, to 1453 CE when the Ottoman Empire closed the routes. (This launched the Age of Exploration, with Europeans seeking alternative sea routes to the Asia.)
The ancient Central Asian cities of Samarkand, Bukara, and Tashkent were strategically situated along the most travelled routes and became very prosperous. Merchants, monks, craftsmen, philosophers, adventurers, and artists from the East and the West converged, sharing their knowledge and creating an efflorescence of new ideas. The peoples traveling through cosmopolitan Middle Asia traded not only goods, but art, religion, philosophy, science and technology. Libraries and sophisticated schools of learning were established that got to work on translating ancient sacred texts into different languages. With its influx of peoples from as far away as Arabia, India, and China, the exposure to different ideas and cultures created an atmosphere of tolerance.
Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in Central Asia and the center of the ancient Iranian Sogdian (pronounced suhg-dee-an) culture, became the center of political, scientific, and cultural life in the 14th century. During his reign from 1337-1405, Tamburlaine (Timur the Great) gathered architects, craftsmen, builders, musicians, singers, and dancers from all the neighboring countries, and musical life flourished at this crossroad of various cultures and stylistic traditions.
This was a Golden Age in Central Asia, where Samarkand hosted huge celebrations for thousands of people, replete with circus acts, music, and dance.
“Music, song and dance,” says Susan Whitfield in her book Life Along the Silk Road, “were Silk Road commodities, bought and sold like silver and jade. Itinerant dance troops from India, Burma, Cambodia and Sogdiana performed at both the royal court and the public marketplace in every Silk Road town. Dancers and musicians from Sogdiana were renowned for their skill, and travelled as far as the Tang Dynasty where their whirling dance became all the rage.
Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes in Turkey, spent his childhood in and near Samarkand and surely saw these whirling dancers perform in town.
Uzbek dance is characterized by intricate arm and hand movements, shoulder isolations, turns and spins, backbends, and animated facial expressions. Footwook is simple and there are no hip isolations or leaps. There are 3 regional styles: Ferghana, Bukharan, and Khorezm.
Ferghana dance is soft and lyrical, and the most feminine of the Uzbek styles. Qualities include gentle wrist rotations, fluid arm undulations, and supple use of the spine. The carriage suggests shyness or modesty, and the torso is bent slightly forward. Musical phrases are punctuated with shoulder isolations and head-slides. Facial expressions are animated and playful while simple sprightly footwork carries the dancer quickly around the stage. Often the performer kneels on the floor for a sections of the dance. Coats made of Atlas silk are often worn in this style.
The classical style of Bukharan dance is the most physically demanding of the three schools of Uzbek dance. Deep back-bends, running on the knees, sudden drops to the floor and other acrobatic movements require years of specialized training. Spins and turns are especially important.
Many celebrated singers, dancers, and musicians were Bukharan Jews, who were famed for their knowledge of dance, and historically served as entertainers and female ritual leaders in the women’s quarters during the Islamic period when Muslim women were not permitted to dance in public.
Carriage is regal and self-confident. Movement qualities range from soft and undulating to quick and staccato, providing unexpected contrasts. The folkloric style, as typified by the sozanda (female wedding performers), remains almost stationary at times, focusing instead on facial expressions and intricate movements of
the hands and upper body. Traditionally heavy, elegant robes and headdresses were worn, though in contemporary times these have been replaced by lighter fabrics. Sometimes the dance is performed only to the accompaniment of a solo doira, the Uzbek drum. Here the dancer must also become a percussionist, with her every movement making the wrist bells match the drum beat.
The Khorezm school of dance possesses a unique quality. While not as acrobatic as Bukharan dance, nor as lyrical as Ferghana style, the playful, even mischievousness of Khorezm dance lends it a joyful energy. Bouncy traveling steps are used which do not occur in the other styles. While the head movement is used only to accent a phrase or is the focus of a specific movement in Ferghana and Bukhara dance, Khorezm dancers often use head isolations simultaneously with other movements of the arms and feet.
Most famous of all Khorezm dances is lyazgi, not to be confused with the lezgi of the Caucasus (although some musicians have suggested a relationship). Highly individualized, the dance uses various isolations of the shoulders and head along with quick and intricate arm and hand movements. Traditionally the dance performed virtually in place, on a lagan, or platter, though in contemporary performances dancers move around the stage. Traditional performers insist the ability to correctly perform the isolations and movements in an interesting manner while remaining in place serves as a mark of expertise.
The dance presents a zany, frenzied, and often comedic feeling. Some of the trembling freezes and the animal-like movements suggest a link with Central Asian shamanism, and it has been associated with healing. Traditionally an owl feather was fashioned in the hat, but that has been replaced by a colorful ostrich plume.
Artist Spotlight – Tamara Khanum
Tamara Khanum was the first woman in Central Asia to dance onstage without the paranja (veil) in the 1920s. She established a ballet school in Tashkent an impressive collection of world traditional ethnic costumes (on display at the Tamara Khanum Museum in Tashkent). She was awarded the State Prize of the USSR in 1941 and title of People’s Artist of the USSR in 1958. She was the first Central Asian artist to appear on the world stage at the Paris World Expo.
References and Further Reading
Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr
Dance scholar and artist Laurel Victoria Gray ~ www.laurelvictoriagray.com
The Splendor of Uzbek Dance part 1 – The Best of Habibi
The Splendor of Uzbek Dance part 3 ~ The Best of Habibi