They whirled like tops, long braids trailing, sprung into jumps and dipped into deep backbends. Then, with a coy head tilt, they dropped to their knees and softly waved their arms like scarves. It.s no wonder that dancers of Bukhara and other regions of Uzbekistan gained such a reputation that in the days of the Silk Road, they were sought after by the courts of Chinese emperors. Robed in shimmering fabrics, the dancers looked like they had stepped out of a fairytale and I wanted to know the story they were telling. After the performance, I flagged down the instructor and between my minimal Russian and a barter of the Uzbek soum, she let me partake in her next dance class.
Traditional Uzbekistan dance is typically a narrative of a story or an event, rather than of self expression, and its wide repertoire shows the importance of dance to its culture. Katta Uyin (the Great Game), is a multi-part epic based on the ancient legend of a deity named Siyavush. Other dances celebrate events such as Navruz (the spring equinox), weddings, or depict tasks such as silk weaving or farming. In addition to being agile, dancers must also be precise, as each movement of each body part, right down to fingers and eyebrows, contributes to the narrative. I wondered if a dancer had ever altered plotlines with just a circle of the wrists or a sly wink to the audience.
In dance, expression is as important as the technical execution of steps. I liken it to languages, that one needs a proper accent and an understanding of the culture, not only grammar and vocabulary, to be fluent. Getting used to that expression is the awkwardness that I experienced in that Uzbekistan dance class. Keeping arm movements soft while the isolations of other parts of the body sharp was a challenge; especially difficult was the restraint of hip movement which is so common in most modern dance styles. Costume was another matter – my face often got caught in my veil as I was glancing everywhere to check that I was on the right steps. I, as the instructor said, which I later translated from Russian, stood out like a white crow. Being fluent in one dance style certainly does not guarantee that one can dance them all!
I have only just brushed the surface of a dance style that dates back thousands of centuries. To tell the stories that these dancers do requires not only rigorous physical conditioning but also dedication to learning Uzbekistan.s history and culture. It makes me wonder what our modern dance styles say about our culture and how they may be interpreted in centuries to come.