ad 4
ad 4 Artemis

The author with Makhingul Nazarshoeva in 2007, getting ready to perform at the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the peace treaty that ended the Tajik civil war.

The author performing the Uzbek dance “Munajot” at Mendocino Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp, 2007.
Choreography: Viloyat Akilova.
Photo: Robert Coutts.

Nasiba Davlatkhodjaeva dancing Rapo, as part of the “Expressions of the Pamir” tour. click photo for enlargement

The author performing Rapo near Los Angeles, 2006.
Photo: Dana Trout.

Gilded Serpent presents...
The Land of Dance
Part One
Robyn C. Friend, Ph.D.
Video features: #1-Introduction by author
#2- A Map Tour on an ancient and modern map

In more than three decades of studying Iranian dance culture, both in Iran and in the Iranian Diaspora, I have been struck many times by the many contradictory attitudes that Iranians seem to have about dance.   A woman, for example, may say she loves dance but does not know how, and yet when persuaded onto the dance floor reveals herself as a highly proficient dancer.  Parents want their children to learn to dance, but not to dance in public or as a profession.  It seems that many Iranians don’t see dance as an art form at all, but more as an occasional social activity.  And yet they do appreciate really good dancing, and give honor to the professional dancer whose performance reflects what they value in their culture.

It seems as though opposing cultural forces are dueling to establish what will be the accepted social mores of the Iranian people.  I have wondered at the origin and nature of these opposing forces: could they be the ancient values of Zoroastrian Iran at odds with the monotheism of Islam (brought to Iran by the Sunni Arabs in the 7th century)? 

Or perhaps the duel began with the Safavid enforcement of Shia’ Islam as the state religion of Iran at the beginning of the 16th century, which led to the criminalization of public dancing and other “secular arts”, and the exile of many dancers, singers, and musicians from Iran. 

I decided that one means of investigating this hypothesis was to learn the dance and culture of areas with a strong Iranian cultural heritage, but a different religious heritage.  Such areas can be found in Central Asia, specifically in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as they were never part of the Safavid Shia empire, but were part of an earlier Iranian Empire at a time when Iranian culture was considered the most beautiful and the most worthy of imitation.

One of my motivations, therefor, for learning Central Asian dance (In addition to its intrinsic charms) has been to see what might remain there of the ancient roots of Iranian dance.  It seemed to me that Central Asia might provide a clue about what dance in pre-Safavid or pre-Islamic Iran might have been like.

On a study trip to Uzbekistan in 2002, I learned a dance[2] that is performed to a particular piece of music called “Munajot” (“supplication”, in Arabic).  The music for this dance is played at Uzbek weddings, and was composed to accompany the singing of a classical mystical poem by the beloved Uzbek poet, Navoi.  In this poem, Navoi evokes the images of our longing for God the Beloved, and our inability to reach God: a young woman goes to meet her lover in a moonlit garden, but he does not arrive to meet her; she suddenly sees him and is happy; but then she realizes it was just an illusion, and he was never there. 

That this dance is performed as a portrayal of a highly-regarded classical, mystical poem is a powerful illustration of a current difference between Central Asian dance practice, and that of Iran.  In Iranian culture, mystical poetry of the classical period is considered the highest form of art; by comparison, traditional dance is not even considered an art.  In Central Asia, however, these two elements – dance and mystical poetry – can be fused in a combined artistic form that expresses the deepest emotional longings of a people.  Such a fusion would never take place in traditional Iranian dance.

In 1999, I had an opportunity to meet Makhingul Nazarshoeva, the director of a performing group from eastern Tajikistan. Makhingul agreed to teach me if I could come to Badakhshan, and intrigued me by saying:  “We always dance to mystical poetry; we call it maddoh".  She said that they even dance at funerals, with the funeral procession to the cemetery led by dancers, "because it’s not a sad occasion, we are happy, our friend is with God".

I became determined that I would get to Badakhshan someday to learn more about the music and dance of this area, and this intriguing fusion of dance and poetry.  A few years later, I found myself in the company of my long-time friend Sharlyn Sawyer (the director of Afsaneh Art and Culture Society) on our way to Badakhshan with a fully-paid grant, on the first of many trips to Tajikistan, and studies with a variety of dancers and musicians.

That first trip was like a dream come true, a daily unfolding of miracles.  For several weeks, we daily met dancers and musicians in Dushanbe, in Shahr-i-Nav, and in Badakhshan, where I was able again to meet Makhingul Nazarshoeva. 

I’ll leave out the details of the 20+ hour trek in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle to Badakhshan from Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan, to Khorog, capital of the Badakhshan Autonomous Mountain Region: the stony and bumpy dirt road, with frequent deep pot-holes; the rain runoff washing out the road, forcing us to drive down the cliff face, across a river, and back up again; the mere 3 hours spent sleeping in a room with 15 fully-occupied beds; the teahouse breakfast of green tea and Twinkies.  When we arrived in Khorog at 4:00 pm on a Friday afternoon, we were exhausted, elated, and hungry.

Breakfast at a teahouse on the road to Kharog, 2005. photo:Sharlyn Sawyer.

Along the road from Dushanbe to Khorog, 2005. Photo:Robyn Friend

Badakhshan is the land of the high Pamir mountains, with peaks to 22,000 feet, and narrow river valleys; these valleys start around 7,000 feet, and go up towards the sources of the rivers, the melting snow at the peaks of the mountains.  Habitation is only possible at the bottom of these river valleys, with agricultural cultivation taking up as much of the narrow flat plain as possible, and then up the steep hillsides as necessary.  Life is difficult:  there is no indoor plumbing at all in the villages, electricity only in some places, and that only for a few hours a day.  Water comes from the nearest pipe that has been stuck into the side of a hill.  Toilets are of the outdoor squatter variety.  Winters are harsh: snow can fall very thick, and temperatures get very low.  Cooking in summer is done on outdoor fires, on an indoor tandoor in the winter. 

Communication with the outside world is difficult and expensive, and nearly impossible during the winter. 

Khorog, a town of 25,000 people, by far the largest of Badakhshan, is a little more modern, with flush toilets, part-time running water, and electricity that is somewhat more available than in the villages.    But it is still fiercely hot in the summer, and closed to the outside world by the snows in the winter. 

With the aid of our guide, translator, and soon, friend, singer and musician Samandar Pulodov, we soon found Makhingul, and the next day she was with us, giving me my first lesson in ‘Rapo’, the national dance of Badakhshan.

The name ‘Rapo’ refers to many things:  a rhythm, a melody, and a style of dance.  It can be choreographed or improvised, a solo or couple dance, a dance of flirtation, or a mystical dance. 

Rapo is a dance that Badakhshani children learn at home and in school.  In its many variations, it has a continuity of features that make it easy to recognize: the music has a distinct and unique musical meter, that starts at a slow tempo and ends fast; the steps at the beginning are confined to the beginning of the dance, and not used later; the final part includes spins of a uniquely Badakhshani type.

Rapo turned out to be a great beginning for my studies of Badakhshani culture.  Being able to dance Rapo in people’s homes showed that I was capable of and serious about learning their culture.  It expressed non-verbally my appreciation of Badakhshani life and proved a gateway to communication.  When we danced Rapo together, we became, for a moment, just human beings, more alike than different, expressing our joy in movement.

End of part I

In part II Robyn talks about life in Khorog and her experiences in Badakhshani villages.

The beautiful Bartang River valley in late summer. Photo: Robyn Friend.

If you would like to watch these videos in higher quality, click again on the video. It will take you to the YouTube site where you can select the high qaulity just below the imbedded screen

Map Tour

[2]   I learned the dance Munojat from People’s Artist of Uzbekistan Viloyat Akilova.  Please see my articles about Viloyat on my web site:  Look under “Robyn’s Publications”.

[3]   Islam has two major divisions, or sects:  Shia’ and Sunni; the majority of Muslims are Sunni.  The Shia’ sect is further divided into those that believe that the 12th Shia’ imam was the last (these are often referred to as “Twelvers”), and those that believe that the 7th Shia’ imam was the last (“Seveners”).  The Seveners are also known as the Ismailis.  Iran after the Arab conquest was originally Sunni; it became predominantly Twelver Shia’ with the conquest by the Safavid dynasty in 1501 CE.  Central Asia is largely Sunni; as noted above, Badakhshan is Ismaili (Sevener Shia’). For further reading, see A Short History of the Imailis by Farhad Daftary, Marcus Weiner Publishers, 1998.

[4]   Badakhshan is the eastern-most portion of Tajikistan.  It is almost completely filled with high mountains (a part of the Pamir range) and fast rivers.  Due to the lack of arable land, it is sparsely populated.  Due to the harshness of the climate and the extreme difficultly in getting there and back (even today!), is experiences considerable culture isolation, and therefore has maintained many cultural practices distinct even from the rest of Tajikistan.  The population are largely Ismaili, and speak Iranian languages more closely related to ancient Sogdian than to modern Farsi (the principle language of modern Iran) or Tajik

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
10-8-08 Dance - Deeper than the Moves by Keti Sharif
A dancer who feels “safe”in the rhythm, footwork, technical movement feels grounded and secure as she dances. A grounded dancer will be less "in her head”and allow the authenticity of feeling to come through her body as a flowing, emotive movement that expresses the music and how she “feels”the music.

10-6-08 "Just feel the music when you're on stage!”Interview with Ozgen, Male Turkish Belly Dancer, by Nini Baseema
Well, I think my heart still beats for big shows and productions, as much as I know how stressful and difficult that show-life can be. I seem to not be able to live without it.

10-2-08 Self-Esteem and the Bellydancer by Taaj
…but then, I wondered, why are so many belly dancers jealous, unhappy, competitive and insecure? Does belly dance really build self-esteem?

10-1-08 North Beach Memories- Casbah Cabaret, Part I Circa 1973 by Rebaba
We performed what I have dubbed “conveyer belt dancing”, that is three dancers doing three shows each, starting promptly at 8:30 p.m. without stopping until 2:00 a.m., whether we had an audience or not.

9-29-08 Bible-Belt Belly Dancing in the 1970's: An interview with Azur Aja by John Clow
Azur Aja (Sharon Wright), a belly dancer from the Nashville Tennessee area, is endearingly known as ‘The Lady With The Veils’. Her career has spanned over thirty-five years, and her style has been influenced by some of the most recognizable names in American belly dance history.

9-25-08 Missing Elections…What Happened to MECDA’s Democracy? by Doyne Allen
In most organizations comprised of paying members, only a vote of the membership can enact any change in its charter.

9-17-08 Belly Dance in Japan Reaches New Heights of Popularity by Ranya Renee Fleysher
Japanese audiences are extremely receptive, supportive and interested in this form of entertainment.”Conservative elder Japanese may still disapprove of the sensual aspect of belly dance, but among the younger generation it is seen as cool and trendy.

ad 4 Casbah Dance
ad 4 Fahtiem

ad 4 Dhy & Karen

 Gilded Serpent
 Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines