Monday, May 11, 2009

Lezginka: The story of a Caucasian War Dance.

I've always had a fascination with Lezginka and spent many a thrilling hour going through all the Lezginka clips on You Tube. If you don't know, Lezginka is a Caucasian dance named after the Lezgis that is danced all over the Caucasus, by the Georgians, the Armenians, the Chechens (who aren't Turkic, in case you're wondering, and neither are the Lezgis, as 18 noun declensions will attest), and the many other cultures whose home is the Caucusus.

The curious thing about Lezginka is that there seems to be a war, fought in the comments sections, over whether it is an all male dance, or whether it is a dance that includes one or more women. Some maintain the former, some the latter, and others maintain that the Lezginka includes women, but that there is another all-male dance called the Mkhedruli ("military" in Georgian).

I think the answer is that it's all one dance that went through a historical change. It started out as an all-male war dance, like this:

Or, if you'd prefer a more real-life example, consider this clip of Chechens dancing in Moscow (Note the first dancer firing off his gun after he's done dancing):

There's no doubting that the above dances, whether you want to call them "Lezginka" or Mkhedruli, are all-male war dances. Aside from the fact that the participants are exclusively men, the male aesthetic of the dance is unmistakable. There are no curves in the Lezginka, only elbows and knees in a whirlwind of angles, balanced geometrically. The point isn't grace and fluid movements, but to combine the speed of a spinning-top with an as sudden and precise a break in motion as that of a whirling dagger nailing the apple on top of the beautiful assistant's head, so vulnerably and trustingly stand does she. It's a war dance, alright, the pure joy of complete control with a healthy dose of "hey, check ME out"-ism:

I think what happened was that, as time went on, women started jumping into the fray, or slam-pit, so to speak. I would venture to guess that this was a very, very late development because even today it is very conceivable for rivals over a woman to get into a fight if she dances with one of them and leaves the other alone. But, in any case, that the introduction of women into this dance is a new development is also evidenced by how thoroughly boring the woman's dance is compared to the man's: it is basically gliding in circles while making elegant gestures with the hands. The footwork, if any, is limited to imitation. Consider this, for example:

Here is an excellent collection of people dancing Lezginka in weddings as evidence for the above point and, of course, for sheer enjoyment:

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

Note that the majority of dancers in these clips, and pretty much most of the clips on You Tube, are Chechens. There's no way to tell from their faces which part of the Caucusus they come from, of course, but you can tell because, erm, the titles say "Chechen." There are many Georgians there, too, but they are mostly performers putting on elaborate shows, and damn good ones, too. They really are very good Lezginka dancers:

Here is a Dagestani performance, at least according to the title. They may be Georgians, too, wearing Dagestani hats:

And that is the "evolutionary" curve that the Lezginka has gone through: it began as a war dance, women joined in, and then it became a spectacle for people to watch, vicariously enjoy, and clap for--bourgeois entertainment: the concert ends at 8 PM so you can get to work on time the next day. And that's generally the curve of culture from pre-modern to late modern. Savage and exhilarating in the beginning; beautiful-ish and civil toward the middle. Aesthetacization.

One more thing. There are lots and lots of Caucasians dancing Lezginka on You Tube, but pretty much no Armenians. There was only one clip I found with the title of Armenian Lezginka, and that was the Armenian Dance Ensemble. I'm not going to link to it because it is just so fucking horrible that its embarrassing. It's not that we don't dance Lezginka; I've seen plenty of people dancing Lezginka at weddings and dancing it very well. It's just that it is not the focus of our attention on You Tube, apparently. Most dancing that you see Armenians do on You Tube are shurjpars, with the whole clan joining in. Which means something, but that for a later time.

In any case, Armenian culture, I think, is more oriented toward music. And the aesthetacization of Lezginka is the perfect example of this. When Aram Khachaturian came along, Leziginka went high-brow. I like this version:

But what I want to leave you is the following clip. I've been trying to describe it for the last hour, but I just can't. I write paragraph after paragraph, but nothing seems to work. So I'll leave it up to you to interpret the music a short, fat guy sitting in the middle of his living room plays on his accordion wearing a wife-beater shirt. All I'll say is that he plays it in a way that brings out the hidden sadness of the song. Brilliant people always do look a little weird:


Ani said...

Time for a book recommendation: "Sandro of Chegem" by Fazil Iskander, a novel about Abkhazia, has a great set piece about the Abkhazian dance troupe performing in front of Stalin and Beria. Can't remember if they danced the lezginka or not, though.

parisan said...

Excellent post. Thank you for the links. I watch almost all of them, and put some of them on a private wiki page of mine.

It's a funny coincidence that I danced the lezginka for the first time, recently, with a group of Chechens, after I spent some time carefully watching how the other dancers did it. It was great fun!

Aesthetatize indeed! I see your point.

Armen Filadelfiatsi said...

Thanks, Parisan.

Lezginka is, indeed, a difficult dance to dance. The guys who jump in the circle rarely last more than 30 seconds. It takes so much energy, and in that way, too, it is very male: short bursts of intense energy, as opposed to sustained periods of low energy.

I used to dance Lezginka with my dance troupe when I was a teenager. I'd have to get into shape to dance it nowadays. Hope you didn't pull any ligaments dancing with the Chechens!

Buksh said...

Thank you.