Resurrecting a Balkar Culture Through Dance
Dating back as early as the 11th century, the Balkar people related to one another based on conduct codes called “adats.” According to ancient Balkar adats, young men were forbidden from looking at young women at all, with one exception being when they would dance together at national holiday celebrations such has harvest season. At such a celebration – called “toy” in Balkar – young men were allowed to look at potential dance partners. Once a pair was dancing, any physical contact was forbidden except for when the young man could offer his hand to his dance partner as a sign of interest. At this point, his partner had options. If she curled her fist and only touched his palm with her knuckles, she had no interest. A simple handshake meant she was neutral. But if she responded to the offer of his hand by interlocking her fingers in his, well, there was something.
This peek into the traditional culture of the Balkar people was one of many insights Nur-Muhammad shared when we sat down with him between dance lessons recently. Nur-Muhammad is an accomplished Balkar dancer and is passionate to see dance become a means to resurrect a Balkar culture that was largely lost through the political upheaval of the last 100 years. He is well-suited for the cultural reclamation happening among many North Caucasus peoples like the Balkar. He was born into the wild 1990’s of the newly formed Russia when a new space for self-expression and ethnic self-determination was being carved out. Now he’s an accomplished professional dancer working for the local government’s ensemble and managing his own private dance school where he teaches traditional North Caucasian dances to a new generation of Balkar young people.
By the time Nur-Muhammad was a teenager, YouTube videos of young, hip North Caucasians dancing the Lezginka in the streets of Moscow were beginning to attract positive attention on social media. Lezginka is a general term among North Caucasians for a dance that every ethnic group has put their own twist on. In the traditional Lezginka, a man and a woman move around a circle together never touching and often never making eye contact. The man plays the role of a proud, aggressive eagle preening before his partner — leaping high; landing on his knees; head up; and pulsing his arms and legs with sharp, quick movements. The woman – imitating a swan – glides around the circle gracefully with smooth, elegant movements, regarding her partner but never losing a sense of disinterest toward him.
never touching and often never making eye contact
A children’s ensemble for Nur-Muhammad’s private dance school performs the traditional Lezginka.
Bringing Balkar traditional dances back to life
According to Nur-Muhammad, traditional Caucasian dances often involve an element of competition between the man and woman. Without ever making contact, the man will try to guide the woman to the edge of the circle, suggesting that she is tired and cannot keep pace with him any longer. Men always expend more energy in these dances. If the woman acquiesces and leaves the circle, she is deferring, conceding defeat and honoring his skill and stamina as a dancer. If she refuses to leave – instead gliding back to the middle – this will eventually force him to resign, his energy spent. In this case, she wins. In another scenario, the two work their way around the circle, again imitating eagle and swan, but the man is challenged to remove a scarf from his partner’s shoulders without ever touching her.
There was a time when everything Balkar was forbidden. Resurrecting these traditional dances connects the Balkar people with their forgotten past and brings cultural traditions to life. Nur-Muhammad notes that at weddings it is now the young people who know how to dance the traditional dances of their people; not their parents. The older generation grew up in the Soviet Union, which downplayed ethnic differences sought to conform everyone into the ideal of the Soviet man. Resurrecting elements of traditional culture has become very popular among the younger generation. In Nur-Muhammad’s home city of Nalchick, large crowds of young people gather by the hundreds in the town square twice a week to dance the traditional dances of their people.
Nur-Muhammad directing the children’s ensemble
Dancing with purpose
Nur-Muhammad’s ensemble travels internationally to various festivals throughout Europe and parts of Central Asia. At these festivals, they interact with other dance troops from all over the world. Nur-Muhammad favors Argentinean dance styles and finds some similarities between their styles and the style of North Caucasus dancers. He also takes ensembles from his private school to festivals throughout Russia and even internationally. His passion is to teach as many people as he can to dance the dances of his people so that these rich elements of his culture will never be lost again.
As we talked Nur-Muhammad glanced at his watch. Another dance lesson was about to start. I asked him what he wanted to leave our readers with, and his words were fitting. “Every people group is beautiful in its own way. It’s important to preserve their unique nature and particularities” he said. “God made us different on purpose, and that enriches life. I want to use dance to prevent the Balkar culture from being lost again.”
Nur-Muhammad with some of his young mentees
God made us different on purpose, and that enriches life.
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