Chechen Dancing

Чеченский танецDancing is one of the oldest arts. The drawing of a sorcerer in deer dance appeared on the wall of the Lascaux Cave in France approximately 20,000 years ago. Dance was born of the magic ritual—just as the pantomime. The assumption that dancing was originally a syncretic unity with poetry and music is hardly plausible[1]. Dancing existed even during the Upper Palaeolithic, long before verse and music, as archaeological data bear out. In times immemorial, dancing accompanied man from birth to death. The workday opened with a ritual dance. Primitive man imitated hunting in a dance preceding actual hunting to bring it luck. Land-tilling works also started with seasonal dancing, and later songs. 

The shamanic quack, wizards’ sorcery and Sufi meditations are, in fact, dances.

The dance and the pantomime told about past events and human feelings. The primitive dance evolved from pantomime imitating animals and elements. Though the dance and the pantomime are independent performing arts now, the pantomime still remains an essential part of dancing—especially traditional dancing.

The syncretic unity of dance, music and verse emerged far later, when the aesthetic function came into the foreground in dancing to oust the magic ritual into the backdrops. Certain nations preserve such unity to this day. Thus, the traditional Indian dancer follows the song rhythm and plot with great precision.

Chechen dancing ascends to the archaic times. Bronze cult figurines of the 3rd millennium B.C., unearthed in Chechnya, give an idea of certain ritual dance movements alongside conventionalised human figures represented on the slabs of ancient structures. Metal figurines of tiptoeing men (cf. Chechen male dancing on tiptoes) are among the finds from the Koban archaeological culture.

Patterns on carpets probably also contain coded information about male and female Chechen dancing.

Махмуд ЭсамбаевThe earliest written accounts of Chechen dancing belong to 18th century European travellers. As Count Jan Potocki wrote, “When all villagers come together, they make a large circle to sit singing, and challenge young dancers with the music of the oboe, bagpipes and the flute to show off their agility in honour of the festive day. Dancing is accompanied by athletic feats as the performers make dashing leaps one after another, and throw each other down as wrestlers do. The performers next hold hands to sing and dance in long rows. They often spread the circle with great agility, now opening now locking it. The dance finishes with the same leaps as at the beginning”[2].

Despite the popular belief that Chechens did not know group dancing before their folk song and dance company appeared, the Polish traveller’s account shows that it not merely existed but was also enriched with acrobatics.

Bearing out the archaism of folk dancing and its connection with hunting rites are the names of movements: cha bolar, “bear walk”, ka bolar, “ram walk”, and sai bolar, “deer walk”. The bear, ram and deer were the sacred animals of the Chechen lore. To all appearances, they were totemic in olden times.

Stone sculptures of the ram’s head are to be found on the façade of the dwelling tower in Khimoi in Chechnya’s east, on the Mount Bekhaila combat tower near Kokadoi in the Argun Gorge, and on the façade of the vault sanctuary in Tertie, in the republic’s west.

Chechen mythology treats the bear as an animal endowed with great strength and human reason.

Deer as amulets are conventionally represented on the slabs of many buildings all over Chechnya.

All those facts testify to great archaism of Chechen dancing, and prove its connection with hunting and magic rites.

The movements and figures of Chechen group and pair dances indicate their, now forgotten, link with sun worship. The magical quality ascribed to the circle, pronounced in the symbolism of patterns on Koban and later Alanian pottery, and in mediaeval petroglyphics, is rather visible in Chechen dancing.

Chechen dances divide in group, pair and solo. There are male and female group and solo dances.

According to prominent Chechen ethnologist Said-Magomed Khasiev, folk group dances required four, six or eight pairs (that is, an even number), and their arrangement resembled the classic swastika. Such dances were connected with the solar and various land-tilling cults.

The many genres of Chechen folk dances are rooted in their origin, the milieu in which they appeared, and their semantics. These are ritual (wedding, rain incantation, etc), occupational (war dances, shepherd dances, and others), festive and liturgical dances.

The pair dance of a man and a woman has a ritual nature. Scholars track it down to Chechen cosmogonic ideas—mainly sun worship. The Chechen myth on the origin of Sun, Moon and the stars says: “A skilful blacksmith wooed a fair maiden as he knew not that she was his sister. When she refused the matchmakers he had sent, he came to her dwelling with a gold firebrand. The girl fled at his sight. He ran in pursuance till both died. The sparks of his firebrand turned into stars. Radiance was all that was left of the sister, and the firebrand of the brother. They turned into Sun and Moon, and Sun cannot catch up with Moon to this day.” The male dancer pursues the woman in circles to repeat Sun’s route in pursuance of Moon. Solar symbols portrayed on buckles of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. reflect Chechen dancing movements, with a broken line for the soil[3] or the sea, winged disks to its sides for the rising and setting sun, and another winged disk in the centre, with wings raised the highest, for the sun in the zenith.

The man holds his arms spread in a cruciform position to symbolise the rising and setting sun. His bent arm with the hand pressed to his chest, the other arm outstretched to the side, repeat the swastika, which designates the sun in its movement. When he tiptoes with arms lifted above his head, the man personifies the sun in the zenith. He embraces his partner’s waist without touching her to depict lunar eclipse.

Khasiev has advanced an interesting and plausible interpretation of Chechen pair dancing[4]. He tracks the khelkhar dance down to rituals based on mythology. According to him, the dance is connected with the Labyrinth myth ascending to the pre-Thesean[5] time. As befits a ritual, the khelkhar has compulsory movements of a labyrinthine pattern.

Girls and boys are seated in rows, facing each other, to make a square or a rectangle. The girls’ and the boys’ toastmasters sit in the mutually opposite corners. A girl and a boy open the dance, starting from the female and the male toastmasters, respectively, and so move toward each other diagonally, making circles, each smaller than the preceding, before they meet in the centre. Thus, the labyrinth is inscribed in the rectangle. The dance divides in three semantic parts: (a) the introduction, which re-enacts the mythologem of the Labyrinth and Ariadne’s thread; (b) the khelkhar proper; and (c) the denouement.

In the introduction, Theseus enters the Labyrinth. Neither the boy nor the girl lift their arms before their encounter in its centre. They meet not face to face but left shoulder to each other. The boy turns 180 degrees, left shoulder first and, standing on his tiptoes, lifts his stretched right arm vertically as it slides up along his body. At that instant, he is no longer human but a divine being. Meanwhile, the girl slides in his front in a semicircle, right shoulder first, as the tiptoeing boy, his arm upward, follows her, turning 180 degrees. From that instant on, the Labyrinth begins unfolding in the opposite direction.

ансамбль ВайнахAfter that, the dancers do not return to the points where the dance started but go to the toastmasters—the girl to the boys’ and the boy to the girls’.

The labyrinth is among the most widespread Chechen symbols. It occurs on Koban pottery and the slabs of mediaeval buildings. Purification during initiation is one of its basic meanings. Possibly, the labyrinthine pair dance was initially performed by boys and girls during their initiation to adulthood.

The classic swastika is a no less popular Chechen symbol. It occurs on Koban artefacts, Alanian amulets and the slabs of mediaeval buildings in every part of the Chechen highlands. Originally pertaining to land-tilling cults, it symbolises eternity, and serves as an all-purpose talisman, so its reflection in Chechen folk dancing is perfectly justified.

Chechen ritual dancing was highly original, and of great interest. In fact, it was not mere dancing but costumed theatricals. This is especially true of wedding dances. Such dances were extremely diversified even quite recently. The groom’s parents had a dance of their own, the best man and the toastmaster as well. There are many comic dances to entertain the guests.

War dances were performed before battles in the Middle Ages. Later on, they were danced during athletic martial games arranged in Chechnya every year during pagan festivals. Many mountain place names are connected with the sites of such games, e.g., Nakh Lovzacha and Nakh Lovsha[6]. War dances were performed in full gear and with bared weapons.

Folklore testifies to the existence of the chagaran khelkhar, “ring dance”[7]. Warriors of the pre-Islamic time danced it before going to battle. They stood in a circle with naked swords to sing warlike songs, and then started circular movement, which grew more rapid to bring them into ecstasy. Thus inspired by spiritual unity and the magnetic rhythm, they went into battle without fear and anesthetised against pain.

Amply interspersed with gymnastic movements and acrobatic stunts, war dances also improved fencing habits, agility and the team spirit on the battlefield.

Essentially democratic, shepherd dances were more liberal than any other. A sheepskin hat, a felt cloak and a stick were their indispensable attributes. Those dances also included acrobatic stunts, performed stick in hand.

Wedding dances required solemnity and aristocratic reserve even when they included comic tricks.

Comic travesty dances were widespread. The most popular of them, Greybeard’s Dance, starts at a low pace. The stooping dancer, stick in hand, barely moves his legs. As the tune paces up, the old man forgets his years, aches and pains, and breaks into dashing dance, casting off his stick. He stops abruptly, feigning a stab of pain in the small of his back—and the dance returns to the slow pace of its start. There is a similar female version of the dance.

Performed at weddings and folk festivals, comic dances required a liberal manner limited solely by propriety.

All Chechen folk dances were marked by solemnity and refined precision of movement. Dancers demonstrated dignity and emphasised respect of the female partners.

Violations of the dancing etiquette brought not only moral consequences. The man started the dance, and the woman finished it. In pair dances, the man could not leave the site the first lest he be accused of disrespect of his partner. The man could not touch the woman while dancing, even when she was his close relative. With the exception of comic dances, both sexes’ movements were strictly regulated. Both kept upright. Women’s dancing was ornate with gestures of the arms and shoulders, while men’s dance required the utmost subduing of the expressive force. The male dancer expressed his feelings only once, when the dance reached its peak in the middle—the instant which Chechens termed bukhь bogIar. That was when the dancer got on his toes.

Pair dancing is the oldest kind of the male and female dance. As we said above, it ascended to Chechen cosmogony, and sun and fertility worship.

Khasiev thinks it is no younger than the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages. Koban archaeological finds bear out his assumption.

According to folklore, dancing contests during festivals and games required alchik dice, made of goat or sheep leg joints, garlanded dangling down on the contestants’ belt. He whose dice never knocked against each other won the contest, so upright and immobile was his body, whatever sophisticated steps he would perform with his legs and feet.

Male solo dancing was also well developed, with many acrobatic and gymnastic movements. In fact, it demonstrated not only the musical quality of movement but also strength, courage and dexterity. Ancient dancing habits gave rise to dancers whose names were passed from mouth to mouth for centuries. Mahmud Esambayev, the greatest of Chechen dancers, earned global renown with his genius.

танец с кинжалами, 1923 г.Tall and slim, with a perfect ear for music and exceptional memory, Mahmud possessed unprecedented expression of movement. He danced even as a small boy. At the age of fifteen, he was a solo performer at the Chechen-Ingush State Song and Dance Ensemble. Four years later, he received the same job at the Pyatigorsk Musical Comedy Theatre. By the age of twenty, he had reached perfection in folk and character dancing, and had studied the fundamentals of classic ballet.

After Chechens were deported, Esambayev was employed with the Kyrgyz Opera and Ballet Theatre, where he danced principal parts in Swan Lake, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and The Sleeping Beauty, as well as in the first Kyrgyz ethnic ballets.

After return to Chechnya, he became solo performer of the Chechen-Ingush State Philharmonic Society to quit ballet and turn to ethnic dancing of the whole world.

He staged dances for himself. The Indian ritual dance The Golden God, the Spanish La Corrida, and the Tajik Knife Dance were his first endeavours.

Esambayev performed to full houses in Chechnya-Ingushetia, Moscow and in every part of Russia.

He made a triumphal tour of France and Latin America with the Soviet Ballet Stars company in 1959. He immediately started to perform any local dance he saw. The Brazilian Macumba dance became legendary in his rendition.

The tour brought him global renown. Immediately after it, he established his own company to travel all over Russia and the world with his programme Dances of the World’s Nations. His triumphs were unprecedented. Experts and the press named him a genius, “the sorcerer of dancing” and “the legend of the 20th century”.

Dikalu Muzakayev, a brilliant dancer, choreographer and manager, honourably contributed to Chechen culture as soloist and later artistic director of the Vainakh dance company.

He displayed interest in native culture, especially dancing, early in life. Even in his student years, Dikalu was on the cast of Vainakh Songs, a production of the Khanpasha Nuradilov Chechen Drama Theatre. He became solo performer at the Vainakh dance company in 1978. During his army service, he was solo dancer of the North Caucasian Military District song and dance company, where he had his first experience as choreographer.

Muzakayev enrolled for the Moscow Culture Institute, Department of Choreography, in 1982, and came back to the Vainakh company as ballet master and performer after graduation. He was appointed its artistic director in 2001. State and amateur companies are giving an impetus to Chechen dancing, and enriching it with new trends.

The State Song and Dance Ensemble of Chechnya-Ingushetia was established in 1939. Such luminaries of Chechen culture as Vakha Tatayev, then republican Culture Minister, playwright Abdullah Khamidov, and dancers Sultan Chagayev, Sagari Ibragimov, Mahmud Takhayev, Magomed Gichibayev, Sultan Abdulsalamov, Baka Abubakarov, Vakha Dakashev, Andarbek Sadykov and Gelani Yusupov stood at its cradle. The ensemble had two companies—the dance and the song. Its initial repertory was limited to five folk songs performed by the choir and orchestra, and several folk dances. The three-string dechig-pondur was the principal instrument of its orchestra.

As the ensemble gained experience, its repertory extended to comprise songs in the Russian and Ingush languages, and dances of other Caucasian and Russian peoples.

The repertory of the first guest performances in Moscow, in 1940, included Chechen and other ethnic dances—Urus-Martan Lezginka, Mesish, Chechen Lezginka, Chechen Comic Dance, Ingush Lezginka, Ossetian Lezginka, Armenian Dance, Crimean Tatar Dance, and Cavalry Dance. The choir sang Chechen folk songs Mesish and Aset, and Russian Waken Me Not and Kalinka.

The ensemble did not perform during the years of Chechen deportation, and was re-established in Alma Ata in the late 1950s. Alexander Khalebsky was appointed its artistic director, and excellent dancer Gelani Yusupov ballet master.

The invigorated company prepared a large and interesting concert programme very soon. Its first concert made a sensation in Grozny in May 1957. Otari Munjishvili and Georgi Dzyba made an inestimable contribution to the revival of the company and the development of Chechen dancing in general.

Dzyba, an ethnic Abazin, was a brilliant dancer and top-notch choreographer. His inimitable productions base on Chechen folk dancing, fully retaining its manner, and spur on its progress. His composition Under Vainakh Sky remains one of the best numbers of the company.

Unsurpassed teacher Otari Munjishvili educated many excellent Chechen and Ingush dancers, choreographers and other notables of culture.

Topa Elimbayev, Vainakh artistic director in 1969-1994, was an efficient manager and organiser, and prolific choreographer. The State Song and Dance Ensemble was renamed Vainakh on his initiative. Many gifted young performers joined the company during his leadership—among them K. Raisov, T. Sinyavskaya, M. Didigov, M. Khudayev, A. Muhammedov, I. Askhabov and S. Idrisov.

The Vainakh participated in many all-Union and all-Russia festivals alongside the country’s other best companies, and toured the Soviet Union with triumph.

A new Vainakh concert programme, whose production Elimbayev supervised, won the 1998 State Prize of Chechnya for Literature, the Arts, Architecture and Cinematography. It was a sensation with the public, and won admiring press reports.

Composer Zaindi Chergizbiyev, choreographer Dikalu Muzakayev, dancers Dokku Maltsagov, Alexander Petrov, Elimkhan Khaidarov, Aset Askhabova and Tamara Didigova—both People’s Actresses of Chechnya, Magomed Idigov, Mairbek Khudayev, Kazbek Arsakhanov, Lydia Aidamirova, Ramzan Ahmadov, Adash Mamadayev, Magomed Makayev, Apti Gantamirov, Ramzan Abazov, Turko Khasimikov amd Gapur Temirkhazhiev have done much for the progress of the Vainakh company.

Vainakh concerts were suspended with the warfare in 1999. The company started reviving its programmes in 2001, when Dikalu Muzakayev returned to the post of its artistic director. He got the company going very promptly, and staged many new numbers. The Vainakh won Grand Prix at an international festival in France in 2002 and, a year later, Grand Prix and the Audience Choice Award at the Gorice 2003 festival in Slovenia.

The company prepared a new concert programme, In the Vainakh Land, with 11 new numbers, in 2006. On December 24, 2008, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a decree to award the Russian State Prize for Culture to Muzakayev for the programme.

The Vainakh had three concerts at the State Kremlin Palace in 2008, and performed to topmost federal leaders at St Andrew’s Hall of the Kremlin on December 25, 2008.

The Vainakh is active in Chechen cultural revival. It gives many concerts, takes part in international contests, and has guest performances all over Russia and in many parts of the world.

There are several companies developing and popularising Chechen dances in Chechnya and outside it. A majority of such companies base in Moscow.

The Ziya children’s dance company  was established in 1999 on the initiative of prominent Chechen choreographer Topa Elimbayev, People’s Actor of Russia. Russian business tycoon Ziya Bazhayev volunteered to fund the endeavour. Children dancers, varying in age from 6 to 14, are of diverse ethnicity—Chechens, Russians, Ingush and others. Prominent composer and virtuoso performer Ramzan Paskayev leads the company orchestra.

The Ziya performs Caucasian ethnic dances. It is great success in Russia and other countries, and has won many contests.

 The Lovzar children’s dance company was established in 1983 on the basis of the Republican Young Pioneer Palace in Grozny.

The Chechen war made the company move to Nalchik and later the Moscow environs.

Magomed Takhayev, company artistic director, is dedicated to his cause boundlessly.

Excellent dancers, the children have won many awards. Pierre Cardin invited the company to take part in Tristan and Isolde, the musical he staged in 2003.

The company spends most of its time in foreign tours.

Other companies are also doing much to develop and popularise Chechen folk dances—in particular, the Daimokh company and the Mahmud Esambayev Art School, led by prominent Chechen dancer and choreographer Dokku Maltsagov, Merited Actor of Russia.



[1]Мир художественной культуры. – СПб., 2004 (The World of Artistic Culture.St Petersburg, 2004)-  с.218

[2] Аталиков В.Т. Вайнахи в XVIII веке по известиям европейских авторов.//История и этнография и культура народов Северного Кавказа. – Оржоникидзе, 1981 (V.T. Atalikov. 18th Century Vainakhs According to European Authors’ Accounts // History and Ethnography in North Caucasian Culture. Orjonikidze, 1981) – с.124.

[3] According to Chechen beliefs, the sun rose from the sea at daybreak and sank in it in the evening.

[4] Хасиев С.-М. Тесей. Рукопись (S.M. Khasiev. Theseus. Manuscript)

[5] Theseus was a Greek mythological hero.

[6] Сулейманов А. Топонимия Чечни. – Нальчик, 1990 (A. Suleimanov. Op. cit.) – с. 122


[7] Сулейманов А. Топонимия Чечни. – Нальчик, 1990 (Ibid) – с. 44

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