Helene Caravan SarayCaravan Saray:
Dances of the Turkic Peoples

A Caravan Saray is an ancient system of fortified “hotels” for merchants and travelers by caravan along the Silk Road stretching from Central Asia to the shores of Europe. Protected from raiding marauders, the weary traveler could find refuge for his animals, goods and companions. He could wash, eat a warm meal and gather around the fire to hear tales, listen to music and perhaps even enjoy a dancer. Huge, magnificent and solidly built Caravan Sarays -- today abandoned to the winds and sand in desolate areas -- testify to the thriving trade that one connected the center of the world (central Asia) with the more “barbaric” west.

Over this vast area, from Western China, through Central Asia, over the Iranian Plateau, across Anatolia, over the Bosphorus and into the Balkans stretch the regions inhabited by Turkic peoples. Early Turkic peoples originated in Central Asia and their descendants reached the gates of Vienna. Modern Turkic peoples include the Kazaks, Kirghiz, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Afsharis, Qashqa’i, Azeris, Tatars and the Turks of modern day Turkey among others. Nomads, warriors and statesmen, their power culminated in the 800-year reign of the Ottoman Empire which ruled most of the Near East, North Africa and South East Europe for more than 500 years. All the ex-Soviet Central Asian states with the exception of Tadjikistan are predominantly Turkic. There are large Turkic populations in China, Afghanistan and Iran and groups of Turkic peoples in Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and until the exchange of populations in the 1920’s, in Greece.

In this dance program we hope to present the great richness and diversity of Turkic culture. You will have an opportunity to see the dances of the central Asian Turkmen and the Iranian Qashqa’i nomads, Anatolian villagers from the shores of the Mediterranean, urban wedding dances from Azerbaijan and courtly dance traditions from Uzbekistan and Ottoman palaces on the Bosphorus. What unites all these styles is the solo improvisational nature of the dances; what is different is the many different musical styles, wide variety of costumes and diversity of expressive movement vocabulary.

Helene AzeriAzeri Dances

Formerly Azerbaijan was a Soviet republic in the Caucasus: today it is an independent county, which has attracted the attention of the world with its rich oil reserves. In addition a large group of Azeris lives in northwest Iran, in the region of the city of Tabris and more in Northeastern Turkey. The Azeris, in contrast to their Christian neighbors the Georgians and Armenians, are Shi'ite Muslims. The dances of the Caucasus generally are characterized by beautiful hand and arm movements and often by tiny gliding steps, which, under a floor-length skirt, evoke the illusion that the dancer is floating over the floor. The dances -- sometimes melancholy, sometimes fiery -- are always lyrical and express the natural pride of Caucasian women. Earlier, women danced simple dances at weddings and other festivities. In the ex-Soviet Union these dances became more codified and complicated stage forms.

Helene TurkmenistanDances from Turkmenistan

The Turkmen are originally a nomadic people, who wandered through the regions of northeast Iran, northwest Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan. Today Turkmenistan is an independent state like Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. The Turkmen are famous for their mastery of animal husbandry and the weaving of rich red carpets. Because of the Turkmen's nomadic lifestyle, their dances were not brought to the stage until the Soviet era, when staged dance styles were created analogously to other Soviet dance styles. The second song you will hear tells about unrequited love, the third sings praises for a girl named Bibi: “I can’t get enough of her kisses! I will write a novel about her.”

Photo: André Elbing

Helene UzbekDances from Khorezem, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is also an ex-Soviet republic which has recently become an independent state. Strategically located on the silk route, the Khanates of Samarkhand, Bokhara and Khiva were the cultural center of the world at a time when Europe was still in the “darkness” of the Middle Ages. Avicenna, the father of modern medicine, came from Uzbekistan. The mathematical term “Algorism” is named after the Uzbek scholar Al-Khorezmi (from Khorezem). There are three main styles of Uzbek dance: the lyrical style from the Ferghana Valley in the east, the dynamic dramatic and challenging Bokhara style and the lively dances of Khorezem in the region if Khiva south of the Aral Sea. Helene will dance Lyazgi a Khorezemi dance with characteristic fluttering hand gestures and dance motives reminiscent of animal and bird movements.

Foto: André Elbing

Dances from Silifke, southern Turkey

Southwest Turkey is famous for its spoon dances -- kaşık oyunları. Especially renowned are the spoon dances from the vicinity of Silifke on the Mediterranean coast. The first dance Türkmen Kızı tells the story of the everyday tasks of a Turkish woman: milking, churning butter, and kneading bread dough. In the following dances Salama and Keklik the dancer accompanies herself rhythmically with four wooden spoons kaşık, which have a castanet-like sound.

Qashqa’i dances from Southern Iran

The Qashqa’i are Turkic nomads who herd their livestock over the arid south Iranian plateau in the region of the city of Shiraz. They are famous for their weaving skills, producing the highly prized Gabeh carpets so popular today. Qashqa’i women favour amazingly coulourful glitzy dresses, with layers upon layers of skirts, which they wear day in, day out, even to cook, weave and to milk and herd their goats in the drab arid landscape. The women’s dance Raqs-e Dastmal is characterized by waving colourful scarves. The men are famous for their stick dance Raqs-e Chupi, which is a contest of skills. The music is played by a shrill double-reed instrument called Sorna and by small drums beaten with sticks.

Helene OttomanOttoman Dances

The Ottoman Empire was truly a multicultural society. In order to be a full citizen, one had to be a Muslim, but not necessarily a Turk. But also many religious minorities, such as Christians and Jews, had their place in the state. The capital and courts were a colorful mixture of Turks, Greeks, Slavs, Albanians, Armenians, Roma, Caucasians, etc. The music of the courts mirrored this mélange. In the sultan’s court, the saray of the Ottoman Empire, there was a strict social hierarchy. It was not the case that all of the women danced wildly together whenever the whim struck them. Etiquette forbade it. Dancing was the domain of professional dancing girls called çengi and dancing boys called köçek. Their dances, often accompanied by wooden clackers çalpare and later finger cymbals ziller were ornamented and sensuous. One woman 18th century traveler reported that these dancers could “melt a stone.” These dances were certainly the forerunners of what we now call belly dance. Helene gives us a glimpse of how an Ottoman court dance could have been in the saray on the banks of Bosphoros in Istanbul.