Uzbek Dance Part II

The Splendor of Uzbek Dance

Part Two: Ferghana

by Laurel Victoria Gray

History of Ferghana Dance

Located in Uzbekistan’s eastern corner, the green and fertile Ferghana Valley is known for the manufacture of the colorful Uzbek silk, khan atlas, or “king of the satins.” Mulberry trees line the street; their tender leaves are harvested and fed to the silk worms which are raised in the region. Even today women wear dresses of the rainbow-colored silk created from a complex resist-dyeing and weaving technique known to specialists as ikat.

Tashkent's Bakhor Ensemble performs a dance in Ferghana style

The valley was once part of the Khanate of Kokand which, together with the Khanate of Khiva and Emirate of Bukhara, was one of the dominant political forces of Turkestan between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. When the Russian Empire subjugated Turkestan in the second half of the nineteenth century, Kokand grew to be a powerful international banking center.

With money and European influence also came houses of prostitution where women of many different nationalities worked. The brothels featured dancers known for their skill, although, according to one scholar, they were not expected to sleep with customers and were engaged only as entertainers. Respectable Uzbek women never danced before strange men, but only for each other within the confines of the ich kari, or women’s quarters. When in public, they wore the shroud-like paranjah.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, many indigenous leaders gathered in Kokand hoping to create a new, autonomous nation. Their uprising was crushed in February, 1918, but an opposition movement continued for many years. Finally, in 1924, the region was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the new republic of Uzbekistan.

In 1905, Tamara Khanum—one of the first women to dare to unveil herself and dance in public—was born in the town of Margillan in the Ferghana Valley. Although of Armenian parentage, Tamara grew up with Uzbek neighbors, learning their songs and dances so well that she was widely known for her talent. In 1924, she performed in Paris at a World Exhibition of Decorative Arts, marking perhaps the first time that Uzbek dance had been seen in the West. But Uzbekistan in the early 1920’s was a dangerous place for a woman to appear on stage. Although the Bolsheviks fought for female emancipation, it took many years for the tradition of veiling to be discarded. One dancer, a young girl named Nurkhon, was murdered by her own brother for performing in public.

Characteristics of the Dance

Ferghana dance is the softest and most lyrical of Uzbek styles. Gentle wrist rotations, fluid arm undulations, and supple use of the spine create an enchantingly feminine art. The torso is bent slightly forward, signifying shyness and modesty. Shoulder isolations and head-slides accent musical phrases. Facial expressions are animated and playful while simple but agile footwork carries the dancer quickly around the stage. Often sections of the dance take place in a kneeling position on the floor.

Traditionally the dance was of a solo, improvisational nature, with the primary dancing being done by women or by the batcha, a dancing boy who wore women’s clothing and mimicked female mannerisms. Only the batcha could perform in public settings and wealthy men often kept troupes of these boys.

Stately and melancholy, Tanovar—which exists in at least a dozen different forms—expressed women’s longings. One of the most celebrated performers of Tanovar worked in a brothel and it was from her that Tamara Khanum learned many of the movements for the dance.

Under Soviet rule, Uzbekistan developed large dance collectives such as Shodlik, Lyazgi and Zerafshan. Perhaps best known is the well-traveled Bakhor Ensemble which once boasted 45 female dancers and a large orchestra of folk musicians. In addition to solo pieces, these ensembles performed group choreographies which blended traditional movement vocabulary with Western staging techniques.


Uzbek women in this region wore long coats or vests over dresses and pants. Naturally, the dresses were often fashioned from the famous khan atlas silk and the coats were often lined with this fabric or adras, another kind of ikat woven from a silk and cotton blend.

Square skull caps, known as dupi, were worn by both men and women throughout Turkestan, but the decorative motif varied from region to region, identifying the wearer’s place of origin. In the Ferghana Valley, delicate floral designs were favored. The dupi is still worn here, especially by dancers, as are long braids. Contemporary performers usually wear six or eight braids, but traditionally forty was once the favored number.

The zebigardon, an elaborate piece of jewelry which fastens at the shoulders and drapes across the dancer’s breast, was also used for the dance. Set in silver, it was encrusted with pearls, turquoise, and glass stones, as was the tilya-kosh (“golden eyebrows”)—the elegant crown often worn for classical dances.

Laurel Victoria Gray is President of the Uzbek Dance Society and Artistic Director of the Tanavar Dance Ensemble. Trained as an historian, she has authored numerous articles on  various aspects of Middle Eastern and Central Asian culture which have been translated into German, Uzbek, Russian and Georgian. Laurel also created the video “Introduction to Uzbek Dance.” She has taught, performed and lectured extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, and the former Soviet Union.

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