The Goddess Dancing

The Goddess Dancing

Women’s Dances of Georgia

by Laurel Victoria Gray

Although Oriental dance has often been linked to ancient Mother Goddess cults, living examples of this relationship are rare. So it seems especially fitting that some of the remaining examples of these dances would be found in Colchis, land of the Amazons and the fabled Golden Fleece. Today Colchis is in the western region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a nation which is situated in the southern portion of the Caucasus Mountains and borders the eastern shore of the Black Sea.

Evidence of the ritual pagan origin of early Georgian dances can be traced to the second millennium B.C. A bone plate from this period depicts a dancing woman, suggesting a female ritual usually performed during the harvesting season in front of statues of the goddess of fertility. One of the fertility goddesses of the Caucasus was Anahita, who also represented sexuality and love. Although she originated in Armenia, her cult spread as far as Central Asia. Anahita’s symbol, a triad of pepper or paisley shaped leaves, still appears as a common decorative motif in jewelry from the region.

Dali was a goddess venerated by the early Georgians. A goddess of the hunt, Dali —unlike Artemis and Diana — took lovers from among mortal men and bore children. Hunters were especially favored by Dali after one saved her infant child from a wolf. Dali’s power was in her long, golden hair. One night when she was sleeping with her lover, his jealous wife cut off Dali’s magical locks. When the goddess awoke, she knew her power was gone. Since she was pregnant at the time, Dali commanded her lover to cut her open and place her unborn child’s fetus into the uterus of a cow. He did as Dali ordered. Dali died, but the child, Amirani, lived to be born full term. Amirani later performed deeds on behalf of humanity similar to those of Prometheus, and some believe the Prometheus legend originated in the Caucasus. According to Georgian dance scholar Avtandil Tataradze, Dali’s death represents the transition from the matriarchy to the patriarchy.

The dance Partsa was originally performed in honor of Dali and was accompanied by songs to her. Later, these same dances were dedicated to her son, Amirani. In these early dances, men formed a circle and placed a woman at each of the four cardinal points.

The sun goddess Nana was honored with a dance from the Kartuli-Kakhetian region. The song which accompanied the dance to Nana gradually lost its original meaning after the introduction of Christianity to Georgia in 337 A.D. The song now exists as a lullaby.

Intriguingly, the magical hair of Dali and echoes of the name Nana are blended in the personage of Saint Nino, a woman who preached Christianity to the Georgians, holding a cross bound together with locks of her own hair.

Another piece dedicated to a goddess of fertility —in this instance, the moon — was Samaya. Taking its name from the Georgian word for three — “sami” — Samaya was performed by women in groups of three, reminiscent of the archetypal threefold image of the goddess as mother, maiden, and crone. The dance was believed to be of “Oriental origin,” (that is, from further East than Georgia) and celebrated the birth of a family’s first child. A medieval representation of this sacred dance can be found in the cathedral of Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia.

Georgian history is replete with seemingly unending conflicts with foreign invaders —Persians, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks. Perhaps as a result of this contact, female members of professional dance companies patronized by the Georgian court mastered and performed the dances of the Eastern neighbors in addition to their own native dances. And surely this influence on dance went both ways. The slave trade flourished in the Caucasus and Georgian women were highly sought-after prizes for Turkish harems.

Rusadan, soloist with the Georgian State Dance Company, performing Kartuli courtship dance.

Under the rule of Queen Thamar (1184-1213) Georgia experienced its “Golden Age” and became one of the strongest kingdoms in the Near East. During her reign, Shota Rustaveli created his literary masterpiece, The Knight in Panther Skin. The poem, with its complex internal and external rhymes, was dedicated to Thamar and even condoned rule by a female. The romance between the epic poem’s idealized lovers is reflected in the ancient courtship dance, Kartuli.

Like many other couple dances, Kartuli shares a pagan link to fertility cults. In Kartuli, the ritualistic conduct of the male toward his partner is strictly governed by a set of rules. The female leads and the male must follow her path of direction. He must never touch the woman, not even with the fabric of his coat; to do so shows a lack of respect and could be interpreted as an insult by her family.

Echoes of the deep veneration for women can be found in other elements of Georgian culture. The central pillar of traditional Georgian homes is still called the “mother pillar,” and it was in front of this pillar that the matriarch of a family would sit to preside over domestic matters. Women held great power as peacemakers. So profound was the respect for women that if one were to remove her headdress and throw it between two male combatants, they would end their duel immediately.

In dance, Georgian women carry themselves as if they were earthly incarnations of ancient goddesses. They are aloof, queenly, and dignified. Even in couple dances, they barely deign to notice their male partners. The woman never openly tries to attract the man; it is for the male to win the attention of the woman.

Arm movements in Georgian women’s dances are soft and flowing, with graceful wrist circles. While the torso is held erect and still, the feet move with fast, light steps which require great agility and strength. Audiences ignorant of the high level of technique needed to create this illusion of effortless “gliding” for which dances such as Narnari are noted, often mistakenly assume that no skill is involved, that the dances are “easy.”

Mountain dances are exceptions; calf-length dresses show off the vigorous, lively footwork, performed with a bold and playful attitude. The Turkish influenced dances of the Black Sea region of Adjaria are also distinct and include coquettish shoulder isolations and even some demure hip movements.

When Georgia was annexed by Russia in 1801 and incorporated into the Russian Empire, a door was opened through which Georgian dance could influence the West. Writers such as Tolstoy and Lermontov, and musicians such as Borodin and Tchaikovsky found inspiration in Georgian culture, music, and dance. (The so-called “Arab Dance” in “The Nutcracker” is based on a Georgian lullaby.) Later, in the early twentieth century, Georgian dance would be depicted in the Ballet Russe production of Thamar, based on Lermontov’s poem of the same name. With the title role danced by Karsavina, Thamar created a sensation in the West at the same time as other Eastern femme fatales, such as Salomé and Cleopatra, were making inroads into the Western world of established dance.

Perhaps no contemporary woman better exemplifies the archetypal Georgian matriarch than Madame Nina Ramishvili, cofounder of the Georgian State Dance Ensemble. She joined the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Company in 1927, performing as a soloist for twelve years. Together with her husband, Iliko Sukhishvili, also a classically trained dancer, she traveled throughout Georgia collecting folk dances and interpreting them for the concert stage. (When I worked with her at New York’s City Center Theater, Madame Nina was 84 years old and still very much in command of the ensemble, rehearsing the dancers during the day and taking a curtain call with the company each night garbed in a designer gown.)

Even the men’s dances of Georgia can provide interesting material for women, although the nontraditional aspect of this borrowing should be emphasized. When asked by Germany’s ensemble, Raqs Sharqi, to choreograph a sword dance evocative of the Amazon warrior women, I turned to Georgian dance for inspiration. Knowing that the ancient legendary Amazons came from Colchis, an area in modern-day Georgia, I drew upon the famous Georgian war dance Khorumi for inspiration. I asked Steve Flynn to write new music based on the distinctive melody and 5/4 rhythm of the music which accompanies Khorumi but interpreted in a new way. Steve created a composition which was both archaic and contemporary. The eerie beginning evokes images of an epoch long past, building to a dynamic, martial finale. Although the choreography had a movement vocabulary and costume design which I based on ancient Greek depictions of Amazons in battle, the dance was interpretive. Still, thanks to Steve’s music, something of the ancient strength and power of the Amazons was manifested in the piece.

Those who do not wish to master the intricacies of Georgian women’s dances can learn from the elegant, fluid arm and hand movements which characterize the style. They can find inspiration in the legends and myths behind these dances. And perhaps, when we listen to the music and perform the ancient gestures, the spirit of long lost goddesses dance again.

Scholar, performer and choreographer Laurel Victoria Gray has toured the U.S., Canada, Australia, Tasmania, Uzbekistan and Europe. She has been published in Dance Magazine and the International Encyclopedia of Dance.

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