In Amman, Dancing to Keep a Culture Alive

Circassian dance includes acrobatics and long stretches of time spent on tiptoes

By / October 2015

Jonbek Qardan stretches out his arms and spins, vaults three feet into the air, lands softly on his knees. While an accordion bellows its strident melody and drums thump rapid-fire staccato, Jonbek continues kneeling and spinning a tornadic whirl around the room. Just before the music stops he leaps again, lands on the tips of his toes, and remains stock-still until his dance instructor claps. Time for a rehearsal break.

Jonbek’s performance, choreographed to mimic the fighting style of his Circassian ancestors, leaves him winded. He paces the floor, his hands on  his hips, taking deep breaths to recover and prepare for the next number. Dressed in a black t-shirt, black pants, and knee-high leather boots, Jonbek has the resolute look of a warrior. But his adversary is not a flesh and blood combatant like the ones his ancestors battled. Instead, it’s the faceless and relentless reality of cultural assimilation that is slowly extinguishing the Circassian way of life.

Jonbek dances with Al-Jeel Al-Jadeed, a Jordanian ensemble of teenagers and young adults dedicated to preserving their Circassian heritage through dance and music. The amateur troupe has earned a reputation for excellence, annually performing at the Cultural Arts Festival in Jerash, Jordan, before 8,000 adoring fans.

Over the years they have traveled to Cyprus, France, Russia, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, and the US. In 2014, they performed 41 shows in Saudi Arabia in front of some 140,000 people. “We believe through the arts and dance we can promote our culture and make the people of the world realize there is a nation called the Circassians,” says Yenal Hatk, the head of the Al-Jeel Club.

Circassians lived in southern Russia’s Caucasus mountains for hundreds of years. After the Russo-Circassian War (1763-1864) a million Circassians were deported from their homeland and resettled throughout the Ottoman Empire. The diaspora brought several thousand Circassians to Jordan. As the decades passed, the community’s elders realized that their traditions were dying as young people embraced Arab culture. To stem the tide, they formed societies and clubs to educate their children about Circassian life and tradition.

Photograph by Danny Wright 3

Al-Jeel is one such venture. The name means New Generation in Arabic. It was formed in 1949 by the Circassian Benevolence Association of Amman. The first dance group began in 1954. Today Al-Jeel has four separate groups divided by age, experience, and skill. “No other culture has the ability to dance on their toes like Circassians,” says Sawzer Disch, Al-Jeel’s teacher and choreographer. “Every Circassian boy and girl can dance this way because it runs in their blood.”

He suggests that even Circassian toes are unique, a hereditary gift giving them ability to dance for long periods of time on their tiptoes. Unlike ballet dancers, Circassians don’t use special point shoes with flat tips and extra padding for balance. Instead they wear thin leather boots or slippers with soft soles. Circassian children toughen their toes by curling their feet then jumping up and down on their toe knuckles.

The rigors of Circassian dance typically make it an activity for young, flexible bodies that heal quickly. At twenty-one years old, Jonbek is considered one of the veterans among the men of his troupe. In addition to rehearsals, he trains at a local gym to build the strength and stamina for the performances. Even so, he says he feels a myriad of aches and pains after rehearsals.

Circassian men dance with machismo, often strutting around the stage with shoulders back, chest out, chin forward and head held high. In fast dances they thrill audiences with testosterone-fueled acrobatics and dazzling footwork. They spread their arms and curl their tightly-balled fists at the wrists, giving off an air of strength and size. Sometimes they incorporate swords and shields in their routines.

Sawzer says many moves began by mimicking men on horseback or archers shooting bow and arrow. “Our culture was born from love, art, and war,” he explains. “In our tradition, a good dancer is a good warrior. Because footwork and strength are necessary for war and dance.”

Female Circassian dancers keep their upper torsos steady while moving their feet with such nimbleness that they appear to be hovering across the stage. Their hand gestures flow in rhythm with the music, sometimes moving up and down like a bird in slow motion, at other times pantomiming daily chores like sewing, baking bread, or planting seeds. Sawzer emphasizes Al-Jeel’s respect for tradition and cultural preservation in all of their performances. “We love to create new moves. But they must fall within the basics of classical Circassian dance,” he adds. “We can’t go outside what an eighty-year-old Circassian would recognize. We refine but never change. Because there is a story behind every dance. Every move helps us remember some aspect of our culture.”

Men wear traditional costumes modeled after mountain guerrilla fighters and hunters. Over a banded-collar shirt they don black, red, green, or white overcoats that hang down to the knees. Every jacket is decorated across the chest with bullet holders that would have been useful 150 years ago when muskets were the weapon of choice.

An ornate dagger hangs diagonally from a leather belt. They also wear tall, flat woolen hats, tight-fitting turbans, or a frizzy wool head piece that looks like a bad wig. Over dark pants they wear knee-high boots that protect the knees when they drop down and spin.

The standard costume for women is a floor-length dress embroidered with gold or silver. Over the gown they wear ornate coats that also extend below the ankles. Wide, embroidered fabric dangles from their sleeves, creating a flowing effect when they slip across the stage. Their hats have either a flat or cone-shaped top and are covered with a white veil. Two braided pony tails hang below their shoulder blades in back. Every costume fits tightly around the midriff, accenting their hourglass figures.

Sawzer brags with great satisfaction about the physical commitment of his dancers, saying they rehearse 10-15 hours a week after school or work. “I tell them they have to put in 150% effort in rehearsal to handle the physical stress of giving 100% in each performance.” He says that high expectations are not a deterrent to Jonbek and his partners. “They have no problem with motivation,” he says, “because they love the spotlight.”

 

Danny Wright lives and writes in Jordan.

 

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