dancing the nation in the north caucasus

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  • Dancing the Nation in the North CaucasusAuthor(s): Sufian Zhemukhov and Charles KingSource: Slavic Review, Vol. 72, No. 2 (SUMMER 2013), pp. 287-305Published by:Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.72.2.0287 .Accessed: 18/06/2014 23:41

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  • Slavic Review 72, no. 2 (Summer 2013)


    Dancing the Nation in the North Caucasus

    Sufi an Zhemukhov and Charles King

    In the realm of nations and nationalism, what are the limits of invention? With the upsurge in writing on Eurasian and east European nation building, we now know a great deal about the formulation and remaking of national categories, from the work of state-sponsored ethnographers to the struggle be-tween incumbent and oppositional politicians.1 Yet the persistent challenge, to paraphrase Karl Marx, is to understand exactly how and why people are unable to make their histories just as they please. Even though traditions may be invented and communities imagined, it is no simple task to identify the specifi c moments when these phenomena actually occur, especially when the inventing and imagining are not the mere result of government fi at or ethno-graphic creativity. Moreover, in our enthusiasm for deconstructing national belonging, it is easy to lose sight of the ways in which large numbers of people perform the ethnonational categories that scholars now assiduously unbuild. How might we map those precise points in time when decisions about national forms get negotiated by actors with little to gain from the processapart from, so far as we can tell, a sincere wish to be somehow true to a collectively imag-ined past? What is at stakeculturally, historically, and even politicallywhen people decide to do being ethnic in one way and not another, and all within the context of a globalized, post-Soviet world? 2

    There is no clearer illustration of these phenomena than what might be called ethnokinetics, that is, forms of human motion that are locally catego-rized as essential to collective belongingfrom ethnic dance, to the forms of posture thought to be exemplary of a particular ethnonational category, to virtually any collective performance that valorizes bodies in motion. As a cultural form that is inherently grassroots, participatory, and infi nitely re-combinant, dance in particular pushes us to turn some of our attention away

    For their advice we thank Aleksei Abazov, Marjorie Mandelstam-Balzer, Paul Manning, Marjana Mirzoeva, Margaret Paxson, and Mark D. Steinberg, as well as an anonymous reviewer. Thanks also to Kazbek Balkarov, Zarina Goplacheva, Mukhamed Khafi tse, Sa-mara Saralp, Svetlana Tokmakova, Anzor Utizhev, journalists at Kabardino-Balkarskaia pravda and Adyge psale, and dancers with the Khatti ensemble.

    1. For a very small sample, see Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: National-ism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford, 1993); Bruce Grant, In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas (Princeton, 1995); Mark R. Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge, Eng., 2002); Terry Martin, The Affi rmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 19231939 (Ithaca, 2001); Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 15691999 (New Haven, 2004); Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and The Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, 2005).

    2. See Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).

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  • 288 Slavic Review

    from state institutions and their challengers and toward the actions of average women and men who seem to be building the nation quite literally one step at a time. Within the Russian Federation and on the wider post-Soviet periph-ery, dance is also one of the most visible areas in which cultural activists are increasingly analyzing their own pasts as a matrix of civilizing process, the control and regulation of disorderly practices, and the profound reconfi gura-tions of both local and European culture.3

    This article examines the emergence and transformation of a communal dance form known as adyge jegu in historical Circassia, today the Russian republics of Adygeia, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.4 In the north Caucasus, collective dance has long been both an expression of com-munal identity and a forum for social mobilization and political dissent. The Nart sagasthe pan-Caucasus folk narratives involving the exploits of a pre-human populationcontain passages that celebrate dance as an alternative to violence and a rubric for negotiating power relationships.5 In mid- nineteenth-century Dagestan and Chechnia, the Qadiriya Sufi order introduced a style of ecstatic Islamic worship known as the zikr, an energetic male-only dance that is now taken to represent Chechen communal identity. During the Soviet period, a Caucasian dance off became a comic stand-in for male competi-tiveness, including in the emblematic fi lmic portrait of Caucasus rivalries, Mimino (1977). All these tropes, reinforced by offi cial dance troupes, contrib-uted to popular images of Caucasus regional culture, with leaping mountain-eers and fl oating ladies gliding eff ortlessly across the stage.6

    The modern adyge jeguwhich might be translated as Circassian festivalemerged in 2005 in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. The adyge jegu took the form of young men and women gathering in a small park, later in a prominent square, to listen to live accordion music and participate in a highly rule-bound dance form: a kind of iterated pas de deux involving one man and one woman surrounded by onlookers. The adyge jegu quickly be-came the subject of both celebration and controversy. Local cultural activists and intellectuals hailed the spontaneous dances as evidence of national re-birth. Not long aft erward, the republic was rocked by an unexplained terrorist

    3. Susan A. Reed, The Politics and Poetics of Dance, Annual Review of Anthropology 27 (1998): 506. On dance revival, see Laura J. Olson, Performing Russia: Folk Revival and Russian Identity (London, 2004).

    4. There is no widely accepted method for transliterating Circassian (Adyge, Adiga). Georges Dumzil and John Colarusso have devised phonemic inventories, but these are likely to be confusing to nonlinguists. Our transcription is a rough-and-ready spelling in Latin script based on Russian transliteration rules. The exceptions are our use of for the glottal stop and the Latin j for the sound normally transliterated as dzh.

    5. John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus (Princeton, 2002).6. On representation and cultural tropes in the Caucasus, see Austin Jersild, Oriental-

    ism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 18451917 (Montreal, 2002); Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy (Cambridge, Eng., 2005); Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A His-tory of the Caucasus (Oxford, 2008), chap. 3; Bruce Grant and Lale Yaln-Heckmann, eds., Caucasus Paradigms: Anthropologies, Histories and the Making of the World Area (Mn-ster, 2008); Bruce Grant, The Captive and the Gift : Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Rus-sia and the Caucasus (Ithaca, 2009).

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  • Dancing the Nation in the North Caucasus 289

    attack on local security services and government buildings in Nalchik. While purely coincidental occurrences, the mass dance movement and the threat to public order became entwined in public discourse and state responses. Po-litical elites worried that the unsanctioned dance evenings might present a further threat to security. When the Nalchik authorities moved to prohibit the gathering, however, the resulting public outcry forced police to back down and allow the dances to go aheadto date, one of the few examples of civil societys forcing the hand of the conservative and security-conscious admin-istration of Kabardino-Balkaria.

    In its modern form, the adyge jegu is a largely postcommunist cultural ar-tifact, but it is not just another example of the malleable mash-up of ethnicity and performance art, a common phenomenon ranging from the turbofolk of Serbia to the Hutsul punk of Ukraine.7 Rather, in very short order, the adyge jegu has become not just a thing that Circassians happen to do; it is to-day the single most identifi able feature of contem