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Dance

DanceDance has been an important part of most cultures from their earliest times. Throughout the world, as part of celebrations and ceremonies, entertainment, and teaching, dance serves social, spiritual, artistic, and emotional functions. Before the introduction of written languages, dance was one of the primary methods of passing stories and rituals down from generation to generation, of committing knowledge to memory, and of learning precision movements, such as swordsmanship.

While many other art forms—music, painting and poetry—can be traced through human history through physical artifacts, dance is less easily defined, and like oral history and storytelling, relies on the direct communication of the ‘vocabulary’ of movement and stories from person to person. This vocabulary of movement is used by dancers and choreographers to describe or imitate the natural world (both living and inanimate objects), or to express common themes and emotions. Some movements are universal and recognized by people around the world, while others are unique to the region or people to which it belongs.

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Artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization show the importance of dance in the earliest years of the Indian subcontinent, and point to choreographic elements and dance postures that can still be seen today. From early traditions that form the basis of today’s classical dance, to the rich diversity of ethnic and tribal movements, Pakistan shares the region’s dance vocabulary, in both its folk and classical traditions.

Classical Dance

Historically, early dance was used ritually and to relate or retell legends and myths. In South Asia, particularly in India, temples were the center of such dances, and temple dancers formed and kept the traditional choreographies alive over centuries. Two such dances that are seen today in Pakistan, both in their traditional form and with new Pakistani influences, are Bharatanatyam (bah-rah-ta-nat-yam) and Kathak (kah-TOCK).

Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam is a classical dance found throughout South Asia, which evolved over many centuries in the temples of southern India. Highly structured, it is known for the dancer’s strong gestures and intricately expressive hand gestures.

Kathak

The story of Kathak begins in ancient times with the performances of professional story-tellers called kathak, derived from katha, meaning “story”. They recited or sang stories from epics and mythology with some elements of dance. The traditions of the kathakas were hereditary, and dances passed from generation to generation.

During the Mughal reign in India, Kathak went through its greatest transformation. Mughal emperors and princes sent for dancers, musicians and other entertainers from Persia and Central Asia for entertainment in their courts. Eventually, South Asian dancers found themselves along side these Persian and Central Asian dancers and were heavily influenced by their dance styles. Pakistan thus became a dance fusion laboratory during Muslim rule.

Kathak is not only focused on storytelling; it is also a highly mathematical dance, based on rhythmic patterns set against a musical cycle of sixteen beats. Fast movements countered with sudden stillness are important to this form, as is complex footwork—dancers often wear ankle bells, their feet becoming another instrument. Performers must focus on telling the story with their bodies and faces while keeping close time with the music itself. This dance style consists of three main aspects: drama, mood, and sentiment and pure dance technique.  Elements of Kathak include fast pirouettes (spins), linear and circular extensions of the body, controlled hand and body movements and intricate, rhythmic footwork.

Folk Dance

Folk dances are performed for many reasons: to celebrate harvest and seasonal festivals, the birth of a child, a wedding; as part of spiritual or religious ritual, and to share community knowledge. The dances are often designed for group participation, with simple steps or movements and a loose structure. Depending on the community and the purpose of the dance, men and women perform some dances exclusively, while in some performances men and women dance together.

In Pakistan, like many other countries around the world with rich folkloric traditions, folktales, music, and dance are often inextricably intertwined. Each region of Pakistan has its own native form of traditional dance, often performed in conjunction with—at times inseparable from—folk music, whose origins can be traced back for many centuries.

Celebratory and Festival Dances

The Bhangra is usually danced in April, which is the beginning of the harvest season in the Punjab.  Male dancers form a circle around a drummer whose beat keeps getting faster; its counterpart for women is called the Giddha. The dhol, a large double-headed drum, is essential to the performance; while the drummer plays, people form a circle, sing short songs, and some move to the center to dance while the group claps in time. Bhangra dancers often leap into the air together at the end of a drum cycle. The Bhangra was originally a harvest dance, but today, bhangra is danced throughout the world from marriage ceremonies to night clubs, in A modernized version called bhangrabeat  is much like techno music. 

Another Punabi dance is the luddi, a celebratory dance traditionally performed by men after a victory over a rival group. In the old days, it celebrated a victory in a skirmish between warring parties; today, it is performed after winning a football match or a sports event. Men form a line and dance with swooping downward movements while snapping their fingers as their arms swing from side to side.

Jhumar (meaning going swaying from side to side) is danced in southern Punjab and Sindh. Jhumar is danced in a circle with the drummer in the middle, accompanied by singing and clapping that is synchronized with the movement of the feet, the twirling of the body and the rhythm of the beat. As the dance progresses, the participants break into different patterns until a crescendo is reached and the circle is re-formed through a graduated process of reversal. While popular with women, the Jhumar is danced with greater vigour by men, often on dark nights by the light of torches.

Kikli, usually danced in the Punjab by pairs of teenage girls, consists of a whirling movement to the rhythm of a song of the same name sung to a two- beat pattern. Two partners stand facing each other holding each other’s hands with their arms crossed and the toes of their feet touching one another. They lean back and begin whirling together. The dance continues until one of the partners gets dizzy and drops out.

The sammi is danced on the plateau of Upper Punjab and is also the name of the tune and folk song linked to it. Originally danced under the full moon by unmarried girls, it is now danced separately by both men and women. Clapping of hands in time to the beat of the drum, dancers form a circle while verses from the ancient sammi song are sung to its tune. The dance starts in a slow and measured manner, gently speeding up as it progresses.

The chap is the most popular dance of Balochistan. Men gather and dance, clapping their hands and moving the feet, neck, and head to the rhythmical beat of the dhol. This dance is performed mainly for the enjoyment of the dancers and is not a spectator dance. Balochi women also dance on many occasions, moving in a circle, clapping their hands and making subtle any body movements.

Along the coastline of the Arabian Sea in southern Pakistan, Balochi and African Pakistanis, men and women, dance the leva, a rhythmic dance with to and fro swaying movements resembling ocean waves, the rocking of a boat and the gait of a camel.

Religious Dance

The Sufis, practitioners of a spiritual movement in Islam, are perhaps best known in the West for the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey. In Pakistan, this dance is not performed, but a variant called raqs o sama (“dance and audition”) exists, in which the chishtia school of the Sufis (the most popular Sufi school in Pakistan) have integrated dance as part of their ritual.

During religious festivals, everyone–men and women–dance the dhammaal, a devotional dance with high stepping and hands raised above the head, the index finger pointing at the sky to indicate the unity of all creation. The dhamaal is driven by the beat of a large double-headed drum carved out of a hollow tree trunk with goatskins stretched across the heads.

Community Knowledge

Many tribal people around the world use dance as a means to transfer knowledge, particularly to preserve group stories or in activities that which is based on repetition of specific patterns or movements. Among the many types of community dances that serve this purpose are those that are based on warfare and hunting. These dances often use props like weapons or sticks and have choreogrpahy which simulates or reenacts combat. These dances often serve a dual purpose, not only training young fighters, usually boys, but also as ceremonial dances recalling victories or important events.

In Pakistan, the Pukhtuns of the Northwest Frontier perform a folk dance called Khattak that originated as a military dance, with men in a circle holding their guns or swords to show they were ready to go into battle. There are many variations on the dance, but they invariably begin with dancers in two columns accompanied by pipe and drum music.

Another ancient war dance of the Pukhtuns is the Atan, which has now become a wedding dance. The atan can be danced with or without music in a single line that forms a circle as the dance goes on. This dance requires a great deal of vigor and stamina.

Contemporary Dance

Dance went through a difficult period during the years under military ruler Zia-ul-Haq, when, with the exception of men performing folk pieces, most dance was banned in the national media. For many years, the performance of classical dance was discouraged, and dancers trained in the ancient regional forms of classical dance were only seen in private homes of the upper class.

With a gradual restoration of the earlier freedoms, middle-class and upper middle-class girls took up classical dancing.

Dance continues to be a popular inclusion in the popular theater, by men and women.