Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.
Interview with Ercüment Kılıç
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Ercüment Kılıç was born in Ankara, Turkey, to parents of Turkish-Azerbaijani background from the village of Iğdir, a town on the skirts of Mt. Ararat, near Kars. He comes from a large family of dancers and musicians. There he spent his summers with the grandparents and relatives of both sides of his parents families. At the age of four, he began dancing with his uncle, Selahattin Kılıç, one of the foremost authorities on Azerbaijani dance who had organized the first Azerbaizani-Turkish group. Ercümen was a long-time president of the Turkish association TURANT. He initiated many grassroots activities and projects that were later adopted by other Turkish-American organizations around the country. Among these activities was the participation of local Turkish Americans in PBS TV programs and Meals on Wheels type projects.
WHAT AND WHERE IS AZERBAIJAN?
Azerbaijan, especially now after all the news about her conflict with Armenia, is well known as one of the republics of the Soviet Union. The word itself is derived from two ancient Persian words, "atar" and "patar," meaning fire and nation respectively. The region was thus named because of the presence of internal fire, oil, which the inhabitants of the area worshipped for a long time. Even today, Azerbaijan produces most of the oil used in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The name Azeri describes the people who are of Azerbaijani descent. Another name used to describe the Azeri people is Azerbaijani-Turkish, because that is what they are. They are Turks who speak Turkish who either now live in Azerbaijan or whose parents or ancestors were born in Azerbaijan. It must be said here that Azerbaijan is not only in the Soviet Union. Part of it also existes in Iran today because Azerbaijan was divided in two between the two countries early in the century.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF AZERBAIJANI DANCES?
I think a better question might be, "What are the origins of Caucasian dancing, and what details pertain to Azerbaijan dance only?" According to dance historian, Joan Lawson, Azerbaijani music and dance roots trace far back into antiquity. Cave paintings from the fifth millenia BCE that were discovered in Azerbaijan depicted ritual dancers. Although the Georgian republic of the Soviet Union, one of the three Trans-Caucasian republics (Azerbaijan and Armenia being the other two) can be counted as an exception because of its geographic isolation and inaccessibility, both Azerbaijan and Armenia have adopted dances that originated with other peoples. The area has always been one of turmoil, with many peoples sweeping the region in order to stabilize the area in their favor, first because it was a strategically important region, and second because of the rich oil deposits in the area. All of these peoples left behind elements of music and dance that were incorporated in the Azerimusic and dance. Many outside elements, such as Turkish tunes and old Tartar steps can be found in the dances and music of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
ARE THERE AZERI DANCES THAT FALL INTO THE GENERAL CATEGORIES OF OTHER TURKISH FOLK DANCE TYPES?
Yes, some, but not many. One type of dane comes under the name Ser Barlar, meaning "continuous bars." The word "bar" means line dance, "barlar" is line dances. In other words, these are the ones that are danced in sets. A few others, that can be danced singly, such as Iğdir Bari and Yalli, are all from the town of Iğdir, the birth place of my parents, on the skirts of Mt. Ararat, next to the Russian border.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE GENERAL STYLE OF AZERI DANCES FOR MEN AND WOMEN?
How a dancer carries himself during a dance is probably the most important aspect of Azeri men's styling. I've seen people in their early eighties at weddings dancing with more grace than some of the young, flashy dancers. The erect carriage comes in part from the tradition of fine horsemanship in the culture that lends great smoothness to movement. This feature is exemplified in some well known dances such as Şey Şamil, Deyhan, and Kılıç Dansi.
The dance steps of Azeri men are often very spectacular with high leaps in the air as the body twists from side to side. Sometimes these leaps end in a landing on both knees that have no padding to protect them! This style is seen in both military and competitive dance. There are leaps with one leg bent up to the other and jump-turns with a change of feet in mid-air, fancy knee-work, and intricate "toe-dancing" on the backs of the knee knuckles.
Dancing on the toes is done in unpadded, smooth-soled, tight, heelless boots, thought to have been introduced to Russia by Čengīz Khan. They fit like a glove and protect the foot from the hard dance surface. Because of their tight fit thay constrain the movement of the feet, as they do not allow the feet to spread to their fullest extent. For this reason, there is a certain air of constraint to be noted in the footwork and the entire body. Such footwear also allows tremendous flexibility of the ankle and instep. The footwork can be very intricate because there are no heels to restrict the full play of working the foot around the ankle or knee of the supporting leg.
The people of the Azeri regions have lived among the narrow mountain tracks, hunting and shepherding flocks on hilly slopes and in steep gorges. They had to learn how to maintain perfect balance and to negotiate every type of mountain obstacle. The origin of the boots and the balancing and dancing "on the toes" is attributed to this life style. Also, some of the peoples of the Caucasus mountain region were believed to have worshipped the eagle in the old days. The eagle's method of attracting his prey is supposedly imitated in some of the men's dance steps. The dancer, swiftly and with tiny steps done on his toes, will hover for a while above his prey (often represented with a dagger flung into the ground) and then drop onto his knees or into a full leg split, seize the dagger in his teeth (much as an eagle will seize his prey), and then soar off again.
The jumps and leaps of the Azeri male are similar to those of the Russian Cossack and Georgian. The styling technique, however, of "falling onto the knees" differs from those that are done by jumping on the toes first and then gradually placing the knees on the floor. The Azerbaijani males most spectacular knee-technique is that of the dancer leaping very high and then falling directly onto his knees (from the air, with nothing breaking the fall).
The basic men's arm position is holding one arm fully extended at shoulder level, with the other arm bent, hand resting in front of the chest, elbow at shoulder level, with both hands in clenched fist position. This comes from the use of the men's cape, one side of which is lifted behind the female partner as a sign of protection and the other side being lifted to cover the man himself.
In terms of the women's styling, the very same erect carriage as the men is necessary, but with even more grace, dignity, and more importantly, nobility . . . the type of noble look that only a woman can demonstrate. This elegant carriage, flirting aloofness, and the great delicacy and discretion with which the veils are manipulated, are characteristics of the Azeri women's dances.
In most women's dances, whether with or without a veil/scarf, the hands are carefully poised. Typically, the women hold their hands very delicately, open-fingered with the index finger slightly separated from the others, eye-level or slightly above never hiding the face, except when flirting. The elegant hand position is intended to keep the man at a proper distance. Here, again, the spine, particularly among the women, must be extended to its fullest and breathing must be extremely controlled in order to prevent the weight of the body from impeding the smoothness of the movements.
The basic step used most commonly by both men and women is called the "three step." It is always done on the balls of the feet. It is essential that the dancers keep the steps absolutely even and smooth. An explanation for the step is that the first step must give the impression of testing the ground (a kick forward and a pull back with the same foot, licking the ground). Then the speed and space are gradually increased until it looks as if the dancers were gliding, floating over the surface of the ground. The weight must be perfectly balanced between the two feet (always on the balls of the feet) so that one is ready to commence in any direction at any point in the dance. Readiness is the key. Hips do not sway easily, and the head and shoulders are alert and ready to change direction.
Many women's dances are intended solely to show off feminine beauty in these dances, great play is made with handkerchiefs, scarves, and veils. Dances of this type are relics of the time when the women had to dance either before the man she was to marry or before the overlord.
WHAT MUSIC ACCOMPANIES THESE DANCES?
The traditional musical instruments used to accompany Azeri dances are mainly the "German" (a version of the accordion), "ney," "tulek," "zurna," "gaz," "kemançe," "daff," "tar," "gosha nagara," and "nagara" (a double-headed drum played between one's arm and body with finger snaps).
The accordion, or the "German" as we call it, is a relatively new addition. Never in a million years did the inventor of the accordion (or "mundolina" as it was first called), Freeder Esberdshinen, a German, ever dream that this instrument of his could end up being one of the most widely used folk instruments in the world. Although the accordion is the youngest of the folk instruments, it is now used all over the world. I think the reason the "German" was so easily accepted among Azeri is that its sound and principle of operation is similar to that of the pipes, that have common usage in Azeri music. The reeds of a pipe or the Balkan bagpipes operate on the same principle as the accordion. One, with his mouth or a bellow, and exhale or inhale through a reed to produce a sound. The reed of the pipe is made of a cane and the reeds of the accordion are of metal, but they operate on the same principle. A reed stuck at the end of a pipe with finger holes is a mouth pipe. A mouth pipe attached to the end of a sheepskin sack is a bagpipe. These instruments have limits. The most one can get out of them is an octave or two at the most, in the hands of a skillful player, and still half-notes are difficult to play. With the accordion, on the other hand, there are no restraints in terms of octaves or half-notes. When the accordion was introduced to any region where the pipes were an important part of the ethnic music, it was adapted to the needs instantly.
The introduction of the accordion to Azerbaijan and many other parts of the Soviet Union is related to the increasing Russian cultural influence at the end of the 19th century. This in turn led to fundamental changes in the musical development of Azerbaijan, and European musical forms rapidly infiltrated Azerbaijan. Now, not only the accordion, but the piano, guitar and clarinet, as well as other instruments, are considered permanent in the region's music.
ON WHAT OCCASIONS ARE THESE DANCES DONE?
Mainly at weddings and circumcision ceremonies, that are both reasons for huge get-togethers, usually with live music. Also, two Muslim religious holidays, Ramadan and Sacrifician, are often celebrated with wedding-like gatherings and live music.
HOW DO THE CUSTOMS OF URBAN AZERI'S DIFFER FROM VILLAGE CUSTOMS?
They don't differ greatly, mainly because of the fact that the urban Azerbaijanis are very closely knit and they do get together quite often and give big parties with live music and entertainment. The lack of many weddings in the urban areas is made up for by these frequent "parties."
In rural areas such as Iğdir, my parents birthplace, the townspeople usually wait for the summer to hold their weddings. Then, nearly every night of the summer has a wedding sometimes more than one. Musicians are known to make a better living than many well-off farmers. One of the main reasons is that there is a wide-spread custom of giving money to dancers by friends and relatives as a sign of respect. The money is always turned over to the musicians at the end of each dance.
IN WHAT WAYS DO AZERI LIVING IN TURKEY SHARE CHARACTERISTICS WITH AZERI LIVING ABROAD?
We can add onto this question by adding the names of such countries as Iran and Saudi Arabia. When the people of the Caucasian mountains, the Turks, lost to their eternal enemy, the Russians, many chose to leave and go to Turkey, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the United States, and other places. Only those who remained in Azerbaijan are the above-mentioned Azeris of Iran and the Union of Soviet Sociallist Republics (USSR). As previously mentioned, Azerbaijan was divided between Iran and the USSR by two treaties in 1813 and 1827.
Now, int terms of shared characteristics . . . First and foremost, the music. Next, the very nationalistic attitudes toward the occupied land of Azerbaijan in the USSR, a land that produces almost all of the oil used in the Soviet Union. Most Turkish (Azeri-Turkish) areas of Iraq are equally rich in oil. For that, I'd say, living in poverty levels in such rich lands and their frustration with their misfortunes is their most commonly shared characteristic.
IS THERE ANY DANCE THAT IS CONSIDERED THE MOST REPRESENTATIVE OF AZERI DANCES?
Şey Şamil is considered the most representative dance. Şey Şamil was the champion of Caucasian independence. As the religious leader of the Moslem tribes in the region, he fought for thirty-four years against the Russians. Alexandre Dumas, in his book Adventures in the Caucasus, said that Şey Şamil was the worst enemy the Russians had ever suffered from and feared. But at the same time, for being a great warrior, he was respected by the Russians.
At the beginning of the dance, Şey Şamil, women kneel and lift their hands up to God while praying for a miracle. They, after thirty-four years on the mountain in the Avaristan region, have seemingly come to "the end." Many men were fighting the enemy at the skirts of the mountain. Inevitably, when their men lost, the enemy would come up the mountain and kill, rape, steal, and take their children to raise as their own. They pray for a miracle! In the meantime, they have decided to take their own lives so that all the enemy will find is their dead bodies and they will give the enemy no satisfaction. A horseman is then heard galloping. Then he is seen on the horizon, screaming at the top of his lungs, "Stop, stop! We broke the circle!" Legend has it that God accepted their prayers, and gave them a victory that day. They now have hope to last perhaps another day or week or month. In such a spirit, the dance Şey Şamil is always done. Even today, when I, probably a tenth generation Azeri, do Şey Şamil, and I and all the other dancers get that trembling feeling of 1859, doing the dance Şey Şamil.
As appearing in Folk Dance Scene magazine,
a publication of the Folk Dance Federation of California, South, November 1989.