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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Afghan Dance
By Katherine St. John, 1989

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Katherine St. John

Afghanistan Afghan dance styles can be classified according to ethnic and geographical divisions. The Pashtuns of the south have their wild and virile dances; the Uzbeks of the north represent Turkic dance forms similar those of other Turkic peoples, yet different than the court dance tradition which has been developed into the styles of Uzbekistan. The Haratis seem to have developed their own form, possibly representative of past eras, when Herat was the cultural center of the Islamic world or influential because of the philosopher Sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Traditionally it was a disgrace for a woman to dance in public except at family gatherings where everyone danced for fun or in private or in the company of other women. The concept of a woman as a professional dancer was completely unacceptable in traditional Afghan society. Therefore, great temple dancers or highly skilled masters as were found in India could not gain much respect in Afghanistan. The courts of former rulers, however, especially Mogul emperors, were resplendent with ladies who were masters of refined graceful dance forms similar to Indian Nauch or Kathak.

Women's dance of more recent decades in Kabul reflects influence from India. The traditional style of Logar, an area south of Kabul famous for its skilled performers, is characterized by tricky stops in the music during which the dancers must freeze, not moving until the music suddenly jumps into action again. Usually Kabuli, Logari, and Pashtu dance is done to a 7/8 meter pattern known as Tal-e Moghuli counted 3 + 4 with rhythmic accents on the 1st and 4th beat and pickup accents on the 3rd, 6th, and 7th. Music for Kabuli, Logari, and Pashtu dance is provided by the rebab (a type of a bowed string instrument that often has a spike at the bottom to rest on the floor), tambur (a stringed and plucked instrument), dilruba (a type of a bowed string instrument), dhol (a double-headed drum), and harmonium ( a free-reed keyboard instrument operated by foot-operated bellows). Herati dance is accompanied by the dutar (a traditional long-necked two-stringed lute), and zerbaghali (a globlet or cup-shaped hand drum) while Uzbek (Ozbaki) dance favors dambura (a long-necked lute), quaichak, and zerbaghali. The doira (a large frame drum) can also be used to accompany dance in many parts of the country.

The Pashtu word "gada" collectively refers to various types of folk dances which are performed on festive occasions and national celebrations such as Jeshn (a celebration of Afghanistan's independence from British control) and also religious celebrations. The most popular of these folk dances are: Atan, Ashia, and Natsa.

In Herat there are three different Atan (Pashtu for dance), not three different dances but rather three variations: 1. urban; 2. village; and 3. distant suburban or Kuchi (nomadic).

The first type, the Herat urban style of Atan, begins with a greeting called Mauzun Qadam (elegant rhythmic step) that starts with men in a row with the leader standing on one foot. When the leader raises one hand, the others in the line follow suit and begin walking in procession. The dancers move forward in a single line as if respectfully facing viewing dignitaries or the audience in a military manner. At first, the raised hand twists inward back and forth in time to the music. Then both hands are raised by the leader, and then the group follows. The wrist twisting is done with both hands, then the group claps with hands above the head. For this entrance, men and women would enter in separate lines. Music for this would be played on dutar and doira, or even dhol and sornas (a double-reed flute) in a 4/4 meter in the rhythm, dum S tak tak (S = 1/8 rest). The melody begins with 5 S 4 3 2 / 5 S 4 3 2 / 3 4 3 2 1.

After the Mauzun Qadam, which ends in a brief halt, comes the official national 7/8 meter Atan which is a circle dance referred to as a Dauregi in Herat. It begins with a slow stepping to the beat and progresses with dancers making 1/4 and then 1/2 turns, stamping the foot and clapping the hands (chak) one, two, or three times, appropriate places in the music. Small hand scarves can be used in the village rendition of the dance and can be in the colors of red and green or sometimes white, carried either by the leader or by all of the dancers. The leder gives the command to clap by saying "du" (two), or "se" (three). The dancers move together and apart in a circle like a flower. The traditional Atan tune, known as Shah Mast, speeds to a frenzied conclusion before the leader calls out to the musicians "bezan Aushari" (play Aushari).


Atan, a 7/8 meter circle dance, is considered the national dance of Afghanistan. It is performed by groups of up to ten or more to the accompaniment of the large dhol played with sticks. The 7/8 meter is divided in two measure increments with the main accents on 1, 4, 6, 8 and pickup accents on 3, 13, and 14.


Pattern 1

Facing in line of dir (LOD) or counterclockwise (CCW), step R (ct 1); touch L near R with quick but small plie (ct 4). Repeat on L. Repeat a few times for introduction.

Pattern 2

Facing LOD, step R (ct 1); hop R (ct 4); bringing hands up, step L (ct 6); facing ctr, stamp R on ball of ft in front of L clapping once (ct 8).

Pattern 3

Same as above, but clap twice on cts 6 and 8 (8 being ct 1 of the next measure).

Pattern 4

Same as above, but clap three times on cts 4, 6, and 8.

Pattern 5

Circle moves CCW. Step R facing outside of cir; hop with hands raised. Facing ctr, step L; hop and stamp R on ball of ft behind L; clap holding hands down and bending twd ctr. Step R in reverse line of dir (RLOD); hop; lift L and clap; turn clockwise (CW) to face ctr and step on L; stamp R; clap twd ctr.

Pattern 6

Same as above, clapping three times rather than one and also stamp ball of ft three times.

Pattern 7

This is a more advanced move with a quick spin. Step R; lift L; spin R CW on R; step L; spin R on R CCW. Repeat. The arms are held out to the sides, slightly curved. The spins are quite snappy.

Pattern 8

This is another advanced move. It is done with a scarf in each hand and is characterized by rhythmic snappy head tosses done after spins. The spins are done consecutively, stepping in and out as explained in Pattern 7 and can be done with double spins done in the same amount of time.

The Atan begins with an announcement by the drum and the dancers move slowly in a circle around the drummer(s). Speed builds gradually until accelerated to a frenzy of movement and rhythm. The dancers go through various attitudes and figures, sometimes singing, sometimes shouting, or at other times clapping their hands or snapping their fingers. The dancers often carry handkerchiefs in their hands. Quick spinning and whirling movements of the body are prominent, although some tribes place more importance on the movement of the head and flying hair. In villages, the men carry swords and guns while dancing the Atan. The dance can go on for hours, even until dawn. Although it is usually a man's dance, on certain occasions it is performed by men and women together and is then known as Ghberg Atan. In this case, the men sing love songs which are answered by the women and the dialogue continues along with the dance.


The Natsa is a dance reserved for happy occasions and is often performed for the amusement of others. At these times, individual dancers perform artistic choreographies following the music of the rebab, drum, and possibly other instruments with movements of the head, waist, and legs, usually with bells worn on the feet.

The Ishala resembles the Natsa but is a solo dance performed only by women at weddings and some other occasions. The performer carefully and delicately follows the musical accompaniment with graceful movements of the limbs and eyes. When danced a party, the dancer will sit down when another woman enters the room so that she may also have an opportunity to dance.

On certain occasions, comic stories are told with the performer starting the story while sitting prior to rising to dance. In certain areas, both Natsa and Ishala are performed before large audiences in the open air. The dancer might carry two water jugs on her head while gracefully executing the movements. Characteristics of Afghan women's dances are: graceful hand movements, fingers together and eyes watching the hands wherever they move, framing the face with the hands on the sides or top and bottom, hands over the head flowing back and forth, hands tumbling over each other, hands twisting together to the right and left, expressive facial movements, neck slides, shuffling from side to side with the right foot nearly flat and the left foot half raised and the toes following the heel of the right, fast spins, hand and arm patterns while kneeling and swaying.


Grazagi (or Qandeci) is a Herati women's solo dance in which all naz (coquetry) or eshwa (coquetry) that a dancer knows is drawn upon to be presented in a free format. The movement can describe aspects of daily activities such as facial beautification, combing the hair, sewing, sowing, and picking fruit or flowers. Sorrows or joys of love requited or unrequited or even fleeing and fighting can be represented. The Herati dancer, Sitara, noted that on the video she recorded in Kabul some years ago, she represented beautification, combing hair, sewing, and other such activities in her solo.

There is even a variety of women's solo called Chaqubazi (knife play) in which the dancer feigns cutting or stabbing herself, sometimes to a degree of credibility that shocks the audience.

Herati's are also familiar with the Tea Cup Dance in which saucers with cups of water are held in each hand as the dancer does various moves, including kneeling and bending backwards until the head touches the floor without spilling the contents of the cups held in the palms. Another interesting mimelike dance done in Herat is the Khaghazbadbazi (kite dance) in which this popular Afghan sport is described in dance.


The Herati dance as done by Sitara is a series of subtle movements with subtle gestures on the accents of the music. Footwork, hand and head movements, shoulder and facial movements are included and combined and remain subtle all through the dance. The following dance descriptions are suggestions for the women's Herati dance.


Generally feet are very close together and footwork is small.

1) With weight on one ft flat and the other ft on the ball of the ft, shift weight to the music and move in any direction, circular, side to side, forward or backward.

2) Scooting backward with very small ftwk, and ft close together, roll weight from heel to toe on one ft while stepping with the other.


Arms are generally raised to the sides or extend upward or outward. Arms move gently and are basically away from the body.

1) Hands usually describe subtle circles or are posed.

2) With hands overhead, wrists together, alternate twisting hands fwd.

3) Describe face by circling with back of R hand, L hand at temple.

4) Describe threading a needle with index finger and thumb together as if holding thread and gently insert the thread in the eye of the needle.

5) Following Pattern 4, describe stitching the sleeve of the dress, not actually touching the dress but making a few stitches with the rhythm of the music.

6) Describe applying eye makeup by holding the index finger and thumb together as if drawing eyeliner with the R hand. The L hand is slightly in front of the face as if looking in a mirror, palm facing self.

7) Describe applying lipstick with the tip of smallest finger of the R hand, sweeping slowly back and forth.

8) Hands can be on hips for a brief moment while doing ftwk.

9) Hold skirt out slightly with both hands while doing ftwk.

10) Subtle shldr extensions or shakes.

11) Pull shldr back with arm extended upward, accenting music.

12) Holding veil outward, glance over veil while turning or stepping side to side.


Facial movements include side glances, gentle yet sharp neckslides, and a sweet smile with a pleasant attitude. Additional appropriate head movements would be looking to the side and then fwd, turning the head while looking, accenting the music in a gentle fashion.

Bending fwd at the torso while turning is also very common. This can be done while holding the veil with one or both hands, or without holding the veil and doing gentle wrist circles. Another variation on the bent torso is leaning fwd and describing little figure eights with the wrist, hand held at about thigh level. While leaning fwd, the dancer can also wave the hand back and forth a little.

Herati dance is best accompanied by traditional Herati music played on a small 2, 3, or 4 string dutar and zerbaghali. For all Afghan dance, small bells nailed to two pieces of wood are then grasped and thumped on the ground or on two thick tal (cymbals), which are clanged together in time to the music, can accompany the usual instrumental group. For Herati dance, a free-rhythm improvised introduction on the dutar using four or five notes with the emphasis on the 2nd above the tonic can last from a minute to several minutes before the rhythmic section begins.

Dance to the free-rhythm chaharbaiti (quatrains) type introduction, often called Shakal, can be slow and dreamy like Persian interpretations of the dastgah (a musical modal system). The scale for Herati traditional music is like the Shur or Isfahan modal systems of Persian music but without a constant progressive climbing from one degree of emphasis to the next. Usually, the 2nd above the tonic is emphasized and the semi-flat 6th is held at the end of phrases. Meter can be 4/4, 6/8, or 7/8, which is less standard in Herati than in Logari music. Kabuli music uses a rebab, tambur, dilruba, harmonium, dhol or table group, tambur/tabla/rebab/zerbaghali, or some other instrumental duet.


There is a form of Aushari done by men. Each sits on the floor at opposite sides of the room waiting in the spirit of competitors. When the music begins, they both rise and stand and begin dancing. Facing each other, they approach in friendly challenge using typical Herati dance motifs, sometimes resembling monkeys or serpents.


The melody played for Aushari also accompanies a Herati dance known as Shalangi or Sharangi, from the word sharang, which denotes the sound of tinkling or clapping. This is primarily a woman's dance done by two women who start in opposite corners of a room. They slowly approach until they meet while clapping on the first and third beat with arms stretched to the right, above the head, to the left and back or right, up, left and downward. As the dance progresses, the claps can augment to two in each position, then three, always on the first and third beat. The feet shuffle, shifting weight from one foot to the other. The dancers hop lightly on one foot while the other is raised in front. In the past, some ladies would raise the foot until the heel was near the knee of the other leg. One clap would be accompanied by one hop, two claps by two hops on the same foot. The dancers face each other and usually mirror each other's movements, but they might decide to clap in the opposite direction, as if in a game to confuse one another.

The dancers can either meet in the center of the room or pass each other near the opposite corner, and then turn back to face each other. The dancers may add other dance techniques, such as those characteristic of ghama (flirtatious glances), eshwa (coquetry), naz (coquetry), movements of the eyes, eyebrows, and/or neck, and turns of the body, all done with intensity and an air of abandon.

Shalangi can also be performed in a line of about twenty people. The first person in the line turns toward the second and the third toward the fourth, and so on down the line until each set of two dancers face each other. Then they clap to the right, above the head to the left and downward, mirroring each other, first one clap, then two, and finally three. This version can be done at the end of the national Atan in which those who are not tired out dance down to the last person. This variation may be done with men and women, though probably not mixed. The music for Shalangi in this case would by the "Wokh Balongh-a Panja Meri" melody.


Another Hereati variation on the Atan is a stick dance called Chopbazi (stick playing) which is similar to the Iranian stick dance of Torbat-e Jam near the Afghan border. Each dancer holds a stick in each hand, hits his sticks together, then the first dancer turns to face the second and so forth so each dancer can strike his sticks against the sticks of his neighbor. The dancers can also turn toward a neighbor to strike one stick, then turn to the other neighbor and do the same, turning back and forth as the circle moves forward.

Then two of the more advanced dancers go to the center of the circle and squat down, striking their sticks on the floor and then against each other's. A final variation and highlight involves one dancer who would quickly travel around insice the circle striking the sticks of each of the other dancers in rapid succession.

The distant suburban or Kuchi Atan might be done to daira and dutar or dhol and vocal for which the meter could be in 4/4 in the pattern of dum tak tak taka, dum tak tak taka. People would dance their form of Atan in a circle to this music.


It was through the Kabul Valley that the original Aryans approached the subcontinent and through which Buddhism spread from India northward. Later, the Mogul emperors favored the Kabul area for their winter capital. Thus, Indian influence in Kabuli music and dance has been strong over the centuries. The footwork, hand gestures, and facial expressions are sharper than the other Afghani dances, especially when the music accelerates. This dance allows for some freedom by the dancer in that Kabul is a modern city and the traditional Afghani movements include Indian influence which has been there for many years and is apparent.


Left ft on the ball of the ft, R ft in front of the L, stamping flat or on the toe of the R. Ftwk is kept maida (small).


1) Alternate position of ft so left is fwd and flat, with R behind on the ball of the ft.

2) Traveling with this basic ftwk can be done in any dir or in a cir.

3) With both ft flat, shuffle with quick short steps with the ft close to the ground. This can be done in any dir.

4) Turns can be done with either of the above steps or can be spins or simple step turning.

Traditional music and dance of ancient Persia, present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus are becoming more visible to the public here in the United States because of the recent high profile in the news media and interest in understanding people through their art. We at Eastern Arts are pleased to be able to share our knowledge, or life work, with the folk artists and ethnologists who are sincerely concerned with the preservation of these performing arts and who are instrumental in keeping the culture living in an effort to resist the possible extinction of a vital element of a noble heritage. We are currently working with recreational and performing companies in an effort to provide these sometimes exciting, sometimes enchanting traditional music and dance pieces to more musicians and dancers, and the viewing public.


Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, April 1989.

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