Autumn is arriving in St. Petersburg. The leaves are turning brown; the temperature is dropping. The city’s residents are enjoying their last weekends living in their dachas before returning to their apartments, and are collecting basketloads of mushrooms from the forests. At the moment, it’s actually very pleasant, and I’m planning to go and walk in some of the local palace gardens this week, savouring the smells and colours of my favourite season.
The past eight months have gone incredibly quickly. When I arrived in St. Petersburg in mid-January, I was setting out on an entirely new career. Although I still have a great deal to do and learn, I’m finding my feet finally. It’s not always been easy, but people seem to be pleased with what I’m doing. The job is actually incredibly satisfying: I’m able to see people improving their skills, and developing their confidence, and that’s great. Because of the demand for English, I’m getting to meet a very broad range of people, some of whom I could never expect to encounter. It’s incredibly interesting, and I’m learning a lot about Russia and the Russians
On the other hand, the side of life that more directly concerns this blog hasn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. I’ve got lots to say about that, but I’m wondering how much I want to share.
Still. One thing that I really wanted to get out of my time in Russia was to learn how to dance!
That all started with seeing clips from the Alexandrov Ensemble of the Soviet army – clips which I’m sure you’ve all seen!
Alexandrov Ensemble: Dance of the Soldiers
Alexandrov Ensemble: Dance of the Cossacks
There are two dances which I learned to associate with Cossacks.
One is Ukrainian: the hopak (if you’re speaking Ukrainian), or the gopak (if you’re speaking Russian). The Don host traditionally spanned the current Ukraine-Russia border, and the Kuban host traces its roots to the Ukrainian Zaparozhian host, relocated to the Kuban from Ukraine by Catherine the Great.
The other is the lezginka. This comes from the peoples of the Caucasus mountains: the mostly Muslim mountain tribes faced by the Kuban host and the Terek host. The Cossacks both fought and intermarried with the tribes; both practised wife-stealing amongst themselves and between each other. As a result, the Cossacks adopted an awful lot of the customs and culture of the ‘mountaineers’.
I looked hard for someone to teach me “Cossack dance”, but couldn’t find anyone. The only place was, of course, Andrey Karimov’s school, where we did a bit of gopak, a bit of lezginka, as well as quadrilles and other more recognisably European folk dances. In the short period in which I was able to attend classes, though, we didn’t do any of them in depth; then the classes stopped for the summer. They’ve just re-started, on Tuesday afternoons, but I can’t get to them due to work commitments.
So, I decided to go back to the source. I found a few places teaching Caucasian lezginka – there are several in St. Petersburg. Again, most of the classes clash with my timetable – but one is on weekends… It’s a Dagestani form, so typical (I suppose) of the forms learned by the Terek Cossacks:
I got my Russian colleague, Nika, to call the number, and confirmed the times: 16:30, Saturday and Sunday. Classes for beginners were just beginning, it seemed.
I went along this afternoon, arriving a bit late because of a mixup over the address I went to where I thought I should go: a grand theatre standing in the centre of Pionerskaya Square (really a large public garden). Nothing was to be found. Eventually, a friendly security guard directed me to a nearby building. I went inside, and found an immense, gloomy and echoing foyer, with a broad staircase sweeping up. To my surprise, there was a soldier on duty at the desk. I explained what I was looking for, and he called another soldier, who escorted me up five floors, passing numerous other soldiers. When we go to the top floor, he directed me towards a door, turned on his heel, and left.
Not without some trepidation I went through, wondering what I would find. To my surprise, I found a group of girls and young women… dancing lezginka! It was a ballet studio, complete with wall mirrors, and a fantastic domed roof decorated with wall paintings of dancers. The girls were being taught by an older woman – still probably only in her twenties, who took me to find Nurmogamed, the group’s director. He was in a side room, with another young man who spoke English. His name was Anas; he’s newly qualified as a lawyer, and about to begin work as an accident investigator for the Russian emergency services.
He told me that on Saturdays they train as an ensemble in more traditional dance:
On Sundays, they train “wedding lezginka”:
He had time to show me a couple of basic steps, told me to sort out my posture, and explained that it was important that every moment should be clearly defined and cleanly performed, and that the dance is performed with spirit, fiercely. He mentioned that although in some of the cultures of the Caucasus the women dance demurely and gracefully (as in the clips above), in Dagestani lezginka the women use many of the same steps as the men – so the clip of the Terek Cossacks further above perhaps really does show Dagestani influence!
After that, the class began, and they practised for two hours while I sat and watched. Well. They weren’t beginners, and this wasn’t the slow traditional form! They stepped incredibly rapidly; the men and boys jumped and spun, fell to their knees and jumped up again. It was amazing. And, I have to say, intimidating.
Tomorrow, I’ll go back and will start trying to learn. This is going to be… interesting… What makes it even more interesting is that at the end, Anas informed me that a number of the girls want to learn English; a couple of the lads do as well. When could we start? Eermmmm, let’s talk about it tomorrow I said….
Image credits: Dance, by user Bolshakov on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.