Kushtdepdi of the Turkmen and Its Origins

Turk­men nation­al dance Kushdepdi

I heard singing with the dis­tinct “hu hu” breath­ing pat­tern, and instant­ly, a small cir­cle of peo­ple gen­tly formed in the mid­dle of the crowd in the court­yard of the groom’s house. The peo­ple in the circle—children and adults—danced around the cir­cle stamp­ing their right foot on the ground, and after­wards, jump­ing up and throw­ing both arms in the air. There was no bound­ary between the spec­ta­tors of the dance and its par­tic­i­pa­tors: peo­ple seam­less­ly moved in and out of the cir­cle. The ener­gy cre­at­ed by the stamps, the claps and the singing was aston­ish­ing. These are my mem­o­ries of the Turk­men dance kusht­de­p­di.

Kusht­de­p­di is a Turk­men folk dance prac­ticed at wed­dings by the mem­bers of the cel­e­brat­ing com­mu­ni­ty and is accom­pa­nied by spe­cial songs called ghaz­al or kusht­depme. To under­stand the var­i­ous ways in which kusht­de­p­di is prac­ticed by the Turk­men we must dis­tin­guish between the con­cepts of ‘a dance in the field’ and ‘eth­no iden­ti­ty dance’, cod­i­fied by Antho­ny Shay—a schol­ar spe­cial­iz­ing in dances from East­ern Europe, the Mid­dle East, North Africa, and Cen­tral Asia. Accord­ing to Shay, the term ‘dance in the field’ rep­re­sents dances that form an organ­ic part of local com­mu­nal life while the term ‘eth­no iden­ti­ty dance’ refers to dances that are chore­o­graphed or pre­pared for the stage.

The ori­gins of kusht­de­p­di in the field are ambigu­ous. There is strong evi­dence to sug­gest that until the 1970s, the dance was prac­ticed wide­ly by the Yomut Turk­men on the east­ern coast of the Caspi­an Sea. We also know that in the fol­low­ing years, the dance spread in Turk­menistan both as a com­mu­nal cel­e­bra­to­ry dance and as a staged dance.[1] In terms of the ori­gins of the dance, the most promi­nent nar­ra­tive is advanced by Turk­men schol­ars. This nar­ra­tive sug­gests that the dance comes from dhikr heal­ing rit­u­al asso­ci­at­ed with the Sufi mys­ti­cal Islam. The uni­for­mi­ty of the dis­cus­sions by these schol­ars cre­ates an impres­sion that the dance is an ‘invent­ed tra­di­tion’.[2] This in its turn rous­es sus­pi­cion that their hypoth­e­sis might in fact be a prod­uct of post-Sovi­et nation-build­ing efforts. In order to assess the valid­i­ty of this hypoth­e­sis, the aim of the rest of this arti­cle is to com­pare the ele­ments of the Sufi rite of afflic­tion prac­ticed among the Turk­men and kusht­de­p­di in the field. What we find in the end is the great like­li­hood of the ori­gins of kusht­de­p­di to lie in a Sufi heal­ing ritual.

Turk­men folk­lorists claim that kusht­de­p­di comes from a heal­ing rite. For exam­ple, Geldiyev writes that kusht­de­p­di emerges on the basis of dhikr. Gochmu­radov takes it even fur­ther to state, that indeed, dhikr itself is a form of folk art.[3] Addi­tion­al­ly, Otdiyev and Atdaye­va explain that kusht­de­p­di comes from porhanchy­lyk, i.e.shamanic prac­tices.[4] Dhikr is ‘orig­i­nal­ly a Qur’anic word, com­mand­ing “remem­brance of God”, and an act of devo­tion dur­ing and after prayer’. [5] Here, it is impor­tant to note that while dhikr is strict­ly an Islam­ic notion, nei­ther of the afore­men­tioned schol­ars attribute dhikr to Sufism, and in fact, some assign kusht­de­p­di to be an exten­sion of shaman­ism. Devin Deweese explains that mis­la­bel­ing Sufi ele­ments as shaman­is­tic was a com­mon prac­tice by Sovi­et aca­d­e­mics as a result of the government’s hos­til­i­ty towards Sufis and their institutions—potential sources of oppo­si­tion.[6] This makes it clear why the Turk­men schol­ars, who fol­low the tra­jec­to­ry set by Sovi­et aca­d­e­mics, nev­er explic­it­ly pin­point Sufism when refer­ring to dhikr and for this inquiry we must con­sid­er dhikr in the con­text of Sufism.

While the Turk­men schol­ars offer a hypoth­e­sis on the ori­gin of kusht­de­p­di, their dis­cus­sions seem spec­u­la­tive as they lack any nuanced expla­na­tion of the trans­for­ma­tion of a reli­gious rit­u­al into a cod­i­fied dance. Yet, it is cru­cial to rec­og­nize that such analy­sis is dif­fi­cult to accom­plish, because there is ‘no doc­u­ment­ed his­to­ry of dance pri­or to the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry’ on the ter­ri­to­ry of present-day Turk­menistan.[7]Due to this lim­i­ta­tion, the only viable method of assess­ing the hypoth­e­sis lies in ana­lyz­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of the Sufi rite of afflic­tion into kusht­de­p­di by com­par­ing the two. 

One of the most pro­found points of com­par­i­son of the Sufi heal­ing rit­u­al and kusht­de­p­di is their vocal and phys­i­cal move­ment com­po­nents. Devin Deweese ana­lyzes two ethno­graph­ic stud­ies of the Turk­men which pro­vide a pri­ma­ry source basis for the com­par­i­son: a study of a heal­ing rit­u­al by Iomud Khan pub­lished in 1924 and a study of a wed­ding dance by Annakly­chev pub­lished in 1960. 

A vocal ele­ment dis­cernible both in the Sufi rite and kusht­de­p­di is the vocal inhal­ing and exhal­ing. Deweese illus­trates the vocal ele­ment of a heal­ing rit­u­al described by Iomud Khan: ‘the ishan beg­ns to utter “hu, hu”, and the peo­ple sit­ting around the tent join in; if they slack­en their cries, the ishan says “hu” again, and after awhile [sic] he says “Alla” and the peo­ple cease shout­ing and rest’.[8] Sim­i­lar­ly, the phrase “hu, hu[9] was part of a wed­ding dance described by Annakly­chev in 1960 and it is part of kusht­de­p­di  to this day. In fact, all of the kusht­de­p­di tech­niques which I wit­nessed in per­son or on video mate­ri­als involve the vocal inhal­ing and exhaling.

The nature of Sufism in Cen­tral Asia explains the vocal cor­re­la­tion between the heal­ing rit­u­al and kusht­de­p­di. The most preva­lent Sufi order among the Tur­kic-speak­ing nomads was the Yasavi order, found­ed by Ahmad Yasavi. A dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of the Yasavi order is the jahariya dhikr, or dhikr ‘prac­ticed aloud’. [10] Spencer J. Trim­ing­ham explains that Ahmad Yasavi ‘is said to have intro­duced the “rasp­ing saw” dhikr, a tra­di­tion which no doubt attests to its Cen­tral Asian ori­gin. For this the ha is expired very deeply, then hi aspired as low as pos­si­ble; and it sounds much like saw­ing’.[11] Both of the afore­men­tioned ethno­graph­ic works refer to this ‘rasp­ing saw’ sounds. Indeed, jahariya dhikr ‘came to be adopt­ed as a part of Turk­men heal­ing rit­u­als in com­mu­ni­ties in which saints of the Yasavi tra­di­tion were quite promi­nent’ [12] and ‘as an enter­tain­ing genre for wed­ding and house-warm­ing cer­e­monies’.[13] While the vers­es of kusht­dep­mel­er adopt poet­ry of promi­nent Cen­tral Asian Sufis, such as Alish­er Navoyi, and repeat­ed­ly refer to the name of Sufi fig­ures, such as Ahmad Yasavi and Baha’ ad-Din Naqsh­ban­di,[14] it is the ‘rasp­ing saw’ sounds present in both the Sufi rit­u­al of afflic­tion and kusht­de­p­di that make their cor­re­la­tion irrefutable.

Syr Darya oblast. City of Turkestan. Gen­er­al view of Sul­tan Akhmed Yas­sav­i’s mau­soleum from the south­ern side. Syr Darya oblast. City of Turkestan. Gen­er­al view of Sul­tan Akhmed Yas­sav­i’s mau­soleum from the south­ern side. 

Com­par­i­son of the phys­i­cal move­ments of the heal­ing rite and the dance also unearths their cor­re­la­tion. Accord­ing to the analy­sis of Iomud Khan’s descrip­tion of the heal­ing rit­u­al, ‘the sick per­son is always seat­ed in the cen­ter of the tent, with the oth­er peo­ple sit­ting in a cir­cle around him’[15] and after the ‘rasp­ing saw’ chant­i­ng ‘at first they bow as they go, and then they begin to stamp their feet on the floor and jump in time to the singing’.[16] Annaklychev’s obser­va­tions of the wed­ding dance are sim­i­lar in that ‘sev­er­al peo­ple form a cir­cle; one of them begins singing the “ghaz­al”, while the oth­ers begin the dance, stamp­ing their feet and jump­ing in time to the song.”[17] Kusht­de­p­di today is sim­i­lar­ly prac­ticed in a cir­cle while feet stamp­ing, bend­ing at the waist and jump­ing are all fun­da­men­tal chore­o­graph­ic ele­ments of the dance. The com­mon move­ments prac­ticed by peo­ple dur­ing the rite of afflic­tion and the dance point to the con­nec­tion between the two. Iomud Khan’s obser­va­tion that dhikr which began to be prac­ticed for enter­tain­ment only fur­ther under­scores this con­nec­tion.[18] Fur­ther­more, the oral his­to­ry in the Turk­men com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly among the Yomut, con­firms that kusht­de­p­di was once a heal­ing rit­u­al.[19]

With the cor­re­la­tion between the Sufi rite of afflic­tion and kusht­de­p­di estab­lished, the ques­tion remains: why did the rit­u­al trans­form into a cod­i­fied dance? One pos­si­ble answer is that the younger mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty began imi­tat­ing the shamans for their enter­tain­ment.[20] Anoth­er explanation—perhaps a his­tor­i­cal­ly sound one—lies in the hos­til­i­ty of the Sovi­et gov­ern­ment towards ‘unof­fi­cial’ Islam, which includ­ed ‘ances­tral wor­ship, shrine ven­er­a­tion, pil­grim­age to shrines, pop­u­lar heal­ing, prayer at unof­fi­cial mosques, per­for­mance of dhikr [empha­sis added]’.[21] Deweese con­firms that in Cen­tral Asia ‘the face of reli­gious life indeed changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly’ in the 1930s and 40s.[22] Geldiyev adds, that with the com­ing of the Sovi­ets, the reli­gious schools were closed and the shaman­ic activ­i­ties were ter­mi­nat­ed, and as a result, kusht­de­p­di emerged.[23]

Inde­pen­dence Day Parade

Whether the dance orig­i­nat­ed as a result of reli­gious cen­sor­ship or imi­ta­tion for enter­tain­ment, the cor­re­la­tion between the Sufi heal­ing rit­u­al and kusht­de­p­di, on the basis of shared vocal ele­ments and phys­i­cal move­ments, is con­vinc­ing. Under­stand­ing the ori­gins of kusht­de­p­di is impor­tant not only because the dance is under­stud­ied, but also because it helps to unrav­el its trans­for­ma­tion from a dance in the field into and eth­no-iden­ti­ty dance. This in its turn pro­vides a look into the present socio-polit­i­cal life of the Turkmen.


Anna­mu­radov, R. Küšt­de­p­di. Ash­ga­bat, 2007.

DeWeese D. “Shaman­iza­tion in Cen­tral Asia.” Jour­nal of the Eco­nom­ic and Social His­to­ry of the Ori­ent 57, no. 3 (2014): 326–63.

Geldiyev, G. “Küšt­dep­mel­er.” In Türk­men Šahyrana Halk Döredi­jili­gi, 257–65. Ash­ga­bat: Türk­men Döwlet Neširÿat gul­lu­gy, 2003.

Gochmu­radov, H. “Küšt­de­pdil­er.” In Türk­men Halk Döredi­jili­gi, 59–63. Ash­ga­bat: Türk­men Döwlet Neširÿat gul­lu­gy, 2010.

Gross, Jo-Ann. “The Polemic of ‘Offi­cial’ and ‘Unof­fi­cial’ Islam: Sufism in Sovi­et Cen­tral Asia.” In Islam­ic Mys­ti­cism Con­test­ed: Thir­teen Cen­turies of Con­tro­ver­sies and Polemics, edit­ed by Fred­er­ick De Jong and Bernd Radtke, Vol. 29. Lei­den: Brill, n.d.

Hob­s­bawm, Eric., and Ter­ence. Ranger. The Inven­tion of Tra­di­tion. New York: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012. 

Oraz­taganov, Allab­er­di. Куштдепмелер. Edit­ed by Gozel Aman­guliye­va. Ash­ga­bat: Turk­men State Med­ical Uni­ver­si­ty, 1998.

Otdiyev, G, and N Atdaye­va. “Küšt­dep­mel­er.” In Türk­men Halk Döredi­jili­gi (Turk­men Folk Art), 62–68. Ash­ga­bat: Türk­men Döwlet Neširÿat gul­lu­gy, 2010.

Rad­ki­na, N. P. “Turk­menistan.” In The Inter­na­tion­al Ency­clo­pe­dia of Dance. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998.

Shay, Antho­ny. Eth­no Iden­ti­ty Dance for Sex, Fun and Prof­it: Stag­ing Pop­u­lar Dances around the World. Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2016. 

Sul­tano­va, Razia. From Shaman­ism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Cul­ture in Cen­tral Asia. Inter­na­tion­al Library of Cen­tral Asian Stud­ies; 3. Lon­don; I B. Tau­ris, 2011.

“The World Fact­book — Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency,” accessed Octo­ber 17, 2018, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tx.html.

Trim­ing­ham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. 1 online resource (xx, 333 pages) vols. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998. 

[1] G. Geldiyev, “Küšt­dep­mel­er,” in Türk­men Šahyrana Halk Döredi­jili­gi (Ash­ga­bat: Türk­men Döwlet Neširÿat gul­lu­gy, 2003), 257–65.

[2] Eric. Hob­s­bawm and Ter­ence. Ranger, The Inven­tion of Tra­di­tion., (New York: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012).

[3] H. Gochmu­radov, “Küšt­de­pdil­er,” in Türk­men Halk Döredi­jili­gi (Ash­ga­bat: Türk­men Döwlet Neširÿat gul­lu­gy, 2010), 59.

[4] G. Otdiyev and N. Atdaye­va, “Küšt­dep­mel­er,” in Türk­men Halk Döredi­jili­gi (Turk­men Folk Art) (Ash­ga­bat: Türk­men Döwlet Neširÿat gul­lu­gy, 2010), 62–68.

[5] Razia. Sul­tano­va, From Shaman­ism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Cul­ture in Cen­tral Asia, Inter­na­tion­al Library of Cen­tral Asian Stud­ies ; 3 (Lon­don ; I B. Tau­ris, 2011), 137.

[6] DeWeese D., “Shaman­iza­tion in Cen­tral Asia,” Jour­nal of the Eco­nom­ic and Social His­to­ry of the Ori­ent 57, no. 3 (2014): 326–63.

[7] N. P. Rad­ki­na, “Turk­menistan,” in The Inter­na­tion­al Ency­clo­pe­dia of Dance (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998), http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195173697.001.0001/acref-9780195173697-e-1771.

[8] DeWeese, “Shaman­iza­tion in Cen­tral Asia,” 332. 

[9] Ibid., 338.

[10] Lind­say Jones, Mircea Eli­ade, and Charles J. Adams, Ency­clo­pe­dia of Reli­gion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmil­lan Ref­er­ence USA, 2005).

[11] J. Spencer Trim­ing­ham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998), 197.

[12] Jo-Ann Gross, “The Polemic of ‘Offi­cial’ and ‘Unof­fi­cial’ Islam: Sufism in Sovi­et Cen­tral Asia,” in Islam­ic Mys­ti­cism Con­test­ed: Thir­teen Cen­turies of Con­tro­ver­sies and Polemics, ed. Fred­er­ick De Jong and Bernd Radtke, vol. 29 (Lei­den: Brill, n.d.), 533.

[13] R. Sul­tano­va, From Shaman­ism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Cul­ture in Cen­tral Asia, 95.

[14] Allab­er­di Oraz­taganov, Куштдепмелер, ed. Gozel Aman­guliye­va (Ash­ga­bat: Turk­men State Med­ical Uni­ver­si­ty, 1998).

[15] DeWeese, “Shaman­iza­tion in Cen­tral Asia,” 332.

[16] Ibid., 333.

[17] Ibid., 338.

[18] Ibid., 333. 

[19]  R. Anna­mu­radov, Küšt­de­p­di (Ash­ga­bat, 2007).

[20] Otdiyev and Atdaye­va, “Küšt­dep­mel­er.”

[21] Gross, “The Polemic of ‘Offi­cial’ and ‘Unof­fi­cial’ Islam: Sufism in Sovi­et Cen­tral Asia,” 525.

[22] DeWeese, “Shaman­iza­tion in Cen­tral Asia,” 339.

[23] Geldiyev, “Küšt­dep­mel­er,” 257–58.

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