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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