Dana E. Abizaid
Published in Back to Grass Roots, Steppe Magazine (Winter 2009, Issue 7).

"The civil war destroyed the arts," says Maruf Noyoft, twenty-six, over a cup of coffee at a Dushanbe cafe. The tall, slender actor and singer, best known for the first on-screen kiss in Tajik film history adds: "Most of Tajikistan's talented singers, dancers and musicians fled during the war." Now, however, with the guns of the civil war long silenced, an ambitious project to revitalize Tajik dance by exploring its cultural roots is inspiring a new generation of dancers, choreographers and academics.

Noyoft conducts field research and works as an adviser for the Tajik Dance Initiative (TDI), the brainchild of Sharlyn Sawyer and Robyn Friend, two American dance enthusiasts from the Afsaneh Art and Culture Society in San Francisco (an organization slowly and uniquely making its contribution to the development of the arts in Tajikistan). The project got underway in June 2006 and has achieved many of its initial goals, the most important being the survival of traditional dance in Tajikistan. As Sawyer said at the time of the initiative's establishment: "If traditional dance is lost because the cultural conditions that supported it have gone away, many other aspects of traditional community life will likely be either lost or in danger."

During its first two years, TDI focused on the Pamir region of Tajikistan, where dance is a living tradition and social art form, exemplified by the partner dance in which two dancers rotate around each other, careful to avoid physical contact.

Currently, TDI dancers, choreographers and academic experts are charting the various dance traditions that exist throughout the entire republic from, among others, Kulyab, the Pamirs, Garm and Khujand, where dances find inspiration from the invocation of Khoda (God) and lyrics from classical Persian and Tajik poetry. TDI Director Lola Ulugova emphasizes "the cooperation across academic disciplines and the arts to create a practical dialogue between those dancing and those defining dance culturally and historically." To this end, TDI is planning a conference on Central Asian dance for spring 2010, as well as a series of thematic "performance showcases" for early next year that will attract dancers from Tajikistan's diverse ethnic groups and regions -- some of whom attend dance classes at the TDI Performing Arts Resource Center (TDI-PARC) in Dushanbe.

Noyoft takes the last sip of his coffee, cracking a guardedly optimistic smile and brushing back his shoulder-length brown hair. Believing that theatre, music, cinema and sports are the best ways to raise a nation's cultural awareness, he is working hard to help other Tajiks comprehend the importance of the arts. Although Tajikistan was beset by a terrible civil war and continues to suffer economic hardship and regional and ethnic strife, Noyoft believes that hope dies last. In fact, he was inspired by a tour of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, where he saw "a country that was ravaged by twenty-five years of war now building up its culture again." From this, he concludes: "There is hope for Tajikistan." It is a hope that local TDI staff in Dushanbe and the initiative's American founders doubtless share.