Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Swan Bride/Part 3 - The Dance of the Swan Bride

Links to other chapters

Part 1 - A Brief History of Dagestan
Part 2 -  Lezginka
Part 4 - A Political Epilogue

Part 3
The Dance of the Swan Bride

The wedding began like any wedding in Britain might;  Hadizha, that is her name, was in her living room dressed in a huge richly decorated wedding dress, around her were a crowd of giggling girlfriends, their dark uncovered hair flowed over the brightly coloured silks and satins of their designer gowns. They all wore bracelets of flowers on their wrists to show they were friends of the bride.  They were posing for the official photographer and taking selfies.

It was a shock to learn that under Islamic law the marriage had already been completed in a mosque without the bride ever being there.   The custom is that the public wedding ceremony starts when the groom collects his bride from her home and escorts her to the reception.  Surely this arrangement was hard for the girls to take?  I never asked this question directly, but I did discuss Muslim culture with Diana and her friend Amina who was looking after us during the wedding day.

Three Jewels - Diana, Mami and Amina
Both girls seemed very satisfied to be under the protection of their fathers, they liked knowing their fathers were watching out and looking after them in a loving way.  Diana said she could disobey her uncle (she has no father) and he would not be angry, but it would change their relationship. Amina told me she could not visit Britain without her father's permission, and he would not give it because he was concerned for her safety.  Women's lib would be upset by their point of view, and it struck me that both girls are lucky to have kind guardians, maybe they would be more rebellious if they felt repressed.

The groom arrived to escort his bride and we joined a cavalcade which took us to the wedding hall.  Driving in Dagestan is an all male affair.  On the roads testosterone is king; they zoom, cut each other and play chicken with oncoming traffic. Driving a bride and groom to a wedding was an excuse for the male virtues of bonding, teamwork and "owning the road".  Our cars surrounded the wedding car from all sides, we honked our horns and drove through red lights, and deliberately stopped at cross roads to block traffic so the rest of the team could pass through.  At one point we met another wedding coming the other way, and we played chicken with them too.  Luckily there were no accidents.

The hall we entered had laden tables.  The cuisines were from the many mountain cultures of their precious country; plates of lamb wrapped in vine leaves, yoghurt and stuffed doughs, plates of Sushi for Mami, soft drinks for the devout Muslims and vodka for the Russians. 500 guests from the extended family were already settled at their tables, they had courteously left us places at the tables nearest to the garlanded raised dais with throne chairs where the bride and groom would sit.  Down the centre of the hall was a golden carpet along which the young couple would walk.   

We knew the Bride and Groom were about to enter when the music began.  Lezginka dancers arrived; three swans in long white dresses flecked with silver and three eagles in braided purple, greeted and danced the newly weds as they made their way to their waiting thrones.

The best man sat next to the groom whilst Diana, calm and collected, sat in quiet attendance to the bride.  The parents were absent, the beautiful mothers discretely sitting amongst their guests and dressed in finely woven blacks.  

A Champaign bottle was popped and the fizzing liquid poured over a champagne fountain, the bride and groom came down to accept a drink and a few friends used a microphone to toast the newly weds.

Disco dancing had started, maids brought more plates of food and every time we paused from eating a maid replaced our half used dishes with clean ones. It seemed like a western wedding, the girls started dancing whilst the men lounged at the tables.  I pulled out my drawing pad.  This is a drawing of Mami who had made friends with a soft lady called Saida.

There was an interval when the official marriage certificate was signed

Then Mr Mekhtiev led Mrs Mekhtiev to the centre to dance "The First Dance" of their young marriage.  They danced in a cloud of mist and golden confetti that puffed from a machine around their feet; they danced a Dance of Heaven and Togetherness.  Everyone clapped.

by now the music had changed to Lezginka, Diana was with a flock of her friends dancing the Dance of the Swans.

Every now and then the music would pause and a Russian with a deep, booming, rasping voice would invite guests to wish the young couple well.

Even I had done some dancing, but I was much happier watching and drawing.  I was never alone, drawing always attracts children, and by now I had made many little friends.  One, a girl called Alicia, had a camera with which she would approach my pad after I had completed a sketch.

She watched over my shoulder as I was drew a child on a chair.  When my subject left Alicia stepped silently forward and sitting in the same chair waited for me to draw her too.  My little friend, who spoke no English, arranged everything without ever speaking a word.

At intervals the Lezginka dancers came out and entertained us with more dances.  Then the bride came down from her throne and an extraordinary dance began - The Dance of the Swan Bride.

The Bride was alone in the centre of the room.  Slowly and softly she moved like a ghost in a circle, her eyes down and looking towards the empty space she had created. The men who had been lounging at the tables and refusing to dance suddenly became interested.   A man jumped into her circle and began The Dance of the Eagle.

His movements deft and strutting, his steps aggressive and arrogant, he was asking/forcing the Swan Bride to attend to his masculinity.  The bride would not respond, ignoring him she proceeded in her ghostly circle as if he did not exist.

Another man pushed the failed Eagle away, the failed eagle put money on the brides head and withdrew.  Fat men, thin men, young men, old men all tried to tempt the Swan Bride with their masculinity


even fast stepping little boys Lezginkad the bride,

but she ignored them all.  Diana attended her mistress collecting the fallen money until at last her new husband stepped into her circle and escorted his loyal new wife back to their throne.  Women's lib would disapproved (I have added my views in the political epilogue at the end of this piece)

Throughout the  ceremony we were treated as guests of honour: Important looking men came and asked to share a toast of vodka, they said they wanted to express respect for our presence and we were invited to say a few public words to the newly weds.  I made a bad speech and everyone clapped politely and told us that now it was our turn to dance the Lezginka.  I tried, the women were very kind and surrounded me like a flock of swans, and I danced The Dance of the Dyspraxic Eagle which I invented for the occasion.  I retired slightly embarrassed.

Mami, who has spent her whole life perfecting swan movements, and is trained to pick up new choreography, danced a swan dance.  The men got excited and Lezginkad her and put money on her head.

I collected the money and gave it to the bride.  Looking back I now realise that I should have collected Mami and taken her back to our table.

At the end, as the Bride was leaving the party, she once more danced the Dance of the Swan Bride, and then they were gone.  I expected the party to continue, but without the Swan Bride the party was over, guests departed, children ran across the empty floor collecting flowers from the dais.

Amina called a taxi to take us back to our hotel, I felt we had seen an apparition.

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