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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Dance Keeps Culture Alive

Topa Elimbayev spent the last Chechen war in a basement bomb shelter in Grozny. In 1995, air raids and artillery destroyed the dance theater he directed for 30 years, scattering his troupe across the former Soviet Union. This time, with Grozny flattened, he is in Moscow, teaching children to dance.

Elimbayev, dancer-trim at 55, has not abandoned his homeland but rather is fighting to save Chechen culture and break the stereotype of his people as bandits and terrorists.

He learned to dance in exile, after Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944. His mission now, he said, is to pass on centuries-old traditions to the children of Moscow's large Chechen diaspora, threatened by assimilation and ostracism.

"When muses speak, cannons are silent," he said. "This war was started by idiots. We have to work.

"People should know about our culture," he continued. "To be proud of our nation, we have to have a very high culture."

If there was one Chechen almost all Russians admired it was a dancer, Makhmud Esambayev, known as the Wizard of Dance, who was famous not only for Chechen dances but for those from Russia, India, Brazil and dozens of other places as well. In the 1960s he was one of the first in the post-Stalin era to perform a Jewish dance publicly in the Soviet Union. His death in January at 75 was widely reported in the press.

In Chechen culture dance is central to the courtship ritual: Young men and women perform stirring, sensual dances but do not touch, and dance is the heart of wedding festivities. But a special occasion is not required.

"As Esambayev said, our little boys and girls start making dance movements even before they walk," said Ruslan Nashkhoyev, editor of a diaspora newspaper and author of a book about Esambayev. "It's part of our way of life."

"We never lost this," he said. "Not in deportation. Not even here in Moscow."

Nashkhoyev said that Chechen dance was similar to that of the Basque region of Spain. Basques are thought by some to be linguistically linked to the Caucasus region, home of the Chechens.

Every weekend Elimbayev's Vainakh Children's Arts and Culture Center in Moscow attracts more than 200 children from age 4 to 14. They gather in rented quarters at the sports hall of a clock factory for lessons in dance, music and etiquette.

The girls wear black leotards and white ballet skirts and slippers, their hair pulled back so they look like little ballerinas. Lined up in neat rows on a basketball court, they practice graceful gliding movements and fluid hand gestures to a drumbeat and accordion music. In a separate room boys in sweat pants, T-shirts and knee pads take breathtaking slides and spins across the floor. An even louder drumbeat accompanies their high-stepping moves and sharp arm thrusts, all executed with a determined gaze and heads held high. The children also learn the basics of classical dance.

Music lessons are taught by Ali Dimayev, a singer and composer who has set Chechen folk music to rock beats and was inspired to start writing a rock opera after hearing "Jesus Christ Superstar." His father was Chechnya's most famous accordionist, whose playing, lauded by Stalin in 1939, was banned during the deportation but heralded the Chechens' return home in 1957.

"So long as music and dance are not taken from us, our nation will live, we won't lose our identity, and we won't be defeated," Dimayev said during an interview.

Parents come to the center to exchange the latest news from home, for moral support and to give their children a respite from their status as outsiders. Many Chechens do not look different from Russians. They can be fair-skinned and light-haired; there are blond and redheaded children at Vainakh, which means "Our People." But once their identities are known they become targets.

"My children are treated as equals here," said Aishat Arsanova, a refugee whose two sons, Abubakar, 10, and Ilyas, 11, attend regularly. "When Abubakar went to school, he asked me if he could say he's from Grozny. Here everyone knows."

Vainakh opened in November as the military's fire was flattening what was left of Grozny and just two months after explosions blamed on Chechens ripped through two apartment buildings in Moscow and two in southern cities, killing some 300. The apartment bombings and a Chechen-led invasion of neighboring Dagestan set off a wave of anti-Chechen sentiment, although a direct Chechen link has not been proven. Elimbayev and others at the center said they were as angry at Chechen extremists as they are at the military.

Vainakh is not a bastion of cultural exclusivity. The ballet master is Armenian, and three of the six dance teachers are Russian, as is the impresario who is promoting the center's performances. All of them say they are in love with Chechen dance.

"Chechens are a people of great artistry," said Mikhail Plotnikov, the impresario. "Through dance they strive to express their anger, their pain, their love of peace."

For those who cannot pay, lessons at the center are free. But in a cruel blow, the center's main sponsor, Zia Bazhayev, a prominent Chechen oilman, died in March in a plane crash in Moscow. Surprisingly, Elimbayev's next best hope for financing may be the Culture Ministry. At a meeting at the ministry in March he was promised a building for a children's arts school and money to restore his original Vainakh dance troupe. Officials apparently want to maintain Chechen culture in Moscow and transport it home when conditions permit.

But for now Elimbayev is focusing on his dream of a gala performance by his children next year at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, home of the Igor Moiseyev folk dance ensemble.

"Those children will explode such a bomb with their performance at the Tchaikovsky hall," he said.

Still, it is clear that the most cherished dream for Elimbayev, the children and their parents is to return home to Chechnya.