Attan is a traditional Afghan dance; It’s origin lies in the Afghan Pashtoon tribes pagan yester-years and usually involved men performing a ritual dance. This was later modified into a Muslim dance of soldiers to allow the dancers to get ‘closer to God’ before they advanced on their missions. It was noted by the Moghuls of the period and is unique only amongst Afghans living in and around southern borders of Afghanistan.
It is performed usually with a Dhol, which is a double-headed barrel drum that has a very deep and low resonance sound. Other instruments can include a single barreled Dhol, Tablas, the 18-stringed Robab, Surnai flute (aka shanai-India, zurna – Central Asia and Turkey, and zurla Macedonia), or wooden flute known as a Toola. The technique behind the Attan has changed much for over centuries, but its base has not changed. Its a circular dance ranging from two to over a hundred people, and the performers will follow each other going round and round in a circle to the beat as the rhythm and beats faster.
More complex Attans involve an Attan troup leader who begins the attan slowly using a variation of styles and techniques, and the ultimate spin is performed after the leader gives the signal, either by placing his hand on the floor or raising it in the air. The musicians perform the music at the technique of the leader and is fully dependent on the attan leader for guidance. The dance can be anywhere from 5 minute to 30 minutes long. The attan will end when no dancer is left standing on the dance floor.
It is not uncommon for a dancer to faint during the performance as it is very physically intensive. The dance has become very popular throughout Afghanistan and can be performed year-round in all festive occasions. In Afghanistan each valley has its own unique style.
There are many different kinds of Attan in Afghanistan, Kabuli, Wardaki, Logari, Khosti/Paktia, Herati, Kochyano, Khattak, Pashayi (played with Surnai flute), and Nuristani.
Attan Styles and Types
Below are list of main and known styles of Attan in Afghanistan. All these different styles may be practiced and mixed by Afghans in other valleys, and its not uncommon to see Afghans of one province being better at a different regions’ style.
In this dance, the dancers perform to the beat of the musician. This dance typically performed by men & women. It involves 2-5 steps, ending with a clap given while facing the center, after which the process is repeated again. The hip and arms are put in a sequential movement including left and right tilts, with the wrists twisting in sequence, with ultimately a hand is projected outward and brought in a ‘scoop-like’ fashion towards the center where the other hand meets it for a clap. This dance is typically performed with the musician dictating the duration and speed.
Wardaki consists of body movements no clapping and lots of turns and twists, and Spotting, as well as handkerchiefs in their hands to accentuate their spins. The men usually boast wild mustaches, including hair that is greased as to accentuate the spotting and give more weight to the hair during turns. This dance is performed either with the beat of the musician or the musician tuning the beat the technique of the performers.
Logari dancers have always been known for their shyness and also for their rythmic interruptions & spins during their local dance. Their attan also has the trademark spins of the Logari style, uses the clapping and the full twists in place as arms are usually in the air and come together medially during the circular dance with one or two claps in the center. It is not uncommon to see one ore two circles in one. This dance typically performed by men and/or women or even young boys and/or girls. The men occasionally wear Turbans and they are taken off usually during the end of the dance when the beats get faster.
The sweat on their heads from wearing the Turban, puts added weight to their hair. This dance is performed either with the beat of the musician or the musician tuning the beat the technique of the performers.
Paktia/Khosti is typically a 5-7 step and can be longer. It is also interesting because of the head movements the head is snapped left & right as their long jet black hair fling through the air, and eventually ends with the dancers turned medially and squatting with arms to their sides towards the center. This dance is performed with the musician tuning the beat to the technique of the performers.
Kochyano Attan or literally Attan of the Kuchi. Women usually perform this attan during their own occasions, such as child birth or new years (nou rooz) and coming of spring. The men usually perform with long hair, almost to shoulder length and cut straight across the back, and some may sport a very wild mustache or beard. It is usually performed with Handkerchiefs, and involves lots of spotting movements, with multiple twists and squatting. This dance can be up to 10 steps, and also involve men walking with their knees or standing erect and snapping their head in random directions to the beat of the Dhol. The depth and complexity of their Attan may be because of the wide range of valleys they trek, and it may have been influenced by many other forms. This dance is performed with the musician tuning the beat to the technique of the performers.
Khattak style is deeply routed during the Moghul period where men performed this dance with their weapons in their hands. A Khattak dancer performs with the zeal of a hero, displaying his physical fitness through body movements, while holding one, two or even three swords at a time. Each sword weighs about one-and-a-half kilograms. The dance is a 5 step routine involving spins, with the swords crossed over their backs and elbows outward, or it can be performed with the swords out to the sides and typical attan half spin in place leading to a full spin. Depending on the rythm of the beat, this spin can be completely reversed in full synchrocity. This dance is performed with the musician tuning the beat to the technique of the performers.
Nuristani Attan is a relatively new attan performed by Nuristanis and involves the use of their own local musical instruments including their own style of drum shown above, and stringed instrument, known as the Wunz, and also the Sarani. This dance was performed by both men and women. The women usually hold hands together or are shoulder to shoulder and came closer to the circle during the central beat. Another version performed across the border in Chitral consists of a dancer stepping in the middle and starting to dance. They will dance very slowly taking small steps and arms spread wide. Gradually, the steps increase speed and finally he will spin round and round encouraged by the clapping of the hands and enthusiastic shouts made by the audience. It is also very focused upon the movement of the shoulders and the elegant moves of the wrists.