Attan (Pashto: اتڼ) is a form of dance that originated in the Pashtun regions of north western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Attan began as a folk dance conducted by Pashtuns in times of war or during weddings or other celebrations (engagements, new year, and informal gatherings). It is now considered the national dance of Afghanistan.
The performance of attan dance in the open air has long been customary in the Pashtun culture. Attan is a special type of dance performed by a troupe of 50 to 100 dancers who wave red scarves in the air while musicians beat drums. This dance is common among the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the ruling elite promoted it as the national dance of Afghanistan. It is also performed as a regional dance in khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan
Attan is a traditional Pashtun dance. It is said to be one of the oldest forms of Pashtun pagan dance. Some identify attan as a religious ceremony of early Zoroastrians placing its origins as early as 2000 BCE, while others have placed even older going back to King Yama's celebration of Nowroz and warriors dancing and circling around the fire. This was later modified into an Islamic dance to allow the dancers to get "closer to God." It is usually performed with a Dhol, which is a double-headed barrel drum. The dance can be anywhere from 5 minute to 30 minutes long. There are many different regional variations of attan, the most famous being Mahsudi, Kabuli, Paktiyaya, Mazari, Shenwari, Kandahari, Sistani, Herati, Pashayi, and Nuristani. During King Yama's time, attan was performed before going to a war because it used to give the army the confidence that they could win the battle. Attan is the national dance of Afghanistan and also a very popular dance in Pakistan's North-Western regions (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and parts of upper Baluchiatsn) and has spread and become a part of festivals, weddings, and other forms of celebrations, and has its origins from Pashtun areas.
Movement of the Dance
To the accompaniment of drums and pipes the dancers form a circle, taking each other by the hand or preparing to revolve in circles of their own. The dance starts with slow steps that gradually get faster and faster until it seems the performers must drop from exhaustion. However, the dance continues, sometimes for two or three hours at a stretch, with no breaks except a lowering of tempo or changes in the tunes and songs.
What the Attan Dance consists of: The dancers gather in a circle, and then is followed by music which starts slow at first, and then gradually speeds up. There is a consistent beat and rhythm, and during that specific beat is when they clap inside the circle, so the movement of the hands is outside prior to the beat. It is then followed by the dancers bringing their hands out and then clapping inside the circle, and it is the same routine and pattern of movement, which then get faster. As the movements and routine get faster, the one clap turns into two claps, and the dancers who are more advanced, at times will add turns into the movements. All in all, they must keep the circular path with the clap on the beat, every other move added is up to the individuals who originate and add their own personal style to the dance. Common dance moves involve the extending of arms into air and the stretch and extension of legs. When extending arms into air, there are times when the hands are free or there is the waving of the regalia and extension of the attire to show the detail and color.
Most essential instrument of course is the Dhol (Drum). But dhols vary by sizes, for some types the size is relatively small. The reason for that could be geographic but the distinction between dhols is apparent among the various types of Attans. The tablah (also known as darbukkah or dumbak) is a single-headed hand-drum found in most Arab music ensembles. The goblet-shaped body (cylindrical with a slightly narrowed waist) was traditionally made out of fired clay, and the sounding head out of goat, calf, or fish skin, stretched and glued permanently on the body. The second most important instrument is the zurna surnay, although very common, the surna is not essential with every type. Another instrument that is specific to some styles, is the Harmonium (Baja), given the size and shape of the harmonium it is usually played while sitting on the ground, but for Attans, the harmonium is bound in a shawl that is wrapped around the players back. A very rare one is the Sarangi just like Baja this one too is supposed to be played while sitting down but for Attan, the musicians strap it in front to walk along the group of dancers.
Performers often wear traditional regalia when participating in the lively dance. For men, the pakol (a thick wool hat) is usually worn, as well as a waskata (thick wool vest) Usually during the celebratory occasions, men can also be seen wearing suits and ties for a more formal look. The women can be found wearing bright, colorful dresses. These dresses can be accompanied with tiny mirrors on them which are said to symbolize light. The tiny mirrors add great detail and shine under the lights as the women move and dance.
Styles and Types
The Attan is performed differently in many of the different Pashtun tribes. Some styles of Attan portray themes of war while others portray celebration, especially for events such as marriage, engagements, family gatherings and also as a prelude to the arrival of spring.
All different kinds of Attan are danced with the beats of the drums. However they all differ in style. The beater of the drum known as "Dum", who instantaneously change the rhythm, is circled by the performers. Below is a list of common attan styles.
- Kochai/ Kochyano - Pashtun nomadic style done in both Afghanistan and Pakistan Kochyano Attan or literally Attan of the Kuchi. Women usually perform this attan during their own occasions, such as childbirth 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 many other forms may have influenced it. This dance is performed with the musician tuning the beat to the technique of the performers.
- Logarai - From the Afghan province of Logar Logari dancers have always been known for their shyness and also for their rhythmic interruptions and spins during their local dance. Their Attan also has the trademark spins of the Logari style, using 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.
- Paktiawal / Khostai - Notable Attan style originating from the provinces of Paktia and Khost, Afghanistan 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.
- Shenwari - From the Afghan province of Nangarhar and amongst the shinwari tribe of Khyber Agency of Pakistan.
- Wardag/Wardaki - Da Wardag Attan, another famous style of Attan. 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.
- Warziro - Attan from the Waziristan region of Pakistan, famous for its use of guns
- Khattak - Attan performed by the Khattak tribe in Pakistan, 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 rhythm of the beat, this spin can be completely reversed in full synchronicity. This dance is performed with the musician tuning the beat to the technique of the performers.
- Kumbhar - A slight variant of the Quetta style Attan is the "kumbhar". Performed by tribes in Hazara, Potohar and Haripur in Pakistan. The word "kumbhar" is the Hindko word for Attan.
- Kabuli / Peshawari Attan is a modified Attan with modern music. 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.
Gender Roles in Dancing
Most conspicuous are the younger men, with a coloured scarf in one hand, sometimes a sword in the other (such as the Khattak style Attan). The women, colourfully clad in traditional Pashtun(Firaq partug) dress, join in the dance. The men and women are separated in more conservative areas such as eastern Afghanistan and north western Pakistan and neither can see the other sex dancing. However, in modern areas like the west, both genders dance side by side. Often, women change into an Attan dress while the men remain in their original clothes at a wedding or gathering. This can be due to how the women's clothing is very intricate and quite a sight to see. In the past, musicians and singers were men because social norms at the time prohibited women from playing musical instruments, singing songs, or dancing in front of male counterparts. Dancing by men and women together increasingly gained momentum among the educated and upper- and middle-class urban families in the 1970s and afterward. The Daoud Khan, Zahir Shah and the Communist regimes encouraged young men and women to defy traditional values and participate in these public activities.
Taliban and the Attan
However puritanical the Taliban were, they refrained from prohibiting the Attan dance due to it being engrained into Pashtun culture, which many Taliban are a part of. There are even examples of the Taliban performing the Attan dance before engaging Western occupation forces in battle; this shows the prominence of the Attan in Paktunwali (the Pashtun code of honour). Even though women could not perform the Attan publicly, it was still common in weddings, celebrations and engagements behind closed doors.
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- Emadi, Hafizullah (2005) Cultures and Customs of Afghanistan. Greenwood Press: Westport. ISBN 0-313-33089-1.
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- Attan: Afghanistan's national dance
- Sample Attan Video from Pakistan
- Attan in North Waziristan a tribal agency of Pakistan
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