A lion dance was a part of the repertoire of mime artists and puppetry musicians of Bukhara until the 1940s. In the past, the lion dance was also popular among the populations of Samarkand, Khujand, Istaravshan, and Hisor. Tajik ethnographer Nizam Nurjanov gave the first complete description of the lion dance in his work Tajik Traditional Theatre (1956). He later published more details in an illustrated article arising from his fieldwork in Bukhara.
The lion dance was per formed by a maskharaboz (clown). A dancing troupe with musicians performed this dance along with other dances during celebrations, at weddings, in bazaars, on central streets and in other social settings.
The dance performance used the following accessories: a lion mask, consisting of a head, a large square cotton cloth depicting the body and a tail; a gazelle mask; and a dragon mask. During the performance, the lion hunted the deer and the dragon.
The lion head was sewn from goatskin in the shape of a tube that was about forty centimeters long. The tube was worn horizontally, extending in front of the performer’s head. On the lower par t of the tube was the mouth, which wrapped around the front and extended slightly to both sides. On the tube’s upper side were the eyes and ears. At the bottom of the tube were sewn pieces of felt, signifying lion’s chin and facial hair.
The mask was prepared from calico. On it were eyebrows, eyes (including pupils and whites), nose, mouth, and triangular patches of black velvet. Between the nose and mouth was a moustache. Above the eyebrows were two pieces of solid black goatskin depicting the ears. Under the lower jaw were six or seven round and triangular bronze bells. During the dance, the bells made a beautiful jingle. At the end of the upper portion of the mask, immediately behind the performer’s head, was a square piece of black goatskin— the lion’s mane. The lion’s tail was made of a sturdy meter-long stick wrapped in a piece of black goatskin.
The lion mask was put on in a special way to avoid scratching the performer’s skin. The artist first puts on a head scarf, then the tail, and then the cloth. He hides the figures of the dragon and the gazelle in his bosom.
The gazelle was depicted by a small wooden figurine, twenty centimeters long. It had four legs and a pair of horns. Its body was wrapped with the skin of antelope and was yellow with a black bottom. On the gazelle’s neck hung a bell.
The dance was per formed with the participation of all musicians of the troupe. Usually musicians started playing a surnay (flute) and doira (a kind of round drum). Sitting or standing on the side, they performed a jolly melody. In this moment, the lion came out of the room where the actor got ready. The actor showed the power of the lion by circling scene two or three times.
When musicians played a cheerful dance tune, the dancer stopped in the middle of the scene. Then lion sat down, cross-legged, holding his body straight. He then threw his head back quickly, raised his chin high, and slowly showed how the lion roars in the vast desert. Then artist bowed his head forward, sat on its four legs, and shook his head from side to side. Then once again, he turned abruptly, threw his head back, raised his chin high, and roared. All these movements and staging were repeated many times, sometimes with variation in perspective, technique, and stance. During all these movements, especially when the lion was shaking his head, the bells rang loudly.
The dancer rose from where he was sitting and ran in one direction and then the other. He then abruptly dropped to his knees, and then repeated the motion described above. When the musicians performed another melody, the dancer moved to another stage, showing joy on the occasion of a successful animal hunt. The dancer knelt, tucking his legs under himself, and straightened his upper body. He pulled out the small figure of the gazelle and the stylized figure of the dragon. They danced, to show their fear of the predator. Under calm and soft lyrical dance music, the actor turned the frolicking gazelle in one direction and then the other, its horns poking into the ground. Then the lion raised both figures and kept them on both sides of his mouth. Once the musicians performed new music, the lion hid the gazelle and a dragon in his bosom and got back on his heels. He jumped, pulling his legs up twenty centimeters in one direction and then in the other, and staggered before moving along in an undulating walk.
In Tajik mythology, the gazelle is the most harmless beast, and the dragon is the most dangerous and scary. Images of gazelles with beautiful eyes and a graceful gait are widespread in folklore. The image of the dragon is widely distributed in the folklore and beliefs of Central Asia. Victory over the dragon and gazelle emphasizes the lion’s omnipotence and his ability to capture the most dangerous and the most helpless animal.