The Unique Dance Culture of a Nomadic Country

By Kamila Zhumabayeva

nikolai-chernikov-photo-by-kien-quan-photographyKazakhstan has always been a country on the move, whether that was traveling merchants traversing the ancient steppe or as a young country bursting onto the international scene. And that movement is embodied by the nation’s unique dance culture, which continues to serve as a symbol of the country’s resilience and creativity.

Breakdance is one of Astana’s most popular dance movements. Kazakh B-boy dancer Nikolai Chernikov, also known as KillaKolya, winner of last year’s Red Bull BC One Eastern Europe final, has been involved in breakdancing for 15 years.

Dedicating half of his life to dancing, the Karaganda native has travelled half the world representing Kazakhstan in solo and team battles. He is currently with Simple System, his Kazakh crew from Astana, and was part of the American crew Dynamic Rogers this summer during a trip to the U.S. Despite the long stay for b-boying events, battles, performances and workshops, he found time for an interview with EdgeKz to share why he got into breakdancing and the challenges of the Kazakh street dance culture.

Killa Kolya started learning to dance like Michael Jackson after he discovered the artist in his early childhood. The youngster used to listen to music and watching music videos of the King of Pop was his first inspiration.

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Abive: Nikolai Chernikov. Photo credit- Chernikov’s V Kontakte page. Photo top left, Nikolai Chernikov. Photo by Kien Quan photography

In addition to dancing, Chernikov was involved in combat sports and arts but eventually stopped at breakdancing. His true interest evolved, however, when he saw his brother dancing and practicing new moves.

Even though he graduated from school and a university, Chernikov realized he would not work in his specialty.

“’I knew that I wanted to dance and I had a dream – to become famous in our circles, gain respect. Meaning if you gain respect, you can later be invited to championships in other countries as a participant. You win, you make a name for yourself and get called to be a judge, give workshops for which you can set your own fee, et cetera. Meaning you can live with it. This was my dream from the moment when I got involved in breakdancing. What won me over is the fact  that it’s possible not to follow a pattern,” ‘he said.

Chernikov makes his living solely through professional dancing. With his team Killa Kolya leads a school and teaches in Astana, participates in championships and even performs at toi business events (weddings, new year, corporate events).

The Kazakh dance culture has grown because of the dancers who developed it.

“At the time when we got started, it was the beginning of the year 2000. Here it emerged since the end of the 1990s, but those who were starting then do not dance anymore and our generation continues to be involved in dancing. Back then, it was undeveloped in our country and therefore difficult and new,” he said.

The dance culture has evolved, reaching the level of European and Asian countries with big stages, funds and famous dancers.

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Nikolai Chernikov. Photo by Kien Quan photography (2)

“We develop the culture on our own; no one does it better than us,” he added.

Government organizations can provide some support, but Chernikov noted it is complicated and dancers have to look for help from sponsors and companies interested in the dance industry.

“We then arrange championships to bring dancers there and develop a hip-hop culture. We have a very high level of dancers in Astana and Almaty. All foreign dance stars who were invited to be judges of our championships are amazed. I believe in a short time it will develop more and get more popular as now support, championships got better,” he said.

The b-boy dancer added many good street-style dancers appear and thrive in Kazakhstan these days. Many other dance styles, like waacking and even twerking, have also emerged in the country.

Waacking became popular in early 1970s club scene and involves jerky motions of shoulders and arms. Twerk is a dance to popular music in a sexually-provocative manner, thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance. Almaty has quite a number of schools and dance studios that teach twerk.

Madina Beisekeyeva is known as one of the first to develop waacking in Kazakhstan. She won many championships in Kazakhstan and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries such as Battle Zone, Smack and Waack in Moscow and Street Star in Stockholm, said Tengrinews .

Street dance evolved outside dance studios in streets, dance parties, block parties, parks, schoolyards, raves and nightclubs.

“B-boying or breaking, also called breakdancing, is a style of street dance that originated among African American and Puerto Rican youths in New York City during the early 1980s,” according to a website.

During his summer trips to the U.S., the Kazakh b-boy has participated in championships, conducted workshops, performed at concerts with rappers as a supporting dancer and prepared to be a judge for a championship.

By the time Chernikov sat for the interview, he and his partner had already won the championship in Miami, Florida and both will represent Kazakhstan in the 2017 championship. He also joined the American dance crew.

“Dynamic Rogers is a legendary team that was founded in 1979 and exists to this day. Americans took me to their crew,” he notes.

Having tried a number of television dance projects, Chernikov is certain they are unnatural and seemingly made for a person who watches TV. The dancer prefers championships, such as representing Kazakhstan at last year’s Red Bull BC One World Final in Rome.

“This is a very big championship with a live broadcast and where people watch and cheer on their dancers. This was one of the biggest happenings in my life,” he said.

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Meruert Dance Ensemble. Photo credit-VK.com

In Kazakhstan, street dance culture is not easily supported nor taken as seriously by the government as sports.

“Big money is allotted for sports. We approached them [the government] many times but got no help at all, no response to our victories outside of the country. They approach us and arrange our events only when they need it, for a report, some holiday event. They provide us with equipment and a venue while we do the other half of the work – contact dancers, look for judges, organize the process so that participants arrive,” said Chernikov.

The dance federation then has to arrange the championship, look for sponsors, bring in a judge and DJ and pay their hotel stay, food and fees. The dancer said airline companies help to pay for flights and some aid in finding funds to pay judges and other expenses.

The crew can’t make any money organizing such championships, said Chernikov.

“Even if we remain at a loss, sometimes we feed on the thanks of the people who gathered,” said KillaKolya.

While it is hard work, he believes everything will evolve, more championships will be held and dancers and crews from other countries will be invited for Kazakh audiences to see.

Chernikov’s team represents Kazakhstan at world championships and is not going to stop there, but work to develop the dance culture in the country. He managed to break out from the Kazakh b-boys and be invited to championships overseas and now tries to pull for his team.

“We love what we do and we give our entire selves to it, even if nobody supports us. Somewhere in our undertakings, the main support is us being together,” he said.

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Meruert Dance Ensemble. Photo credit-VK.com (2)

Saida Bainakhatova, head of Meruert Children’s Dance Ensemble in Astana, noted Kazakh national dance develops only within professional teams. Creating the national culture as one’s independent activity is quit costly because of expensive Kazakh national costumes.

“Our national dances are more in a modern style. It is easier and less costly to sew a modern costume,” she said.

The ensemble often travels to other countries for contests and national dances are accepted with success and delight. Ironically, Kazakh national dances are more valued abroad than in their own country.

Bainakhatova comes from the time when the government provided free education and sewed costumes at its own expense, while nowadays it is entirely initiated by the ensemble. Parents who can afford to make costumes on their own do it with pleasure, but mostly dancers have to manage with cheaper costumes and a modern style.

“National dancers are certainly in demand for any occasion, concert. It is great, especially when children are performers,” she notes.

Smaller teams perform at weddings and it is easier to make costumes for two or three girls rather than the entire team. If the smallest group consists of 12 people, the biggest has 24 dancers and is more beautiful and spectacular, said Bainakhatova.

“Developing the national culture does not start from a wedding; this is mass audience and events,” she added.

Kids dance with pleasure and like national dances. Music was not easily available in earlier times and these days it is not a problem but more ground to creativity. The financial challenge is the only problem the ensemble currently faces, she noted.

An academy, a choreography school was opened in the capital with all necessary financial resources allotted to develop the professional arts.

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Meruert Dance Ensemble with Russian dancer, singer, choreographer, Ilshat Shabayev. Photo credit-VK.com

“Professional dancers, ballerinas and national dance performers join an ordinary plain dance team when making their first steps. They fall in love with it and only then decide to develop professionally,” said Bainakhatova.

Not everyone becomes a professional, but every child wants to learn dancing and develop, which is natural.

The Meruert Dance Ensemble performed at numerous dance contests in Europe, Russia and other countries.

“We won first place at an international contest in Paris, France. This year, the ensemble participated at a contest in St. Petersburg,” she added.

Despite financial difficulties, they continue sewing costumes, travelling and promoting their arts and are willing to continue to do so.

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