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The Tajik Dancer

Lawrence Bush
September 1, 2017

Malika Kalantarova, a dancer specializing in the dance forms of Tajikistan, was born there on this date in 1950. She began her dance career in 1965 with Lola Dance Ensemble and then with the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Tajik Philharmonic. Kalantarova achieved international fame as a folk and traditional-form dancer throughout the USSR and in Japan, Afghanistan, Spain, Turkey, and India, where she appeared in several Bollywood films during the 1970s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she settled in the U.S., where she lives and runs a dance school within the 50,000-strong Bukharan Jewish community of Rego Park, Queens. “Most Jewish people [in Tajikistan] say they are Tajik or they are Russian because Jews get no good work, no good pay,” Kalantarova has said. “But once I’m famous, I’m not afraid. I say, ‘Me Jewish.’” The Bukharan Jews of “Queensistan” are “transplanted from the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, all part of the former Soviet Union; among them are also about 100 Jewish families from Afghanistan,” writes Sandee Brawarsky in the New York Times. “Bukharan Jews have been coming to the United States since the 1960’s, but the majority have arrived since the breakup of the Soviet Union. . . . They speak mostly Russian in the streets; their own Bukharan language resembles Persian and Tajik, with words borrowed from Hebrew and Uzbek.” To see Kalantarova dancing, look below.

“At Malika’s, young girls in a Bukharan dance class try their best to emulate the fluid arm and head movements of Malika Kalantarova, who won the highest artistic awards in Tajikistan. Her name, Mazal, was changed to Malika by a director who thought Mazal sounded too Jewish -- he said that she danced like a queen, malika.” --Sandee Brawarsky

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.