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The Choby dance is a highlight of folklore that Iraqis have performed to express the Iraqi character and culture since the dawn of history.
Contrary to other western or eastern group and partner dances, the Choby involves Iraqi dancers circling around one another. According to Marwan al-Jabbouri, holding each others’ hands while in a circle conveys the dancers’ feelings of brotherhood, solidarity, and collective spirit.
While they dance, they hold hands and gather around, shoulder to shoulder, in a half circle, led by a performer who holds a rosary or a knotted handkerchief to show the rhythm.
The Choby is part of the ancient Iraqi heritage. This cultural heritage is not just visible in the moves but in all other elements of the dance; its melodies, songs, poetry and mawaweel.
According to journalist Shereen Sobhi, researchers have different views regarding the etymology of the dance’s name. Some believe it was named after a family with a similar name, “Chob,” which means “wood” in Persian. Others believe that the word “Choby” derives from the southern Iraqi word “Cha,” which has Assyrian roots and means “dear.” And then there are those who think that it has Kurdish origins, particularly since “Choby” is the name of a Kurdish tribe.
However, historian and linguist Mustafa Jawad believes it was derived from the word “Chubah,” which means spacious land or a yard where sheep are sold. In the past, the dance was possibly performed in these open spaces before spreading to other areas.
Surprisingly, the type of singing that accompanies the Choby dance was not mentioned in any Iraqi song books or literature. This includes historian Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani’s book al-Aghani al-Sha’beyah, sheikh Ali al-Khaqani’s Funon al-Adab al-Sha’bi, Abd al-Amir Ja’far’s al-Oghneya al-Folkloryah and many other well-known books. Besides several low-quality and incomplete studies, the Choby dance has not received much attention.
Abd al-Jabbar Fares is the first Iraqi writer to address Choby singing and dancing. “A group gathers around in a circle to play a peculiar game, a special kind of dancing on special melodies they call ‘Choby.’ A piper stands in the middle, playing the Matbak (flute). A handsome young boy with long hair and a coloured hood may take the lead in this game,” he described the dance.
Fares continues, “The Choby game is special, as each dancer sways closer to the one next to him, once to the right, then to the left, in a fluid movement orchestrated by the leader. This lively and cheerful performance is quite spread around the Euphrates.”
The dance form changes from one region to another; Choby in al-Anbar differs from Choby in Salah el-Din or Kirkuk and other places. Arabian Choby is also different from Kurdish and Turkic as each group has its own habits. Every region has added details particular to them, be it the performance itself or the dance’s songs and melodies.
Most differences lie in how dancers jump and move their feet and at what pace. The instruments played, such as the flute, drums and, recently, the electronic keyboard, may also differ.
Origins and Types
In the past, the Choby dance was exclusive to men since it relates to challenges, manhood and showing off the strength of the tribe’s youth to deter its foes. However, these days it is for everyone since the strict gender separation is no more and old traditions are dying out to the extent that dancing has now become a trend in clubs and concerts.
The locals, along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, from Baghdad and its surroundings to northern and western Iraq, excel at Choby dancing at weddings and social occasions.
Researcher Abd al-Jabbar al-Samarani says that there are three types of Choby. The first is exclusive to men and performed mainly in middle and southern Iraq. The second is a gender-mixed Choby, where women perform the same moves as men, and which is predominantly performed in the north, Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit and the neighbouring villages. The third is exclusive to women. Though this dance, with its songs and melodies, is only for women, a boy may play the flute if none of the ladies can. This type is primarily performed in the Central Euphrates regions.
For decades, most Iraqi singers set out to have at least one Choby song in their repertoire. It is rare to find a singer who has not sung some form of Choby.
Because Choby is a traditional dance loved by all Iraqis, many youths have formed dancing troupes to perform at social occasions. On occasion, they also compete in Choby competitions between different governorates.
According to journalist Mohamed al-Basem, Choby dancing troupes may be composed of 10 to 20 or more dancers. Dancers wear traditional Iraqi attire, a white thawb “al-Dashashah”, and optionally a keffiyeh and agal. Dancers move around in a half-circle, with the leader at the circle’s end, holding a handkerchief, singing the dance’s melody and leading while playing the flute or the drums.
Researchers divide the Choby dance into three phases. Dancers first stand in their positions, and upon initiation, they stomp the ground with their left feet; they lift their feet about 15 centimetres and then stomp on the rhythm of the instrument.
The second phase is the fiercest. Dancers raise their right foot around 15 centimetres off the floor, then raise their left foot to the level of their right knee and stomp with both feet. In the third phase, called “Tathleethyah”, dancers quickly jump three times with their feet at the same height.
It is worth noting that Iraqis prefer to call the performance “playing” instead of dancing.
Stomping the Ground
Most folk Dabke dances connect brothers, tribal members or societies with similar traditions and cultures. These Dabke dances date back to the Sumerian and Babylonian myths that involve circling around a sacred shrine, asking for blessings and stomping the land to wake it up from its winter slumber.
The Dabke performed by bedouins involves gently moving the shoulders and pridefully swaying as they move their feet. They hardly lift their feet off the ground. Dancers perform in spacious places, moving their feet back and forth as if they are herding sheep. Bedouin Dabke portrays their pastoral life. However, farmers and people from the mountains perform different types of Dabke that involve regular and aggressive jumping and stomping.
The repeated stomping in Choby originates from a ritual, inviting the earth to expel evil spirits and wake up Dumuzid (the Mesopotamian God of shepherds and fertility) to return from the underworld’s prison so that life returns with him. Thus, Choby is a symbolic simulation of the beginning of the creation of the universe. Like Choby, most Mesopotamian folk dances share this symbolism.
Temporary Hiatus and Return
The Choby dance only perished in western Iraq when the Islamic State (ISIS) invaded these regions. They considered Choby a taboo that negatively impacted manhood. Consequently, most Choby singing and dancing troupes abandoned these forbidden pastimes.
The social and economic changes in Iraqis’ lives caused a regression of Choby singing and dancing in the region.
When most residents of al-Anbar and Salah el-Din returned to their homes after the expulsion of IS, Choby reappeared more vigorous than ever. It was a natural reaction to IS’ extremist approach towards the dance and its performers. Even though in the past Dabke was exclusive to special occasions, Choby became a primary performance at everyday occasions, such as graduation celebrations, private parties and visits.
And so, Choby dancers, or “Chawwabah”, as Iraqis call them, became permanent guests at every occasion and social gathering, no matter how small. Some families even invite Choby professionals from other cities to sing and dance at their events.