Attan originated as a traditional dance from the Pashtun tribes, who were primarily populated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They descended and reigned there as the dominant ethno–linguistic group for about 300 years. Hence, Attan, their original folk dance, was considered as a very important form of art by the Afghans and they started to perform it during wars, rituals and celebrations. However, it further got modified into a Muslim dance of the soldiers, as it presumably allowed the dancers to get closer to ‘God’ before they advanced on their missions. In addition to the traces of this origin, there is also a Greek myth associated with Attan. According to the Greeks, Athena was born out of Zeus’s head with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. The ancient Greeks admired her as the goddess of both war and intellect and to celebrate and worship her, the Athenians would perform the Pyrrhic dance. During that time, Alexander the Great had conflicts with the Persians and every city he conquered, he supplanted his Greek men to govern the local population. Few of these Greek soldiers came in close contact with some local Pashtun tribes. Claims of this Greek ancestry are the Khattak tribe and the Ghilzai tribe. Hence, the Greeks believe that Attan is originated from the Greek Pyrrhic dance as the Khattak style is its closest version.
The dance is performed in a circle where the dancers take each other’s hand and begin with slow steps. It gradually gets faster and may continue for about 2-5 hours at a stretch. The dancers do not take breaks but either lower their tempo or change the tune of the songs. At a certain beat or a rhythm, the dancers are expected to clap inside the circle. As these movements get faster, one claps turn into two. The complex Attans usually have a team leader or a Troup Leader who uses a variation of different styles and techniques, ultimately signalling the spin to its dancers. This signal is either in the form of placing his hand on the floor or raising it in the air. Also, the musicians perform music at these techniques and signals. Attan ends only when no dancer is left standing on the dance floor. Sometimes, the dancers even faint due to exhaustion.
The dance is usually performed in accompaniment of a double–headed barrel drum called ‘dhol’. This dhol has a very deep and low resonance sound. However, in the recent times, instruments such as a single–barrelled dhol, tablas, the 18-stringed rabab, surnai or wooden flute known as Tola are used while performing Attan. Also, harmonium, also known as Baja, is generally bound in a shawl around the player’s back.
Although Attan is performed with the beat of the drums, they differ in style. Following are its styles and variations that differ from region–to–region:
- Wardaki: It concentrates on the body movements rather than clapping and twists and turns. Men have wild moustaches which include hair that is greased to highlight the spotting, thereby giving more weight to the hair during the turns.
- Kabuli Attan: It is typically performed by both men and women and the dancers perform to the beat of the musician. It ends with a clap given while facing the centre after completing about 2–5 steps. Body movements of hips and arms are sequential where a hand is projected outward and brought in a scoop–like fashion towards the centre.
- Paktia/ Khosti: Comparatively, it involves 5–7 steps and is an interesting form of Attan. The head of the dancers is snapped left and right and the long hair of the dancers fly through the air. It ends when the dancers turn their sides towards the centre, squatting with their arms.
- Logari: These dancers are generally shy and perform rhythmic interruptions and spins during their local dance. Performing in a circular motion, they use the technique of clapping. The dancers make full twists and turns in place as their arms are in the air.
- Kochyano/Kuchi: This variation involves up to 10 steps and is performed by women on occasions of childbirth, new years and the arrival of spring. Men with long hair may also perform this dance. It involves multiple twists and squatting, lots of spotting and is performed with handkerchiefs.
- Khattak: This is a prominent dance form which is prevalent since the Mogul times. A Khattak dancer is referred to as, the zeal of a hero, which depicts his physical fitness while holding 2–3 swords at a time. It is a 5 step routine dance where men use their weapons in their hands.
- Nuristani: It is a new dance style of the Nuristanis who perform with their own local musical instruments like Wunz and Sarangi. It is performed together by both men and women who come closer to the circle during the central beat.
Dancers are expected to wear traditional regalia, gown–like clothing while performing Attan. Men usually wear a thick woollen cap known as the Pakol and a thick woollen vest known as waskata. However, during celebrations, men can wear suits and ties to give a formal look. Women, on the other hand, wear colourful, bright dresses that are accompanied with tiny mirrors on them, symbolizing light.
In the conservative areas of Afghanistan, young men with guns slung across their back and a coloured scarf in one hand and sometimes, a sword in the other, are seen performing Attan. However, women may frequently join the dance. In the past, strict local traditions prevented or restricted women from playing musical instruments, singing songs or dancing and hence, most of the musicians and singers were men. However, with change in the perspective due to the educated and upper–and–middle class urban families after 1970, men and women started dancing together.