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Boy Bands, Ballet and Battles over Masculinity in Central Asia

Members of the Kazakh K-pop boyband 91 Ninety One. Official photo taken from group website.

Members of the Kazakh K-pop boy band Ninety One. Official photo taken from group website.

In Aktobe, an economically depressed provincial town in Kazakhstan's oil-rich west, boy bands and their assorted earrings, makeup and hair dye are not welcome.

That is according to an unnamed representative of the “creative intelligentsia of Aktobe” quoted in a recent report on Kazakhstan's Tengri News website:

Мы представители творческой интеллигенции Актобе, от имени молодежи хотим высказать свое мнение о группе Ninety One. Потому что скоро в нашем городе намечаются гастроли этой группы. Они носят гордое название 91 – это год принятия независимости нашей страны. Мы против этого. Нам не нужна эта группа, где вокалисты красят волосы, носят серьги в ушах. Мы против их выступлений на площадке нашего города, мы не считаем их народной группой. Никогда такого не было в истории и традициях казахского народа. Молодежь говорит, что не пустят их к выступлениям. Мы не хотим волнений. Поэтому хотелось бы заранее предупредить о возможном исходе данного мероприятия.

Сейчас идет активная реализация билетов на концерт среди учащихся средних школ, колледжей и так далее. Мы прошлись по учреждениям, как могли объяснили. Мы категорически против их приезда, пусть к нам не приезжают. Мы за народные традиции, где мужчина остается мужчиной, а женщина – женщиной. Мужчина в нашем понятии не может красить волосы, одевать серьги. Мы чтим и уважаем традиции народа, мы все против их гастролей, нам и нашему городу это не нужно.

We, representatives of the creative intelligentsia in Aktobe, on behalf of the young people [in Aktobe] want to express our opinion about Ninety One group, because very soon this group plans to visit our city. They wear the proud name 91 – the year of the adoption of our country's independence. We are against this. We do not need this band, in which vocalists dye their hair and wear earrings.

We are opposed to them performing in our city, and we do not consider them a national group. Such things have never happened before in the history and traditions of the Kazakh people. Young people said they will not allow them to perform. We do not want riots. Therefore, I would like to warn in advance about the possible outcome of this event.

Currently tickets are being sold in middle schools, colleges and so on. We walked through these institutions and tried as far as we could to explain. We are categorically against [the band's] arrival. They shouldn't come here. We are for national traditions, wherein a man is a man, and a woman is a woman. A man in our conception cannot dye his hair or wear earrings. We honour and respect the traditions of the people.

Ninety One is a boy band hailing from Kazakhstan's largest, most cosmopolitan city Almaty, that is currently taking the country by storm. The collective's style is loosely modelled on K-Pop, or Korean pop, but the singers sing and rap in the state language, Kazakh. Kazakh has a particularly sacred status for Kazakh nationalists given the fact that in Kazakhstan — more than anywhere else in Central Asia — Russian has retained its position as a lingua franca.

As noted by the speaker at the September 29 meeting held to protest the band's arrival in Aktobe (there is no date for the show on the group's website) their metrosexual look is unusual for Kazakhstan. Their popularity — especially among girls and women — challenges traditional notions of gender in Kazakhstan that have roots in the country's pre-Soviet Islamic and nomadic heritage, as well as over seven decades of state-enforced communism.

If their show in Aktobe witnesses a ruckus, it would not be a regional first. In 2014 a nationalist vigilante group broke up a performance by the popular Ukrainian boy band Kazaky in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek on the basis that they viewed the group's dance moves as ‘glorifying homosexuality’.

What does it mean to be a male ballet dancer in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyz media portal published on October 5 an impressive video and text portrait of male ballet dancers in Kyrgyzstan.

Ballet's continuing popularity in the country is explained by the years the country spent under Russian imperialism and the Soviet yoke, but the pastime has survived independence and the ballet artists interviewed in Kloop's report are ethnic Kyrgyz, not Russians.

Today, however, male ballet artists in Kyrgyzstan face miserly wages, poor conditions and the stereotype that the discipline is one for women and homosexuals.

One of the ballet dancers interviewed even felt compelled to resort to homophobic remarks in order to address this stereotype:

В детстве, когда мне предложили балет, я отказался. Сказал: «Я не гей, в колготках танцевать». Но потом все же потянуло в балет. На самом деле, мы обычные парни, иногда ходим в спортивных костюмах, курим и обсуждаем девчонок. Нет у нас в театре ни одного гея, мы мужики-мужиками.

In childhood, when [my family] offered me ballet classes I refused. I said: “I am not some gay that dances in tights.” But I was drawn to ballet. Really we are ordinary guys. Sometimes you will find us in sports clothes, smoking and discussing girls. There is not one gay amongst us in the theatre. We are men's men.

  • Marathon-Youth

    A balance between “Feminism” and what I term “Masculinism” should be struck. So far Western societies have embraced the concepts of “Feminism” and “Gender Neutrality” without addressing the pressing needs of the male gender.

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