After Kazakhstan’s Nijat Rahimov demolished the clean and jerk world record this week, lifting 214 kilograms to snatch gold away from the reigning champion China’s Lü Xiaojun, Rahimov celebrated with a move few Olympics viewers recognized: an arm-flapping, toe-tapping dance called the lezgi.
NBC posted the celebration on Instagram (#TFW). News outlets around the world hurried to call the Kazakh weightlifter’s dance the “funky chicken,” “gleefully spontaneous,” and “goofy.” As joyful as Rahimov’s victory steps are, though, there isn’t much spontaneity to them: He’s performing a triumphant folk dance that traces back hundreds of years.
The lezgi dancing tradition is rooted deep in the Lezgian culture of the Caucasus, the mountainous region that bridges Russia and the Middle East. The Caucasus contains not only Azerbaijan—the home of the Lezgin ethnic group as well as Rahimov’s birthplace—but also Armenia, Georgia, and more than a dozen other densely packed republics and states. (Rahimov is a naturalized Kazakhstani; he competed for Azerbaijan until he was 20.)
When Rahimov throws his arms out in celebration, he is moving in tribute to a certain beloved sliver of the world. And this dance isn’t the funky chicken—it’s the funky eagle. Those wide arms, quick feet, and sharp lifts of the chin are steps done in imitation of the bird of prey. In a partnered lezgi, women move quietly and gracefully to mimic swans, while the men snap their hands up and throw themselves into the air to show off their predatory talents.
But how often do you see eagles and swans side by side? The lezgi is performed most frequently by men, with men, for men. There’s footage of Allied soldiers from Dagestan dancing the lezgi in Germany after the end of World War II:
And videos of the Azerbaijani army showing off their moves:
A traditional lezgi, danced with a knife, appears in the Oscar-nominated Russian film 12:
Even the corrupt warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, regularly puts on his dancing shoes:
Combining an eagle’s strength, male power, and cultural heritage, the lezgi is the ideal victory dance for competitive men from the Caucasus. It shows up everywhere from Olympic mats to mixed-martial-arts cages.
Turns out this dance, like so many of the feats performed by Olympic athletes, is more complex than it looks. Good news, though: Unlike Rahimov’s clean and jerk, the lezgi is one Olympic move you can master.