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The Exquisite Art of Persian Classical Dance

By Robyn C. Friend, Ph.D.

Iranians and Americans alike ask how it is possible for Americans to become interested in Persian music and dance. Los Angeles is, of course, the best place outside of Iran to pursue such interests. Walking down Westwood Boulevard, it is sometimes easy to imagine that one is no longer in the U.S. It is possible to buy groceries, get your hair styled, make travel plans, buy furniture, and have lunch without ever speaking any language but Persian. In such an environment, it is easy to be exposed to Iranian culture, and, once exposed (at least for some) it is impossible not to be captivated by it.

I first became aware of Persian music and dance early in my college career at UCLA. I had several Iranian friends and loved to study languages. Once I discovered a Persian language course was offered, my mind was made up! Here I was introduced to an intriguing world of Persian language, poetry, food, music, and dance.

The Hallmarks of the Persian Style

The first time I saw Iranians dance at a party, in the Tehrani style, I was enchanted. Like Persian poetry and visual arts, the dance was delicate, intricate, subtle, and full of meaning. Delicate hand movements, gentle upper body undulations, and facial expressions were the essential elements of this dance. Persian classical dance is very similar to the Tehrani-style recreational dance, but the execution is more refined and sophisticated, so as to be suitable for presentation to an audience. Unlike Arabic dance, which emphasizes movements of the hips, or western ballet, where the legs are lifted and feet moved in intricate patterns, the movements of Persian classical dance mostly involve the upper body: the face, head, torso, and hands. Professional dancers may also dance with tea glasses or finger cymbals to mark the rhythm. The movements require extreme flexibility and grace of the upper body and varied facial expressions, including moving both eyebrows independently. Indeed, Persian classical dance emphasizes feeling, rather than movement. The dancer teases the audience with her coquettish glances, and displays a variety of expressions: reluctance, joy, sensuality, pride, laughter. Of course, the arms move, and turns and small hip movements are part of the style. But movement without expression cannot be considered true Persian style; the mere movement of the body through space where there is no expression of emotion seems empty and uninteresting to the Iranian audience.

A Definition of "Classical" Dance

Here, perhaps, I should take a moment to define what I mean by "classical" dance, and, in particular, classical Persian dance. I distinguish several types of Iranian dance, including performance and recreational dance. By recreational dance, I mean the kind of dance that people do together for fun at social occasions like weddings and parties. Performance dance is dance done by an individual or a group for others to watch, not to join in. Classical dance is performance dance that has a tradition, is taught and maintained through the generations, whether by schools, dance masters, or by any student-teacher relationship.

My First Training in Persian Classical Dance

In 1974 I began to study Persian dance with Leona Wood, the noted artist, choreographer, and, with Anthony Shay, co-founder of the AMAN Folk Ensemble. Miss Wood had gleaned information about Persian classical dance from a variety of sources. Her first encounter was in a night club; the dancer was advertised as a "belly dancer", and though she wore the standard belly dance costume and danced to Arabic music, her dancing was unlike any belly-dancing Miss Wood had ever seen. Though the dancer herself was coarse and low-class, her movements showed the subtleties of the Persian classical style. Miss Wood was also acquainted with an upper-class Iranian lady, who showed her the genteel dancing she had been taught as a little girl. It was Miss Wood's combination of these two styles that formed my own first instruction in Persian classical dance.

In Persian nightclubs I could watch Iranian women dance in the Tehrani style. The women danced in couples, with men or other women, or in groups. In the groups, they played a sort of dance game; the dancers stood in a circle moving slightly to the music and clapping or snapping their fingers. One after the other, those in the circle were cajoled, teased, and eventually pushed into the center of the circle, to dance a little solo for the group. Each woman had her own specialty within the Persian style: gentle shoulder shakes, head or eyebrow movements, and delicate hand movements.

Historical Background

The seeds of modern Persian classical dance were sown during the Qajar dynasty (1780-1906). Fath 'Ali Shah (1798-1834) in particular devoted a great deal of the royal treasury to all forms of art, including dance. He was said to have "maintained a stately court and a large harem or anderun full of ladies groomed to the perfection of Persian taste for the amusement and pleasure of the Shah" [Qajar Paintings, S.J. Falk, p.23]. His successor, his grandson Muhammad Shah, furthered the support of dance, and "the dancing girls, those lavishly decorated women who typified the luxurious living of the monarchy" [Qajar Paintings, S.J. Falk, p.24].

"The most beautiful women in Persia are devoted to the profession of dancing; the transparency of their shift, which is the only covering they use to conceal their persons, the exquisite symmetry of their forms, their apparent agitation, and the licentiousness of their verses, are so many incentives to a passion which requires more philosophy than the Persians possess to restrain." [Edward Scott Waring. A Tour to Sheeraz. London, 1807. p. 55]
After the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Persia became increasingly influenced by the West, largely as a result of political intrigues with Russia, England, and Germany. The decline in the monarchy was paralleled by a decline in the support and status of dancers.

Thus the Persian professional classical dance tradition was maintained by prostitutes and courtesans; these women, and also dancing boys, were the only public performers. Particularly in urban areas professional dancers traditionally performed with troops of musicians, singers, comedians, actors, and other entertainers, These itinerant groups performed on the street and could be hired for weddings and other festivities. Their performances could be vulgar, involving suggestive lyrics and movements.

In a visit to a house of ill-repute, a Swedish journalist writes of a dance performance she witnessed, performed by girls of the house, with musical accompaniment provided by the cooks:

"Two lovely girls prepared for the dance.....went to change and came out again in wide green trousers, embroidered white bodices, which did not cover more than their breasts; and with castanets of silver blended metal on their fingers.

The musicians tuned up and the two girls began.

Their foot movements were controlled and unimportant. It was the upper part of their bodies which moved. Sinuous and supple, they waved their arms gracefully backwards and forwards above their heads, while their fingers played with the castanets so that they sometimes clapped like Spanish castanets and sometimes rang like a chime of bells.......The tempo of the dance increased until the dancers' feet flew over the mat so lightly that the soft thudding of their feet was scarcely even heard.

Urged on by the dance and the music, the audience began to shout to the girls, who suddenly stood on their heads, turned somersaults, and made snake-like movements. The audience was delighted." [Countess Maud Von Rosen. Persian Pilgrimage. London, 1937. p.109]

For non-professionals, the Persian classical dance tradition has largely been maintained in private homes. Persian women begin to learn to dance when they are small girls. They are taught by family members, or learn to imitate their elders, to provide entertainment for the family. There were also, prior to the 1979 revolution, classes taught by non-Muslim women, Jews and Armenian Christians, attended by proper Iranian ladies in great secrecy [A. Nazemi, personal communication]. Girls learn the Iranian cultural bias against females dancing in front of anyone other than the family; so they like to dance, but learn not to dance in public, and express reserve when asked to dance even at private parties outside the family.

In the 1950's and 60's, Persian classical dance began a revival, which removed it from a context of prostitution and low-class nightclubs. Dancers began to appear on television and the government began to sponsor dance companies that performed classical and folk dance (recreational dance of the villages and tribes). This trend continued until the 1979 revolution, when all such activity was discontinued.

Persian Classical Dance Today, in "TehrAngeles"

Unlike Indian classical dance or western classical ballet, Persian classical dance has not been organized and codified. Thus each dancer creates her own style and improvises within a recognizably Persian framework of movements. An innovative dancer is able to extend the vocabulary of movements in many directions, while retaining the essential Persian feeling.

Because of the emphasis on expression, Persian classical dance is best suited to intimate settings, rather than large concert halls. It was created and grew up in the courts of the princely classes and in private homes, and flourished in the tea houses. None of these venues could compare in size with the concert halls of today. The subtle movements and facial gestures and interaction with the audience that are the hallmarks of the Persian style do not translate well to the 25th row of a large theater. Still, though there are few solo performers of Persian classical dance in Los Angeles, there are several noteworthy dance companies. Bale-ye Melli-ye Pars ("Pars National Ballet"), directed by A. Nazemi, is a continuation of a company that he founded in the 1960's in Iran, and specializes in authentic presentations of folkloric dance, modern ballets on traditional themes, and some classical-style dance. Sabah Dance Company, directed by Mohammad Khordadian, features flashy choreographies of folkloric dances, with some stylish classical dances. Anthony Shay's Avaz Dance Theater also includes both folkloric and classical-style dance in their repertoire.

Classical Persian dance today continues to evolve, as exemplified by Haleh, a most extraordinary dancer, with whom I have had the opportunity to study. Haleh was from an upper-class Iranian family who would never allow her to dance in public. But the family was very much involved in Iranian performing arts; they had a restaurant on the Caspian Sea, where the best singers, musicians, and dancers came to perform. She grew up immersed in the Persian, and western, arts. She studied all kinds of dance, including ballet and flamenco. Though she has never performed in public, she is one of the most gifted dancers I have ever seen, combining strength, flexibility, musicality, and art, into what could be considered the epitome of classical Persian dance. Influenced by western technique and the power of flamenco, her dancing is suffused with the elegance of Persian expression. She provides an example that Persian classical dance is not a dead art, frozen in time and endlessly repeated, but one that is both rich in heritage, and capable of adapting and incorporating elements from outside its tradition.

Copyright 1996 by Robyn C. Friend. All rights reserved.