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Dance in Iran and the Iranian Diaspora

Dance in Iran and the Iranian Diaspora

Table of Contents

Editor’s Introduction

This topic may sound somewhat unusual for the Iran 1400 project where our focus is mainly on the evolution of institutions and ideas during the past century in Iran. However, Anthony Shay in this article makes a solid case for both the importance of dance and the evolution of this mode of communication in understanding societal changes during the past 100 years. The physical control of the human body, on the one hand, and its movement in public places by regimes of power as well as the response of civil society to this exertion of power and control, on the other hand, reveal much about the inner workings of power dynamics in a given society. This article explores how the two regimes of power during the past 100 years in Iran have sponsored, promoted, and even prohibited certain dances, to forge a particular national identity for the people. Anthony Shay’s research and scholarship in this article are quite evident, adding a unique window into the formation of Iranian society and culture during the past century.

What can Dance and Other Patterned Movement Systems Tell Us About Iranian Society

The question is often posed to me: why study and analyze dance and other movement systems as a specific lens for of the observation of human behavior that permits the interested scholar or lay person to find nuances and elements of identity—sexual, ethnic, national, class, and religious—through movement analysis and the observation of dance events in Iran and the Iranian diaspora? For many individuals dance, seemingly unchanging and historical, distant from what may appear more important like modern, quantifiable fields of research and analysis such as religious studies, political science, media studies, and economics to gain insights into contemporary Iranian society and identity. In this essay I argue that for several reasons, dance and movement, as nonverbal forms of expression, can provide insights other fields of research cannot. “A focus on dance can help us also to consider the current status of the sociology of the body…” (Turner 2008, 218). Dance and other patterned movement practices constitute a nonverbal form of expressions of individual and group identities that can be investigated with intellectual profit to provide a deeper understanding of Iranian society. “Dance has an immediacy which cannot be captured by discourse analysis” (Turner 2008, 15). In short, it is because the body and the systematic movement patterns it performs, both dance and non-dance patterned movement practices, like those performed in the zur-khaneh, constitute a unique symbolic system with profound cultural meanings in Iranian society. (Fatemi 2023; Mozafari 2017; Shay 1995a, 1995b, 1999) 

In public performances, dance forms a field of representation deeply saturated with cultural meaning, whether valorizing the nation state by embodying idealized gender behavior in Iranian society in performances of the former state-sponsored Mahalli Dancers ensemble and the Iranian National Ballet, or performing society’s “lower” other, such as performances of female dancers in scanty clothing seen in Pahlavi-era filmfarsi cinema, beginning in the 1950s, ru-howzi performances of the dancing black-face clown, or the historic performances of boy dancers (bacheh raqqas) that were common until the end of the Qajar period and beyond, and which generated both desire and powerful choreophobic reactions. “Regardless of their sex, the public dancing bodies performing for male audiences were commonly associated with overt sexuality and prostitution” (Meftahi 2016a, 8) In the present, the introduction of harekat-e mowzun (harmonious movements), a movement system of chaste non-dance movements was introduced as an invented tradition by the Islamic Republic to replace the dance performances of the previous regime. (Mozafari 2017; Meftahi 2016a, 2016b; Shay 1999, 2023a) “Since the majority of religious people associated it [dance] with promiscuity and frivolous attitudes towards life, dance became the most demonized art form after the revolution and the secrecy surrounding it became so intense that for a while nobody even dared to utter the word raqs (‘dance’) in public spaces… despite all prohibitions, dance remained popular as a house-bound activity in spaces that were away from the direct gaze of officials” (Mozafari 2017, 99-100). A careful study and analysis of this wide range of movement systems that characterize twentieth- and twenty-first century Iran, and the significant changes that have occurred in these movement systems since c.1900, demonstrate Iranian attitudes toward movement and the body, gender and sexuality, and social class that written sources and other fields of research cannot. 

As dance scholar, Jane C. Desmond reminds us, “So ubiquitous, so ‘naturalized’ as to be nearly unnoticed as a symbolic system, movement is a primary not a secondary social ‘text’—complex, polysemous, always already meaningful, yet continuously changing. Its articulation signals group affiliation and group differences, whether consciously performed or not. Movement serves as a marker for the production of gender, racial, ethnic, class, and national identities” (1997b, 31). In Iran, individuals belonging to specific ethnic-linguistic groups such as Kurds and Azerbaijanis enact and reinforce their identities through the performance of regional folk dances or non-dance patterned activities such as the traditional sport, the zurkhaneh. (Fatemi 2023; Friend 2016; Hamada 1978; Hojjati 2023; Murer 2023) Political authorities often undervalue the political and symbolic importance of dance, especially regional folk dance, which they, as members of the privileged urban elite, benignly regard as the innocent, child-like activity of simple rural societies peopled with simple (-minded) people, and therefore not politically relevant. (Shay 2023b) In fact, one can argue that the performance of regional folk dances and solo improvised dance serves to reinforce the Kurdish, Baluchi, Azerbaijani, and other non-Persian identities that political authorities fear.

Perhaps through the inability to articulate and analyze movement systems, or because of its nonverbal aspect, most scholars have largely avoided analyzing and describing movement and its meanings in their studies of Iranian society, relying instead on printed sources or other written documents like travelers’ memoirs. This lacuna of movement studies in anthropological and sociological studies on Iran, until recent ones by scholars like Ida Meftahi (2007, 2016a, 2016b) and Sasan Fatemi (2023), prevents a full understanding of Iranian cultural life. This avoidance of movement and dance analysis is particularly true in Iranian studies, where scholars, under choreophobic stress and attitudes, unless trained in dance and movement analysis, carefully avoid all mention of dance and its symbolic significance in the creation and maintainance of national, class, and gender identities due to its status as a low-class activity. (Shay 1999)

In this essay I describe and analyze issues of change in dance over the past century and a half, and important changes in the significance of societal attitudes toward dance in Iranian life and individual attitudes toward dance and dancers, particularly its meanings from a shameful form of public behavior, due to its historical associations with the sexual availability and improper public exposure of the bodies of professional performers, to a form of social and political resistance for many individuals over the past forty years in which the Islamic Republic has banned dancing (except for male folk dancing) in both private and public spaces. (Mozafari 2017)

Meaning also derives from the age, sex, class, and ethnicity of the dancer, and the contexts in which they perform. Children in Iranian society were frequently enthusiastically encouraged to dance in social events such as weddings or other celebratory events, but upon attaining puberty, parents often discouraged an over-eager young girl from performing for fear of acquiring a reputation as “loose” and lacking in proper morals, warning that the parents would never find a respectable marriage partner for her if they were seen dancing. (Shay 1999) The term raqqas (professional male dancer) is one of the deadliest insults in Iranian society, implying moral and sexual depravity, lack of self-control, and general unreliability. (Shay 2014, 2023; Stellar 2011, 234)

What changes have occurred in the past century, both in dance performances and their meanings that signal important societal changes? For example, currently, under the Islamic Republic, solo improvised dance, with all of its potential for out-of-control behavior, is a banned activity, and if the performer is apprehended, the consequences can bring public shame, humiliation, and physical torture and punishment, as the infamous case of the young teenager Maedeh Hojabri demonstrated. (Tazmini 2023) Governments ban that which is important and symbolic to them, not the trivial and unimportant. For the current Islamic Republic dance is “seen as the worst possible behavior of an undisciplined body in public and symbol of all vice” (Stellar 2011, 235). Dance was, and continues to be, important, dangerous and corrupting, in the eyes of Islamic Republic authorities, and like music, “was one of the first official casualties in 1979” as the Islamic Republic banned all music and dance performances. (Siamdoust 2017, 3) The government of the Islamic Republic only gradually and reluctantly began to permit performances, beginning with regional folk music and dance, later permitting performances of Persian classical music, but prohibiting women from singing solo due to the perceived sensuality of their voices, playing music in a 6/8 rhythm because of its associations with dancing, or showing musical instruments in television broadcasts. (Siamdoust 2017)

Dance constitutes a particularly effective lens of observation for scholars, because, unlike all other art forms, and most other forms of expressive behavior, the body is the vehicle and instrument of its performance, and since ancient times, the body—its movements, who owns it, its centrality to ethnic, national and sexual identity, who has access to, and control over it—has been a cause for deep anxiety. (Bartsch 2006; Brown 1990; Meftahi 2016a; Shay 2014; Turner 2008) In Iran, dance can be found in both private spaces and in the public arena for public representation and displays of national, ethnic, class, and sexual identities. The question of who may or may not dance in public spaces over the past century in Iran is crucial in understanding the vast political, economic, and religious changes in Iran. (Meftahi 2016a) “The sensitivity toward the public dancing body has pervaded the modern Islamist discourse since the first half of the twentieth century and is traceable in the periodicals of that era” (Stellar 2011, 233).

In dance and movement performances, one finds symbolic displays of modern national identities, especially in the performances of state-supported dance companies during the Pahlavi era, displays of idealized Muslim identities in Islamic Republic-sponsored harekat-e mowzun (harmonious movements) performances of the past forty years, as well as in the performances of dancers and dance companies in the diaspora, which frequently model their performances after Pahlavi-era choreographies. In the Islamic Republic period, scholars Ida Meftahi and Zeinab Stellar have documented the rise of a new system of government-financed, Islamically-approved movements, harekat-e mowzun that is designed to replace “evil-inciting” dance. (Meftahi 2016a; Stellar 2011) “Desexualized and controlled, the performer of this genre embodied the virtues of an Iranian Muslim, conveying a message often related to God and revolutionary values” (Stellar 2011, 237). The very word raqs (dance) has become an anathema to the regime, which has banned the 6/8 rhythm of the reng, the dance rhythm of Iranian solo improvised dance, par excellence, from the airways. (Fatemi 2023; Hemmasi 2020; Siamdoust 2017) Performances of rap, hip-hop, and other global forms of underground and alternative music and dance are widespread among the youth of Tehran (two-thirds of Iran’s population is under thirty) and constitute a form of resistance and rebellion to a restrictive political system. (Nooshin 2011)

What constitutes dance in an Iranian context?

In Iran, as a largely Islamic society, there exists several patterned movement systems, such as the athletic movements of the zurkhaneh, the traditional martial arts and sports activities and practices, as well as some movement systems specific to Shi’i Islam, that can, under no circumstances in an Islamic society, be called “dance.” (Fatemi 2023; Shay 1995, 1999). In order to dance, one must intend to dance, rather than participate in athletic or spiritual activities like the zurkhaneh. Like dance, these systems of movement lend themselves to formal movement analysis in order to reveal important aspects of Iranian life, such as studies of gender and sexuality, class, and religious behavior. In zurkhaneh exercises, for example, the practitioners reveal crucial aspects of idealized masculine behavior and demeanor.

There exist several genres of dance in Iran that I will describe and analyze in this essay. Some are indigenous, such as regional folk dances and the solo improvised dance genre found in urban social events. Other dance genres are of relatively recent foreign origin such as classical and modern ballet that began to be taught from the late 1920s. Other genres constitute hybrid forms, such as raqs-e melli (national dance), a genre composed of elements from the historic movement vocabulary of professional boy dancers found throughout the Persianate World, blended with ballet and other non-Iranian dance elements found in genres such as Broadway and Hollywood staged dance that are incorporated in the staged productions of so-called Persian or Iranian “classical” dance. Finally, in the past forty years, new contemporary global forms such as hip hop and modern dance are being taken up by young urban Iranians. These recent forms are incorporated in the performances of the extensive Iranian artistic underground in which the peril of being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned is ever present.

Regional Folk Dances in Iran

Iran is a multilingual, multiethnic state; Persian speakers constitute about half of the population. The oldest layer of indigenous dances is most likely regionally specific communal folk dances. (Garfinkel 2003) The performance of these communal dance genres has left traces in artwork, etchings, paintings, pottery, metalwork, petroglyphs, murals and other media since the eighth millennium BCE. (Choubineh 2023; Garfinkel 2003) The dances performed in each region are specific to it, and sometimes certain dances can be shared by several ethnic groups living in the same area. (Armand 2023; Friend 2016; Hojjati 2023; Murer 2023) For example, certain Kurdish dances, or dances by the same name, can be found in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. In Turkey, it was not uncommon for Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and other minority groups to perform the same dances in a specific region in which they dwelled together. (Murer 2023) Most regional folk dances in Iran, although by no means all of them, are performed communally; in the western regions of Iran, the dancers use various handholds while dancing together, while in the eastern and southern regions, the dancers performing most communal dancing, while executing the same steps and figures, do not hold hands while dancing. (See Friend 2016 for a more in-depth survey of Iranian regional folk dances). While many communal folk dances require minimal dance skills, some dances require special movement skills and physical strength to perform such as the male dancing of Azerbaijan and the intricate stick dances of Khorasan. In some areas, especially in western Iran, the leader of the dance is often an important community figure and he performs special solo improvised movements as the communal circle of dancers continue the basic dance figures. (Armand 2023; Murer 2023)

While the historic and prehistoric depictions of communal dance seem to show dancing similar to contemporary regional folk dances, we cannot recreate specific movements from historical periods through looking at the depictions. (Garfinkel 2003) We simply do not know how dances in historic periods appeared or how they were performed. We know nothing of the music that accompanied dance from prehistoric, or even many historic, periods. (Lucas 2019) As ethnomusicologist Ann Lucas, noted of traditional Persian classical music, thought by many individuals to be of ancient origin, was, in fact modern: “Traditional Persian music came from the modern nation of Iran beginning in the nineteenth century” (2019, 2). Nor, do we know the ethnicity or languages of many of the earliest human inhabitants who dwelled on the Iranian Plateau. Iranian-language speakers arrived, in small groups probably during the second millennium BCE, mixing with or dominating previous human populations. Thus, whatever details of dance that was performed on the Iranian Plateau before the arrival of the various Iranian language speakers who came relatively late, remain unknown. “There is no evidence for the presence of Iranians on the Iranian Plateau before 881 BC” (Zadok. 2013, 416). Thus, while a great amount of historical evidence for dance exists for both prehistoric and historic periods on the Iranian Plateau, we can never know the details of how it was performed.

The expression of ethnic identity through regional dance and music within the context of the nation-state of Iran is sometimes the only means that a non-Persian individual can express that identity. Politicians and other authorities in several multiethnic nation states, like the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, under the influence of attitudes toward peasants as the pure essence of specific ethnic identities introduced in the eighteenth century by philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, which continues to influence political thinking, regarded folk dance and music as a secure safety valve for the expression of ethnic and national identity. (Shay 2002; 2019, 2023) Dance scholar Ida Meftahi notes, “The Pahlavi state had a dualistic attitude towards cultures of different ethnicities in Iran: even though some aspects of folk cultures such as folk dance and music were promoted, the state had an oppressive approach to many aspects of ethnic identities, language in particular” (2016, 46-47, n.66). This official attitude is not uncommon among many elite societies, which regard the output of the peasants as non-threatening, quaint, and innocent. Government officials ask themselves: how dangerous can folk dance be? (Shay 2023b) The Iranian state continues to have an underlying fear of the threat of outbreaks of nationalism and ethnic identity in regions like Baluchistan, Kurdistan or Azerbaijan and allows the performances of regional folk dances as a safe outlet for ethnic expression. 

Solo Improvised Dance at Home and in Professional Contexts

When I use the term solo improvised dance, the term “solo” indicates that each individual is dancing largely by his or herself, even if, as is the case in a wedding or a large party, many individuals are dancing at the same time. “Improvised” means that each individual is executing and improvising steps and figures unique to themselves in the moment. Sometimes a pair of dancers may be dancing in reference to one another, or in the same dance space such as in the play party game, raqs-e a’ineh (mirror dance) during which the two dancers attempt to exactly mirror each other’s movements, but this is exceptional. Raqs-e a’ineh requires special skills and is often practiced for hours by individuals who are closely related to one another, i.e. sisters, cousins, close friends. (Breyley and Fatemi 2016; Shay 1999) Solo improvised dance also formed part of the bazi-ha-ye namayeshi, women’s games performed in the anderun (the women’s quarters) in which women could “be themselves” and make fun of the men in their lives. It was a safe space to “let their hair down.” (Shay 1995b) An eyewitness account tells us, “One of Ezzatdoleh’s maids, who could paint her naked buttocks to look like two eyes and, dancing with them to the onlookers, would roll them so that the two eyes crossed. This made my mother, her little sisters, Batul and her daughters, and all the other women laugh until their sides ached” (Farman Farmaian. 1992, 37). All of this was for entertainment and laughs, not to appear sexy. 

Domestic solo improvised dance can be conceived as a form of urban folklore, that is a genre that is largely learned in small family circles, usually older dancers serving as models and teachers for the younger ones, in a face-to-face setting, rather than in a formal studio setting, which is now common for many individuals in the diaspora.

The reader can conceptualize solo improvised dance as a continuum along which one can find a range of dance spaces and contexts in which an individual may dance alone to a recording in their living room, or a shy person with few skills will dance for a short time in a wedding to express joy for the occasion, to also include highly skilled amateur dancers where the line between professional and amateur dancers becomes blurred. This is the domestic, often informal dance space for individuals who do not dance often to enthusiasts who love to dance and bring considerable skills to the dance floor. 

The continuum also contains a wide range of professional dancing, which contains individual dancers, both today and historically, who have and have had a diverse range of dancing skills. Historically, this range extended from respectable modern, twentieth-century spaces like concert halls and television in which government-supported professional dancers performed ballet or raqs-e melli, to the other end of the professional range in very unrespectable contexts like cafes in the Lalehzar (Tehran’s former entertainment district), the red light district (shahr-e now), and filmfarsi cinema, which depicted dancers as fallen women. (Meftahi 2016a; Stellar 2011)

Historically, even farther back, boy dancers (bachcheh raqqas) provided entertainment and sexual allure for their clientele. “That night ‘Abdi Jan’s troupe had been called so that the harem occupants could watch the show. Of course, you remember ‘Abdi well. Let me, nonetheless, give you a description of his looks. He was a lad of about twelve or thirteen, with large, black eyes, languid and incredibly beautiful and attractive. His face was tanned and good-looking, his lips crimson, and his hair black and thick. Renowned throughout the town, the boy had a thousand adoring lovers. Being a dancer, however, he was unworthy of being anyone’s beloved. (Taj al-Saltana 1993, 163). Taj al-Saltana’s pithy comment reflects the general societal view of dancing boys. Dancing boys constituted what I call the dark end of a range of masculinities and served as scare-figures for how not to be proper man in a society with rigid standards of masculine behavior. (Shay 2023) Quite simply, professional dancers performed dirty dancing, and this alluring dance tradition existed into the antique world of Ancient Greece and Rome into the Islamic world and into the contemporary world. (Lawler 1964; Shay 2014) They occupied the lowest social position and were largely recruited among slaves, orphans, and religious minorities. Respectable and elite individuals did not dance. Technically, historical professional dancers often performed daring and dangerous athletic and gymnastic feats such as balancing on the blades of knives, performing handsprings, cartwheels and handstands, captured in many Qajar paintings and the memoirs of travelers to the area, but over the past century, those gymnastic feats have disappeared from professional dancing. Ida Meftahi details how the Pahlavi state replaced young athletic male bodies with docile female bodies for purposes of symbolic representation of Iranian modernity. (2016a, 2016b)

Often, professional dancers, instead of performing sexy dances, performed comedy dances. A European visitor to the Safavid court describes a scene replete with comedy and athletic skills: A sixteenth-century traveler (Del Valle) describes one of the dances: “The third one [dance] was farcical and was performed by a woman who at times lay on her stomach with a Persian turban on her ass, which she managed through specific body movements, to throw up to the height of a man, thereby merrily accompanied by the music makers” (quoted in Matthée 2000, 141). This gymnastic aspect of solo improvised dance disappeared after World War I, when the figure of the dancing boy became a memory that faded during the socially engineered and gradual heterosexualization of Iran that constituted an important element of Iranian society at the end of the Qajar period. (Najmabadi 2005) The figure of the dancing boy became an embarrassment to many in modern Iranian society, as well as elsewhere in the Persianate world. However, athletic and gymnastic feats may be making a comeback in the performances of new global forms like hip hop, in which young men compete with one another. (Khosravi 2007)

On the level of Iranian art aesthetics, and the aesthetics of everyday life that visually and aurally pervade the urban life of the Iranian world in the form of architecture and calligraphy, I argue link all Persianate art forms, visual, such as architecture, calligraphy, and mosque decoration, and performed such as indigenous dance, theatre and Persian classical music. A close and detailed analysis of Iranian solo improvised dance reveals the crucial elements of geometry and improvisation in the almost continuous curvilinear movements and bodily poses executed by the best dancers that bind all of these forms of cultural expression together. (Shay 1997; 1999)

Choreophobia

Strong negative feelings about dancing in unrespectable public spaces, often associated with sexual activities, that I mentioned above, I refer to as choreophobia, because they often extend to dancing in domestic and respectable stage contexts as well. (Shay 1999. See also Meftahi 2016a; Mozafari 2017) I argue that such strong societal attitudes towards dancing and professional dancers, while currently associated with Islam and the Islamic clergy, actually date into the antique Mediterranean World, and were inherited attitudes that carried into the Islamic period. (Shay 2014) Islamic history scholar Michael G. Morony states, “Much of the civilization of Late Antiquity either survived fairly intact or found an Islamic form” (2005, 3). There is no mention of music or dance in the Qu’ran, and thus the various pronouncements for and against music and dance rely on interpretations of the hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by Qu’ranic scholars. When actual prohibitions did not exist in the Qu’ran, those who converted to Islam carried pre-Islamic attitudes towards the body and the performance of dance in public spaces into later periods. These choreophobic attitudes and anxieties about the body, especially female bodies, were passed from generation to generation. (Hatami 2022) Choreophobic attitudes toward professional dancing remain prominent in many parts of the Islamic world, but nowhere are they as prominent as Iran.

Ballet Iranian Style

I will make this section of the essay short because friend and colleague Nima Kiann, a trained ballet dancer, choreographer and historian, has written extensively on the topic (2016), and I refer the reader to his writings and his website for a detailed history of ballet in Iran, including choreographies, choreographers, teachers, and dancers. I will only mention that in Iran, although seen in Europe by the Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah in the nineteenth century, ballet in Iran began with the opening of studios by three immigrant Armenian Iranians, pioneer teachers, trained in Europe, mostly Russia. Sarkis Djanbazian, Madame Cornelli, and Madame Yelena began teaching classes in classical ballet in Iran in the late 1920s and early 1930s, although, as Kiann, informs us Madame Cornelli and Madame Yelena “did not have any methodical ballet training technique as such” (2016, 99). Only Djanbazian, trained in the Vaganova technique, used formal classical ballet methods. (ibid) 

It was also these teachers who began the process of creating a genre known as raqs-e melli, fusing Iranian movements, especially hand and arm movement gestures into what became known as raqs-e melli (national dance), most likely taking the name from the way in which ballet masters in Europe incorporated folk themes and dances in classical ballet, which was called “national” or “character” dance. In the mid 1950s, the Fine Arts Administration, under Mehrdad Pahlbod began training dancers for the professional stage, a project that lasted until the 1979 Revolution, largely using the raqs-e melli form. I must stress that this genre, which gradually came into being over four decades (1930s-1970s), was never codified as similar genres were in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan during the Soviet period. (Doi 2002; Shay 2021, 221-225)

There were essentially two types of classical ballet in Iran. The first are well-known classical ballets such as Don Quixote or Swan Lake. The second type were choreographies using Iranian historical and literary themes but performed using the classical ballet movement vocabulary.

Solo Improvised Dance on Stage: Raqs-e melli (National Dance), Iranian Ethno Identity Dance

For viewers of Iranian dance outside of Iran, especially those who do not come from an Iranian background, one of the most common contexts in which it is performed, either as a solo, or in a group, is staged folk dance and raqs-e melli, a hybrid form of Iranian movements and classical ballet and other genres such as modern dance. This new style of dance was cleansed and sanitized of any sensual movements so it would be suitable for government-sponsored stage performances. (Meftahi 2016a, 2016b) I use the term ethno identity dance to characterize any form of regional folk dance or solo improvised dance, with ethnic references, that is set and choreographed for public presentations to represent specific ethnic or national identities, in order to distinguish them from dances in their original contexts which bear the same name.

The three Armenian Iranian ballet teachers, Sarkis Djanbazian, Madame Cornelli, and Madame Yelena began the development of raqs-e melli for purposes of year-end recitals. It was further developed under the aegis of Nella Cram Cook, an American who, in the 1940s founded a dance group, Studio of the Revival of the Ancient Arts of Iran, which was intended to give public performances, and for which she created several Iranian-themed ballets. Then in the 1950s, the Pahlavi government began to support classical ballet, staged folk dance and choreographies of raqs-e melli. Raqs-e melli, “became an artistic means to showcase narratives of the nation through dancing bodies” (Meftahi 2016a, 18). It was and continues to be used to express a specifically Iranian character and utilizes movements from the domestic and professional boy dancers’ movements fused with ballet, Iranian folklore, Armenian folklore and solo improvised dance, and other contemporary sources, into a staged form that is often used to convey the notion of a specific Iranian classical form. “The discussed genres share the rotation of wrists, triplet steps, and some movement of arms” (Meftahi 2016a, 41. See also p. 43, n. 2). Elements such as elaborate turns, not possible in most domestic settings, and taken from ballet have also been introduced into the raqs-e melli genre. Many Iranians refer to this new, invented dance tradition as “Classical” Persian or “Classical” Iranian dance. However due to the lack of a specifically codified movement vocabulary, institutional support, and a repertory canon, it does not technically qualify as a classical form like classical western ballet, or Indian and Japanese classical forms like kathak, bharatanatyam, or nihon buyo. Raqs-e melli remains largely an amorphous, undocumented style of dance. (Kiann 2016)

Iranian choreographers, both in Iran and in the diaspora, some using raqs-e melli, or elements of it, others using non-Iranian forms and elements of contemporary dance, have begun to experiment with new ways of expressing Iranian identity and culture through new and innovative forms of choreography. (Hatami 2021; Rastovac-Akbarzadeh 2023; Shay 2023)

Underground Dance and New Global Genres. 

Because underground dance takes place in hidden spaces, whether in the desert, the woods, darkened urban locations, and even in buses, it is only possible to catch glimpses of it on Youtube or in the few extant writings of those who observe it. (Mozafari 2017) Anthropologist Shahram Khosravi provides a vivid picture of the dance underground in Tehran: “Sometimes after dark young men go behind the wall of Golestan [shopping center] or to a nearby park to dance. Often there is a kind of dance competition between rival gangs from different parts of Tehran. They come to Golestan to perform the latest dance fashions and thereby to ‘shame the rivals’ (ro kam koni[sic]. The dance competitions I witnessed were techno-dance. All such activities were, of course, ‘cultural crimes’ and could result in physical punishment” (2007, 113). In a theocratic police state like the Islamic Republic of Iran in which dance is banned, dance, like other outlawed forms of expression like rap, hip-hop and other forms of popular music and theatre, has gone underground. I would argue that for the youth of Iran, underground and alternative music and dance constitute a powerful form of resistance and the construction of a new Iranian identity that is both local and global. (Mozafari 2017; Nooshin 2011)

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  • Hemmasi, Farzaneh. 2020. Tehrangeles Dreaming: Intimacy and Imagination in Southern California’s Iranian Pop Music. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Hojjati, Mahsa. 2023. “Sistani Dances as Connective Paths to Group Identity: The Dances of Migrant Sistani Communities in Golestan Province.” Dance in the Persianate World: Histories, Practices, Aesthetics. Edited by Anthony Shay. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  • Khosravi, Shahram. 2007. Young and Defiant in Tehran. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Kiann, Nima. 2016. “The History of Ballet in Iran.” In Dance in Iran: Past and Present. Edited by Saloumeh Gholami. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 91-176.
  • Lawler, Lillian B. 1964. The Dance in Ancient Greece. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Lucas, Ann E. 2019. Music of a Thousand Years: A New History of Persian Musical Traditions. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Matthee, Rudi. 2000. “Prostitutes, Courtesans, and Dancing Girls: Women Entertainers in Iran.” Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie. Edited by Rudi Matthee and Beth Baron. Costa Mesa: Mazda, 121-150.
  • Meftahi, Ida. 2007. ‘Rethinking the History of Dance in 20th-century Iran: Nationalizing Dance to Exhibit Iranian Identity.” Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars International Conference, 2007.
  • __________. 2016a. Gender and Dance in Modern Iran: Biopolitics on Stage. London and New York: Routledge.
  • __________. 2016b. “Dancing Angels and Princesses: The Invention of an Ideal Female National Dancer in Twentieth-Century Iran.” Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity. Edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 210-235.
  • Morony, Michael G. 2005. Iraq After the Muslim Conquest. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
  • Mozafari, Parmis. 2017. “Dance and the Borders of Public and Private Life.” Cultural Revolution in Iran: Contemporary Popular Culture in the Islamic Republic. Edited by Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh. London: I.B. Tauris, 95-108.
  • Murer, George. 2023. “North Kurdish Dance as a Curatorial Process.” Dance in the Persianate World: Histories, Practices, Aesthetics. Edited by Anthony Shay. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  • Najmabadi, Afsaneh. 2005. Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Nooshin, Laudan. 2011. “Hip-hop Tehran: Migrating styles, musical meanings, marginalized voices.” Migrating Music. Edited by Jason Toynbee and Byron Ducek. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Rastovac-Akbarzadeh, Heather. 2023. “Contemporary Iranian Dance and the Diasporic Politics of Authenticity.” Dance in the Persianate World: Histories, Practices, Aesthetics. Edited by Anthony Shay. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  • Salimi, Rana. 2022. “Performing Glimpses of the Past: The Political Implications of Dance in Nowruz Parades.” Performing Iran: Culture, Performance, Theatre. Edited by Babak Rahimi. London: I. B. Tauris, 169-180.
  • Shay, Anthony. 1995a. “Dance and Non-Dance: Patterned Movement in Iran and Islam.” Journal of Iranian Studies. vol. 28, numbers 1-2, Winter/Spring, 1995: 61- 78.
  • ____________. 1995b. “Bazi-ha-ye namayeshi: Iranian Women’s Theatrical Plays.” Dance Research Journal. 27/2 Fall 1999, 16-24.
  • ___________. 1997. “In Search of Traces: Linkages of Dance and Visual and Performative Expression in the Iranian World.” Visual Anthropology. Volume 10, 335-360. 
  • ___________. 1999. Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  • ___________. 2014. The Dangerous Lives of Public Entertainers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Islamic World. New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • ___________. 2019. The Igor Moiseyev Dance Company: Dancing Diplomats. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books.
  • ___________. 2021. Dance and Authoritarianism: These Boots Are Made for Dancing. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books.
  • ___________. 2023a. “Raqqas, the Boy Dancer: The Dark End of a Rainbow of Persianate Masculinities.”  Dance in the Persianate World: Histories, Practices, Aesthetics. Edited by Anthony Shay. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  • ___________. 2023b. Folk Dance and the Creation of National Identities: Staging the Folk.
  • New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Siamdoust, Nahid. 2017. Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Stellar, Zeinab. 2011. “From ‘Evil-inciting’ Dance to Chaste ‘Rhythmic Movements’: A Genealogy of Modern Islamic Dance-Theatre in Iran.” Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theatre: Artistic Developments in the Islamic World. Edited by Karin van Nieuwkerk. Austin: University of Texas Press, 231-256.
  • Taj al-Saltana. 1993. Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity. Edited and with Introduction and Notes by Abbas Amanat. Translated by Anna Vanzan and Ali Neshati. Washington, D.C.: Mage.
  • Tazmini, Ghoncheh. 2023. “Dance and Resistance in Iran: #dancingisnotacrime.” Dance in the Persianate World: Histories, Practices, Aesthetics. Edited by Anthony Shay. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  • Turner, Bryan S. 2008. The Body and Society. Third Edition. Los Angeles and London: Sage.
  • Zadok, Ran. 2013. “Linguistic Groups in Iran.” Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran. Edited by D.T. Potts. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 407-422.
Dancer & professor | + posts

Anthony Shay is a dancer, choreographer, and professor of dance at Pomona College. He specializes in Eastern European, Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian dance. In his 50 years of work, he has created over 200 choreographies and developed and directed several dance groups. He obtained MAs from the University of California, Los Angeles and California State University, Los Angeles and received his Ph.D. from University of California, Riverside. 

Dr. Shay’s two most recent publications are Folk Dance and the Creation of National Identities: Staging the Folk and Dance in the Persianate World: Aesthetics, Histories, Practices.

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