Introduction to Dance in Iran: Part I
by Robyn Friend
Iran is a fascinating country, and little known in the West. Unlike many of its near neighbors, it is not an Arab country; most of its inhabitants are linguistically, culturally, and ethnically distinct from their Arab neighbors to the west and south. Iranians are more closely related to Tajiks, Kurds and Afghans than to Arabs.
Within Iran is found a mosaic of different local languages, cultures, and ways of life. Tent-dwelling tribal nomads of the southwest plains, rice farmers in the northern coastal rain forest, fiercely independent mountain folk of the northwest, pearl fishers of the tropical southern Persian Gulf — all have their own distinct styles of music and dance.
There is one type of dance that seems to be most common in Iran and among Iranians of the Diaspora, and with which non-Iranians are most likely to be familiar.
This is the solo improvisation, a type of dance that has been part of professional and family home entertainment from Central Asia to the Mediterranean for centuries. Its origins are uncertain, but it has been portrayed in Iranian art and literature since pre- Islamic times.
Iranian Social dance: A Foundation for Persian Classical Dance
The social dance form of this traditional dance is sometimes referred to as raqs-e tehrânî, meaning “dance of Tehran”, Tehran being the current capital of Iran. Similar dances are done in various forms across a wide area; the Iranian version shares many features in common with the social dances of the Uighurs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Anatolian Turks, Armenians, and the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans (e.g., Bulgarian ruçenica, Macedonian Roma cocek). Raqs-e tehrani can be done as a social dance by individuals, couples, or groups. Though the dancers may dance together and relate to one another, there is no requirement to synchronize steps or follow one another in any way; thus regardless of how many dancers participate, each one is essentially dancing solo. Depending on how restrictive the social situation is, groups or couples can be mixed or same-sex.
In raqs-e tehrânî, the arms are held at approximately shoulder level; the emphasis is on delicate hand turns, coy facial expressions, and gentle hip and foot movements. All movements are improvised to dance music most often in a 6/8 rhythm called reng. This is the major Iranian dance form for Iranians currently living outside Iran, and can be seen at all Iranian emigrant events where dancing by guests forms part of the entertainment. It is a dance for participation and recreation, not primarily for viewing by others.
Persian Classical Dance: A Description
The raqs-e tehrânî dance style forms a basis for Persian classical dance, the theatricalization of Iranian popular social dance.The execution is more refined and sophisticated, elaborated into an art intended for viewing by others, either in a professional or family home setting. Like raqs-e tehrani, the movements involve upper body flexibility and grace, a variety of facial expressions. A feature of classical Persian dance is raqs-e bazak, the “makeup dance” in which the dancer mimes, in time to the music, the movements of a lady’s toilette such as brushing her hair and putting on jewelry and makeup. A dancer might also manipulate objects such as tea glasses, or may use finger cymbals or other objects to mark the rhythm.
Unlike ballet or the classical dance forms of India and Japan, Persian classical dance has no formalized steps or schools, and the emphasis is on improvisation rather than choreography. There are limits of style, attitude, and musical interpretation within which the dance can be said to be traditionally Persian, and beyond which the dance is no longer considered Persian. Within these boundaries, however, great leeway is given the dancer for improvisation and expression.
Persian Classical Dance: A Brief History
During the Safavid (1501-1732) and Qajar (1779-1924) dynasties professional publicdancers were known as motrebi or lûtî, and were generally prostitutes. Throughout Iran, particularly in urban areas, groups of these motrebi or lûtî included musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, actors, and others. Similar groups of dancers and entertainers were attached to the court and formed a major part of entertainment for guests. In addition to dancing, these women also provided other entertainment:
At the banquets and receptions where they performed, women dancers typically engaged in a combination of dancing and entertainment that included juggling,
acrobatics, and magician’s tricks.. [Mathee, 2000, p.140]
Dance also forms an integral part of traditional rû- howzî theater pieces, and each role has its characteristic dance style; e.g., Hajji Firuz, roles played by men dressed as women, and so forth. These groups performed on the street and were available for hire at weddings and other parties. These entertainments could be highly vulgar, and included suggestive lyrics and movements.
Motrebi-style dance flourished as popular and court entertainment throughout the Qajar period, until the early part of the 20th century, when Westernization
(qarb-zadegi) and the strict attitudes of Shah Rezâ Pahlavî caused traditional Iranian arts to fall out of public favor. Professional dance became the province mainly of low-class nightclub performers, prostitutes, and non-Muslims (Nazemi, personal communication, 1993; for a discussion of Motrebi groups in Mashad, see Blum, pages 155 to 162).
Professional dance began to enjoy a return to respectability and fashion when Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1978) married Sorayya; musicians and dancers were
again invited into the court. This also gave rise to the non-traditional dance performance based on the European model of set choreographies, scenery, and
concert-hall venues. In 1967, a government-subsidized dance group, Sâzmân-e foklor-e Irân (which performed in the United States as “The Mahalli Dancers of Iran”), was founded under the direction of Robert De Warren of the British Royal Ballet. They performed both Iranian folk dance choreographed for the stage, and balletic presentations of Iranian epic tales (e.g., “Haft Peykar”). Another professional dance group, Bâle-ye mellî-e Pârs, was founded by A. Nâzemî, who, in addition to his ballet choreographies on traditional themes, researched and set choreographies of Iranian village and tribal dance, and brought outstanding performers from tribes and villages to Tehran to appear on television. Traditional performance dance also began to make a comeback with the revival of traditional rû-howzî theater.
Dr. Robyn C. Friend is a singer, dancer choreographer and linguist who specializes in Iranian and Turkic folklore. She has studied with noted teachers in Iran, Turkey, and the US and continues to do research both at home and abroad. She has a Ph.D. in Iranian languages from UCLA, and has authored numerous papers in both scholarly and popular publications. Her teaching and choreographic credits include work for AMAN, the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, and Het Internationaal Danstheater of Amsterdam. She teaches and performs, mostly for the Iranian community, in Los Angeles.
Blum, R. S. Musics in Contact: The Cultivation of Oral Repertoires in Meshed, Iran. Oberlin College Doctoral Dissertation, 1972.
Mahdavi, Medea. Personal communication, 2000.
Matthee, Rudi “Prostitutes, Courtesans and Dancing Girls: Women Entertainers in Safavid Iran”, Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie, Rudi Matthee and Beth Baron, ed. Mazda Publishers, Inc., Costa Mesa, California, 2000.
Nazemi, A. Personal communication, 1993.