Introduction to Dance in Iran: Part II
by Robyn Friend
Understanding and Performing Persian Classical Dance
Persian classical dance cannot be properly understood without an appreciation of Iranian culture, social norms and traditional aesthetics, and without a deep
knowledge of Persian classical music.
Iranian culture: Poetry
To fully understand traditional Iranian culture, one must appreciate the significance and importance of poetry in Iranian life.
For Iranians, poetry, and the singing or recitation of poetry, are the most highly valued traditional arts. Most people born in Iran can recite lines of poetry from memory; many Iranians write their own poetry. Some Iranians engage in the ancient traditional art of extemporaneous poetry; that is, a theme and a rhyme scheme are suggested, and they compose poetry on the spot, some even accompanying themselves on a traditional musical instrument, such as the tar or setar.
At the heart of Persian classical poetry is Iranian mysticism, which expresses a yearning for God in the language of romantic love. God is called “the Beloved”, and described in terms of great beauty. A central theme of this poetry is pain at our separation from God, which we have suffered since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
While poetry and the recitation of poetry are considered the highest arts, dance, on the other hand, is perceived as the lowest valued art. And yet, in former times, dance was performed to the recitation of poetry, especially the great Sufi poets Rumi, Hafez, and others (Medea Mahdavi, personal communication; independent evidence for this exists in traditional dances of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where this practice continues). Somewhere along the way this connection between dance and poetry was severed, and dance looked upon as something at complete odds with the spirituality of poetry.
Nonetheless, it is possible by studying Persian classical poetry to understand Persian notions of beauty and images of the God the Beloved that are useful in performing dance. One such image is the cypress tree, or sarv, to which the figure and stature of the Beloved is often compared. Thus, the dancer, in portraying this ideal beauty must stand tall and straight, yet undulate ever so slightly, like the cypress in a breeze. Another image is the eyebrow of the Beloved, said to be the bow from which the arrow of Love is shot, wounding the Lover. The accomplished dancer emphasizes her eyebrows by moving them independently in time to the music.
Social Norms: The Place of Dance in Iranian Society
It is helpful to the dancer who wishes to learn Persian classical dance to understand Iranian social norms and where dance fits in the social and cultural context. Iranians have something of a split personality when it comes to dance; most Iranians express interest and delight in dance, and most Iranian women have been taught to dance by their mothers, and in turn teach their children to dance. Yet, when at a gathering where dance music is played, these same women will insist they don’t know how to dance, don’t want to dance, and so forth, until literally forced onto the dance floor. Once there, their passion for and expertise in dancing are amply displayed. Though Islam and some of the political events of the 20th century have had some formative effect on these attitudes, the primary cause is found in traditional patterns of cultural behavior, which appear to be independent of these influences. These patterns are manifested in a reluctance to show one’s true feelings, a metaphorical veiling of the desires, called “hojb”.
In addition, in Iranian society explicit displays of sexuality are discouraged, and not appreciated, for example, in a prospective daughter-in-law. Thus, coquettishness is the ideal demeanor even for the professional dancer, rather than blatant sexuality. The professional dancer, however, is expected to be expressive and to make eye contact with the audience, whereas it is considered by some to be improper for a girl or woman dancing at a party to make eye contact with a dance partner or observer.
The Traditional Iranian Aesthetic and Dance
Like Persian traditional visual arts, such as calligraphy, carpet designs, and manuscript illumination, the dance is delicate, intricate, subtle, and full of meaning. Whereas Arabic dance emphasizes movements of the hips, and ballet, the lifting of the legs and movement of the feet in intricate patterns, Persian classical dance involves primarily the upper body: the face, head, torso, and hands. 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, humor. 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.
Persian classical music and dance
It is important for the dancer interested in learning Persian classical to gain an understanding of Persian classical and traditional music. While this is best
accomplished with the guidance of a teacher, it can also be achieved by listening to recordings of Persian classical music, and especially the rengs found at the end of each musical performance. Though in Persian classical dance there is no direct correlation between specific hand gestures and meanings, as there is in Indian classical dance, the movements must relate directly to the music, must seem both to motivate the melody, and to be a reaction to the melody. This is quite difficult, as Persian classical music is as improvisational as the dance; there are, therefore, no handy four-bar phrases to help the dancer out. Still, these musical improvisations occur within a framework of traditional melodic motion, so that a dancer familiar with Persian classical music may be able to follow and even anticipate the musician. And, of course, for the dancer lucky enough to perform with excellent musicians, they will follow the dancer and help to create a visually, musically, and rhythmically coherent whole.
Persian classical dance can be seen as the culmination of Iranian traditional arts and aesthetic: music, poetry, and visual arts. It is this culmination, combined with the basic human need for self-expression, that has allowed Persian classical dance to persist throughout the centuries, despite many contrary pressures.
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.