Spirituality in Iranian Music and Dance:
Conversations with Morteza Varzi
Az to harakat, az khoda barakat
You provide the motion, God provides the blessing
Since 1979, my husband and I have had the good fortune to study Iranian (Persian) classical music with Morteza Varzi. Mr. Varzi has been associated with many of the best known and best loved classical musicians of Iran in the 20th century, including Banan, Marziye, Morteza Ney-Davud, Majd, Asghar Bahari, Shajarian, Alahe, and many others. To study this exquisite music “at the foot of a master” has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, and Mr. Varzi’s perspective on the spiritual aspects of the performing arts in Iran have been a major influence and inspiration in my own music and dancing.
Mr. Varzi was born in Tehran in 1922, and began his music studies at age 15. He took up first the violin, then the setar (Iranian 4-string long-necked lute), and finally the kemanche (Iranian spike fiddle). Mr. Varzi came from an artistically-inclined family; his elder brother, Abol Hassan Varzi, was a well-known poet. Many of the great musicians of the 20th century were frequent guests in the Varzi home, and Mr. Varzi was exposed to the best of traditional classical Persian music from a young age.
Some years ago, Mr. Varzi and I started a conversation about the spiritual aspects of Iranian dance. I was intrigued, because most of my experience with the Iranian community has revealed an attitude towards dance that is, at best, ambivalent. Most Iranians exhibit very complex behavior about dance, acting like they don’t know how to dance, or don’t like to dance, when the reality may be quite the opposite1. I have also met musicians who have such disdain for dance and dancers that they would not work with musicians known to have accompanied a dancer; somehow the “taint” of dance could never be lifted, and would interfere with the more elevated and spiritual activity of music and recitation of classical Sufi poetry.
We continued this discussion recently, when Mr. Varzi described to me a video he had seen of what he called “mystical dancing”, being done in a village in Iran:
MV There were men on one side and women on the other side. Of course, the women were all covered up. All you could see was their faces and their hands. He [i.e., the cameraman] had the camera in hiding, and recorded a number of mystical dances where they cut themselves, and pierce their skin. And then they were dancing, I mean, mystical dancing. By “mystical”, I mean a kind of ecstasy they gain through singing, and music, and dancing.
They dance to the point that they forget everything. So that’s when they say they have joined God. They are not in this world, they don’t belong to the world, anymore.
This singing and dancing which they do in Iran is related to what is done in the khaneqah2 by the dervishes. It’s like a bazm3… And then the leader, the sheykh, leads them, and then the singer starts to sing. And then later on they add instrumental music. Somebody will start to recite a line of poetry, talking about Ali4, praising Ali, and all the saints5, of course. And then they start moving. And then this movement gets a little bit faster, and steadier, until foam starts coming out of their mouths and all. They really forget what they are doing. They get so involved in their ecstasy, with their repetitive movements.
RCF: Are they dancing in place, or do they move around in a circle?
MV: Most of them are just sitting6, and then some of them may jump up, and do what they do in church, or like the Whirling Dervishes.
The Shia Alevis of Turkey do something similar as a regular weekly ritual. The community gets together, men and women, and dance together in mixed groups. They move in their own circle, but the larger circle of participants moves around the room. The sheykh is there, telling the musicians what to play, with the idea that it is like a “spiritual prescription” for what the people need next7. I described all this to Mr. Varzi.
MV: It all comes from the same source, and then in Turkey after Ataturk came, you know, he banned this aspect of religion and also all these mystical centers, the khaneqahs8. But they were going on in hiding, anyway. And now it’s open again. But we have to separate it from dancing in general. We call it “mystical dancing”.
RCF: What word do they use for this in Persian? Do they call it raqs9?
MV: No. Actually, the general name for all this is sama10 (photos). The word sama comes from the Arabic root which means “to listen”11. But it is applied to this type of dancing. So what the Whirling Dervishes do, that is sama12 (photo). Of course it also includes instrumental music. But, generally, they call it sama; they do the same thing in zurkhaneh13 (photo), you know, the House of Power. It’s also for the same purpose, because the drummer keeps the rhythm, and by reciting mystical and educational poetry; they keep dancing, and they have special movements that I am sure you have seen. But they don’t call it anything. It’s just a part of the ritual.
I was intrigued that Mr. Varzi continued to refer to this spiritual, mystical movement as “dance”. There are some who insist that the word “dance” cannot be used to refer to this activity, because the practitioners themselves would not use the word “dance” for what is for them a religious activity14.
I believe that the job of scholars is to create a set of objective criteria to use in determining whether an activity can be construed as dance or not, and then categorize activities based on these criteria. For example, I began my article on “Dance in Iran” in the Encyclopedia Iranica with the definition of dance by anthropologist J. Kealiinohomoku:
“a transient mode of expression, performed by the human body moving in space … through purposefully selected and controlled rhythmic movements…” 15I find it fascinating that activities such as what Mr. Varzi describes can meet all the criteria of dance, and yet are sometimes not called dance by the community that engages in it.
RCF: It’s interesting that you call it “dancing”. Some have taken issue with the article on Iranian dance I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Iran, because I included both zurkhane and Sufi movements as part of Iranian dance. The argument is that this can’t possibly be dancing, because the Sufis would not have anything to do with dancing, because they would be persecuted for dancing, and because Iranians have an attitude about dance, nothing that was mystical could be associated with that word.
MV: No, this is wrong. In the mystical circle they don’t call it dance, they call it sama, but dancing is exactly what they do. And they do the same thing in zurkhane, and they don’t call it anything. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So it is part of the ritual, the movements that they have. Actually the original thought or philosophy behind the whole thing is that your body and your mind should grow together. Your mind, through learning and reciting and memorizing, and for your body, just keeping the rhythm, calling it sama, mystical dance, or bazm. It is the movement of the body to exercise the body the way you exercise the mind by repeating or reciting the sayings of the great masters like Mowlana16.
RCF: Recently I saw a performance by a group from Badakhshan in Eastern Tajikistan, and I was really fascinated because they actually recited Mowlana and danced; they were singing spiritual poetry, and a woman would come out and dance to this poetry. And I asked the director of the ensemble, “Is this traditional”, and she said “Yes, we always dance to mystical poetry; we call it maddoh”17. She said that they even dance at funerals, with the funeral procession to the cemetery led by dancers, “because it’s not a sad occasion, we are happy, our friend is with God”.
Mr Varzi’s opinion is that this is a holdover from ancient Zoroastrian cultic practice. There is other evidence of Zoroastrian practice until quite recently, for example, in Central Asia18. Turkish folklorist Metin And provides similar examples of Shamanism and pre-Islamic religion in contemporary Turkish folk dances19.
flagellation in the processions on the 9th and 10th of Muharram, which commemorate the martyrdom of Hossein20. He describes one of these processions he witnessed when he was the deputy governor of Khorassan Province:
MV: I was in Khorassan at the time, and the vice president and the leader of the Parliament were the guests of honour. So they wanted to watch the local procession. So I took them upstairs overlooking this procession. It was the kind of dance created by Hollywood. They made a circle, they had the chains, the movement of the legs, the use of the chains, and the rhythm that they kept; it was beautiful, especially looking from above. So again, it is a procession, it is dancing in a procession that is all related to Muharram.
RCF: You mean it was choreographed like Hollywood, but they did it themselves? It was traditional?
MV: They did it as their own tradition, yes21. But it looked like a choreographed dance.
Shortly after this conversation with Mr. Varzi, by chance I ran into someone I had known from many years ago, who had actually videotaped some of the mystical dancing that Mr. Varzi had described. For the last nine years Jahan Ardalan has been working on a documentary of the Qaderi Sufis of Iranian Kurdistan, about their music, dancing, and altered states of consciousness. The men gather on a weekly basis, on Fridays before sundown, at the khaneqah (or jam’khane, “meeting house”). The evening begins with the men dancing exactly like Kurdish men’s folkdance, except that they have loosed their hair from their turbans (photos). Occasionally one of them breaks out of the line and spins or does some other improvisational movements. The most astounding feature of this weekly gathering occurs occasionally (it doesn’t happen every week) when the men “draw their blades”: that is they use knives and swords to cut themselves in a frenzy of spiritual ecstasy22. According to the Jahan, they do this only when they feel so moved: “when Love calls”. He believes they do this as a disassociation from themselves: “I am not my mind, I am not my body”23. He has seen photos of men who have set themselves on fire, danced around and burned for a few minutes, and afterwards not even their hair is singed24.
Another interesting aspect of the Ghaderi sama or zikr is the healing aspect. Jahan told me that people (not necessarily Ghaderis or Sufis) bring their ill, especially children, to the jam’khane. The leader (khalife) puts the ill person in the middle of the dance circle, when there is enough of the right kind of synergy and energy. The khalife told Jahan of several cases of cures in people with incurable diseases, in particular, a man with a bone disease. The doctor of this man was a relative of Jahan, and confirmed the cure, but blamed it on faulty diagnostic machinery, although it had been diagnosed by several different means. But the bone disease vanished after a few sessions of the Ghaderi zikr.
Another healing ritual that involves trance, music, and movement is le’b guati of the Baluchis of Eastern Iran, which is performed to rid a possessed person of the possessing spirit or guat25. During this ritual music is played until the guat manifests itself in the afflicted person, who falls into a trance, characterized by “shivering… then intensifying with movements, stirring, a kind of informal dance, jerks, cries, shouts, tears, and so forth”26. According to During, this healing ritual “shows connections with animism, exorcism, and popular Sufism”27.
Mr. Varzi described another type of mystical dance in Iran.
MV: At some point between the religious ritual practiced by the Whirling Dervishes on the one hand, and completely secular dance on the other, there is in the middle a kind of Persian dance that has something mystical about it. But it takes special music, and special movements. You must have a kind of message, before you start to dance. Darvish Khan28 has a song, a reng29 actually, and it can very beautifully be danced to in this way. It has different movements, and different speeds and tempos. Very easily you can put a message across it, and in the meantime as the dance is going on, a special type of poetry is recited. So this has to be rehearsed, it has to be choreographed, and then the dancer must be a good dancer, that’s for sure.
RCF: You said to me years ago, “Persian dance has a humanistic message; it’s art for the sake of art. Other dance is purely physical. Persian dance is mystical, like sama. True Persian dance is just like music; you approach God through music, dance, and poetry.” Did you mean that all Persian dance was also spiritual rather than physical?
MV: Not all Persian dance, because what people perform now at parties and at nightclubs and cabarets is purely physical.
When you talk about dancing, it is a part of music. In other words, dance is music physically performed. From Safavids’ time [1501-1732]30 up to Karim Khan-e Zand [1750-1794] music was called bad, haram [forbidden], and so was dancing. During the Safavid era, which was founded by a Sufi dervish sect, music was banned totally. The Safavids became very fanatic after they got the rule, so music was mostly banned until Karim Khan-e Zand came to power. He [Karim Khan] tried to revive everything, especially music.
This negative attitude towards music and dance started actually from Cengiz Khan [1206-1227]31 and Teymur Khan [Tamerlane, 1370-1404], and continued on and off. Some of the rulers were musicians themselves, and poets, and some of them were against music. And one of Teymur’s sons was in love with music and had lots of musicians around him. Teymur had told his son that he should keep away from musicians, but his son would not listen. So Teymur made a trip to Tabriz and hanged his son’s music teacher; and the rest of the musicians fled and went to Turkey, the Ottoman Empire in those days.
RCF: I had heard that in Safavid times musicians would put their instruments in a coffin, and groups of musicians would go from town to town saying “We’re carrying the body of our child for the funeral”, and sneak around that way32.
MV: Yes, and from then on they used to have something like what the mullahs wear, called aba, and they hid their instruments under the aba. And that’s why the setar was actually created: to be small enough to be carried [underneath the aba].
RCF: But wasn’t there a dance school in Esfahan, during the reign of Shah Abbas Kabir [Shah Abbas I, “The Great”, 1588-1629]?
MV: I have read this also, but unfortunately, the book didn’t give any reference of where they got the information. In any case, Shah Abbas, unlike other Safavid rulers, for a change was in favor of music, and during his time there was a school of dancing.
Anyway, you know the whole story. Everybody talked about music being banned. But of course it kept on its life, underneath. And then came Karim Khan-e Zand; he was in favor of music, he loved music, and in Shiraz he organized something like [the French Quarter in] New Orleans [where] there was assigned an area for jazz and prostitution and bars and so forth. He said that all the musicians should come there and perform every night. Every night he went up to the roof; if there was no sound of music, he thought that something was wrong, so he would check on it. So music had to be on. But the problem was all the great masters had fled; they did not stay in Iran. Most of the musicians went to the Ottoman Empire, and the poets went to India. So music was in the hands of a bunch of motrebs33. They only knew a few songs, and they played only for fun. Pop music started from there. And good music was not to be heard until later on when they [the masters of music] came back.
So dancing also became solely for fun; it lost its significance as a mystical expression of music, a physical expression of music. And dancing became the job of loose women and prostitutes of that area [in Shiraz], which continued its life until the Qajar dynasty [1779-1924], and during the Qajar dynasty that type of music and the role of motrebs became very important. The upper class people during the Qajar dynasty were mostly educated, mostly poets or loved poetry, and were in love with good music. So good music found its home at those parties, the bazm that we talked about before. And the music which was public became something like reng, and only for physical enjoyment. And it lost its spiritual and mystical significance.
RCF: So what people do today, this is still the legacy of the Qajars, and this is completely different from this spiritual dancing. Even though, somehow that thread of spiritual music continued, apart from this popular music.
There would appear from this evidence to be several types of “movement” in the general Iranian cultural sphere that fit an objective definition of “dance” (whether or not is so called by the practitioners), that have a spiritual or mystical intent. These might be categorized as follows:
- Communal, ritual movement to music, as a part of a spiritual practice (e.g., Sufi sects, such as the Ghaderis; Muharram processions; zurkhane)
- Movement to music as part of healing ritual, practiced either by the sufferer, or by someone else on behalf of the sufferer (le’b guati; Ghaderis)
- Dance to spiritual poetry as part of public or private performance (maddoh of Tajikistan; Turkomans; pre-Safavid Iran)
Interestingly the Iranian dancer Medea Mahdavi asserts that the spiritual dancing of pre-Safavid Iran did not die with the Safavid suppression, but merely went underground, out of the public eye, and survives even today. A tantalizing thought! And so, my investigations continue . . .
A first-generation Bulgarian-American, Dr. Robyn Friend is a singer, dancer, choreographer, and linguist who specializes in Iranian and Turkic folklore. Dr. Friend has studied dance and music with noted teachers in Iran, Turkey, and in the U.S. Her dance repertoire includes traditional dances of Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia; her singing repertoire includes the classical radif of Iran, Sufi and folk songs from Turkey, and Gypsy songs. She has performed as a soloist throughout North America, in Europe, and in the Middle East. She teaches and performs — mostly to the Iranian community — near Los Angeles.
Dr. Friend has a Ph.D. in Iranian languages from UCLA, and has authored numerous papers in both scholarly and popular publications on many subjects, including Iranian traditional dance and music, Iranian linguistics, and the exploration of Mars by balloon.
1 For a discussion of some aspects of this attitude, see my article “The Status and Preservation of Iranian Dance”, presented at the First Conference of Middle Eastern Dance, Orange Coast College, 1997. Available at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcfriend/Hojb–1997.htm.
3 Bazm means an entertainment in Persian. In the past it was used for the traditional Sufi gathering that included music and ritual intended to achieve spiritual ecstasy and unity with the Divine. It has come to mean just a party. For a description of the traditional and modern bazm, see “Performer-Audience Relationships in the Bazm”, Mortezâ Varzi, Margaret Caton, Robyn C. Friend, and Neil Siegel, The Institute of Persian Performing Arts, and “Contemporary Contexts for Iranian Professional Musical Performance”, Robyn C. Friend and Neil G. Siegel, The Institute of Persian Performing Arts; both were presented at the 1986 meetings of The Middle East Studies Association, Boston, Massachusetts, November, 1986, and are available at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcfriend/robyn12.htm.
4 Ali was a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, and married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima. The belief that he should be caliph after Muhammad’s death, in opposition to other members of the fledgling Muslim community who prevailed, led to the schism between the followers of Ali (Shias) and Sunnis.
5 Something similar is performed by the Turkomans of Eastern Iran. At celebrations the men and women separate, each group forming a tight, closed circle, by placing the left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front. The participants take turns reciting spiritual poetry and verses from the Qor’an, while swinging the right arm and moving around the circle. [Medea Mahdavi, personal communication, March 2000].
6 This idea of dancing while sitting is found elsewhere in Iranian dance. As long as one can move the arms, head, and torso, and convey facial expressions, one can still be “dancing”. Metin And mentions that the Naqshbandi Sufis of Turkey “remain seated in a circle and make simultaneous gestures”, as part of their ritual movement practice [“A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing”, Dost Yayinlari, Ankara, 1976, page 32].
8 Called tekke in Turkish. Mustafa Kemal, known as “Ataturk” (Father of the Turks) became president of Turkey in 1923. The Turkish Parliament passed a law in 1924 that closed the tekkes and confiscated the property of the Sufi brotherhoods. See Ataturk, Lord Kinross, William Murrow, 1964; page 439 and ff.
10 Sama, from the Arabic root meaning “to listen”, refers to the spiritual practice of listening to music and achieving unity with the Divine. Spelled sema in Turkish. For a description of sema in Turkish Sufi practice, see And 1976, pages 11-15. See also Talat Sait Halman and Metin And, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi and The Whirling Dervishes, Dost Yayinlari, Instanbul, Turkey, 1983.
12 “…it is out of the question that the dancing of dervish orders (Sema) could have been an innovation of the dervish, as it was merely the continuation, possibly an elaboration, of dances familiar to the people from time immemorial.” And, 1976, page 15.
13 “The zurkhane, literally ‘house of strength’, can be considered a part-ceremonial, part-performance context for dance. The building consists of a court, around which the men who will perform arrange themselves, and a gallery for the ostad (“master”) or morshed (spiritual leader) and the musicians. Nowadays, the musical accompaniment consists of a drum and recitation of portions of Ferdowsi’s Shahname. There are various rhythms employed, and a variety of movements associated with them, including displays of strength in manipulating heavy objects (such as weights and chains) and acrobatics.” [Robyn C. Friend, Dance in Iran, Encyclopedia Iranica, 1993]
16 I.e., the Sufi poet Rumi. Rumi’s full name and title in Persian is Mowlana (“our master”) Jellaleddin Rumi, “Mevlana” in Turkish, hence the origin of the name “Mevlevi” for what is referred to in English as “The Whirling Dervishes”. Interestingly, an article in Persian about Mowlana and the Whirling Dervishes in Honar va Mardom (Art and People) refers to the movement in the sama as raqs-e sufian, “dance of the Sufis”. [Honar va Mardom, number 140, pages 2-25; Ministry of Culture and Arts, Tehran, Iran]
17 Makhingul Nazarshoeva, personal communication, October, 1999. The program notes from this performance in Vancouver include the following description of Maddoh: “Lyrics of Shams-i-Tabrezi.Maddoh (devotional poetry) usually recited at gatherings of religious significance. The poems of Nasir Khusraw, Shams-i-Tabrezi, Jami, Shofitur, and others are often used.”. In fact, several of the dance numbers in this concert were performed to such devotional poetry.
20 Hossein was the second son of Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter, and Ali, his nephew and son-in-law. A graphic description of a Muharram observance at Esfahan in 1811 can be found in Morier’s Second Journey through Persia. Morier mentions a “maitre de ballet” who stands in the middle of the procession and directs choreography in progress.
23 According to Jahan, the women of this sect meet on Tuesdays in the same jam’khane, and do essentially the same dancing, and also “draw their blades”, but probably not quite as exaggeratedly. Jahan, of course, had not actually seen the women’s evening, but it had been described to him.
24 An example of a similar phenomenon is the Bulgarian Nestinarsko “firewalking” ritual dance, in which the participants go into a trance, and dance barefoot on hot coals without apparently burning their feet. Xristo Vakarelski, Ethnografia na Bulgaria, Sofia, 1977, pages 519-521; and Dimitur Marinov, Izbrani Proizvedenia, volume 1, Sofia, 1981, page 274.
30 The Safavid dynasty unified Persia at the beginning of the 16th century. It was founded by the hereditary pir (leader) of a Shia dervish sect. The Safavids were the first dynasty to institute the Shia form of Islam as the official religion of Iran.
33 Motreb refers to professional entertainers, musicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, jugglers, and so on. Their performance is intended strictly for entertainment, and contains none of the spiritual content of which Mr Varzi speaks. Among serious musicians, the term motreb is in insult, and motrebs are looked on with disdain.
Akdeniz,Tayyar, personal communication, August 1994
And, Metin, A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing, Dost Yayinlari, Ankara, 1976
Banani, Dr. Amin, personal communication, 1978
During, Jean, “Emotion and Trance: Musical Exorcism in Baluchistan”, Cultural Parameters of Iranian Musical Expression, The Institute of Persian Performing Arts, 1988; pages 36-45.
Friend, Robyn C.and Neil G. Siegel, “Contemporary Contexts for Iranian Professional Musical Performance”, The Institute of Persian Performing Arts; presented at the 1986 meetings of The Middle East Studies Association, Boston, Massachusetts,November, 1986; available at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcfriend/robyn12.htm.
Friend, Robyn C., “Dance in Iran”, Encyclopedia Iranica, 1993; available at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcfriend/danciran.htm
Friend, Robyn C. “The Status and Preservation of Iranian Dance”, presented at the First Conference of Middle Eastern Dance, Orange Coast College, 1997. Available at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcfriend/Hojb–1997.htm.
Halman, Talat Sait and Metin And, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi and The Whirling Dervishes, Dost Yayinlari, Instanbul, Turkey, 1983.
Honar va Mardom, number 140, pages 2-25; Ministry of Culture and Arts, Tehran, Iran
Kealiinohomoku,J., “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance”, Impulse, 1970, pages 24-33
Levin, Theodore, The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (And Queens, New York), Indiana University Press, 1996
Lord Kinross, Ataturk, William Murrow, 1964
Mahdavi, Medea, personal communication, March 2000
Marinov, Dimitur, Izbrani Proizvedenia, volume 1, Sofia, 1981.
Nazarshoeva, Makhingul, personal communication, October, 1999
Shah,Idries, The Way of the Sufi, Octagon Press, London, 1968.
Vakarelski,Xristo, Ethnografia na Bulgaria, Sofia, 1977
Varzi,Mortezâ, and Margaret Caton, Robyn C. Friend, and Neil Siegel, “Performer-Audience Relationships in the Bazm”, The Institute of Persian Performing Arts, presented at the 1986 meetings of The Middle East Studies Association, Boston, Massachusetts, November, 1986; available at http://home.earthlink.net/~rcfriend/robyn12.htm.