If I had a nickel for every time someone I talked to referred to Persian dance as “belly dance,” I’d be traveling around the world in my own private jet. It’s no wonder that we Persians get so excited when someone non-Persian speaks a word of Farsi, or even recognizes that Persians speak Farsi and not Arabic. I can’t blame people, though, for not being familiar with Persian culture. For one thing, the American media seems to refer to ALL middle-eastern countries as “Arab countries”, completely ignoring the fact that the inhabitants of countries like Iran and Afghanistan are of t he Indo-European race, speak Farsi, not Arabic, and have music and dance styles that are different than those of the Arab countries. From this distant perspective it’s easy to see that part of the map as the Arab world, which Hollywood often shows as an exotic picture of smokey hookah lounges and long-beard – e d sheikhs with their harems of beautiful bellydancers, and nothing else. The only other image of the middle-east, this time thanks to the news media, is the image of the “terrorist.” I guess if I had to pick, I’d choose the former over the latter.
Belly dance, in Farsi is known as “Arabic dance”, which is why every time someone mistakes my Persian dancing for belly dance, it’s as if they are confusing my ethnic identity with another. In a way, it’s like saying to a Chinese person, “You are from China? Oh I know how to say hello in Japanese! May be you can teach me some more words.” I believe all cultures are full of beauty to explore and discover and I respect every culture. But I do wish people wouldn’t constantly con – f use f use f my culture with others. It’s a strange feeling of a lost identity. It’s as i f I have entered a room full of people who insist on calling me by someone else’s name.
Of course there are always similarities in the cultures that are geographically close. There is an overlap in the music, dance, art; certainly a connection through the religion, Islam and “Islamic Art.” There is always a cultural overlap with neighboring countries. But there are many differences that make each culture distinctly interest – i ng, and it is those distinctions that give the culture its identity. So, part of my mission, as a Persian dancer/choreographer/teacher is to expose the non-Persian public to the aesthetics distinct to Persian dance. I do this by performing Persian dance in concerts and festivals, teaching Persian dance workshops at colleges/universities, schools, and libraries, and producing instructional Persian dance DVDs.
The response from the non-Persian community has been very encouraging. There seems to be a universal aesthetic quality to Persian dance, a certain combination of rhythm and flow that strikes a chord in people’s collective artistic consciousness. In Persian paintings and calligraphy, one can often see circular and spiral shapes, one smoothly transforming into another. These curvilinear lines and spiral motions are evident in the dance style. Persian music can be meditative, with almost hypnotically smooth transitions, yet sprinkled with unexpected rhythmic and melodic changes to keep the listeners mind and heart alert and engaged. Persian dance embraces the same cultural aesthetics. The movement style has an underwater-like, fluid quality, yet embodies very distinct and intricate rhythms, and a strong connection to the pulse of the music that allows the movement and the music to become one. This sensation of oneness produces a spiritual experience that is sacred to both the dancer and the observer.
As in most “world dances, in Persian dance, the movements are very much connected to the music. I t’s incredibly important to mention here, however, that the connection between the music and the dance does NOT imply that the movements are merely an ornamental layer on top of the music. Persian dance is not by any means a decoration for music, nor is it a mere replica of the shapes and lines seen in paintings. Paintings exist in space, music exists in time, and dance exists in both space and time. Therefore, dance is a medium in which one can indulge in interplay with music and visual aesthetics, a trio tango if you will, in the realms of t ime and space.
This brings me to the second part of my mission in doing Persian dance.
The Persian Perspective
“How can you TEACH Persian dance? There is nothing to teach. If you are Persian and you dance, then you are doing Persian dance.” “Wow, you have a Master’s degree? That’s great! What subject? Oh dance? Well, that must have been easy! I think I’ll go and get my Masters too. I’m a great dancer at parties” “You dance for a living? How fun! I wish I could not work and just dance! Must be nice.”
“I have great respect for the art of dance. After all, it’s much more fun to watch people in colorful clothes moving to music than to just listen to music with nothing to look at.” “
I think it’s important for children to learn the art of dance. Of course as long as it does not interfere with their education or anything else that is important.”
These are some of the many remarks I have heard over the years from the Persian community. Keep in mind that these remarks come from the more progressive, intellectual Persians in Northern California. We are not talking a bout a bout a the many Persians who consider dancing sinful, shameful, and immoral; or at best a waste of time. Persian dance, as an art form, seems to be non-existent in the mind of the average Persian. It is at best seen as a pleasant accompaniment to music, in other words, eye candy. Sometimes I think that I would almost rather be confronted by those who see dance as immoral and sinful than by those who trivialize the art of dance to the point of something which is only worth watching from the corner of one’s eyes.
Historically, dancing has carried a negative social stigma in the Persian culture. Even before the Islamic Republic regime, who took over the country in 1979 and made it forbidden and ILLEGAL for women to dance, dancing had been considered a “low-class” hobby, and a “professional” dancer, who although might be hired and appreciated for her talents, would not receive much respect from the community. Perhaps this is the reason this particular art form—as opposed to others such as music, poetry, painting, etc.—has not had a fair chance to develop in Persian culture. While other art forms have lived through various stages (impressionism, expressionism, Avant-guard, etc.), dance h as remained vague, rudimentary, and forbidden.
So, the second part of my mission is to present Persian dance as an art form to the Persian community. It may seem impossible to erase years of pre-notions and misconceptions, but the truth is, when Persians see a dance that is high in artistic integrity, they do recognize it. When put against other more decorative and less potent dances of similar style, they immediately (and completely astonished I might add) see it as art. The issue here is not that the Persian community refuses to accept Persian dance as an art form, but that it doesn’t expect Persian dance to be a sophisticated art from in the first place. The average Persian sees Persian dance as a social dance done at parties to popular Persian music and, in general, does not expect movement choreography to contain a message or build upon a concept. Traditionally Persian dance is not expected, by itself, to express a thought or feeling, or to raise a question, and it is certainly not expected to make a viewer emotionally uncomfortable, because it is supposed to be eternally pretty and happy, a visual ornamentation on upbeat music.
The response to my efforts in showing the artistic side of Persian dance from the Persian community, I am delighted to say, has been gratifying. Over the past years I have witnessed many Persians becoming enlightened to the sophistication of Persian dance and learn to truly appreciate the art form. It is the positive responses from both the Persian and the non-Persian communities that keep me going. In the process of trying to change people’s perspective about Persian dance, we (my dance company) are also preserving the heritage, which is definitely appreciated by Persians and multiculturalists in general. If I had a chance to make a request from the public, I would ask non- Persians to not automatically accept the images given by the media (including the news). Look at every culture from a fresh perspective.
If you are curious about a culture, get to know some people from that culture, attend cultural events, see performances, learn about the art, eat the food, hear the language, read the poetry…and of my fellow Persians I would request that they raise their expectation of Persian dance. The next time you watch a Persian dance (or any dance for that matter), demand that it expresses something meaningful to you, and expect to be emotionally touched, intellectually fulfilled, or spiritually enlightened. Demand more of the art of dance, as you do of other arts.