Scoundrel Time

Forbidden Art: A Journey in Persian Dance

A hush fell over our class, as Mrs. Mofid, the principal, boomed, “What is the meaning of this?”

Her voice petrified us, like the wave of the wand that turned the heroes of our beloved fairy-tales into stone. My hand, reaching for Mina’s braid, stopped midair; Fariba’s shouting mouth, still wide open, went mute; and Parvin, lunging toward the teacher’s desk, assumed perfect balance. We teetered nervously under her glare, waiting for the usual speech, the one that began with “What is the point of educating monkeys and orangutans…”  

But she only said, calmly, “Sort yourselves out.” Nobody moved. “Now.” She slapped the blackboard and brought us to life instantly.

Mrs. Mofid was an experienced principal and knew the exact amount of time it took a group of unsupervised ten-year-olds to reach maximum entropy and chaos or absolute order and discipline. Fifteen seconds later, she opened the door, and a young, beautiful woman in very good shape entered our classroom. Standing beside the large, matronly figure of Mrs. Mofid in her usual midi skirt and a loose blouse, the slim woman in a curve-hugging black top and trousers seemed to have stepped out of a magazine or a film. Her short, curly hair was secured behind her ears with two golden colour pins, not in a dull, droopy ponytail or a grandmotherly bun like the other teachers’ hairdos. Her shoes were flat with one dainty strap.

Mrs. Mofid introduced her as our extracurricular activity teacher and then left us alone with her. The new woman scanned the room in silence. Then she stepped forward and solemnly declared. “I am going to teach you dance.”

We didn’t take her seriously. But it turned out that she was very serious, almost stern. She told us that dance was an important art form and should not be taken lightly. She taught us steps from Chahar Mahal va Bakhtiari, Bandar Lengeh, and other regions in Iran, some of which I’d only heard of in our geography class. The dances from the mountainous regions of Kurdistan involved highly regimented and disciplined footwork with few arm movements, while those from Bandar Abbas by the ocean had a softer, flowy feeling to them. I was fascinated by these differences, which I could sense but not articulate at the time. I knew then that I wanted to dance, but I didn’t know how to go about it.

The dance teacher had appeared as part of an effort by Iran’s secular government to present dance in the school curriculum as an art form and to promote national dance; however, raising awareness about the importance of education in dance proved to be no simple task, even for a government.

For many years, artists had gone out of their way to break the taboo of dance with only limited success. Sarkis Djanbazian, a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director from the Kirov Theatre, migrated with his family from Russia to Iran in 1938 and decided to pursue his dance aspirations there. A man often remembered as the father of ballet in Iran, Djanbazian was thrown out of the city hall in Qazvin when he tried to obtain a permit to establish a dance school. He eventually succeeded in holding classes on the rooftop of a church.

More than three decades later, many people in Iran still did not recognize dance as an art. They associated it with cheap, frivolous entertainment. Most people were exposed to dance only through commercial movies, in which a woman in a skimpy outfit performed in a cheap cabaret setting, singing and moving her body in suggestive ways in front of a more-often-than-not drunk male audience. The dancer was usually a young woman who had been led astray in her teenage years, sometimes drawn into prostitution, and often expected to accommodate the male customers. No respectable daughter in my family would be allowed to become a dancer. Science and medicine were the only acceptable options for me.

Secretly and carefully, I planned how I would pursue dance: I studied hard to make sure I would pass the entrance examinations and go to the university. Then I would have enough independence (access to the outside world and some money, compared with a ten-year-old) to get lessons, still secretly of course. I was very pleased and optimistic about my plan: from ten to eighteen, I had to wait only eight years. What could go wrong? I reassured myself.

It turned out, everything could go wrong! And it did. In my second year of high school, there came a revolution, when the Shah, King of Iran, was overthrown and the secular government was replaced with an Islamic one. In keeping with Islamic demands, women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe. An all-encompassing invasion of private and public spheres ensued. Private parties were raided, and those suspected of immoral behaviour – drinking, dancing, and associating with the opposite sex – were arrested, whipped, fined, or imprisoned. Traditional and some devotional styles of music were tolerated, but dancing was forbidden. Many dancers and dance artists such as the late Anna Djanbazian, the daughter of Sarkis Djanbazian and the founder of a dance school in Tehran, left the country.

The Cultural Revolution, which started in 1980, led to closure of universities and dispelled hopes of higher education for many high school students, including myself. In September of that year, Iraq invaded Iran, and an eight-year war followed. The last thing on my mind was dance.

I left Iran and landed in Canada. I did not know the language well, and I had no transferable skills to help me find a job. In the face of these new realities, my dreams of dancing were gradually buried within me. I went into science and threw all that passion into my studies.  Every year, I finished with awards and scholarships.

I was studying in my Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto, when one day walking from school on Bloor Street, I came across a pair of beaded, peachy flat shoes in the window of the Holt Renfrew. I stared at them for a very long time. The shoes took me back to my childhood in Tehran, back to the classroom, and to the dance teacher who wore similar ones. The following day, I registered in a dance class and bought a pair of flats (not the expensive ones from Holt Renfrew, but a decent enough pair from another shop). I started with ballroom dancing, and later tried introductory ballet and a variety of world dances such as flamenco, Bungara, and Kathak, and of course Persian.

My first solo performance of Persian dance was at an annual dance festival at the University of Toronto. I remember entering the stage from the right, and a voice in my head telling me to run to the left and never return. I am eternally grateful to whatever force glued me to the spot. Music started, and I began moving. What were you thinking? I kept asking myself. I felt my heart jumping out of my chest, and I was certain that everyone in the audience could see it. It was the longest, the most miserable five minutes of my life, and when people applauded, I thought they were being kind. But when I looked at a video recording of the performance later, I could not believe the woman on stage was me! Confident and graceful, she raised her arms, rotating her wrists and moving with the music, emulating gestures drawn on Persian Miniature Paintings. And her heart never came out of her chest! I took that as a sign to carry on.

I accompanied dance training and performances with research and, later, teaching while working in science. I traveled to Hurmuzgan, Yazd, Khuzistan, and other places in Iran, where I observed and took note of movements employed in healing rituals, as well as engagement, wedding, and religious ceremonies. Connecting with the locals through family and mutual friends led to invitations to the homes of local healers and participants in celebrations and ceremonies. These experiences not only enhanced my vocabulary, they also expanded my understanding of movement as it occurred in various components of daily life.

Perhaps it was my scientific research background that propelled me to go beyond learning techniques and performing and delve into many aspects of the art. I interviewed dance artists, wrote about them, and published articles on dance and dancers. My favorite articles, published in the Encyclopaedia Iranica,[1] are about the late Djanbazian and Jakkadi, a style of Persian Dance performed in Mogul courts of India four centuries ago. As the dance director and later artistic director of Tirgan Festival in Toronto, I recruited many dance artists from around the world to showcase their talents and educate the audience about Persian dance.

In 2008, I left science and devoted my time to writing, dance, and arts organization. After a few years of intense activity, I suddenly had to stop dancing, because of excruciating knee pain that went on for months. I was eventually diagnosed with a cracked cartilage behind my knee cap. The doctor recommended regular cortisone injections and jokingly suggested I should install a lift in my townhouse because of my difficulty with walking. I didn’t do either; after getting a third opinion, I opted for physical therapy instead, settling on a therapist who recommended no medication or injections, but a variety of exercises spread over a long period of time. These were designed to target specific local muscles, which, after strengthening, could take the load off the knee joint and ease movement. I followed the instructions religiously, and though my knee was never the same, after about a year, I was able to resume dance. The lingering pain, and the consequent limitations intensified by the natural process of aging, prompted me to shift my focus to teaching and choreography and away from performance.

The barriers I faced on my journey into the world of dance heightened my sensitivity to those in a similar situation. Many older women from countries such as Iran, India, Turkey, and Nigeria have confided to me that they wanted to dance since they were little girls but never dreamed that they could. I guide them through training, which they approach with great interest and enthusiasm, and some of them end up performing on stage. I offer single workshops for everyone, but my classes are often for women only. Some people frown at this, but with the exception of regional dances of Iran, the dance style I practice employs mostly feminine movements. Some of the women I teach, including those with hijab, tell me they feel more comfortable learning and practicing in the company of women. I believe my students will promote awareness and appreciation of the art form and act as ambassadors to change outdated attitudes toward dance, through continued study and performance. To engage mothers and grandmothers who want to dance and perform, despite views that at best consider dance an entertainment, and at worst a frivolous, immoral practice, continues to be no mean feat. But in my experience, the rewards of this long, arduous journey have outweighed its challenges and difficulties.

My yearning to reach out to those who want to dance but face obstacles has led me on unexpected paths. One day when I came home after a performance, there was a message on my answering machine from a woman named Liz, who had seen my performance and wanted to learn Persian Dance.

“Will you teach me?” she asked, and added hesitantly, “I am in a wheelchair.”

Without giving it any thought, I picked up the phone and said “yes” to Liz. For different reasons, I was excited to take this opportunity. My own mother had been in a wheelchair after a stroke, and although I hadn’t taught her dance, I had some knowledge and experience of the relative abilities of a person in her condition. I set up a meeting with Liz to discuss how to approach the lessons, and we decided to focus on the storytelling aspect of dance. We agreed on a choreographed piece of mine that I modified to include more upper body movements and facial expressions, replacing the foot work by moving the wheelchair in straight lines and circles. We were utterly delighted to simulate a back bend by modifying the position of the wheelchair relative to the mirror and the audience, and adding raised arm work. In 2017, Liz Winkelaar and I gave our first performance of Persian Dance in Ottawa. To my knowledge, this is the first example of Persian Dance performed by a person with a disability; it is my most memorable moment in dance. This amazing experience led me to expand my teaching to those with developmental and physical disabilities. That was the best decision, because it has offered me some of the happiest moments of my life. Nothing surpasses the joy of watching a deaf person express herself through gestures and poses, while another person with hardly any mobility follows my movements with the slightest shake of her head.

As I write this, dancing is still forbidden in Iran. Even the use of the word “dance” is strongly discouraged. When forced to name the art form, officials in theatre, cinema, or other fields use the phrase “harmonious movements.” Every day, I think about those who engage in dance in Iran against all odds. When I was burying my dreams at the age of sixteen, had someone told me that one day I would leave my homeland and travel thousands of miles away where I would learn, perform, and teach Persian dance, I would have thought them mad. But it happened, and that is why I keep learning, creating, and teaching despite past and present challenges.

Friends and family kindly try to give me advice: “You have to pause and think about this. So much time and effort, so much strain on your health is very unreasonable.” They are absolutely right, but I doubt that I will ever grow wise and reasonable about this. After all who has heard of reasonable love? Not me.






Photos by Alli Asudeh, David Sims, A. Ahmadi, and others.