A Glimps into Persian Dance Technique
Persia, bordering Central Asia and the Middle East, is the home of Persian Dance. This dance style is fluid yet rhythmic, and emphasizes the use of hands and wrists. The movement and positioning of the body reflect the rich and refined aesthetics of Persian culture. The shape of the hands, motion of the wrists, rhythmic foot patterns, and coordination of arms and legs, are integrated to capture the Persian aesthetics in the body line, and to create a flow distinct to this culture.
The dance technique described and illustrated in this article is founded upon both ancient and contemporary aesthetics in Persian culture and, though influenced by solo improvisational dance from various Iranian ethnic groups, is not an interpretation of any particular folk dance or a representation of any particular tribe. I could refer to this technique as Iranian dance, but I have chosen to call it Persian because political tension between the United States and Iran has given the word Iranian a negative connotation. The word "Persian", however, remains nonpolitical and evokes images of an ancient civilization rich in history, beauty, and art, not to mention beautiful felines.
With a deep understanding - both intellectual and intuitive - of Persian cultural aesthetics, I have drawn parallels between the different media and identified a common thread that signifies a set of aesthetics distinct to Persian culture. The bigger challenge has been to fathom how these aesthetics manifest as movement. This remains an ongoing and very intriguing process. Through the years, as the manifestation of Persian cultural aesthetics in movement became clearer to me, I began to organize and categorize movement patterns and eventually created a pedagogy of steps that includes specific, numbered positions of the arms and hands, rules used to guide the body into the correct line, and descriptions of dynamic qualities in movement patterns and transitions. The result is a dance technique that is undeniably recognizable by Persian people as Persian, yet it is difficult to describe what makes it authentically Persian without a solid reference to any written format and virtually no historical background for contextualizing it.
The nomenclature presented here was created by me with help from my linguist friend Dr. Koorosh Angali, family, and friends, and is specific to Shahrzad Technique, which I have developed over the last two decades. It is the result of my interpretation of Persian aesthetics inherent in Persian art and their manifestation into movement, combined with my intuitive knowledge of Persian culture. Some of the movement vocabulary presented may be similar or identical to movement taught by other Persian dance teachers. In years of exploring Persian dance, I have certainly attained, through osmosis, some movements from watching other dance companies, such as Avaz National Dance Theater or Pars National Ballet, or videos of dance performances choreographed by Robert de Warren before the Islamic revolution in Iran. It is impossible for me to know how much of this information is influenced by other Persian dancers and how much is my own interpretation of Persian aesthetics translated into movement. This dance technique is solidly founded upon aesthetics that exist in Persian culture, making it appropriate to refer to it as classical Persian dance.
Classical dance (in the Western context) is defined as "ballet", which has its origin in Italianballo (dance), which comes from Latin ballare, meaning to dance, which in turn comes from the Greek ballizo, to dance, to jump about. Therefore, any formal and established dance style from any culture could be considered the ballet of that culture (e.g., Ballet Folklorico de Mexico or Ballet du Senegal). I consider my dance form to be a classical dance of Persia/Iran, so I often refer to my dance style as Persian ballet. My goal in creating this format has been to bring form and structure to a dance style with existing and recognizable cultural aesthetics and create a system to teach and disseminate this art form.
Every dance style is composed of a technique often several techniques developed by different teachers and choreographers, particular dynamic qualities, and expression within the parameters of distinct movement aesthetics. When these components are mastered, the dancer is able to feel the dance both emotionally and kinetically the way it was intended by the choreographer, and the audience receives the correct energetic message through the dancer's expression.
There is a misconception among some Persians that to perform Persian dance one must be a native because the dance is learned intuitively with intrinsic cultural knowledge and cannot be taught using a systematic method of movement analysis. "Dr. Anthony Shay, professor of dance at Pomona College in Southern California", shares his thoughts on the difficulty of codified teaching of a dance style the aesthetics and dynamic qualities of which are culturally embedded in the movement.
It is extremely difficult to extract meaningful movement elements as separate analytical units to use in the classes in which I teach Iranian dance, because they are generally very individual and idiosyncratic to specific dancers. Nevertheless, certain movements are common to most dancers. Whereas non-Iranian students can more readily learn and read such artificially isolated movements, Iranian students are hard pressed to articulate and isolate from the flow of movement these actions, which they instinctively know and have learned from childhood. This is analogous to the manner in which many native speakers of a language cannot always articulate its grammar, because its linguistic organization and rules are embedded in their mental structure. (Choreophobia, 1999, 20)
I agree that Persian dance carries a specific movement flow that is intrinsic to native Persian dancers. This natural flow is a major part of the aesthetic identity of this dance style. In my years of teaching Persian dance, I have personally experienced the resistance inherent to Iranians when it comes to learning Persian dance in a step-by-step manner. It is difficult to step out of an intuitive whole-body experience and study it analytically; however, I believe that in teaching any subject matter that transcends the student's existing knowledge whether intuitive or intellectual it must be broken down into isolated parts, examined, and then carefully reassembled. This must be done skillfully, especially when recapturing the original flow is a vital part of the process.
Using Shays analogy of language, I assert that not only is it necessary for a non-native speaker to learn grammar through an introduction to the linguistic rules, but for a native speaker to develop his linguistic skills beyond colloquial conversation and comprehend layers of advanced concepts that will require more than his intrinsic knowledge, he must study his native language in an organized and analytical way. Similarly, to surpass social dance and develop movement vocabulary and composition, even a native Iranian must study the dance technique by breaking down the natural flow of the movement into single, analytically digestible elements. Once these layered elements are given time and practice to become integrated in the mind and body, they can feel natural and organic. Breaking down flowing movements into parts may seem artificial, as with anything that is taken out of its context, but it is a temporary and necessary part of the learning process in any subject dance is no exception.
When performing, it is important to apply the correct technique for executing movement, and developing the correct technique requires repetitive exercises. These exercises must be done diligently and with keen attention to detail in order to capture minute but important nuances in the movement style.
The following concepts and exercises demonstrate the essence of Persian aesthetics as they manifest in movement and, through diligent practice, one can gain mastery of the technique necessary to express himself within those aesthetic parameters. By learning to manipulate the body to form precise shapes and lines and produce dynamic nuances and transitions, one will achieve the type of movement flow distinct to this dance style.
The hands are perhaps the most expressive part of the body in Persian dance. While dancing, there should be a generous amount of energy flowing through the wrists, hands, and fingers and extending out the fingertips. Hand and wrist movements are fluid but can also be rhythmic in response to music. The face, head, and upper body respond to hand and arm movement in a poetic dialogue.
To bring attention to the fingers, the thumb and middle finger are drawn slightly toward each other, and the fingers are separated to allow for movement visibility. It is important to keep the fingers extended and not curled inward. I call this position dal because it roughly resembles one of the letters of the Persian alphabet (Figure 1). It also looks a bit like the mathematical symbol >. The energy is extended out of the fingertips, making the fingers as long as possible and preventing them from curving in toward the palm. This is not a stagnant position, however, so the fingers should be allowed to move, and the shape of the hand should ripple and change as the hands move, but there should be a general tendency toward the dal shape, especially during moments when the hands are intentionally still.
Figure 1a - Persian letter dal
Figure 1b and 1c - dal hand shape
Part of the fluidity of this dance style is achieved by leading arm movements with the wrists. This requires the wrists to remain relaxed but engaged and expressive. The wrists manipulate the movement and rhythm in the hands and have a strong connection to music. They are often the spark that begins a movement. The arms, and subsequently the spine and head, follow the lead of the wrists.
Below are examples of basic Persian dance movements initiated by the wrist:
Meaning waterfall, this movement consists of a small vertical paintbrush motion of the wrists. The wrists pull the hands in opposite directions at the same time. Therefore one wrist is flexing while the other is extending. This movement can be performed in a fluid and a-rhythmic way, or with a staccato quality to accentuate the beat in the music.
Qalammoo means paintbrush, and it refers to a fluid arm motion, initiated and led by the wrist. Imagine the arm and hand as a paintbrush, the arm representing the handle, the hand representing the brush, and the fingers the bristles. The wrist is the juncture of connection between the brush and the handle. As the imaginary paintbrush moves through space, the brush and bristles trail behind. In body movement, this means when the arm sweeps upward, it is the wrist that initiates the upward motion, leaving the fingers to trail along, pointing downward. Similarly, when the arm moves downward the motion is led by the wrist and so, the fingers point upward. This is also true when the arm moves in a horizontal, diagonal, or circular path.
There is some resistance, a legato quality, in this movement that gives it a rich flavor. It feels as if the dancer is moving through water.
Qalamoo in frontal plane with side hinge
Understanding the technique of a particular dance style is crucial, and the movement vocabulary introduced in this article may give you an idea of this dance form. It is a good place to start in exploring the beautiful art of Persian dance. However, technique alone is not enough to artfully perform or choreograph in any dance style. Important elements such as understanding of dynamics and musicality, are necessary to transform a well-executed movement pattern into a work of art. In the end, it is the dancers' individual expression that will bring the movement to life.