Persian Dance – The Struggle for Identity Persian Dance – The Struggle for Identity

Persian Dance – The Struggle for Identity

story by Shahrzad Khorsandi for

Persian dance seems to be an obscure genre, often confused with other more popular Middle Eastern dance styles, such as Egyptian belly dance. In fact, the majority of Westerners are under the impression that Persian dance is synonymous with belly dance, which in Iran is referred to as Raghs-e Arabi or Arabic dance. Most Middle Eastern dance scholars, however, are aware of the existence of Persian dance as a distinct form, but a scarcity of teachers and information on Persian dance and its history prevents them from becoming familiar with it.

Dance, music and food are a big part of Persian culture.  Families and friends often gather to enjoy each other's company, during which they prepare great feasts, play both traditional and modern music, sing old and new songs, and dance.  In every kind of celebration, such as: Yalda (the winter soltice), Mehregan (the autumn equinox), Norooz (The spring equinox and the Persian new year), or simply birthday, wedding, or any happy occasion, Persians integrate dancing into the event.  These events are multigenerational, and therefore the dances are passed on from one generation to the next.  Professional dancers, often choreograph dances which are founded in and stem from these family and community dances.

There is some confusion over the use of the terms Persian and Iranian. Though commonly used interchangeably, the former refers to an ethnicity, whereas the latter refers to a nationality. About 2500 years ago, Iran, a country on the map defined by geographical borders, was ruled by the Persians, an Iranian tribe from Persia proper (today's Fars Province). According to linguist Koorosh Angali,


Under the Persian Empire (550-330 BC ) which was founded by Cyrus the Great, the land extended from the northwestern China to Egypt and Libya (in the southwest) and Anatolia to Lydia (in the northwest), including the Central Asia and today's Middle and Near East. (personal interview, 2014)


Today's Persians, the descendants of the ancient Persians, are the dominant ethnic group in Iran. Many ethnic groups, such as Kurds, Lurs, Baluch, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, and Arabs, inhabit Iran and have their own distinct Iranian language or dialect, customs, music, and dance; however, all Iranians learn to speak, read, and write in Persian (also known as Farsi), the official language of Iran.

So, what does Persian/Iranian dance look like? Well, there are different genres, which I will briefly describe, compare, and contrast.


For almost two decades I have been exploring this rare and beautiful art form, and in my attempts to create a clear definition of Persian dance I have identified three genres.

Folk Dance

Folk dance, which is tribal, regional, and often part of social ritual and ceremony, is the oldest and most likely the foundation of all other genres. Groups of dancers may contain more than one generation and both genders. These dances are intended for the enjoyment of the participants and not necessarily meant to be viewed by an audience. There are many different tribes in Iran (sometimes multiple tribes within a region) that speak their own dialect and follow their own customs. Much like the language, the dances of each region, in addition to the music and attire, are distinct. For instance, performers of a folk dance from the northern region just below the Caspian Sea in the province of Gilan, referred to as Gilaki dance, wear long skirts with several stripes on the bottom and fringed scarves on their heads. The movements include sharp isolations of the hip and beshkan, the Persian snap that uses both hands.

Another popular folk dance, this one from the southern region by the Persian Gulf, called Bandari, is very similar to Khaliji, a dance popular in several Middle Eastern countries. The word khalij means gulfboth styles of dance are from the Gulf region, one within the boundaries of Iran and the other in several other countries surrounding the Persian Gulf. The word bandar, meaning port, implies the famous Bandar Abbas, located in southern Iran at the Persian Gulf. This dance style looks so different from Gilaki that it is hard to imagine both dances existing within the same country. Bandari dance movements are very grounded, much like African dances, with the hands often held wide open and shaking. Shoulder and hip shimmies are signature movements of this dance style. The rhythmic structure and the musical instruments used are distinct to this region, and the attire is a long tunic with pants that are decorated at the bottom with beads, sequins, and gold or silver thread.

In northwestern Iran, which is inhabited by Turkish speakers, the folk dances are almost identical to those from the neighboring nations of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. These dances are composed of quick, rhythmic foot patterns with erect upper bodies and graceful sweeping arm motions. The athletic male dances include quick squatting and standing to the fast beat of the music, jumping, and spinning on knees.

These are just a few examples of the many folk dance styles that exist in Iran today.

Social Dance

Social dance, or raqs-e mehmouni (party dancing), also sometimes called Raqs-e Tehrani (implying urban dance, as opposed to village dances), is done primarily at celebratory social functions in urban areas of Iran and social events or Persian dance parties and dance clubs in the diaspora where dancing in public is permitted (public display of dance has been outlawed in Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979). This dance style is informal, meaning that it does not require formal training, yet it embodies the aesthetics of Persian culture in a detailed and sophisticated way. A trained ballet dancer in the West spends years gaining mastery of the body through disciplined repetitions of specific challenging movement exercises to achieve perfect execution of choreographed movement. The trained dancer is also consciously aware of and can verbally articulate the description of the exact movement pattern she is performing. An untrained or intuitive dancer may simply dance to express herself without paying much attention to movement patterns. In the context of social dance, Persians not formally trained in dance, often with little awareness of their movement patterns and no intentional mastery of their body, can intuitively and often quite skillfully perform authentic Persian movements to Persian music. Depending on the ability of the dancer, the movements can be mediocre and repetitive or innovative, dynamic, and entertaining.

My experience in teaching non-Persians has led me to the conclusion that it is most helpful for a non-Persian dancer to train formally in this social dance style. There are so many minute and intricate cultural nuances embedded in the technique, and so much of the style depends on the dancers reaction to and interpretation of the music, that unless the dancer was engulfed in and surrounded by Persian culture at a young age, her intuitive understanding of this movement style and the music would not be enough for her to become proficient in it.

Classical Persian Dance

For years I have wondered about the appropriate label for my dance style. I hesitate to call it "court dance" because I do not perform it in Persian courts, nor is it a replica of dances historically performed at Persian courts. I have at times referred to it as art dance, but that title seems a bit vague. I often use the term classical Persian dance to distinguish it from Persian social dance and folk dance. The word classical, however, often refers to Western traditions, so, uncertain of the implications of the term for authentic Persian dance, I decided to look to the dictionary for some guidance.

The word classical implies a structured form that is established and accepted as a model and characterized by attention to balance, proportion, and controlled emotion. Most definitions use words such as structure, order, and restraint, and at least one describes the word as form and structure founded upon existing aesthetics. We can conclude, then, that the term classical in the context of dance implies a movement style that is based on form and structure and has a codified method, with a restraint on indulgent emotional expression. I think all dancers would agree, however, that the element of emotion is a vital component in dance, and restraining the emotional expression in the art form would diminish its beauty and hinder its artistic integrity. And since Persian arts such as poetry and miniature painting are most often based on passionate emotions of love and yearning, it could be said that restraint on emotional expression is not very "Persian". So, let us focus on the part of the definition that implies form and structure.

Many cultures have a formal, codified dance structure, which can be referred to as the country's classical dance. For example, India possesses classical dances that go back thousands of years. These dances are embedded in religious philosophies and rituals and written in manuscripts that are followed rigidly by Indian dance scholars and educators. In the West, classical ballet was developed in Europe in the 15th century. It began in Italy and later became popular in France, Russia, and eventually America. It is now well known and practiced around the world. In both classical Indian dance and European classical ballet there exist an established technique, a right and wrong way to execute the movements, and specific dynamic qualities to capture. It is, therefore, easy to detect any deviation from the originally established form.

For Persian dance, there is no evidence of any set of codified movements inside or outside Iran, nor is there any accessible archive of ancient choreographed dances and pedagogy that would be treated as an established and formal method for teaching and performing. What is known as authentic Persian dance includes folk or tribal dances, many of which may have their own nomenclature and set of established movement patterns, and social dances performed in urban areas by the natives. These dance genres are by nature intuitive and emotionally expressive and, although they are performed within historically set aesthetic parameters, they do not share one codified format, vastly different from classical dance as defined by dictionaries. However, Persian dance, as intuitively based as it may be, is composed of an informal movement vocabulary and has the potential for codification. Dance historian Anthony Shay suggests "the performance of this dance tradition does not derive from a formless, meaningless collection of movements, but rather forms a coherent movement system&like Persian classical music, dance is capable of being systematized, a prerequisite for the creation of an aesthetic system." (Shay, Choreophobia, 1999, 177)

When trying to define my style of Persian dance, I repeatedly find myself in a vast space filled with abstract imagery, concepts, memories, and emotions that make sense to me on an intuitive level but have no tangible thread of form or history to follow. Having been born and raised in Iran, I am intuitively familiar with the cultural aesthetics. To get a deeper understanding of Persian dance, I use my intuitive knowledge of Persian aesthetics and my academic background in the art and science of dance. I have also spent the last two decades observing and contemplating the common aesthetics apparent in various Persian art media. There is a theme of curvilinear lines with dynamic but graceful brush strokes in Persian paintings and calligraphy. Compositions often consist of circular patterns, smooth transitions between images, and distinct and dynamic juxtaposition of color and imagery. There are also geometric design elements in Persian architecture that carry similar visual motifs to the painting and calligraphy. The same dynamic nuances translate into Persian musical compositions and rhythmic structures.

With a deep understandingboth intellectual and intuitiveof 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. In the last 19 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. It is my hope that this format/technique, described in detail in my book, The Art of Persian Dance, is the first step to establishing a codified system for Persian dance world-wide. As the art form gain popularity, more dancers need access to a systematized way of learning and understanding this complex dance style.

Famous dancers

There have been few famous dancers recorded in the history of Persian dance. In fact, there is little recorded information on Persian dance in general. However, in more recent history, 20th century, Robert de Warren, a British ballet dancer and director has become a well-known name. He was invited by the Ministry of Culture in the 1960's to train Persian dancers in Ballet and to invite foreign Ballet dancers to perform in Ballet productions. Being intrigued by the dance of the natives, he eventually began to interpret Persian dance and created choreography in that style. He also recorded folk dances of various regions. Unfortunately these recordings were destroyed during the political revolution on 1978, which ended his stay in Iran.

One of the soloist in Mr. Warren's company was Farzaneh Kaboli, who still teaches dance in Iran, although the public display of dance is prohibited by the current regime. She is allowed to produce concerts, given all the dancers and the audience are females, and even then, her choreography is subject to censorship and possible rejection. Each show must be approved by the government before it can be performed. Haydeh Changizian, former prima ballerina of Iran (before the Islamic revolution), is suffering the same fate as Ms. Kaboli.

Dr. Anthony Shay is also an expert in Persian culture and dance. He lived in Iran for a number of years and has studied many international dances. He directed AVAZ International Dance Theater in Los Angeles for many years, and is now faculty at Pomona College.

Nima Kian is a ballet dancer who used Persian themes in his work. He has also written about Persian dance history. Robin Friend, dancer and choreographer in Los Angeles, is a long-time Persian dance, music, and culture connoisseur and has written several articles on the subject. Shahrokh Moshkinghalam, a contemporary dancer based in France, often uses Persian poetry and literature as his inspiration for choreography. And Helia Bandeh, residing in Holand, is an explorer of Persian dance and has created her own creative voice in this genre. These dancers are well-known in the small circle of Persian dance enthusiasts. However, because Persian dance is not a popular dance form and most people are unaware of its existence, these dancers are not "world famous".

It seems the evolution of Persian dance as an art form has always been a struggle and continues to be one, for both political and social reasons. Those of us in the diaspora struggle to bring awareness to this rare, rich, potent, and beautiful art form.

It is my hope that this article will stimulate the curiosity of dancers and scholars, and thus take us one step closer to bringing recognition for this under-defined art.

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