Persian Dance

by Jasmin Jahal, November 2001 (back)


For those of us who study modern day belly dance, it is interesting to investigate the contributions of different areas of the Middle East.  Whenever I have seen good Persian dance, I have often wondered about the history behind it and how its performance style and costuming developed.  Clearly, it is quite different from the standard belly dance.  The beauty and femininity of Persian dance is not often a topic in dance seminars.  Indeed, finding any performance of Persian dance is rare.

Research relieves that dance from Persia is rooted in one very small place, the Fars Province in southwest modern Iran.  In its time, the Persian Empire was vast and ruled over numerous nations, from Egypt to India.  It was considered the world's first religiously tolerated empire.  It consisted of a multitude of different languages, races, religions and cultures.  One can see professional dancers depicted in artwork dating back to 2500 B.C.

The origins are found in ancient folkloric dance.  In 478 B.C., ancient Persian dance was recorded by Greek historian, Herodotus.  He describes how Persia had wide cultural exchange with the ancient world, especially with Egypt and Greece.  Artists from Greece were brought to perform in the court of the Emperor, and Persian dancers performed in Greece.  The ruling dynasties always supported and encouraged

the advancement of art forms.  Dance was an important part of the religious worship for the first ruling dynasty, Achaemenians. The religion was called Mithraism, around the sun and light god, Mithra.  Even the King himself participated in the dances.  They were performed for ceremonies, rituals and entertaining occasions. Dance was well developed and protected during following dynasties. Included were dances of fire, swords and even horses (dancing while riding on horseback).

Unfortunately, this era did not last.  There came centuries of political instabilities, civil war and the occupation of foreign counties, first the Arabs and then the Mongols.  Persian political and cultural identity suffered greatly and Persian dance traditions virtually disappeared.  Iranian women were slaved and sold in bazaars by the new conquerors and forced to perform erotic dances. Due to this dishonor, no man wanted to see his woman dancing in the presence of a stranger.  This is why the attitude of Iranian Muslims toward dancing has been of a more conservative nature compared to other Muslim countries.

Islam suppressed dancing and forbid any record of it.  The only original form of Persian dance that survived is the folkloric dance in various focal groups, such as Iranian-Americans, Jews and the nomads.  These dances are a colorful mosaic of costumes, music and movement, accompanied by the clatter of jewelry, the beat of pounding feet, or the clash of stick and staves. Common to all of them are men's dances which incorporate martial arts movements, whirling and turning that reflect the centuries' long practice of the various mystical Sufi orders found throughout Iran.

The Sufis performed dance in 1200A.D. Primarily it was danced by religious men.  Three great poets extolled dance in their poems and used it as a symbol of the power of life: Hafiz, Saddi and Mevlana.  Sufism says dancing is a spiritual instrument to become one with God, which is the final goal of the faith.  Jalal ud-Din Rumi, known as Mevlana, was the most appreciated of the Sufi spiritual masters and considered a poetic genius.  He made dancing a central element in Sufi doctrine.  The strong, ecstatic ritual with music and dance is called Sema and is practiced until today.

An important era influencing Persian dance was the Qadjar dynasty which reigned from 1795 to 1925.  It is in this period that dance began to be called “classical Persian dance”.  Dancers performed artistic dances in the court of the Shah for entertainment purposes such as coronations, marriage celebrations, and Norouz celebrations (Iranian new year). The old dance traditions were rediscovered among the women.  The rise of the Qadjars liberalizes people's attitudes toward dancing, although it remained in the royal court and among the elite and bourgeois families.  The court dancers elevated respect for dance to an art form.

Costuming generally consisted of loosely-fitted long dress with long sleeves, worn with a jacket over it. The jacket extended over the sides of the hips and is either worn open or closed.  Oil paintings from the 19th century reveal that the Qadjar dancers wore pants under the dress.  A purely Persian pant is cut narrow and cuffed and loose at the bottom.  Sometimes a Turkish harem pant is worn, extremely full and gathered tight at the ankles.  The fabrics were bright in color and flowered.  The Shah rewarded performers with jewels, so many costumes had elaborate gold embroidery, pearl beading and gemstones.  Upon the head was worn an egret, a small paisley-shaped hat adorned with jewels, pearls and a feather.  Hair was worn long and elaborate, with side locks and bangs fashioned into shapes.

There is a distinctive style to Persian dance, including lovely expressive hands, eyes and face.  The hip movements are small and understated, as are the movements of the upper torso.  The steps are light and may include intricate patterns.  Dancers may perform with a veil, and they often use finger cymbals to accompany the music.

Traditionally, the music is not orchestrated and is played by a small band with one or two melodic instruments and a drum.  It is difficult to dance to because the music does not contain the common four-bar arrangements and is not the same for every phrase.  To complicate matters, the melody is usually improvised.  A good Persian dancer must be skilled in variety of steps, meters and combinations.  She must rely on her experience and intuition.  Her charisma is apparent in the interaction with the audience.

In the 20th century, dance movement and costuming gained a modernistic orientation to the West.  In 1928, ballet came to Iran and impacted dance performance, adding a feeling of lightness and more delicate footwork.  The jacket was flared more fully at the hips much like a tutu.

At present in Iran, public shows are infrequent and most often held at small concerts for women only.  Like most Middle Eastern dance forms, Persian dance is evolving in countries other than the country of its origins.  Many young people in Iran are learning about Persian dance in secret from dance tapes created by Iranian-Americans and smuggled into Iran. 

The richness of Persian dance needs to be seen, enjoyed and shared with the world, so that its artistry can be truly appreciated.

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©2001 Jasmin Jahal