I want to share a little about my background in Persian/Iranian dance. Initially inspired by the work of dance scholar and artist Robyn Friend, I began my own training in 2003 under Ustad Sharlyn Sawyer, director of the esteemed San Francisco Bay Area Persian dance company Ballet Afsaneh. During my 10 years as a principle artist with the company, I had the opportunity to perform frequently with world-class Iranian and Central Asian musicians; and at such venues as London’s British Museum, Houston’s Museum of Fine Art, San Francisco’s acclaimed Ethnic Dance Festival, and the Roof of the World Festival in Khorog, Tajikistan. Currently I am on the Afsaneh Dance Academy faculty and teach weekly classes in Berkeley California, continuing to perform at Iranian weddings and other events, and teaching speciality workshops to Middle-Eastern dance aficionados both locally and abroad.
The San Francisco bay area has a large Iranian community, and both Iranian and non-Iranian artist-scholars continue to research, create, and innovate within this beautiful tradition. Sometimes referred to as “classical” or “art” dance, Persian professional dance for the stage as we know it is a relatively new and evolving art form, blending the aesthetics of Persian social dance and professional entertainers from times past with ballet and contemporary stagecraft.
Persian or Iranian dance takes inspiration from other traditional Iranian art forms, including poetry, calligraphy, architecture, and miniature paintings. While stemming from an ancient culture with highly refined aesthetic sensibilities, dance in Iran has historically suffered from low status, inhibiting its documentation, transmission, and preservation. This has to do both with the historical relationship between dance and prostitution in the greater Middle East, and also the power attributed to music in Islamic culture that can both bring one closer to Divine experience or distract one with worldly pleasures. (I will post more on this topic another time.)
While the development of dance within Iran is sadly hampered by governmental restrictions that essentially outlaw dance activities except under very controlled circumstances, many in the diaspora community strive to keep the tradition alive.
General qualities of Persian/Iranian dance: Persian dance is an improvisational solo art form high-lighting delicate flourishes of the hands, sculptural arm patterns and engagingly coy facial expressions (noz). The professional dancer may also include complex footwork that traverses space, a wide variety of turns and whirling sequences, and languid torso extensions. In contrast to Arabic dance which places emphasis on the more earthy movements of the hips and torso, Persian dance focuses on the upper body, is lighter in feeling, and may contain a mystical quality or relate to spiritual themes.
Though there was a long history of professionally trained dancers employed by the courts, likely going back into the ancient history of the civilization, Persian dance is not codified (ie does not contain a specific set of standardized vocabulary) as is European ballet or the classical Indian dance forms. However, there is an aesthetic quality that an Iranian would immediately recognize as Persian. Similar to classical Persian music or American jazz, the skill of improvisation within the genre is key, and the dancer’s unique personal expression, particularly when it comes to facial expressions, is highly valued.
I fell in love with Persian dance many years ago and it continues to be an important feature of my creative-artistic life. My expression of this art form is rooted in my years of training and experience as a principal dancer in Ballet Afsaneh and involvement with the Iranian diaspora in the San Francisco bay area. It is an art form you don’t have to be Iranian to appreciate, and I look forward to sharing more about this beautiful dance with you!
Here is an example of workshop offerings:
Drawing the Wind: the Art of the Hand as Devotional Expression in Persian Dance – Taking inspiration from miniature paintings, calligraphy, music, and poetry, Persian Art Dance emphasizes delicate hand flourishes, languid torso extensions, and ecstatic turns; and through fluid shape-shifting expresses the mystical experience of spiritual longing and the intoxication of union with the Beloved.
In this workshop we will explore the body as a vehicle of breath through the Persian framework, with an emphasis on developing fluidity through the fingertips, sculptural hand and arm patterns, and spiraling turn sequences. (Int-Adv)
(This workshop was presented at The Austin Belly Dance Convention in 2016.)
Learn more about Iranian folk dance workshop offerings
Visit my Iranian music resource page