June 1, 2022

Baba Karam

Baba Karam is a humorous early 20th-century urban dance in imitation of the jâhels, a macho gangster-like working-class character that holds a special place in the heart of Iranians. A popular request at social and celebratory gatherings, Baba Karam may be performed by women in drag sporting a fedora or is a great addition to a belly dance set for a Persian audience. A fedora-style hat and a man’s neck scarf are requisite props for this dance. Fake mustaches are optional!

Baba Karam, or Jaheli dance, is a popular Iranian character dance portraying a low-class urban tough guy. Members of this subculture have been known to frequent cafes, gamble, drink alcohol, and fall in love with “disreputable women” (i.e. entertainers). Despite being rough around the edges, they adhere to a strict code of honor and altruism.

The dance is an endearingly playful display of machismo. The fedora and typical slacks and button-up shirt is a modern adaptation, as the character has been around in early films and literature going back to the Qajar era, with cultural roots that go back even further. The jahelis are associated with the zurkhāneh, or “house of strength”, a uniquely Iranian gym for men that combines athletic training with spiritual principles to cultivate both inner and outer strength, humility, and chivalry.

If you want to learn more about Jaheli dance, the dancer Lida wrote a nice article on her blog here: http://www.lidabellydance.com/baba-karam-dance

Jaheli dance in film

Here is a video of a dancer named Jamila in an Iranian film from the 1970s. There are jaheli characters in the audience (at the 2 min mark and later on) and the dancer performs a little jaheli (baba karam) dance at about 3:35 in the requisite hat, looking a bit like Liza Minnelli in her fringe two-piece outfit. The terms jaheli and luti refer to the subculture of men the baba karam dance is referencing.

Here are some examples of Baba Karam dance by both Iranian and American women and men.

Related to the jahelis are the lutis. Read more about their role in Iranian cultural history

Check out these videos to learn to beshkan, or snap like a Persian! The first video is by my friend and colleague, Natalie Nayun, founder and director of the online platform Pomegranate Garden Dance.