Migrations & Cultural Encounters: Iran

March 26, 2019

From the Caspian Sea in the north to the Gulf of Oman in the south, dance in Iran reflects the diverse cultural landscapes of the many ethnic groups within its borders.


There are two main categories of dance in Iran and throughout Western and Central Asia. The first category is comprised of rural, folk and tribal group dances performed in a circle, line or open half-circle and following a set structure of limited vocabulary. Members of the community may hold hands or link arms, or may follow the line of dance with free hands or holding scarves, thus allowing for some autonomy within the simple movement structure. Though sometimes solo dancing may occur, these dances are primarily an expression of community identity, with individuals moving together as one unit.

The other general category of dance, associated with urban environments, includes both non-professional social and professional solo improvisational dancing. This form allows for the greatest degree of personal expression and variation while staying within the framework of what would be considered Persian. Within the social context individuals may take turns in the center of a community circle, enjoying the opportunity to show off favorite movements while others continue dancing and encouraging from the sidelines.

In Persian dance the difference between non-professional dancing in a social setting and a professional performing for an audience lies not with the styling, but in the variations and complexity of vocabulary and skill in execution. Historically a professional dancer, who may have performed in homes, courts, or cafés, would be more agile and limber than the lay person, employ acrobatics, use skillfully exaggerated facial expressions, or may use finger cymbals and other props. In modern times the professional dancer may draw from western stagecraft and technique, including the lines, turns, and use of performance space associated with ballet and western theatrics. Choreographed folk dances adapted for the stage may also be presented in this context.

There are also ritualized and sacred movement practices associated with the zurkaneh “house of strength”, Sufi sama practices, and ghawati and zar trance exorcism rituals. These will be addressed in later posts.


The following are just some of the regional styles of Iranian folk dance, moving from north to south along the western side of the country:

AZERI DANCE ~ Azerbaijanis comprise the second largest ethnic group in Iran and far outnumber those in the neighboring Azerbaijan Republic. Women’s dancing is characterized by long, graceful lines and expressive arm movements, which often imitate the work of picking crops or domestic chores. The style is soft and lyrical, and arms figure more prominently than foot movements, which are quick and allow the dancer to move quickly across the floor. Men’s dancing is vigorous and employs fast kicks tempo and sharp, accented leg movements. Unlike the women, the men dance in one spot and hold their arms firmly in fixed positions. Many dances are performed as solos, with the dancers improvising as they try to outdo each other in technique and style.

GILAKI DANCE ~ Gilaki dance, also known as Ghasem Abadi, is from the northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran, which are located in the lush regions along the Caspian Sea. Gilan and Mazandaran are famous for their rice and tobacco production. The dances sometimes enact hand gestures that imitate the weeding and harvesting of rice. When this dance form is choreographed for the stage, dancers often include flat baskets as props to use along with these rice harvesting gestures. The movements are very bouncy in a way that swishes their full ribbon-adorned skirts.

KURDISH DANCE ~ Kurds make up 10% of the Iranian population and live in the mountainous region of Western Iran, also known as Kurdistan. Dance is it important cultural identifier, an expression of cultural pride and unity, and Kurds dance for all kinds of occasions. Both men and women hold or intertwine hands or arms and dance in a line. Kurdish dance music is typically played to a medium or fast tempo in either 6/8 or 8/8 rhythms. Instruments often include zorna, daf, dohol, kemenche, and tanbur (stringed instrument).

QASHQAI DANCE ~ Living mainly in the Fars Province of southern Iran, the Qashqai are a confederation of clans consisting of mostly Turkic peoples but also Lurs, Kurds and Arabs. The majority of Qashqai people were originally semi-nomadic pastoralists and some remain so today. They are renowned for their carpet weaving. Women dance while traveling in a circle in a largely free-form style while tossing colorful scarves. Movements are simple and generally repetitive.  They may include lifts of the foot that bounce their full skirts, turning and dropping, rising up while shaking their shoulders.

BANDARI DANCE ~ The Bandar region of southwestern Iran is located near the Persian Gulf and shares cultural similarities with the neighboring Gulf countries of the Middle East. A port region that has seen many travelers, traders, and immigrants, Bandari music and dance shows a blend of Arab, African, and Indian influences, with movements highlighting rapid hand and shoulder shimmies, hip isolations, and hair tosses as would be found in neighboring khaleeji dance from the Arabian peninsula.  Bandari is a chain dance done without holding hands. Its use of fluttering hands and hip-work make it distinct from other forms of dance in Iran. Bandari is a popular party dance among Iranian diaspora youth.