Persian Dance History

The seeds of modern Persian classical dance were sown during the Qajar dynasty (1780-1906). Fath 'Ali Shah (1798-1834) in particular devoted a great deal of the royal treasury to all forms of art, including dance. He was said to have "maintained a stately court and a large harem or anderun full of ladies groomed to the perfection of Persian taste for the amusement and pleasure of the Shah" . His successor, his grandson Muhammad Shah, furthered the support of dance, and "the dancing girls, those lavishly decorated women who typified the luxurious living of the monarchy" .

"The most beautiful women in Persia are devoted to the profession of dancing; the transparency of their shift, which is the only covering they use to conceal their persons, the exquisite symmetry of their forms, their apparent agitation, and the licentiousness of their verses, are so many incentives to a passion which requires more philosophy than the Persians possess to restrain."
After the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Persia became increasingly influenced by the West, largely as a result of political intrigues with Russia, England, and Germany. The decline in the monarchy was paralleled by a decline in the support and status of dancers.

Thus the Persian professional classical dance tradition was maintained by prostitutes and courtesans; these women, and also dancing boys, were the only public performers. Particularly in urban areas professional dancers traditionally performed with troops of musicians, singers, comedians, actors, and other entertainers, These itinerant groups performed on the street and could be hired for weddings and other festivities. Their performances could be vulgar, involving suggestive lyrics and movements.

In a visit to a house of ill-repute, a Swedish journalist writes of a dance performance she witnessed, performed by girls of the house, with musical accompaniment provided by the cooks:

"Two lovely girls prepared for the dance.....went to change and came out again in wide green trousers, embroidered white bodices, which did not cover more than their breasts; and with castanets of silver blended metal on their fingers.
The musicians tuned up and the two girls began.

Their foot movements were controlled and unimportant. It was the upper part of their bodies which moved. Sinuous and supple, they waved their arms gracefully backwards and forwards above their heads, while their fingers played with the castanets so that they sometimes clapped like Spanish castanets and sometimes rang like a chime of bells.......The tempo of the dance increased until the dancers' feet flew over the mat so lightly that the soft thudding of their feet was scarcely even heard.

Urged on by the dance and the music, the audience began to shout to the girls, who suddenly stood on their heads, turned somersaults, and made snake-like movements. The audience was delighted."

For non-professionals, the Persian classical dance tradition has largely been maintained in private homes. Persian women begin to learn to dance when they are small girls. They are taught by family members, or learn to imitate their elders, to provide entertainment for the family. There were also, prior to the 1979 revolution, classes taught by non-Muslim women, Jews and Armenian Christians, attended by proper Iranian ladies in great secrecy . Girls learn the Iranian cultural bias against females dancing in front of anyone other than the family; so they like to dance, but learn not to dance in public, and express reserve when asked to dance even at private parties outside the family.

In the 1950's and 60's, Persian classical dance began a revival, which removed it from a context of prostitution and low-class nightclubs. Dancers began to appear on television and the government began to sponsor dance companies that performed classical and folk dance (recreational dance of the villages and tribes).
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