Raqqas or Jamileh

Raqqas or Jamileh: Contrasting Perspectives on Dance in Iran

by Philip Walker

In 1994, I was walking down Boozarjomehri Street in central Tehran looking for mezrabs (hammers) for a friend’s dulcimer. I was also looking out for any signs of dance. This street was famous in the thirties and forties for being home to families of musicians, singers and dancers, some of whom lived above the many music shops. These families mainly made their living from wedding parties, where they would entertain the guests with traditional music, singing and dancing ru-hozi style.

Today, you can still buy sweets, cakes and flowers for weddings here, but no longer find families of entertainers. They disappeared from this area well before the Iranian Revolution. Reasons for this may have been the increasing interest in Western music, the rising cost of living in Tehran, or social pressures.

Mina Monnajjemi (Medea’s mother) in Ghasemabodi dance costume in 1953.

After the Revolution in 1979 all forms of entertainment, even games such as chess and backgammon, were banned. Most well-known entertainers fled the country and headed for Europe or the USA, particularly Los Angeles. It was not long before traditional Persian music was once again played on radio and TV in Iran. Today, women’s voices and dance of any kind are not tolerated in public.

In 1994, I attended a concert in the Talar-e-Rudaki, the modern concert hall in Tehran for traditional and folk music. Before the Revolution, it was the center for Persian ballet and Persian and Western classical music performances. Persian dance only found its way out of cabaret and private settings into such theatres when it was given a ballet flavor. Ballet footwork and tutus were used (which the modest dancers wore with trousers underneath) and the music was classicized. Tutus (called shaliteh in Farsi) were introduced in the nineteenth century by Nasir ud-Din Shah, who was fascinated by ballet costumes during his travels to Europe. Ballet footwork is a more recent innovation. Dance groups were heavily subsidized before the Revolution and the form became a large-scale spectacle.

Folk dancers appeared on TV and in theatres. Unfortunately their movements were often borrowed and performed by Tehrani “ballet” dancers wearing folk costumes. Sometimes high-school girls from the provinces were invited to perform in the capital. This was often used as a form of propaganda and these performances rarely showed the true spirit of the dance.

Although there have been no public dance performances in Iran for at least 17 years, the name of Jamileh, the most famous Persian dancer, is still revered, even by the younger generation. Jamileh is the goddess of dance in Iran. During the period of the Shah, Persian cinema was very popular and to ensure the success of a film, at least one scene with Jamileh dancing was included, even if it was irrelevant to the plot. Jamileh had a major influence on dance styles in Iran. She combined Bandari style with Egyptian hip work and created a style known as Raqs Jamileh, which dancers still learn by watching her old TV shows and her newer work from Los Angeles, where she now resides.

My wife Medea is herself a dancer, and one of the greatest compliments she received was that she was like Jamileh. In rural areas, people assumed that she had learned from Jamileh.

When I visited Iran with my family, I was overwhelmed by the extent of Persian hospitality. We were always entertained with delicious food, given gifts of flowers, sweets, pistachios, smoked fish and various handicrafts, and shown the sights. Occasionally I was lucky enough to see some dance at private parties.

In Ghasemabod, by the Caspian Sea, we were invited to the wedding of a local villager. Some of the female guests wore traditional long, flowing, multicolored dresses, while others wore Western clothes. The music was mostly recordings of Ashourpour, a famous local composer and singer. Live music consisted of beating out rhythms on large metal trays (tasht) and singing. All the guests were in one large space with women congregating in one group, men in another, and children moving between the two.

The men’s dancing in this region is very similar to Russian styles, with lots of athletic leg kicking. One exception was an eighteen-year-old local youth who was a skilled break-dancer! When the women dance, they hold white handerchiefs in their hands above their heads and imitate the movements of birds. Small steps, hip-drops and lots of ululation are used. As a farangi (foreign) guest of honor, I could watch the women dance without inhibition. For most of the music, men and women danced at the same time, but keeping to their own groups.

While I went on an expedition with our oldest son to climb one of the highest peaks in the region, Mount Sumamous (3,000 metres) in the Alborz range, Medea visited friends and had the pleasure of more dance. Medea describes dance in Iran today in four different contexts: weddings and family parties; dorehs (women’s circles); dance classes; and finally, dance on TV, video and radio.

A doreh is a group of women — family and friends — who meet regularly to share food, talk and dance together. Here, dance is found in its most intimate and expressive form; a way of releasing emotion and sharing feelings. Medea took part in one such occasion; the guests included relatives from Nice, France and the USA. They were there to pay their respects to a dying relative, but this did not mean that dancing was excluded — indeed it was a poignant means of expression. As Medea said of this occasion: “We talked, laughed, cried and danced — praising each other’s dancing and encouraging each other to dance some more.”

In whatever area of Tehran you live, there are dance teachers to be found. They are all known through word of mouth. Medea’s experience is that they are excellent dancers, each with her own particular movement. Teaching takes place in the home on a one to one basis. Medea exchanged dance lessons with some teachers in Tehran and teenagers who would sometimes travel considerable distances to dance with her.

The interest in dance that supports this flourishing activity came about when people had to provide their own entertainment. There is a similar growth in learning traditional instruments such as the santoor (hammer dulcimer), tombak (hand drum), tar and sehtar (stringed instruments).

People watch a wide variety of dance on video, and when they can, tune into television from neighboring countries. B.B.C. World Service Farsi broadcasts include items on outstanding performing arts of the Persian diaspora. For example, Medea was interviewed after her latest dance theatre show, “Simorgh,” was performed at Sadler’s Wells, London, in August 1995.

Dance in Iran is seen from contrasting perspectives. Sadly, the word raqqas (dancer) is used in a derogatory sense by some men: yet “Jamileh” has entered the vocabulary to express beauty of movement.

Based on our experience, I would say that dance is alive and developing well in Iran even though it cannot be seen in public.

Copyright Philip Walker – April 1996.

Philip Walker is an enthusiast of Persian culture. He writes occasionally on food, dance and other aspects of Middle Eastern life. He was formerly an administrator for one of Britain’s leading international arts festivals. pwalker@anth.ucsb.edu.

Mr. Walker is married to Medea Mahdavi, who was born in Iran and moved to England as a teenager. She has been dancing for as long as she can remember — her first performance was on Persian TV at the age of six.

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