“The Goddess of Iranian Dance”
by Robyn Friend, Ph.D.
I first heard of Jamileh many years ago when a musician friend showed me a video of her from Iranian television in the 1960’s and 1970’s. On this video she performed several dances: a “classical”1 Persian dance, wherein she mimed a lady at her toilette: a cabaret-style belly-dance; and a jâheli style dance, where she danced with a man’s hat and imitated the jâheli style of men’s dancing. She was the first professional Persian dancer I had ever seen, and I was charmed. She combined supple and subtle movements with great strength and flexibility, and had the most gorgeous hair!
Seeing her perform live is an even greater treat. What a performance! To say she is a good dancer misses the point: she is a great entertainer! The amazing thing is that, other than the addition of a few pounds, her dancing hasn’t changed in three decades, and her hair is still gorgeous. Her mixture of performing repertoire — belly-dance (called raqs-e arabi in the Persian language) and Persian dance — is essentially the same today as in that 30-year-old video.
In a recent performance at Cabaret Tehran in Los Angeles, for example (where she has performed frequently over the past 17 years), she began her set with raqs-e arabi to a well-known Egyptian composition, wearing a standard cabaret costume of pink and silver. Weaving her way through the audience, she played with them, dancing on chairs and tables, making them laugh. She returned to the stage and spoke to the audience in Persian, welcoming them, expressing the wish that they have a good time, and telling a few jokes, some of them about herself. After introducing the musicians, she began a quick series of traditional Iranian dances: a brief jâheli bit, followed by Qâssemâbâdi (dance of Northern Iranian Caspian coast), and finishing with bandari (Persian Gulf). She left the stage and quickly returned with her hair pulled back and wearing the jâheli hat. In the Persian language, this hat is called kolâh makhmali, a 20th century man’s fedora-style hat.2 The rest of her costume was unchanged.
The jâheli style is perhaps the most unusual Persian dance style, especially from the point of view of a non-Iranian. First of all, she wears this fedora and dances in a very masculine manner, her arms held straight, without the characteristic wrist turns of women’s dance. Then, there is “the lip thing,” a shimmy of the lower lip that looks most peculiar to the uninitiated. What is this all about? I have heard several explanations of the lip “shimmy,” that it is how a woman looks as she is about to cry, and that it is also imitative of orgasm. Whatever its origins and meanings, it is always a big hit with the Iranians in the crowd (Americans are always completely perplexed by it!), and was one of the gestures I was taught early in my own training as being de rigeur for the Persian dancer. Jâheli dance is part of an Iranian subculture that has its origins in the 9th and 10th centuries, a period when eastern Iran especially suffered under the incursions of Turkic and Mongol tribes seeking pasturage and pillage. Local informal constabularies were formed to protect each town or village. The men of these groups, called jâhel (meaning “ignorant” in Persian), along with their women, developed a group culture with an interesting mixture of street smarts and spirituality.3 The kolâh makhmali is a kind of symbol of the jâhel man (somewhat analogous to pinstripe suits and 1930’s gangsters in the U.S.). In Jamileh’s dance, she is a jâheli woman imitating a jâheli man’s “tough-guy” style of dance; it is also more suggestive and overtly erotic than more traditional “classical” Persian dance.
After the 1906 constitutional revolution in Iran, Iranian traditional performing arts — dance in particular — fell out of favor with many Iranians. This was due to the desire to imitate not only western-style democracy, but also to adopt western-style culture, as though the latter could help bring about the former. Persian dance was looked upon as a degenerate art form — the province of prostitutes — and decidedly inferior to western forms of dance, such as ballet. Whatever you may think of her dancing, Jamileh is important as either a social reformer, rehabilitating Persian dance and making it acceptable for Iranian audiences, or as a reflection of an increasing acceptance of Iranian traditional arts. With her appearances on television in Iran thirty and more years ago, Jamileh brought Persian dance “out of the closet” and into the public eye, where it was again appreciated for its beauties and charm.
Today Jamileh performs in cabarets in Los Angeles and elsewhere (see insert). Although she usually appears with her own drummer, who plays both Arabic darabukka and Persian tonbak, for a melody instrument she usually must settle for a single musician on synthesized keyboard, provided by the establishment where she is performing. Such instrumentation is inadequate to convey the subtlety of emotion and movement that characterizes Persian classical style; because of the lack of real Persian music in the nightclubs where she performs, she therefore restricts her performance largely to raqs-e arabi, with only a bit of Persian dance thrown in. Nonetheless, as long as she has her drummer with her on tonbak, she is able to perform to the range of Persian rhythms, from the normal 6/8 shir-e mâdar,4 to the rolling 6/8 of the Persian Gulf, and the motrebi rhythm (which stretches the second beat of a syncopated 6/8 until it is almost 7/8).
If you can’t get to see Jamileh in person, there is a video available from Pars Video5 that features all of her dance styles. This video is mostly from Jamileh’s television appearances in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a time period clearly reflected by the bell-bottomed costuming and men’s haircuts. At this time, westernization in Iran was at its peak among the upper classes; many Iranians had by then been educated abroad, and while Iranian traditional arts were making their comeback, it was still very fashionable in those circles to imitate the dress and culture of Europe and the United States.6
The following is a brief overview of the contents of the video:
Bandari: On the video, Jamileh does several bandari style dances. These dances are from the people of the Iranian portion of the Persian Gulf coast, primarily around the city of Bandar Abbas (bandar means “port” in Persian). These dances are very similar to other khaliji7 dances, though with a distinctive Persian flavor. Jamileh adds her own flair, with more hip isolations and torso undulations than would be found in Bandar Abbas. Also worth noting is that none of the costumes she uses (note especially the bright red backless halter jumpsuit and the white fringed “flapper” dress!) is “correct” for the area; they are instead a reflection of the cultural context of Iran in the 1970’s.
Jâheli: This is Jamileh’s specialty, and she does it well. The costuming, however, is strictly early-1970’s chic (again, the red halter jumpsuit, blue dress with cutouts), except for the kolâh makhmali.
“Persian Classical:” This style has its roots in the flourishing of dance that occurred in the 19th century under the Qajar shahs.8 Jamileh’s costumes are strictly fantasy; tightly-fitted flaring jersey dresses with cutouts in strategic places and lots of glitz, with headpieces of coins and jewels on a headscarf, bear no relation to any traditional Iranian dress. Her dancing, though, is authentically Persian, with all of the coquetry and grace the style requires. In both the dances that appear in this video, she uses finger cymbals lightly as an accent, rather than as a constant rhythmic accompaniment.9
For a Western audience, a performance by Jamileh is not only an aesthetic delight, but a lesson in Iranian culture and history. For the Iranians who come to see her, it is a reconnection to the homeland. As Philip Walker put it:
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.10
1. By the term “classical,” I herein mean dance done by an individual or a group for others to watch, rather than personally to participate. There is a separate, but sometimes overlapping, connotation of the term that signifies an art that has a tradition and is taught and maintained through the generations, whether by schools, dance masters, or by any student-teacher relationship. The applicability of this latter usage of the term “classical” to Persian dance is controversial. There is a third connotation of the term “classical,” which signifies works of art created by known artists, and preserved via a notation or rendering (for example, European or Ottoman “classical” music); this connotation does not apply to Persian dancing.
2. Presumably a 20th century phenomenon, though it is likely that earlier forms of distinctive dress — including hats — were worn by the jâhels.
3. This apparently unusual blend is not unique, even within Iran. It continues today in the varzesh bâstâni (“traditional exercise”), the Iranian martial art, sometimes also referred to as zurkhâneh (“house of power”) for the building in which it is traditionally done. In the zurkhâneh, men dressed in leather short pants do calisthenics and amazing feats of strength, to the rhythmic accompaniment of chanting from the Shâhnâme of Ferdowsi. Zurkhâneh is also performed in public. There is at least one varzesh bâstâni organization in Southern California.
4. Literally “mother’s milk;” the term is perhaps used because the rhythm of the words can convey the rhythm of the musical meter.
5. Raqs-e Jamileh (“Jamileh’s Dance”), Tape #183, is available from Pars Video, 18740 Oxnard Street, Unit 303, Tarzana CA, 91356, 818/881-4881, -9881, or -1666 (cash or money orders only). Tapes are available in a variety of formats, including PAL, SECAM, and NTSC.
6. In these days of Iran-bashing in the U.S., it is instructive to remember how much interest in and goodwill towards the U.S. existed in Iran just a few years ago.
7. Dance on all sides of the Persian Gulf (“Khalij” means “gulf” in Arabic), show remarkable similarities to each other. For example, the rolling 6/8 rhythm (with its double “pickup” on beats 5 and 6) is used in all of the areas bordering the Gulf, but very few other areas (in no other form of Iranian music, and rare in other Arab music). Dance movements around the Gulf show similarities as well, with the emphasis on sharp, quick shoulder shimmies, poly-rhythmic clapping, and minimal footwork.
8. See my previous article, “The Exquisite Art of Persian Classical Dance,” in Habibi, Vol. 15, No. 2, p. 6-8.
9. Dancing with various items used for rhythm-keeping has a long tradition in Persian classical dancing.
10. Philip Walker, “Raqqas or Jamileh: Contrasting Perspectives on Dance in Iran,” Habibi, Vol. 15, No. 2, p. 10.
Robyn Friend is a singer, dancer, choreographer and linguist who specializes in Iranian and Turkic folklore. Robyn has studied with noted teachers in Iran, Turkey and the U.S. She has a Ph.D. in Iranian languages from UCLA, and has authored numerous papers in both scholarly and popular publications. Her teaching and choreographic credits include work for AMAN, Het Folkloristich Danstheater, and the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, and she has performed as a soloist throughout North America, in Europe and in the Middle East. She teaches and performs — mostly for the Iranian community — in Los Angeles. www.robynfriend.com
The author wishes to acknowledge some of the many people with whom she has consulted on these matters over the years, including Morteza Varzi, Abdullah Nazemi, Haleh Farjah, Morocco, Medea Mahdavi, and many others.