Dance and Jurisprudence

Dance and Jurisprudence in the Islamic Middle East

By Anthony Shay, Ph. D.

That night ‘Abdi Jan’s troupe had been called so that the harem occupants could watch the show. Of course, you remember ‘Abdi well. Let me, nonetheless, give you a description of his looks. He was a lad of about twelve or thirteen, with large, black eyes, languid and incredibly beautiful and attractive. His face was tanned and good-looking, his lips crimson, and his hair was thick. Renowned throughout the town, the boy had a thousand adoring lovers. Being a dancer, however, he was unworthy of being anyone’s beloved. (Taj Al-Saltana (1884-1936), princess of the Qajar dynasty, Persia. 1993, 8). 1


Over the past few decades, with the rise of fundamentalist Islamic movements, especially following on the heels of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, most individuals who are interested in Middle Eastern dance, and many members of the general public, have been made aware that dancing in several countries such as Iran and Afghanistan of the Middle East has been banned. In other areas, such as Egypt and the Sudan, religiously conservative Muslims have brought heavy pressure to bear against professional dancers through threats of violence or even physically attacking musicians and dancers in private weddings. Anyone familiar with the dance world in Egypt knows that dancing activity has declined over the past decade, due, in part, to the spread of religious conservatism. (See El Safy 1999) 2

Numerous newspaper reports have featured stories in which people in countries like Iran and Afghanistan have been subjected to public beatings, torture, and even execution, for dancing. Newspapers continue to provide tantalizing evidence of banning dance and punishing individuals who perform it. Ultimately, because the individual reporters and writers rarely possess a comprehensive knowledge of how dance intersects with existing and historical attitudes toward dance in the Islamic world and what kinds of decision-making processes affect a person’s right to dance, most of these reports remain partial and unsatisfying.

Clandestine wedding dance in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2001, just before the fall of the Taliban. Photo: Courtesy of New York Times

Middle East dance enthusiasts often express bafflement and amazement when they read these accounts. In part, this puzzled reaction stems from the fact that in the West most people regard dance as a benign and enjoyable social activity, colorful entertainment in musical productions, or a refined form of high art for the concert stage. By contrast, in the Middle East, dance, particularly professional dance, is widely perceived as a negative, ambiguous, and sometimes disreputable symbol of behavior that contains within it, in the view of large segments of the population, the potential for social disruption (fitnah). I therefore coined the term “choreophobia” to describe this phenomenon, for I argue that any cultural production such as dance that can raise such powerful negative reactions that religious and civil authorities make periodic attempts to ban its performance in its various forms, dance can be conceived of as an activity that is also saturated with potential subversive power. (Shay 1999) I will site several incidents in the Iranian world, which includes Afghanistan, that emphasize my point that dance in many parts of the Middle East now provides a space for political resistance to oppressive regimes.

And yet, many individuals in the Middle East also enjoy dance as a social activity and an important means of expressing joy and happiness in socially approved contexts such as weddings. Many individuals in some regions of the Middle East, such as Iran and Afghanistan, sometimes put themselves at considerable risk of severe punishment and fines, and even death, to dance since expressing joy at weddings, for example, constitutes an important societal value for many individuals.

Every researcher of dance or music in the Middle East, Central Asia, or North Africa is soon confronted with the ambiguity and even hostility with which music, and even more, dance, are regarded. Many writers comment on this negative view of dance without elucidating or questioning the sources for their statements. Thus we find passages like the following three opinions that the authors put forth in scholarly publications: Turkish dance historian Metin And stated, “The austerity and rigidity of Islam did much to discourage music and dance and waged a relentless war against them” (1959, 13). La Meri observed, incorrectly, “The Koran indicted the secular written word and the pictorial image of living things so in olden days, the dancer and musician were important to the people as purveyors of news. Later Mohammed himself banned music and dance, and the arts withered. But somehow they managed to keep alive” (La Meri 1961, 44). While Iranian ethnomusicologist, Hormoz Farhat, stated, “At the outset, Islamic religious leaders had assumed a hostile attitude towards music, and regarded it as a corrupting frivolity” (1965, 44).

A girls’ chorus practices in Kabul, Afghanistan, for festivities to ring in the beginning of education for females, March 2002.

These statements reflect a set of generalizations, typical of several studies on Middle Eastern dance and music, which are highly problematic and constitute half-truths and outright misconceptions. For example, the Prophet Muhammad did not “personally” ban music or dance, nor was the “secular written word” ever “indicted”. The existence of hundreds of volumes and the popularity of a rich poetic literature in all of the major languages, such as Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, negates such spurious and unfounded claims. While some religious leaders “assumed a hostile attitude towards music,” this was far from a universal attitude. If the Prophet Muhammad had expressly prohibited these activities, poetry, music and dance would not exist.

In this essay, I want to describe and analyze several issues, such as essentialization, orientalism, and gender and sexuality, in order to deepen the discussion of Islamic society and its legal underpinnings in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. Through this exposition, I hope to provide an understanding of the processes of the reasoning and mechanisms through which dancing is banned or regarded with ambiguity. Islamic theologians do not simply ban dance or other kinds of activities on a whim. No matter what emotional reactions we experience when we hear these reports, their judgments, issued in the form a fatwa (religious edict), do not constitute “off the cuff” remarks, but their judgments, whether we agree with them or not, are generally based on closely reasoned and thoughtful, sometimes agonizing, deliberation founded on their knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence (figh).

First, it is important to grasp the fact that I address my essay only to regions in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. In Java, and other eastern and areas of Southeast Asia, a region contains the largest Muslim populations in the world (only about one-fourth of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East), professional dance, which is performed in the court, is an honored profession. As I will argue in more detail later in the essay, these two very different attitudes, that found in Southeast Asia and the contrasting attitude encountered in the Middle East, exist in two very different Islamic environments. I suggest that these different attitudes are based on preexisting, historical, pre-Islamic attitudes toward forms of cultural production like dance and music that continued into the Islamic era.

Dance and its relation to jurisprudence, especially regarding women, manifests itself in multivalent forms and compels the researcher to recognize that this phenomenon does not lend itself to easy solutions or answers. This essay will address complex issues of the local and the transnational, Islam and fundamentalism, and the myriad forms in which dance is manifest in both public and private presentation and representation. I want to emphasize strongly that none of these elements, particularly Islam and dance, may be essentialized if a full understanding of the issues of how dance forms a lightening rod for fundamentalist attacks occur in some Muslim regions. The forms that these attacks take and the targets that they focus on vary from Algeria to Egypt, Turkey to Iran, Afghanistan to Pakistan and into Central Asia to the borders of China. Not only do government officials and organs mount attacks against dance as a public performance activity, but also they often launch attacks against dance as a private social activity that happens behind closed doors. In Iran, and until recently in Afghanistan, official and quasi official goon squads, known as pasdaran and basij, and other variously named committees on morals, regularly patrol the streets listening for the sounds of music and they do not hesitate to break into peoples’ homes and arrest and physically assault people whom they find dancing.

These attacks assume different guises and have different goals in Afghanistan, Egypt, or Iran. For example, in Egypt individual members of Muslim brotherhoods, who are not associated with the government, attempt to threaten and intimidate individual targets, such as merchants who sell videos with dance scenes (personal interviews January 19-20, 2000), or families who are planning to hold a wedding.


Essentialization is a term I use to describe the phenomenon in which individuals characterize entire groups as if the members of the group all think and act exactly the same. “The French are rude.” “Asian students are the brightest students.” “Belly dancers all think that they are sexy.” “The English are cold.” “Muslims are terrorists and fanatics.” “Those people in the Middle East are crazy.” These statements, which I culled from recent conversations, characterize groups as if everyone in the group is interchangeable and their behavioral patterns can be reduced to one or two simple traits, such as the common ones I cited above and that many of us have heard.

Essentialization creates stereotypes and clouds our thinking. There is a tendency among some Western scholars, as well as the general public, to essentialize the Middle East and Islam, in part proceeding from a legacy of Orientalism and the formation of the “Other” so tellingly detailed by Edward Said (1978) and his many critics. Middle East scholar, John Esposito (1992), describes in detail how essentialization characterized and poisoned Muslim – Christian (and Jewish) relations since the Middle Ages and continues to do so today.

Several negative symbols of the Middle East still loom large in various Western media and in the popular imagination: the wild-eyed religious fanatic, the bomb-carrying terrorist, the sexy belly dancer, the dangerous and over-sexed sheik of Araby, a la Anthony Quinn and Rudolph Valentino, mosques, minarets, and oil fields. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, these images surfaced dramatically in an initial search for Middle Eastern terrorists that some media suggested were responsible. As a result, individuals in the local population in Oklahoma, visually identifying Iranians as “Middle Easterners,” harassed members of the Iranian community in Oklahoma City and nearby cities. The Los Angeles Times recently reported a sharp rise in anti-Muslim incidents (Dabbous 2002; Lichtbau 2002).

In my experience, the most theoretically questionable, and ultimately that element that poses the greatest danger to scholarly analysis of issues dealing with the Islamic world, is essentializing Islam, Muslims, and the various cultures found in the Islamic world of the Middle East. As Craig Calhoun observes:

Essentialist invocations of races, nations, genders, classes, persons, and a host of other identities nonetheless remain common in everyday discourse throughout the world. Pointing to the social and cultural histories by which they have been constructed has become the main way of trying to challenge the grip these essentialist identities have over us and the problems they create. (1995, 198)

In these writings, “Islam” is invoked as a reason for negative behavior, and Muslims are conceived as a group of individuals marching in lock-step to the same step, in mindless, blind belief. As Eickelman and Piscatori observe, “It is tempting to take the view that religion, as a set of universal and authoritative beliefs and practices, enjoins certain conduct upon Muslims everywhere” (1990, xiii).

In this essay, I intend to subvert these essentialist projects by exposing the complexity of both dance and Islam and how these two aspects of the Muslim world intersect.


I will begin this project of theoretical subversion by suggesting that it is perhaps more useful to conceive of “Islams” rather than Islam. I argue that Islam is a house divided, or at least fragmented, rather than the conceptual Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) that some Muslim thinkers and Western historians, among others, put forth as suggestive of some degree of unity in the Islamic world. Both in the Middle East and in the West many people conceive of Islam as a unified entity and the implied existence of an essentialized Muslim identity. Not only can one find the major division between Sunnis and Shi’as, which one can roughly compare to the split in Christianity between Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants, but one can identify many other groups and sects as well. “It would also be misleading to assume a uniformity of Mulsim identity. The Shi’a, the Alevis, the Muwahiddun (the Wahhabiyya) of Saudi Arabia, the Ibadiyya, the Isma’illiyya, the Zaydis, the Sunnis, and so on, all possess – at least on the basis of self-assertion – a Muslim identity” (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990, 16).

Most Muslims, however observant or lax in their beliefs, agree on some basic tenets and beliefs in Islam. All Muslims accept that the Prophet Muhammad appeared among them and God spoke through him and revealed the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam. Muslims have certain duties to perform that the Prophet Muhammad revealed to them. These are the so-called five pillars of Islam: 1. Shahada, the expression of belief that there is no God, but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God. This important expression is reiterated daily in the azan, the call to prayer. 2. zakat, giving alms to the poor. 3. Namaz, sallat, prayer five times a day. 4. Siam or ruzeh, observance of fast during the holy month of Ramadan, and 5. The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslims, when necessary, are also enjoined to join in jihad. Jihad is a much-misunderstood concept in the West, but perhaps best expressed as a “struggle against both personal temptation and unjust oppression in society at-large.” Unjust oppression and struggle can take many forms from a single, individual struggle against the temptation to eat during the period of fasting to an armed, violent uprising against a civil government that is perceived as cruel and oppressive. This latter reasoning contributed to the public struggle when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini proclaimed a jihad against the government of the Shah of Iran leading to the successful founding of the Islamic Republic.

A second, perhaps even more important point in avoiding essentializing Muslim people, is to recognize that although these basic tenets and observances within Islam that I described above, which all Muslims agree upon, the degree of belief varies widely. Thus, we have a wide range of individual behavior, belief and acceptance among those who are self-identified as Muslims, or who are identified by others as Muslims. Observance ranges from fervent, zealous and pious believers who follow these beliefs and practices to atheists who accept none. In between these two extremes, we find many who observe some aspects of the religion such as perhaps avoiding pork, but they may drink alcoholic beverages, to those who pray only occasionally or not at all, but observe the fast during Ramadan. The variations of individual behavior and belief are endless, as one finds among Christians and Jews.

The Lights Go Out

One of the reasons for this persistent essentialization is the presentation of Islam in historical studies found in both the West and the Middle East. In Iran, for example, books on Iranian history are overwhelmingly presented as “Before Islam” and “After Islam.” This implies a concept that one night in 641 the lights went out. 3 The day before it was “Before Islam,” then the lights came on the next day and everything was “Islamic.” Everyone wore “Islamic” clothes, went to buildings with “Islamic” architecture, everyone was a Muslim, and everything was different and “Islamic.”

But, in fact, very little was different. People went about their lives as they had before. The Islamic Art historian, Oleg Grabar notes:

The Muslim takeover occurred without physical destruction and without massacres, and one can point out only a small number of instances of major population movements within the conquered area. As a result the sum total of the art and the material culture of the pre-Islamic world remain as such with the functions, purposes, and associations it had before. But there is more to it than simply forms and meanings attached to forms. Islam also inherited an immensely complex set of collective memories, legends, and myths. This all means that the point of departure of Islamic art does not lie merely in a physical or aesthetic reaction to another art – but in the actual utilization by the Muslim world of the material, aesthetic, and emotional order of the conquered territories. (1987, 41)

Thus, the formation of a specifically Islamic art, life style, and architecture took several centuries to develop, and it was not uniform throughout the Islamic world. We can see in the wide variety of styles of architecture, veiling, and attitudes toward music and dance, for example, that great diversity exists throughout Islamic regions of the world from the Southern Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia in the East to Mali and Morocco in the West.

This diversity proceeds from the fact that people in different regions utilized the pre-Islamic elements that existed in their particular environment. Artists and artisans in the Middle East largely used and reconfigured the artistic elements and aesthetics from the Sasanian and Byzantine imperial civilizations. Oleg Grabar (1987) brilliantly described the process by which a specifically Islamic art was created. He observes, “The vast majority of the simplest elements in the early Islamic artistic vocabulary were mere continuations of older traditions” (1987, 197). This process took three to four centuries before a specifically Islamic art can be identified.

This process paralleled the conversion process in Iran, for example, where it took over four centuries before the majority of the population of Iran, with its long-held pre-Islamic moral, social, and aesthetic values and attitudes, embraced Islam. These attitudes included the way in which people viewed the propriety of dance and how professional dancers were viewed and the social positions they occupied. I argue that these attitudes persisted long after the majority of the population embraced Islam.

The Development of Islamic Jurisprudence

As I described above, the conversion of large numbers of individuals throughout the newly conquered Islamic territories was not an overnight process. As people converted to Islam, particularly the large populations of Iranian and Nabatean peoples, which formed the majority of residents in pre-Arabic, pre-Islamic Iraq, had many questions about the legality and permissibility of many actions in their newly acquired religion ranging from religious beliefs, personal hygiene, and interaction with non-Muslims to the playing or listening to music and indulging in dancing. In response to this need, Islamic studies began to take place in madrasahs, schools of religious learning that were built adjacent to the major mosques throughout the major cities throughout the Islamic world.

Throughout the Medieval period, Muslims traveled throughout the Islamic world seeking advice from noted theologians who earned reputations through their mastery of religious scholarship and their knowledge of the Qur’an. It should be pointed out that much of the travel that occurred in the Islamic world before the twentieth century was religiously and spiritually motivated. Thousands of Muslims visited Mecca, various shrines and sought audiences with learned clerics and religious scholars whose fame had spread beyond the local.

Religion and religious differences and opinions garnered the same heat, financial backing, and intense emotions that both politics and entertainment provide for many Westerners. “From top to bottom, Islam provided the central drama in urban social life” (Bulliet 1994, 98). In the Islamic world of the Middle East there proliferated on a wide scale “scores of claims by would-be prophets, invitations into secret conspiracies, and calls to pious rebellion [jihad]. With thousands of people asking questions about Islam, the marketplace of answers was wild and colorful” (ibid, 106).

Within Islam there is little hierarchy such as that found in the Christianity in which such positions and titles as popes, archbishops, bishops and other hierarchical statuses suggest a formal, vertical order of decision-making that stands in stark contrast to Islam. Within Islam, for the most part, a horizontal decision making process exists in which local religious leaders and their opinions and pronouncements grew through their local prominence and their reputations for scholarship and learning spread.

It is important in order to grasp the process of how decisions regarding the legitimacy or permissibility of an activity within an Islamic context are made in order to understand how it is possible for dance to be banned or to order one’s followers to bomb the New York Trade Center towers. Not everyone can make a pronouncement or issue an edict (fatwa); this authority is held only by learned theologians with a formal education in jurisprudence. These theologians have generally gained followers through their wisdom, personal piety and rectitude, and they often possess a charismatic character to attract a following. The issuing of a fatwa is an individual act by an individual theologian and these edicts are binding only on the followers of the specific clergyman who issued the fatwa.

Many Westerners perceive Islam as a rigid and unyielding faith that has remained unchanged for centuries. This misconception needs to be challenged because in fact in many areas of the Islamic world argumentation and disputation over the interpretation of spiritual sources, such as the Qur’an, constitutes an important feature of contemporary life. It is important to grasp that this contentious environment constitutes one of the reasons that attitudes toward the permissibility and legitimacy of performing music and dance vary widely, and these attitudes must be seen as potentially changing and dynamic. Elaine Scioliono, an astute observer of Iran comments,

Iran is still engaged in a battle over interpretations of Islam. The struggle is not only between Shiites and Sunnis but within Shiism itself. Contrary to perception outside Iran that religious truth is monolithic and that dissent is not tolerated, one of the defining traits of Shiism is its emphasis on argument. Clerics are encouraged and expected to challenge interpretations of the Koran, even those of the most learned ayatollahs, in the hope that new and better interpretations may emerge. It is a concept little grasped in the West. (2000, 39)

At this point I will describe and analyze the legal sources that members of the Islamic clergy use for formulating their edicts, including those that affect dance.

The Qur’an

The basic source of jurisprudence is the Qur’an. The Qur’an, which is a beautiful example of literature in the original Arabic, does not provide very many specific pronouncements on many issues of crucial importance to Muslims seeking guidance for the conduct of everyday life. The Qur’an, for example, does not specifically mention music or dance and the permissibility of listening or playing music or the propriety of dancing or viewing dancing. If the Qur’an specifically prohibited dance, as it does pork, for example, dance would not exist at all in an Islamic context. Various theologians use certain passages from the Qur’an to justify their actions in prohibiting or cautioning their followers from listening to music or dancing.

For guidance in everyday life (aside from the prohibition against violent crimes), the Qur’an specifically mentions three prohibitions: Surah 5, verses 1-4 prohibit the consuming of animals that are already dead (as opposed to the proper method of slaughter). Surah 5, verse 92 prohibits the drinking of wine, games of chance and idolatry. Finally, there is Surah 31, verse 6 which states: “And of men is he who takes instead frivolous discourse to lead astray from Allah’s path without knowledge and to take it for a mockery; these shall have an abasing chastisement” (Choudhury 1957, 59).

It is this latter, opaquely-worded verse that is often utilized by theologians who ban music and dance in the belief that they are “frivolous” acts and “frivolous” was the term used by Khomeini in his comprehensive ban on all dancing in Iran. In this view, music, and by extension, dance “seduces” man away from his contemplation of God. Khomeini stated unequivocally that, “There is no fun in Islam” (Sciolino 2000, 1). It must be kept in mind that such pronouncements are not only not accepted by other theologians, but that such decisions constitute an arena of contestation. In several instances, other ayatollahs in Iran, openly contradicted Khomeini’s decisions.

Nevertheless, this interpretation is by no means universally accepted throughout the Islamic world, and indeed, the term “frivolous” is open to many kinds of interpretation. Thus, in addition to interpreting (or reinterpreting) the Qur’an, theologians also utilized, and continue to utilize, additional sources for making judgments for their followers. These are the hadith and legal precedent, which is also found in Western legal traditions.

The Hadith

The hadith are the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, as seen or heard directly by individuals who personally interacted with him. The sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad serve as models of proper Islamic behavior and an individual Muslim’s conduct of life, and after the Qur’an, they provide a crucial source for creating juridical decisions.

Since most of the hadith were collected several generations after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (632 A.D.), each hadith had a specific genealogy. Theologians made a life study of tracing and analyzing these genealogies. This intense study was necessary to determine the validity of each hadith. It was crucial to discover the witness who had originally heard or seen the Prophet Muhammad, and whom the witness told in order to discover the succeeding lines of who passed the tale to whom. These links in the genealogy were called esnad and knowledge of them was crucial to determining whether the individual hadith was sahih (correct) or dhaif (weak).

Needless to say, the various religious scholars disagreed and differed over the correctness of the various hadith. As we will see in our test case of music and dance, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds the propriety of music and dance because several conflicting hadith regarding the Prophet Muhammad’s reactions to music and dance, and music making have come down to us.

“Ibn Majah has narrated on the authority of Hadrat Anas, a personal servant of the Prophet – once the Prophet was passing through the street of Madinah when some girls of Najjar tribe greeted Him with a song accompanied with Duff [frame drum]. The Prophet congratulated the girls on their performance” (Choudhury 1957, 66). On another occasion provided by Choudhury, the Prophet introduced a songstress to his favorite wife, ‘Ayisha, who “desired to hear her song. On hearing the song the Prophet remarked ‘Qad nafakhash Shaitanu minkhariha’ (certainly Shaitan has blown into her nostrils) (ibid., 67).

According to Choudhury, different scholars have variously interpreted the Prophet’s comment. “The prohibitionists” hold that music is unlawful, while others interpret the word nafakh as excellence of performance (ibid).4

One of the most famous examples of a hadith that seems to demonstrate that the Prophet approved of dance in certain circumstances such as ‘id, (the celebration marking the end of the fast of Ramadan) is cited by Choudhury:

Once an Abyssinian musician appeared in presence of the Prophet on the occasion of ‘Id. The Prophet asked ‘Ayisha if she liked to enjoy music. On ‘Ayisha giving assent, the Abyssinian was called in. The place of performance was the Prophet’s own house. The mosque of the Prophet and that of his mosque was the same. In fact, the performance took place in a sacred place—-hareem. The Abyssinian acrobat sang and danced and ‘Ayisha enjoyed it for a pretty length of time. (1957, 69)

Thus, we can see that through the several conflicting examples of the Prophet Muhammad’s reactions, both positive and negative, that different theologians have constructed multiple interpretations. In addition, to add to the wide variety of interpretations, several schools of jurisprudence grew up in the medieval period such as the Maleki, Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafii, Ash’ari, Ja’fari, to name a few. These were named after the founding legal scholar and reflect the wide diversity of legal thought that exists in the Islamic world.

Finally, in addition to the Qur’an and the hadith, respected scholars can also utilize the precedent of existing laws and judgments, which are extended to new situations. Following legal precedent constitutes an element in the legal system in other parts of the world, including the West.

Music, dance, and entertainment in general created a huge and heated discourse through history in the Islamic world, continuing into contemporary periods, each scholar weighing in on this contentious issue:

In the interminable debate about the sama’ [musical and movement practices of the dervishes], legalists, theologians, spiritual leaders, custodians of morality in the cities, the literati and Sufi leaders all participated. The debate elicited views that varied from complete negation to full admittance of all musical forms and means, even dance. Between these two extremes we can find all possible nuances – some, for instance, tolerate a rudimentary form of cantillation and functional song, but ban all instruments; others permit cantillation and add the frame-drum but without discs, of course forbidding all other instruments and all forms of dance, and so on. The mystic orders, for whom music and dance were an essential part of their spiritual and ecstatic exercises, were seriously concerned with the debate and participated ardently in the polemics. As a result, the controversy touches on a wide range of musical topics sometimes with a view to refuting them and at other times attempting to justify their adoption. (Shiloah 1995, 31)

How far reaching are these edicts and decisions? Historically when communications were primitive, the local was more prominent than the pan-Islamic, in the Islamic world. In that period grand pronouncements such as those made by the caliph in Baghdad, and later the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, a highly formalized religious and political position in the Ottoman Empire, had far less impact than edicts pronounced in this transnational age. It is not true that conservative Muslims turn their backs on Western technology: During his many years in exile, Khomeini reached Iran and toppled the Shah’s government via audio cassettes.

Gender and Sexuality in Islam

In many cases in which theologians and legal scholars pronounce against the legality and propriety of dancing, the crux of the issue is not so much dance, per se, as dancing in the wrong context. Islam regards the human body, both male and female, as the site of intense sexual emotions and longings. These physical urges are seen as natural and right, but because these emotions are so powerful it is regarded as necessary to contain sexual relations within the proper legal context of marriage. 5 All other sexual acts have the potential of fitnah, which I interpret as the tearing apart of the social fabric, or social chaos. Thus, Islam attempts to contain these unlawful acts by the segregation of the sexes so that women do not appear in improper garb in front of men who are not in close, legal kinship with them (father, brother, uncle, son, etc.).

Professional female dancers are regarded as invading male space and raising unlawful passions through their dancing and exposing their body to men who do not stand in proper kinship relationship to them. However, domestic dancing, in which women dance in front of other women, and men dance in the presence of other men, while forbidden in Iran, and until recently, Afghanistan, is both legal and popular in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which are religiously conservative countries. (Adra 1993; Deaver 1978)


In an earlier essay (1995), I stressed the importance for scholars and students of dance in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, in which choreophobic attitudes are strong, to exercise care in labeling all patterned, rhythmic movement activities as dance. Many of these movement practices are, in fact, forms of martial arts such as sword and shield displays in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and the Arabian Peninsula and the zurkhaneh exercises of Iran, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan. A second set of movement practices are of a spiritual nature such as the patterned movements of the Mevlevi dervishes in Konya, Turkey or the Shi’a religious processions of ‘ashura and tasu’a in Iran. There is a word for dance, raqs, which is found throughout the region, and I follow native usage in determining which activities constitute dance. Most people in the Middle East are very clear about which movement activities are dance and which are not and they have separate terminology for activities that are not dance, but rhythmic, patterned movement practices that occur in spiritual or quasi-spiritual contexts.

This is crucial in a Middle Eastern context because, whereas dance may be a disreputable or unlawful activity, other forms of patterned movement activity are not illegal and may even be highly regarded by significant elements of the population. Najwa Adra points out that in Yemen, the bar’a, which she calls a dance, through its naming and conception in the popular Yemeni mind is not considered raqs or li’ba (game). “When li’ba and the playing of musical instruments were banned on religious grounds by the Hamid al-Din Imams (who ruled Yemen in the first half of the twentieth century), bar’a was not included in the ban” (1985, 282). In part the decision not to ban the bar’a stems from the fact that it is so highly esteemed that “a key chain sold in Sanaa in the late 1980s had a photograph of the Yemeni President performing the bar’a with Yasir ‘Arafat in a demonstration of solidarity” (Adra 1993, 166).

There are two types of dance in the Middle East: regional folk dances, associated largely with the countryside and performed in villages and by tribal groups, and solo improvised dance, which is performed by the urban population. 6 That having been said, one can see solo improvised dancing in the countryside, such as in Egypt where a domestic form of belly dancing, often called baladi, constitutes one of the main dance genres for young and old, male and female. One can also encounter group folk dances in the towns. The general pattern, however, is to find large group dances in the country and solo improvised dance in the cities. In some cities such as Tehran and Cairo, solo improvised is the only genre that is, or was, widely performed in domestic spaces, as well as in public performances. 7

Solo Improvised Dance

Perhaps no genre of dance has been subjected to misinterpretation and neglected by serious dance scholars and historians as the topic of solo improvised dance in the Middle East. The overt sexuality, its frequent associations with strip tease and exotic dancing in the popular mind, and its status as a form of popular culture are among the reasons for this scholarly avoidance. The International Encyclopedia of Dance avoided the term “belly dance,” the most widely used term for the best known form of solo improvised dance in the West, in favor of the French term “danse du ventre” (1998, Volume II, 344).

This genre is often the principal dance form of urban centers and local populations who call it simply raqs, or raqs sharqi (oriental dance). In sum, this dance genre might be best conceptualized as a complex of movement practices that extends from the Atlantic Ocean in North Africa and the Balkans in the west to the western areas of China, and Central Asia and the western portions of the Indian subcontinent in the east. In each of these areas, the dance is characterized by improvised articulations of the torso, hands, arms, head, and facial features such as the eyebrows and mouth. In domestic settings dance skills range from individuals who are only able to sketch one or two movements to dancers who perform at the same technical level as professional dancers. One seasoned American Iran-watcher described a domestic solo dance performance in Iranian Kurdistan:

But it was her shoulders and hips that captivated the crowd. The shoulders and hips didn’t stop rotating as she pranced hard on a concrete patio that had become a dance floor some hours before. . . I couldn’t quite figure out how she moved all those body parts in so many different directions at the same time. But all the rotating and thrusting and scarf-waving worked, and soon there were two dozen Kurdish men in balloon pants and waist-length jackets on the same dance floor with her. (Sciolino 2000, 1)

The professional dancer at the highest level is able to perform technically dazzling articulations of the body. The specific parts of the body that form the focus of the dance varies throughout this vast area. In Egypt and Turkey the torso and pelvis constitute the primary focus of movement and interest, while in Iran and central Asia the focus of the dance resides more often in the skilful use of the arms, hands, fingers, and a graceful carriage. Many skilled dancers in Central Asia also use intricate movements of the shoulders. Thus, throughout these regions there are always both professional dancers, and the general urban population for whom this dance genre is their principal expressive form of dance. Professional dancers perform a variant, often highly elaborated and technically demanding, of the many versions that are performed in social and domestic contexts. This genre constitutes at once a social, folk, professional, and more recently, classicized dance. 8

Some writers have attempted to indicate that dancers and dances were highly esteemed before the advent of Islam. (See for example De Warren 1973, Rezvani 1962, La Meri 1961.) There is no evidence to document such a state of affairs. There is, however, more historical data to demonstrate that professional dancers, and other entertainers constituted a lowly class. The Romans taunted the Emperor Nero for playing music in public.

One need only follow the career of Empress Theodora, the wife and consort of Justinian I. (Bridge 1993) She began her career as an entertainer, which at that time (6th century A.D.) probably included dancing, singing, acting, and prostitution. Entertainers were so disreputable that Byzantine law forbade patricians from marrying anyone who fell into the category of an entertainer.9 Justinian I managed to persuade his uncle, Justin, the then-reigning emperor, to legally bestow patrician status on Theodora so that he could marry her. Bridge reports that the conversion of status required considerable legal acrobatics. From the time of her ascension to the imperial throne, the wheels of Byzantine state machinery worked mightily to cover the scandal of Theodora’s shady past as a public entertainer.

Later, C. E. Bosworth, a scholar of the Medieval Islamic period, includes entertainers, a class that included individuals who danced, as among those who were considered by their contemporaries as members of the Banu Sasan, the name for denizens of the underworld (1968, 1). Annemarie Schimmel, a scholar of Islamic mystical practices (Sufism), indicated that dancers, because of their corrupt characters, could not testify or serve as witnesses in Muslim courts (1990, 426-427). Even today, the very terms motreb (entertainer) and raqas (male dancers), raqasah (female dancer) constitute highly loaded insults.

Lotfollah Mansouri, the internationally renowned opera director, related how his father refused to speak to him for years because he had entered the music profession, calling him a raqqas (dancer) (Public address 2/01/02).

Performances of belly dance in the Egyptian cinema from the 1930s to the present and solo improvised dance in the Iranian cinema from the 1950s to the late 1970s reinforced the negative attitudes toward solo improvised dance and its professional performers. Numerous films depicted dancers as dissolute fallen women who inhabit male-centered nightclubs and display their bodies wearing provocative clothing and costumes and performing sexually suggestive movements.

The negative attitudes toward dance are more often directed at solo improvised dancing as performed by professional dancers, both male and female, who are widely regarded as being sexually available, than people dancing in domestic contexts. However, many individuals who descry the lax morals of professional dancers happily perform the domestic version of this dance in weddings and parties and look upon regional folk dances as charming and innocent social activities.

Dance and the Law

In this essay I have attempted to identify and isolate the ingredients that contribute to the negative and ambiguous attitudes toward dance in the Middle East that result in attempts to ban its performances, both public and private. I deliberately laid out these elements in detail to show how complex and multilayered this issue is.

In Iran, as soon as the Islamic Republic was established, Khomeini banished all forms of dance. In my opinion, this was largely a result of the accumulated negative historical perceptions of dance and professional dancers. In the second half of the twentieth century, they performed in western-style nightclubs for the upper classes, the night spots of the working-class entertainment district of the Lalezar, the red-light district, and their depiction in the Iranian cinema. The resultant ban was comprehensive and included the classical ballet company, the national folk ensemble (the Mahalli Dancers), and all other forms of dance: traditional and westernized, regional folk dances and domestic and professional solo improvised dance. All forms of dance were banned as “frivolous” and a sin.

I argue that this ban has created a space for resistance to the regime. Radio Seda-ye Iran (September 5, 1995) reported that a group of Iranian women exiles performed solo improvised dance at the International Women’s Conference in Beijing to taunt the official Islamic Republic’s delegation. In another incident, during a highly publicized soccer game held in Tehran between Iran and Australia in 1997, from which women were banned, a large number of women burst into the stadium and danced in the bleachers, while thousands more danced in streets and the footage was shown on local television stations (Nafisi 1999, 12). Quiet and small rebellious acts of dancing also exist throughout the country:

“I’m tired of high prices. I’m tired of all of this unemployment. I’m tired of someone telling me I can’t dance or can’t read this book or watch that movie. It’s gone too far and I’m ready to fight back,” said Ali, a defiant 18-year-old with long, meticulously coifed black hair and blazing blue eyes. Ali, it should be noted, is from South Tehran, site of Iran’s teeming slums and the mostazafin (the oppressed), in whose name the revolution was fought. But today, Ali and his South Tehran friends just want the right to dance and invited giggling girls to dance with them.

Finally, one brave young girl, her brown scarf displaying dangerously large amounts of her chestnut-colored hair, accepted Ali’s exhortations and joined the circle of boys dancing. It was a defiant moment, its importance not underestimated by the crowd, who gave the girl a rousing cheer for her courage. After all, Iran’s morals police, the komiteh, could punish the offending dancers harshly for the sin of dancing in public and mixing with members of the opposite sex. (Molavi 1999, 3)

Indeed, the Iranian press widely publicizes each infraction of the law in an attempt to intimidate the populace. Nevertheless, individuals, like the pseudonymous Ali above who are frustrated with the restrictions continue to defy the law against dance. Kayhan, a Tehran daily, reported that 42 men and women received 35 lashes in the City of Shiraz (March 1, 2001). Reuters reported that six Iranians celebrating chahrshanbeh suri, an evening celebration on the Wednesday before No ruz (New Year), were seized on the outskirts of the holy city of Mashhad for dancing and ‘goading passers-by to dance.’ They each received 228 lashes and 18 months in jail. According to Amnesty International, the ultimate sentence of death was meted to Sheyda Khoramzadeh Esfahani, a woman who was convicted of “organizing ‘corrupt gatherings’ with prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, music and dance.” (January 29, 1997)

I want to stress that attitudes toward dance in Islam are contingent and dynamic, not fixed. The reason for going into detail regarding both Islamic jurisprudence and various genres of dance is to point out that little by little, especially after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, reports began to circulate that dance was once again permitted in public space demonstrating that change occurs in an Islamic context. However, these reports were the results of oversimplification. The Minister of Culture of Iran, Attaollah Mohadjerani, recently “plainly stated that ‘dance is neither futile or frivolous.’ In fact, he praises Iran’s folk-dance tradition and hopes to see it revived” (Canadian Broadcasting Company 1999), a far cry from Khomeini’s edict, issued twenty five years ago. He obviously did not feel bound by Khomeini’s fatwa, however, rather than pronounce Khomeini’s edict incorrect, he chose to make his own statement, ignoring Khomeini’s edict.

Only one form of dance has been permitted in carefully segregated contexts, and that is regional folk dances. Men are now permitted to dance regional folk dances in front of all-male audiences. The government even permitted the video recording of these dances (raqs-ha-ye mahalli-ye Iran). Thus, while the minister of culture, cited above states that dance is not a frivolity and he would like to see folk dancing revived, he remains silent on the topic of solo improvised dance.

Permission to perform solo improvised dance still does not exist. I argue that although regularly performed by men, solo improvised dance is largely viewed as a primary site of female performance. In the past, and “even today, some religious hard-liners consider exercise for women both frivolous and immoral. Last spring (1997) bands of men beat up female bicyclists in a park outside of Tehran and a group of ayatollahs denounced bike riding, boating, running, and horseback riding as sexually provocative” (Sciolino: 1997). Although, according to Sciolino, the authorities are slowly relaxing these attitudes under the pressure of women members in the parliament, one can imagine the negative reactions to dance, the most sensual and embodied of bodily practices. I have interviewed dozens of Iranians and Western scholars, who return to visit Iran on a regular basis, and all of them, as well as several media reports, comment that people give heavy bribes to guards in order to dance at weddings and parties. As New York Times reporter, Stephen Kinzer observes, “Squads of policemen and religious vigilantes patrol the streets at night listening for the forbidden sound of Western music” (May 27, 1997).

“We live a double life in this country,” said a middle-aged mother who voted for Mr. Khatami. “My children know that when their schoolteachers ask whether we drink at home, they have to say no. If they are asked whether we dance or play cards, they have to say no. But the fact is that we do drink, dance and play cards, and the kids know it. So they are growing up as liars. . . That’s a terrible thing, and I want it to change.” (Kinzer 1997)

By way of contrast, recently reports are circulating that women can openly learn solo improvised dancing in classes. (Mohammad Saeedabdi Nejad, personal interview July 19, 2001).10 These classes used to be held underground and there was always the fear that either the police or basij militia and the pasdaran, the quasi-official local goon squads, would break in and arrest and/or beat the participants. (Farzaneh Kaboli personal interview September 4, 1994)

In a recent article, Camelia Entekhabi-Fard reports in Mother Jones magazine that Farzaneh Kaboli, one of the former lead dancers with the banned former state folk ensemble, the Mahalli Dancers, gave a concert in the summer of 1998. According to the article, it was the “first public performance of contemporary dance to be performed in Iran in two decades” (2001:69). Nevertheless, the concert was called, “A Performance of Harmonious Motions.” The dreaded word “dance” could not be used, since as Nejad observed, “open concerts of dance are still not truly permitted. It is simply a case that they [the government] chose not to intervene, but that can always change” (personal interview, my translation, July 19, 2001). Thus, attitudes toward dancing constantly shift, but remain largely negative among the conservative.

How negative? The conservatives in Iran find the concept of dance so negative that images of ballerinas in Degas’s famous painting, Dancers Practicing at the Bar, were airbrushed out of a recently published art book, and dancing scenes in the film Mary Poppins, were cut out by Iranian censors (Nafisi 1999, 1-2). In such an environment of rampant choreophobia, it is a wonder that people still have the daring to dance.

In Afghanistan, a total ban on all dance and music existed until the fall of the Taliban regime. Nevertheless, as in Iran, people risked the Taliban’s goon squads to dance at weddings. (New York Times 2001; Majrooh 1998). So strict was the surveillance that:

Although women are the main victims of the “virtue and vice” teams, men are not immune. In an incident this summer, Mr. Qalamuddin’s men hid on the roof of a house in the center of Kabul, waiting until men in an adjoining house began watching a video of an Indian dance movie, a popular genre in this part of Asia. According to a neighbor, one of the men seized by the Taliban, a 25-year old welder who had been deaf since birth, died in custody within 48 hours. (Burns August 29, 1997)

In Egypt, historical attempts to ban dance performances are well-attested, such as the time when,

Partly because of the bad impression they made on foreigners and partly because of pressure from religious leaders, Muhammad Ali barred the public dancing girls from the Cairo area in 1834. There were two results. First, he increased personal taxes to make up for the revenue he lost by this burst of moral zeal. Second, the number of male Oriental dancers increased, and they, as Flaubert found, were often more salacious than the girls. The male dancers were already famous before the banishment of the almees” (Berger 1961, 30)

Dance scholar, Stavros Stavrou encounters problems with Berger’s analysis, and questions Berger’s scholarly evaluation, an evaluation with which I agree:

These are enticing pieces of information that fulfil the purpose of titillating, yet undermine Berger’s intentions to offer an objective and constructive appraisal of Middle Eastern dance. This is clearly a moment when his article lapses into Orientalist banter that fails to offer an honest or engaging interpretation of male dancing in nineteenth century Egypt. Moreover, I am still intrigued by the question of who exactly found the khawals more audacious and salacious. By whose standards were their performances more “lascivious” than the women’s and to what extent did the performers’ gender affect the Western tourists’ assessments? (2002, 72-73)

Related to the “increase” of male dancers in Cairo we find that historically in Turkey, in the early nineteenth century, professional male dancers were banished from Istanbul. This root of this banishment did not stem from the result of moral or religious reaction, but because the professional soldiery, the Janissaries, were publicly brawling and quarreling for the favors of popular male dancers. The sultan removed the male dancers as a threat to the public order. “Many of them fled to Egypt where they were employed by the Khedive Mehmet Ali Pasha [Muhammad Ali] and where their music was notated” (And 1959, 30-31). The reason that the number of male dancers “increased” in Cairo coincided with their banishment from Istanbul.

In the present, for the past three decades, the pressure of private fundamentalists to prevent dance has been intense and the government sometimes bows to the pressure, for example, banning belly dance performances to be shown on television, except in old films. These Islamic brotherhoods attempt to bring pressure to bear on whole neighborhoods as well as individuals and they do not hesitate to use violence to gain their ends.

In Cairo, a few neighborhoods are effectively controlled by Islamic fundamentalists. They manage to keep unwanted female entertainers out of their areas. Islamic fundamentalists occasionally disturb weddings, break the musicians’ instruments, and chase the female performers from the stage. This sometimes leads to fights with party goers, who defend the entertainers’ and their right to merriment. (van Nieuwkerk 1995, 64)

But it is not the dancers and musicians who receive support from the Egyptian government. As if in league with the Islamists, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, blamed recent civil unrest in Cairo neighborhoods on “Bellydancers [sic], (and) drummers from the slums” (Egyptian Gazette 115th Issue number 35,519 January 25, 1995, 1).

While in Egypt a former oriental dancer, who asked to remain anonymous, reported that she retired from dancing, an activity that she very much enjoyed, because her son’s schoolmates were taunting him and calling him “son of a dancer” (ya ibn ra’asa) (personal interview, January 21, 2000). (Similar incidents were also reported by Karin van Nieuwkerk 1995, 110, 129.)

Peter Verney of the Sudan Watch of the United Kingdom chronicles the violence against dancers and musicians in the Sudan (1998). The situation there largely parallels that found in Iran, but the incidents there, including deaths and severe beatings, have excited less interest in the West and go largely unreported in the western media.

Nevertheless, people throughout the vast region continue to dance in the face of severe punishments and even death, and continue to exercise their human rights, to own their own bodies and dance if they choose. Thus, dance will not only remain a negative symbol for some inhabitants of the Middle East, but increasingly, as its suppression spreads, it will constitute a symbol of joy and political resistance to repressive regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran and the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.


1. Taj al-Saltana’s negative reactions to a public dancer that I use in the opening of this essay, is one of the few native voices that I have encountered. Generally, we have to rely on the biased and negative opinions of Westerners. See Stavrou 2002, for a fully theorized analysis of this phenomenon. Also, Shay (1999, 57-59, 74-76).

2. El Safy gives a balanced report of the many factors – economic, social, and religious that has contributed to the decline of professional dance in Egypt rather than charging Islam alone as the “reason” for the fading Cairo dance scene.

3. This date marks the battle of Nahavand when the Muslim Arab army decisively defeated the Sasanian dynasty military forces, marking the Islamic takeover of Iran.

4. For the interested reader, Choudhury devotes a chapter to the hadith and music, in which he provides numerous examples of positive and negative reactions to them. Space does not permit the citation of more than a one or two examples.

5. An excellent source for the discussion of gender and sexuality in an Islamic context is Mernissi 1975.

6. I have constructed this conceptual division of dance for analytical purposes. Other scholars might choose to carve dance phenomena in a different way, but I have found this division the most useful for purposes of discussion.

7. In addition to the complexity of traditional performance contexts and environments, several new genres of dance have been created and performed under the impact of westernization. Turkey, Iran, and Egypt have all had professional ballet companies, and except for Iran, still maintain them. Turkey boasts several modern dance companies. Western dance traditions do not seem to arouse the feelings of choreophobia among the majority of Middle Easterners as their own solo improvised dance forms do. In addition, several of these nation-states such as Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, created national dance companies to perform “traditional” regional folk dances and/or solo improvised dance in the framework of highly sophisticated western choreographic strategies. These national companies were either created directly in the mould of the highly successful company created by Igor Moiseyev, the founding artistic director of the former Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation, or modeled on the formats of the popular companies of eastern Europe such as those of Hungary, Rumania, and the former Yugoslavia. (Shay 2002) Mustafa Turan the founding artistic director of the Turkish State Folk Dance Ensemble told me that he was scheduled to go to the Sudan in late 2000 to found a government-funded company in the image of his own popular one (personal interview March 9, 2000).

8. These divergent forms from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and the Balkans are often “lumped” together in the United States and elsewhere under the single term “belly dance,” a term coined by Sol Bloom for the dancers of the Chicago World Faire of 1893. This term is sometimes conflated with “oriental dance” that has been used loosely in both popular and scholarly publications to cover a wide variety of genres from classical Japanese, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Indian dance forms to belly dance and other Middle Eastern forms.

In the present essay its intended to refer to solo improvised dance originating in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Balkans, roughly that area that is coterminous with the historical and contemporary Islamic world in the above-mentioned areas.

9. Until recent times, well into the twentieth century and largely under the impact of westernization, the category of entertainer included individuals who could sing, act, dance, play musical instruments and perform acrobatics. The idea of an individual performer who could only dance, or a dancer as a discrete or exclusive category, was alien in the context of Middle Eastern society. The entertainers, called by different names in the various regions of this vast area, such as mutrib or motreb (one who gladdens) were often members of small groups, sometimes, but not always including family members. They were often of either all-male or all –female groups, such as one can encounter in Saudi Arabia today. (Rezvani 1962 has several photographs of turn-of-the-century groups). In large cities like Tehran, Istanbul, and Cairo, the competition was stiff and the performers endlessly invented new skits, songs, dances, and tricks. The best and most famous performers were hired by the palace and the elite. They did not, however, as De Warren (1973) implies, live in the palace, like favorite artists who were patronized by some European courts.

10. Mohammad Saeedabadi Nejad is a professional Iranian master musician who has performed with my dance company, AVAZ International Dance Theatre, for more than six years. He makes frequent trips to Iran and is familiar with the music and dance scene there.


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Dr. Anthony Shay received the prestigious California Arts Council Lifetime Achievement Award for his “Immeasurable Contibutions to Dance,” on April 7, 2002. In 1960, he founded the Village Dancers at UCLA, which he renamed the AMAN Folk Ensemble in 1963. In 1977, he left AMAN to found the AVAZ International Dance Theatre, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. AVAZ is a company that is intensely focused on dances of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

Shay received an MA in anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles and an MA from UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. He is the first recipient in North America of the Ph.D. in Dance History and Theory from the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of the book Choreophobia: Solo Improvised dance in the Iranian World, published by Mazda Publishers in 1999, and Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Ensembles, Representation and Power, published by Wesleyan University Press, 2002. He has published numerous articles in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Dance, the Journal of Iranian Studies, Dance Research Journal, the Journal of Visual Anthropology and the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Arab World.

For more than 40 years, he has produced more than 200 choreographies of traditional and world dance. For this activity in 1998, Dr. Shay received the highest award for choreography in California, the James Irvine Foundation Fellowship Award. In 1999, he received the Dance Resource Center of Greater Los Angeles Lester Horton Award for Outstanding Achievement for the Staging of Traditional Dance. In 2000, the California Arts Council awarded him a choreographic fellowship. He is a five-time recipient of choreographic fellowship awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2001, Shay received the second-phase James Irvine Foundation Fellowship in Dance to create a new choreography. He has recently been awarded the prestigious Social Science Research Council Fellowship to conduct research in the Middle East.

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