Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The History of Persian Dance

Iranian dance history is characterized by many fascinating and also tragic incidents. It seems to be completely unknown to the outside world, partly because of the present political situation of the country that has toned down the interest for a profound research effort. Resently archeologists have made it possible to have access to material and evidence for the origin of Persian dance, ever since the appearance of the cult of Mithra about two thousand years before our calendar.By virtue of these bases, Iran can be considered as one of the ancient world’s empires, which methodically and actively was devoted to the development of the art of dance. For this ancient nation, dancing has been an important social phenomenon and a religious ritual.

Origin of Perisan Dance:
The origin and rise of Persian dance as an independent and distinctive art form is estimated to be parallel with the birth of Mithraism and its spread. This cult centrally revolves around the ancient Persia’s sun and light God, Mithra, who is the main figure in this mystery religion that during the late antique era spread over the entire Roman Empire.
The most important ritual in this cult has been the worship of Mithra, as he is sacrificing a bull. This act was believed to promote the vigour of life. The consecration to this belief was accomplished among other rites through the baptism in the blood of a bull, followed by a ritual dance performed only by men. This ceremonial act is considered as the earliest known form of Iranian dance, and the origin of the magic dance of the antique civilisations. This was the typical sacred Persic (Persian) dance, so called “Danse Persique Sacrée”.

Achamenian's Era:
The cultural exchanges with Greece and Egypt has been described as one of the distinctive characteristics of ancient Persian culture, which gave rise to the term of “acculturation”, meaning the acceptance of new cultures. This was an evident quality for the legitimation and survival of an empire that ruled over numerous nations, from Egypt in North Africa, to India in Far East. It was the world’s first religiously tolerant empire and consisted of a multitude of different languages, races, religions and cultures.
Achaemenians, the first ruling dynasty of the Persian Empire, contained several enthusiastic emperors who encouraged the advancement of different art forms. Ketzias, a Greek historian writes about the popular and talented female dancer, Zenon from Crete, who was the Court dancer of Artaxerxés II (Ardeshir Shah II) and “the apple of the King’s eye”.
Ketzias has specifically mentioned a sort of Persian dance, which was performed in connection with the ceremonies of Mithrakana (Mehrgan) in which even the King participated. The Emperor drank precious wine and devoted himself to the Persic dance during the ceremonies arranged in honor of Mithra.

After Arab Conquest:
Dance as a respected social behavior and as a part of the Persian culture existed and was elaborated through millennia; alike the antique dance of China, Greece and India until the Arabs invaded Iran. Their new religion prohibited dancing, and this practically implied the extinction of the antique Persian dance traditions. Centuries of political instability, civil war and occupation by foreign powers, first Arabs and then Mongols resulted in a slow but steady disappearance of some Persian prehistoric heritage like the dance traditions.
Beside the religious prohibition, a historic tragedy and a national humiliation was the other important reason for Iranians, not to appreciate the art of dance for a long time to come.

Sufism: (Rising of Sama' Dance)
Sufism took a central place in literature and was performed by religious men. Hafiz (d. 1388), Saadi (d. 1292) and Mevlana (d. 1273) were three great Persian poets who extolled dancing in their poems and used this art form as a symbol of the power of life. Sufism recommends dancing as a spiritual instrument to “become one with God”, which is the final goal in this faith.
One of the great spiritual masters and poetic geniuses of Persian literature is Jalal ud-Din Rumi, known as Mevlana. He is the most appreciated Sufi of all times, who made dancing a central element in his Sufi doctrine. He was born in Balkh, in the province of Khorasan in the northeast of Iran and flew to the west, away from the invasion of Mongols in the 12th century. He finally resided in the city of Konya where his mausoleum is located today.
The goal of Sufism would be achieved by practicing a strong ecstatic ritual performed with music and dance as the central strain. This charismatic performance is called Sama’ and represents a spiritual rapprochement to the “Creator” and is practiced until today.

Qajar Court:
The only original form of Persian dance in its existing condition, which has survived throughout the centuries, is the folkloric dance of various Iranian focal groups and in particular the nomads. Few dance shows occurred in bigger cities and in public, because of the religious belief and the Islamic prohibition in a strongly traditional, religious and undeveloped society.
But it was different in the royal court of the Qadjars. Old dance traditions can be found there, especially among Qadjar women, even if the art of dancing had no popularity among ordinary people.
However, the rise of the Qadjars in 1796 meant a liberalization of people’s attitude toward dancing, although this art form remained in the monopoly of the royal court. There are illustrations such as both splendid paintings and texts in form of memoirs and official reports emphasizing the popularity of these dances in court and among the elite and bourgeois families.
Thus dancing became much in vogue and a social phenomenon, usually performed during diverse entertaining programs like coronations, marriage festivities and ceremonies of Norouz (the Iranian new year celebration).

Contemporary Era:
The rise of Pahlavi dynasty meant a methodical concentration on modernizing the country. During the years to come an accurate attempt was done in order to compile and develop different styles of dance. From prehistoric folkloric dancing, which is left from the Persian original dance, to the contemporary works of the great western choreographers like Maurice Béjart and Martha Graham.
The history of Iranian ballet traditions starts from 1928, when Madame Cornelli gave her very first lessons in classical ballet until 1982 three years after the Islamic revolution.

After Islamic Revolution:
The Islamic revolution of 1979 implied the end of a successful era for dancing and the art of ballet in Iran. The result of many decades of toil and passionate work was lost when the fundamentalists came into power. The national ballet company was dissolved and its members emigrated to different countries.
According to the principles of “cultural revolution” dancing was considered to be perverse, a great sin, immoral and corrupting. Consequently, the last signs of dancing disappeared in the same country that during thousands of years did great contributions to this art form and had it as a respected court ceremony.
Dance as an art form has been banned since the revolution in Iran. However, the character of dance as a human phenomenon has anyway made it to not disappear completely from society. Despite the prohibition, it has been performed in private gatherings even if its discovery in most cases has resulted in punishment of the aspirant. ( this information has been taken from an article by Mr. Nima Kiann)

Dancing Pictures of Qajar Era:

Pictures of the Grand Hall of Opera (Roudaki) In Tehran (1970):

Picture of the Opera House Today:

Pictures of Dancers:


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