Dance has been an inseparable element of Persian culture for thousands of years. Dance depictions on pottery excavated from prehistoric sites attest to the antiquity of this art. However, ritual dance, the precursor to Iranian royal court dances, can be traced back to the cult of Mithra (third century BCE).
During the reign of early Persian imperial dynasties—Achaemenids (c. 550–330 BCE), Parthians (247 BCE–224 CE), and Sassanids (224–651 CE)—ritual dance was adapted into ceremonial practices within their royal courts. A performance of rhythmic human movements enacted in harmony with musical patterns became a regal custom not only because it was used as means of amusement and entertainment in social and ceremonial coherences of the Imperial courts but also because it incorporated high aesthetic and cultural values. That is why even the emperor (shahanshah, the “king of kings”) and his courtiers would gracefully engage in dancing.
During the Hellenistic period (323 BCE–31 BCE), Greek theatre and dance were adapted to Iranian taste and traditions, especially by the Parthians. Their dance traditions, particularly royal court dances came, in turn, to influence the dance movement vocabularies of nations within a wide geographical area along the Silk Road, from Caucasus throughout Central Asia and India.
The term “Persian dance” was mentioned by several Greek historians of the time to describe ceremonial dances in which Persian royalties participated, such as fire dance, wine dance, sword dance, and dancing on horseback. Through Greece and after the Alexander the Great invasion of Persia, Persian military dance became the heir to what is known today as Lezgian and Cossack dance, widely practiced and performed in Caucasus countries.
The Arab conquest of Iran (633 CE) suspended the traditions of royal court dance. After centuries of political instability, civil war, and occupation by foreign powers, the desire of dance was awakening among Persians who started to express themselves through visual arts. Dance gained esteem and recognition as it was practiced by new spiritual reform-oriented thinkers, called Sufis, as means of connecting to the divine. And thus, dance never disappeared completely from the Iranian cultural sphere, even during the most arduous period of Iranian history.
Dance, as a tradition of royal entertainment, returned to Persian courts when the Safavids came into power (1501–1722 CE). Along with a new political agenda, the Safavids embarked a new era of cultural development, curing which dance returned to the court of Persian kings and found a new movement vocabulary reflecting the beauty of Persian craftsmanship, national diversity, and prosperity. Court dance remained part of royal habits even through the reign of the next royal dynasty, the Qajars (1794–1925 CE). Even though the powerful clergy condemned dance, it continued to flourish and develop and became a popular motif of Persian visual art productions such as fresco and miniature and oil painting. The harem of Nassereddin Shah, the 4th Qajar king, hosted dance performances in which many of his eighty-four wives and a number of his daughters participated. At the time, Shiite law forbade any kind of dance, but the most powerful man in the country had the luxury of breaking religious law.
Reza Shah, the first Iranian king of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979 CE) after the Qajars banned the royal court dance. His political, social, and cultural reforms rejected many customs and traditions of the previous Persian royal courts such as the king’s possession of a harem or “vulgar entertainment.”
With the rise of Reza Shah, Iranian royal court dance developed in two different directions. The first sort, being considered as neither artistic nor cultivating, often expressing sexuality and frivolity, was to be performed in cabarets, social gatherings, and the like for entertainment. This type of dance, ordinarily performed by a solo dancer, was intolerable to be presented before royalty.
The other style, which came to be developed and elaborated into an art form, is today referred to as Persian traditional/classical dance. It is always performed on the base of traditional Persian modal music, dastgah. The movements demonstrate flexibility, grace, and dominance of the upper body moves, and include facial expressions. The dance is nonsexual, feminine, confident, joyful, and active. It displays a sense of pride in behavior and frequently uses literary and historical themes.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 and establishment of a theocratic government terminated traditional court dance, at least on the public stage, mostly because the court dances were mainly performed by females. Political turbulence after 1979, cultural revolution which attempted to erase any sign of Pahlavi regime, followed by an eight-year war with Iraq obliterated the art form of dance for about two decades.
As time passed, former dancers, who were at the time of revolution in their 30s and 40s, started an underground movement to train and teach Iranian traditional dance to a new generation of dancers. Millions of Iranians migrated after the revolution of 1979, creating diaspora communities around the world. Thanks to the efforts of former traditional dance artists and some foreign dancers who specialized in Persian dance, Iranian traditional dance has survived. A new generation of Iranian dancers has emerged throughout the Iranian diaspora communities during the past decade, and they are cultivating the art form and safeguarding it for new generations.
Nima Kiann (Founder and Artistic Director, Les Ballets Persans)