The Land of Dance
C. Friend, Ph.D.
Video features: #1-Introduction by author
#2- A Map Tour on an ancient and modern map
more than three decades of studying Iranian dance culture,
both in Iran and in the Iranian Diaspora,
I have been struck many times by the many contradictory attitudes
that Iranians seem to have about dance. A woman, for example,
may say she loves dance but does not know how, and yet when
persuaded onto the dance floor reveals herself as a highly
proficient dancer. Parents want their children to learn
to dance, but not to dance in public or as a profession. It
seems that many Iranians don’t see dance as an art form at
all, but more as an occasional social activity. And yet
they do appreciate really good dancing, and give honor to
the professional dancer whose performance reflects what they
value in their culture.
seems as though opposing cultural forces are dueling to
establish what will be the accepted social mores of the
Iranian people. I have wondered at the origin and nature
of these opposing forces: could they be the ancient values
of Zoroastrian Iran at odds with the monotheism of Islam
(brought to Iran by the Sunni Arabs in the 7th century)?
the duel began with the Safavid enforcement of Shia’ Islam
as the state religion of Iran at the beginning of the 16th century,
which led to the criminalization of public dancing and other
“secular arts”, and the exile of many dancers, singers, and
musicians from Iran.
that one means of investigating this hypothesis was to learn
the dance and culture of areas with a strong Iranian cultural
heritage, but a different religious heritage. Such areas can
be found in Central Asia, specifically in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,
as they were never part of the Safavid Shia empire, but were
part of an earlier Iranian Empire at a time when Iranian culture
was considered the most beautiful and the most worthy of imitation.
of my motivations, therefor, for learning Central Asian
(In addition to its intrinsic charms) has been to
see what might remain there
of the ancient roots of Iranian dance. It seemed to me
that Central Asia might provide a clue about what dance
or pre-Islamic Iran might have been like.
On a study
trip to Uzbekistan in 2002, I learned a dance that
is performed to a particular piece of music called “Munajot” (“supplication”,
in Arabic). The music for this dance is played at Uzbek weddings,
and was composed to accompany the singing of a classical mystical
poem by the beloved Uzbek poet, Navoi. In
this poem, Navoi evokes the images of our longing for God the
Beloved, and our inability to reach God: a young woman goes
to meet her lover in a moonlit garden, but he does not arrive
to meet her; she suddenly sees him and is happy; but then she
realizes it was just an illusion, and he was never there.
dance is performed as a portrayal of a highly-regarded classical,
mystical poem is a powerful illustration of a current difference
between Central Asian dance practice, and that of Iran. In
Iranian culture, mystical poetry of the classical period is
considered the highest form of art; by comparison, traditional
dance is not even considered an art. In Central Asia, however,
these two elements – dance and mystical poetry – can be fused
in a combined artistic form that expresses the deepest emotional
longings of a people. Such a fusion would never take
place in traditional Iranian dance.
I had an opportunity to meet Makhingul Nazarshoeva,
the director of a performing group from eastern Tajikistan. Makhingul
agreed to teach me if I could come to Badakhshan, and intrigued
me by saying: “We always dance to mystical poetry; we call
it maddoh". She said that they even dance at funerals,
with the funeral procession to the cemetery led by dancers, "because
it’s not a sad occasion, we are happy, our friend is with God".
determined that I would get to Badakhshan someday to learn
more about the music and dance of this area, and this intriguing
fusion of dance and poetry. A few years later, I found myself
in the company of my long-time friend Sharlyn Sawyer (the
director of Afsaneh Art and Culture Society)
on our way to Badakhshan with a fully-paid grant, on the first
of many trips to Tajikistan, and studies with a variety of
dancers and musicians.
first trip was like a dream come true, a daily unfolding
of miracles. For
several weeks, we daily met dancers and musicians in Dushanbe,
in Shahr-i-Nav, and in Badakhshan, where I was able again
to meet Makhingul Nazarshoeva.
out the details of the 20+ hour trek in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle
to Badakhshan from Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan,
to Khorog, capital of the Badakhshan Autonomous Mountain Region:
the stony and bumpy dirt road, with frequent deep pot-holes;
the rain runoff washing out the road, forcing us to drive down
the cliff face, across a river, and back up again; the mere
3 hours spent sleeping in a room with 15 fully-occupied beds;
the teahouse breakfast of green tea and Twinkies. When we
arrived in Khorog at 4:00 pm on a Friday afternoon, we were
exhausted, elated, and hungry.
Breakfast at a teahouse on the road to Kharog, 2005. photo:Sharlyn
Along the road from Dushanbe to Khorog, 2005. Photo:Robyn
is the land of the high Pamir mountains, with peaks to 22,000
feet, and narrow river valleys; these valleys start around
7,000 feet, and go up towards the sources of the rivers, the
melting snow at the peaks of the mountains. Habitation is
only possible at the bottom of these river valleys, with agricultural
cultivation taking up as much of the narrow flat plain as possible,
and then up the steep hillsides as necessary. Life is difficult: there
is no indoor plumbing at all in the villages, electricity only
in some places, and that only for a few hours a day. Water
comes from the nearest pipe that has been stuck into the side
of a hill. Toilets are of the outdoor squatter variety. Winters
are harsh: snow can fall very thick, and temperatures get very
low. Cooking in summer is done on outdoor fires, on an indoor tandoor in
with the outside world is difficult and expensive, and
nearly impossible during the winter.
a town of 25,000 people, by far the largest of Badakhshan,
is a little more modern, with flush toilets, part-time running
water, and electricity that is somewhat more available than
in the villages. But it is still fiercely hot in the summer,
and closed to the outside world by the snows in the winter.
aid of our guide, translator, and soon, friend, singer and
musician Samandar Pulodov, we soon found Makhingul,
and the next day she was with us, giving me my first lesson
in ‘Rapo’, the national dance of Badakhshan.
‘Rapo’ refers to many things: a rhythm, a melody, and a style
of dance. It can be choreographed or improvised, a solo or
couple dance, a dance of flirtation, or a mystical dance.
a dance that Badakhshani children learn at home and in school. In
its many variations, it has a continuity of features that make
it easy to recognize: the music has a distinct and unique musical
meter, that starts at a slow tempo and ends fast; the steps
at the beginning are confined to the beginning of the dance,
and not used later; the final part includes spins of a uniquely
out to be a great beginning for my studies of Badakhshani culture. Being
able to dance Rapo in people’s homes showed that I was capable
of and serious about learning their culture. It expressed
non-verbally my appreciation of Badakhshani life and proved
a gateway to communication. When we danced Rapo together,
we became, for a moment, just human beings, more alike than
different, expressing our joy in movement.
End of part I
part II Robyn talks about life in Khorog and her experiences
in Badakhshani villages.
The beautiful Bartang River valley in late summer. Photo: Robyn Friend.
learned the dance Munojat from People’s Artist of Uzbekistan
Viloyat Akilova. Please see my articles about Viloyat on my
web site: www.RobynFriend.com. Look under “Robyn’s
has two major divisions, or sects: Shia’ and Sunni; the majority
of Muslims are Sunni. The Shia’ sect is further divided into
those that believe that the 12th Shia’ imam was
the last (these are often referred to as “Twelvers”), and those
that believe that the 7th Shia’ imam was the last
(“Seveners”). The Seveners are also known as the Ismailis. Iran
after the Arab conquest was originally Sunni; it became predominantly
Twelver Shia’ with the conquest by the Safavid dynasty in 1501
CE. Central Asia is largely Sunni; as noted above, Badakhshan
is Ismaili (Sevener Shia’). For further reading, see A Short
History of the Imailis by Farhad Daftary, Marcus Weiner Publishers,
is the eastern-most portion of Tajikistan. It is almost completely
filled with high mountains (a part of the Pamir range) and
fast rivers. Due to the lack of arable land, it is sparsely
populated. Due to the harshness of the climate and the extreme
difficultly in getting there and back (even today!), is experiences
considerable culture isolation, and therefore has maintained
many cultural practices distinct even from the rest of Tajikistan. The
population are largely Ismaili, and speak Iranian languages
more closely related to ancient Sogdian than to modern Farsi
(the principle language of modern Iran) or Tajik
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