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Abbas Agha's dancing lesson
He could dance better than any woman

September 6, 2001
The Iranian

At mehmoonis, I always try to hide in a dark corner all night, hoping against hope that the hostess won't notice my absence from the "dance floor" (i.e. the Persian rug in the center of her living room). But, inevitably, she always manages to make her way towards me and I sigh, knowing what's coming. No matter how much I protest, she literally tries to lift me up by the armpits and drag me to her temporary Persian discotheque and join her dancing guests.

-- "Be khodaa, khaanoom, balad nisstam beraghssam. Tarjeeh midam beshinam."

-- "Na maamaan jaan, in harfaa chieh? Kheili ham ghashang baladi, khejaalat nakesh!"

Or, alternatively:

-- "Eybi nadaareh azizam, khodam behett allaan yaad midam."

I get SO embarrassed and send thundering looks to my mom to help me get out of this situation (which maamaan blissfully ignores by the way). It's not that I don't like Iranian dancing. Actually I love looking at it. Especially if it's Jamileh (still hot at sixty something!) doing her Baba Karam, or Googoosh doing her mixed Western-Iranian combo, or those "mahali" dancers in their colorful costumes from various provinces (eyne aroussak mimoonan!).

I just don't know how to dance "Iranian". This is one of the shortcomings of growing up outside Iran, surrounded by the rhythms of bad 80s synthesizer bands (Can you "gher" to Duran Duran's "Hungry like the Wolf"?). So if one of my mom's friends has finally succeeded in ungluing my butt from my chair, I always end up looking like an awkward marionette maneuvered by a clumsy handler. You will undoubtedly recognize me as the sore thumb in a sea of graceful Persian goddesses, hopping hesitantly from one foot to the other and mechanically clapping her hands (out of rhythm mind you!). I just don't know what else to do to the sounds of "Har chi migan mouch mouch, javaab midi nouch nouch".

My first Iranian friend Madeleine (pronounced "Mud-Len"), whom I met in my teens, had on the other hand lived in Iran long enough to absorb the essentials of raghaassi. Maddy always became the center of a growing circle of admirers wherever Iranian music was played. But as hard as she tried, she couldn't teach me. She didn't remember how she herself had learned. For all she knew, she had come out of her mom's womb boogieing to Leyla's "Ey yaar, ey yaar"! Finally, she suggested renting a video from a Tehran-Gelessi teacher who had done wonders for her equally dance-challenged cousins.

We got the cassette and eagerly prepared ourselves for the Iranian dance lesson. (Maddy was joining me for moral support). For some reason, we dressed in jogging bras and track pants, as if this was going to be a Jane Fonda Workout. We moved the coffee table and other furniture out of the way and transformed the TV room into a makeshift "dance floor". Finally we popped the cassette in the VCR. The first frame showed a very simple dance studio, white walls and floor, the only decoration being a palm tree on the far left. Then, some Iranian musical notes pierced the silence, and a man emerged on screen. He had previously been hiding behind the palm tree.

He was short, plump and brown, with disproportionately short arms and legs, just like a chicken! Actually, come to think of it, his skin was glistening (was it sweat or Vaseline?) like those chickens broiling in the rotisserie of the neighbourhood butcher shop. Except THIS chicken was hairy... daaaaaamn hairy! Starting with a thick mop of black curls at the top of his head and matching unibrow below, a vertical gaze brought you down to a permanent five o'clock shadow on the chin, and continuing south, tufts of black hair crawling from under his tank top to spread across his chest and shoulders. His sleeveless arms were covered by the unending forest of hair and so were his bare feet, including all of his toes.

But though his body seemed to scream TESTOSTERONE, his outfit was, by incredible contrast, very girly. A pink tank top molded every roll and bulge of fat from his "man-boobs" to his love handles and round belly. On his legs he wore black spandex tights tucked into fluffy pink legwarmers that would have looked not at all out of place on Olivia Newton-John circa her "Let's get Physical" stage. Back at the top, he wore a pink and black bandana across his forehead as if he was getting ready to play Russian roulette in a Vietnamese prison camp.

This was our teacher.

I was fascinated by how this... errr... shall we say "attraction-challenged" man could dance better than any woman I had ever seen, including Maddy. He didn't fling his arms to and fro nor was he kicking up a storm with his legs. No, these were much more subtle, you could say "dainty" limb movements. A little swagger of the butt cheeks here and there, a flirty smile and alternatively pointy then flexed feet, nothing too outrageous. He was one of those human beings who seem to have a spine made of cotton candy. Despite his "generously proportioned" stature, he strutted his stuff with the suppleness of a Romanian gymnast, and the fluidity of a twinkle-toed ballerina.

Finally he made it to the center of the dance studio and the music faded. He introduced himself as Abbas Agha and immediately started by doing a bit of promo, telling us about his last 28 dance cassettes that encompassed everything from Moroccan belly dancing to the Polish polka. He urged us to watch out for his next project coming to the closest Pars Video very soon: Zulu interpretive dance.

He then introduced his "back-up" dancers, two pear-shaped Iranian women who looked like twins: Both had big, teased, frizzy hair like they were fresh off the Jersey shore, black spandex body suits and tights, and bare feet that had been pedicured in an unbecoming frosty pink shade, perhaps to match the silk pink scarf tied across their waist, accentuating their bulgy middle. What's worse, they handed Abbas Agha a third scarf which he proceeded to tie around his own waist. You could see Abbas Agha was more special than these two since his scarf had shiny sequins sewed on it.

The trio then engaged in some "spontaneous" banter to the effect that Abbas Agha looked younger and younger every year, implying that he was taking off years with each new video he was producing.

Back in my TV room, I was starting to get restless. When were we going to get to the "meat" of the matter, i.e. the actual dance lesson?

As if on cue, Abbas Agha told the twins to take their place and the music magically reemerged. The first lesson was easy enough. Two steps to the left, two steps to the right. Then Abbas Agha added some simple arm movement. You were supposed to bring your arms together to the left side then to the right side of the hips, at the conclusion of your leg-steps. Slowly but surely, we reached the stage where we incorporated a slight rotation of the hips at the end of each leg and arm combo. Abbas Agha screamed out his instructions while dancing:

-- "Vaan, too, tee-ree, gher!... Vaan, too, tee-ree, es-step!..."

The routine was really simple and I was able to follow it though I was a bit disappointed. I thought I would learn a more flamboyant style. Maddy told me to be patient; these were just the basics. Finally, Abbas Agha was ready to move on, after the legs, arms and hips, to the fourth and most crucial element of the art of Iranian dancing: The hair...

The hair????

Abbas Agha gave his precise instructions:

-- "Khaanoomaa baa moohaashoon baayad eshveh bereezan."

I now had two problems: One I did not know what "eshveh" meant. Second, even if I did know, I had gotten a very unfortunate haircut the week before at the insistence of my mother who wanted to test out on me the skills acquired at some "beautifying" evening class. The result had been disastrous, leaving me more closely cropped than even Abbas Agha.

This did not seem problematic to our dance teacher however, as he flung his imaginary long mane off his burly shoulders. It was quite convincing; he was such a good actor! His twins had more trouble as their fingers would get caught in their frizzy mass of follicles.

This was the moment my dad chose to walk in. He took one look at the screen where he saw a fat middle-aged hairy Iranian man wearing tight pink spandex, rotating his hips, tossing imaginary hair about, and making bedroom eyes at the camera. Baba, a very "old-school" Iranian man, at first just froze in place. Having walked in carrying a bowl of cereals, he still had the spoonful of Apple Jacks suspended in mid-air between his mouth and the bowl when he started screaming:


Faster than you can say damboli-dambol, he turned off the TV and confiscated the cassette.

Thus ended my first and last Iranian dance lesson.

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