I, like most every Persian girl I knew, was enrolled in the community Persian dance class soon after my sixth birthday. I hated it. I was awkward — my gher looked like a muscle spasm and I sprained two fingers trying to beshkan. Still, my parents made me go and somehow over the next few years a sense of grace and confidence became instilled in me and I learned to love this cultural art form. It was only through dance that I began to love and embrace my culture — a phenomenon that is true for many Persian girls.
I began to notice, however, that soon after their 12th birthdays, most of the girls gradually dropped dance class never to return. The reasons they gave were similar — their parents had wanted them to be familiar with Persian dance, but to continue it after a few years…well that would just be tacky. They did not, after all, want their daughter to be considered a “raghas”.
I recently attended a dance performance that was hauntingly beautiful — the choreography, the passion with which the women danced, the sound of santur, the colors of the fabric, the raw sense of tribal unity and femininity that these women were exuding was magical. I have taken many Iranian Studies courses and ready many books on Persian history but I still feel that to truly understand the richness of Persian culture, once must sit in on a music performance, a dance performance, a poetry reading.
Read 40 books on Persian history and culture (most of which are written by self-proclaimed “Iranian Studies experts” who neither speak the language nor have ever even set foot on Iranian soil): you will not understand Persian culture or Persian history until you witness a musical performance, a poetry reading, a dance. I learned more about my history from listening to rifts of a santur and daf ensemble, from hearing the breaking voice of an old woman reading Rumi, from feeling the earthy tribal energy of a Shateri dance performance than reading any book on Iranian history or listening to a speech given by a pompous historian who has memorized every battle and political scandal, but knows nothing of the art that is my culture.
I recently began a Persian dance group at my University. Though the on-campus Persian association was accommodating, their anxiety before our first performance was palpable. They possessed the same fear that causes Iranian mothers to withdraw their daughters from Persian dance after a few years. Yet after we performed, the sense of energy that filled the room was incredible. After they were able to see what Persian dance can do for bringing together a room of Iranians, we got the okay to continue choreographing and performing for future events.
There is nothing cheap or shameful in learning a cultural art form and performing it to share the sense of pride and joy that has developed in you from learning it. It is also rather ironic that those that are the most verbal about the negatives of raghs are the first ones to jump at an opportunity to watch it performed. Ours is a culture with art running through its veins. Lift up Iranians who strive to keep their culture alive by learning and sharing pieces of your culture for you. After all, it was Rumi who guided us to,
“Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you're perfectly free.”