DanceWatch Weekly: Dancing in Iran

An Independence Day conversation with Iranian dancer Tanin on what it's like to dance in Iran, where dance is prohibited

On the 240th anniversary celebration of our country’s independence from Britain, I am reflecting on our country’s ideals and what living in a “free” country means to me as an artist. Are we really as free as we think we are and are others really as persecuted and as restricted as we think they are? Yes and no. It is a complex question with complex answers that I am in no way trying to answer in it’s fullest here. To be honest I am not sure that one experience is different from the other. I am simply interested in creating a jumping off point for thought and conversation.

I thought an interview with a dance artist and colleague friend of mine who is Iranian and living in Iran, would be a good starting point.

Her name is Tanin (not her actual name for reasons of safety and anonymity). She is 23 and a dancer, choreographer and filmmaker. I first met Tanin several years ago when she submitted her first film to the dance and film festival that I started in New Jersey called The Outlet Dance Project. Her film and the conditions of her life and her perseverance to dance are moving and inspiring, and I have long wanted to share her story.

But first…the week in dance.

Performances this week

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Linda Austin in Procedures for Saying No by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Owen Carey.

Procedures for Saying no
Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble
June 3-July 2
Shaking The Tree, 823 SE Grant St

Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” the play examines toiling away in the workplace and the procedures that govern our lives and the consequences of saying no. The work features Portland dance artist and co-artistic director of Performance Works NW Linda Austin. Arts Watcher Barry Johnson was there and gives his take on the performance here.

Marissa Rae Niederhauser and Stephanie Lavon Trotter
Studio Showing
7:30 pm June 30
Flock Dance Center, 8371 N Interstate Ave. #4

An informal showing of work by nomadic dance artist Marissa Rae Niederhauser in collaboration with Portland’s performance and sound artists Stephanie Lavon Trotter.

Niederhauser has a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA and makes body based work in dance, film, performance and installation. She has presented work at On the Boards, Seattle Art Museum, Velocity Dance Center, Henry Art Gallery, and Seattle University in Seattle, WA and at Judson Memorial Church to name a few.

Trotter’s work focuses on voice and more specifically Opera. She holds a MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and a B. Mus. in Vocal Performance from Cornish College of the Arts. Trotter was an Alembic Artist in 2015 at Performance Works NW.

Below is my conversation via email with Tanin.

What are the restrictions on dance in Iran? How do they affect you or not affect you?

Well, dance has a weird situation in Iran. As you might know, Islamic laws are not friendly toward dance; it is considered a sin and especially women are forbidden to dance. As a result, no dance school is here. On the other hand, although it is restricted officially, there are many dance classes held in Iran! Especially in big cities like Tehran, you can find ballet classes in every neighborhood. The classes mostly are held at gyms.

I as a ballet instructor receive many calls each week from mothers who want their little girls to learn ballet and also young girls who had not the opportunity to learn ballet in their childhood, so they are going to learn it in their adulthood. I want to say that people do have this passion for learning ballet and dance and want to pursue it. And I can confidently say that it even has become a trend here! Why do almost all mothers want their kids participate in ballet classes? There are also some ballet classes held in private kindergartens and many kids attend ballet classes in Iran. But all these events are underground and you can never be sure what will happen to you later.

What was dance in Iran like when your mom was growing up?

After the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979, the National Ballet of Iran was closed and dancers were banned from working and many fled from Iran. It seemed that everything has disappeared. In this very weird situation, my mother started teaching dance at private homes with small groups of children or adults.

Is there a professional modern or ballet dance scene where you live?

Actually, there are many underground dance performances held in Iran, in some private saloons or small theaters, but they are not officially allowed. I should say it with regret that dance performances here are not very professional as there are a very few well-educated dance teachers and choreographers in Iran—very few. The outcome of performances is not very interesting as a result.

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Still from Tanin’s film Immensity. The photographers name has been withheld to protect his identity. Photo courtesy of Tanin.

What is your artistic practice or how do you do your art? How did it develop, what is your dance background?

My mother had the chance to be educated under an instructor who used to dance and teach before Iran’s revolution. She had a passion for dance and I took after her. She used to teach dance for many years and I actually started dancing from the very early age of four. After that, I took some classes here under some other teachers and then looked everywhere to learn more about the dance world. I went to Armenia and also took some classical ballet and contemporary dance lessons there, which was very helpful for my future career. I have been teaching ballet for more than 7 years, and the last 3 years has been in my own private cozy ballet studio.

I can say that I found my own artistic approach to dance in 2014, when I attended a Coursera class online in Creating Site-specific Dance and Performance by Stephan Koplowits from CalArts University. It was a very good opportunity for me to know many dance artists and learn more about dance issues internationally. As a result, I directed a couple of dance films. One called Immensity, which was filmed in a lakeside, and Beyond the Frames, shot in an abandoned building in north of Iran. These two have been screened in more than 15 dance film and film festivals in the USA, Canada and Europe. The latter one also won an award of Best Experimental Short Film from Mallorca International Film Festival in Spain.

Both my films are considered conceptual films. I always wanted to express feelings and concepts using dance, and now I actually use two very powerful things to share my ideas and perceptions about life: dance and film. Although I live in Iran, I can now share my ideas internationally.

I want to take the opportunity here and thank someone who may not know it, but I owe a lot to her. She is Mrs Donia Salem Harhoor, one of the directors of The Outlet Dance Project festival in New Jersey. I met her in the Coursera class, and after some time she messaged me on Facebook and said they have a dance film festival and would be happy if they receive a film from Iran, too. Just because she contacted me, I decided to give it a try. I had never thought of filmmaking before, so I can say that she somehow changed my life! Thank you dear Donia!

Are you in contact with dance outside of Iran and how are you connecting with that? Live or Internet?

Well, I never wanted to live in an isolated planet for myself. I have tried to learn more about dance and issues debated on it and have connection with international artists. In 2016 I attended the Cinedans dance film festival held in Amsterdam personally, where my film was also screened. It was a very good opportunity to meet great artists and exchange ideas with them. I should thank the internet too! It has always been my best friend in my career providing me many information, books, videos, dance friends!

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Still from Tanin’s film Beyond the Frames. The photographers name has been withheld to protect his identity. Photo courtesy of Tanin.

What is it like being a dancer in Iran?

It is like dancing while you are constrained! I am not complaining as I have also been very fortunate and successful in my career anyway and I could find my own way, but every time I wanted to do something, I had to fight for things that were very unusual. I had to accept a very high risk for me and my crew when choosing a location for my dance films since it was not acceptable at all if we were caught by the police! You always carry this fear with yourself here. Also there is usually no professional performance held, so you cannot actually be a dancer. Who is a dancer? Someone who dances for herself, or someone who performs on stage?

Anyways, I have been very fortunate so far. I have many students here and we have built up a very friendly and lovely dance community for ourselves. My students are my best friends now. They enjoy the spirit of our class, and it is always so much fun for all of us. I enjoy being so useful here as there is not many educated instructors here. When people call me, they express as if they have discovered someone! I could never feel as proud and happy as I am now, in any other places. I now feel that I am serving the women of my country and bring smile and happiness to them. What else would I like to have in this world more than this? I am now working on my third film which is a dedication to the dance situation in Iran, my students and those who are working in this field in Iran.

Are you thinking of studying dance abroad in a college setting?

Well I actually have received admission to several MA programs in Contemporary Dance Performance from a few Universities in Europe, and I am doing the preparatory work right now to attend one of them.

Upcoming Performances

July 9, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton
July 9, Todrick Hall Presents: Straight Outta Oz
July 13, A Wake for Conduit: Celebration & Farewell Party, Conduit Dance
July 14-23, Death and Delight, BodyVox Dance Company
July 16, Un Jour Pina M’A Demande (One Day Pina Asked), Directed by Chantal Akerman
July 16, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 17, Noelle Stiles, Veronica Martin, Chris Lael Larson, Pure Surface
July 29, Dog Day Dance: A Futuristic Variety Show, Produced by Ben Martens
July 29-31, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre NW, JAW Playwright Festival
August 4, Galaxy Dance Festival, Polaris Dance Theatre

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    That’s an interesting interview with “Tanin” Jamuna. To give you a little historical background on ballet in Iran, in the Fifties, William Dollar, who danced for Balanchine in the pre New York City Ballet days, taught ballet in Tehran, assisted by his long time living companion Yvonne Patterson and I believe there was a performing arm of that school.

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