Under Persian Skies:
An Evening of Dances from the Iranian World

helene persian

Travel with us for an evening to Iran: to the tribes of the high plateaus, the villages in the fertile valleys and to the opulent courts of bygone eras – when Iran was an epicenter of culture -- attracting poets, artists and scientists from all over the world. Helene Eriksen, who has been intensely involved with the traditions of Iran for over 20 years, is also sought out by Iranians in Europe and North America as an expert on and performer of this dance culture. Illustrative slide shows, woven between her dances, provide you with interesting, essential background information.

Iran is a multiethnic country. The Iranian languages form an important branch of the Indo-European language family. Iran is inhabited by Persians (Farsi/Persian speakers), but also by many other Iranian peoples (for example Kurds, Balutchis, Mazandaranis, Luri/Bakhtiaris, Gilakis and others). In addition to the Iranian peoples there are many other non-Iranians:
--Turkic peoples include Azeris, Qashqa’i, Afsharis, Turkmen and others.
-- Semitic peoples are Arabs in Khusistan on the border to Iraq and in some areas on the Persian Gulf as well as Aramaic speaking Christians and Jews in Kurdistan.
--Non-Iranian Indo-Europeans include Armenians (Christians) in Teheran, Täbris and Isfahan as well as the nomadic Kowli (“Gypsies”).
--Georgians, who speak a Caucasian language.

But there are also Iranian peoples who live outside the borders of Iran: in Pakistan (Balutchis and Pashtuns), in Afghanistan (Pashtuns, Balutchis, Dari/Tadjikis), in Tadjikistan, in the Caucasus (Ossetians), in Turkey (Kurds and Zaza) and in Syria and Iraq (Kurds).

With our program, we hope to give you a modest glimpse into the wonderfully varied and rich traditions of this colourful mosaic of cultures.

helene persianDances from Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, once a Soviet republic in the Caucasus, is today an independent county, which has attracted the attention of the world with its rich oil reserves. A large group of Azeris lives in northwest Iran, in the region of the city of Tabriz. The dances of the Caucasus are characterized by beautiful hand and arm movements and often by tiny gliding steps, which, under a floor-length skirt, evoke the illusion that the dancer is floating over the floor. The dances – sometimes melancholy, sometimes fiery – are always lyrical and express the natural pride of Caucasian women. Earlier, women danced simple dances at weddings and other festivities. In the ex-Soviet Union these dances became more codified and complicated stage forms.

helene GilanDances from Gilan, Northern Iran

Gilan is a region on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. The mountains, which rise almost directly behind the coast, cut off this subtropical region from the dry high regions of the central Iranian plateau. Because of the abundant precipitation, this is a swampy region, in which the houses must be built on stilts and the roads on dykes. Wheat and especially a very fragrant variety of rice are grown here. This plays an important role in the dancing: sowing, harvesting and winnowing of the grain are depicted by pantomime.

helene tadjikistanDances from Tadjikistan

Tadjikistan is situated in Central Asia and used to be a Soviet Republic. Now it is an independent country that borders on Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan and Kirghizistan. Although the Tadjiks speak an Iranian language, their dances have much in common with those of the neighboring Turkic speaking Uzbeks. The dances of Central Asia are noted for their dramatic facial expressions, expressive hand gestures, lyrical movements and dizzying spins. The costumes -- whether made from Khan Atlas Silk (Ikat) or richly embroidered -- mirror Central Asia’s important position on the historic Silk Road.

Foto: André Elbing

helene afghanistanDances from Herat, Afghanistan

During the Taliban regime no one in Afghanistan was allowed to dance, neither men nor women, neither in public nor in private. This had not always been the case. Although women usually never danced in public, in private, in the company of other women they danced beautifully. Dancing boys performed for the eyes of men, not only in the chaikhana (teahouse), but also at markets, festivals and weddings.

"Khorasan is the oyster shell, and Herat is her pearl." This saying stems from a time in the 15th century, when Herat was the capital of the immense Timurid Empire and the cultural center of the Persian-speaking world. Today the Herati view themselves as quite different from the Iranians. Only about 10% of the population is Shiite (as opposed to the majority of Iranians). The Farsiwan of Herat speak the Iranian language Dari and are much less homogeneous than the Pashtuns. Their identity is more strongly influenced by their locality than their tribal identity. In the cities they often work as artisans and tradesmen. In the countryside they live as farmers.

Foto: André Elbing

Helene BandariBandari -- Dances of Southern Iran

The inhabitants on the Persian Gulf lived originally from fishing and pearl diving. Because of their geographical location, their culture, including costumes, music and dance, is influenced by many surrounding cultures: besides Iranian, elements from Arabia, India and even Africa are to be found. Dancing is accompanied by the bagpipe and rhythmic hand clapping.

helene qajarPersian Court Dance from the Qajar-Dynasty (1796-1925)

These dances belong to an urban genre called Kereshme. Kereshme or Naz “flirting” or “acting coquettishly” is perhaps the most important characteristic of the urban social dances of Iran. Facial expressions, pantomime, exquisite hand movements and round fluid movements of the hips, shoulders and arms also play a central role. Helene’s costume is a reconstruction of courtly dress from the Qajar-Dynasty during the first half of the 19th century. Her dance evokes the atmosphere of the entertainments of the court during this period.