The East Bay Choreographer Elevating Persian Dance Like Never Before

Shahrzad Khorsandi has written the definitive book on Persian dance, but it's not available in Iran. (Photo: Shahrzad Dance Academy)

Shahrzad Khorsandi has written the definitive book on Persian dance, but it's not available in Iran. (Photo: Shahrzad Dance Academy)

The Art of Persian Dance is a visually inspiring book that — for the first time in the art form’s centuries-old history — outlines the kind of precise movements that have mesmerized audiences around the world, especially those in the country that birthed the form: Iran.

This is the book that fans of Persian dance have always wanted. But it comes with a big caveat: Shahrzad Khorsandi’s primer can’t be sold in Iran, can’t even be seen there, because Khorsandi is on the cover and she leaves her hair uncovered and exposes the skin on her right ankle and left shoulder. Khorsandi, in other words, can freely dance and teach in the United States, where she’s lived since 1980, and she can freely publish a groundbreaking book that pictures her throughout, but Khorsandi can’t freely dance and publish in the country where she was born and raised because Iran’s clerical regime prohibits images of exposed women’s hair and skin.

So The Art of Persian Dance is both a breakthrough and a bit bittersweet.

“No one has ordered it from Iran,” Khorsandi tells KQED Arts, “and I don’t think it would be a good idea, especially because of the pictures in it.”

Published in February, The Art of Persian Dance is Khorsandi’s unique interpretation of a dance form that she’s practiced since her teenage years. Khorsandi runs a dance academy in Richmond, and she and two of her dancers will be featured in the April 26 Berkeley event called “Dance on Center: New Works by Women Choreographers.”

Khorsandi regularly performs before non-Iranian audiences who may know little or nothing about Persian dance. Many people, for example, mistakenly think Persian dance and Egyptian belly dance are the same. But they’re as different as, say, ballet and disco.

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In fact, as Khorsandi details in her book, the specific Persian dance she teaches can be thought of as Persian ballet. Overall, Persian dance can be classified into three distinct styles, she writes: Folk dance, Iran’s oldest dance genre, which germinated among Iran’s tribal groups and takes on many distinct regional forms; Social dance, an informal style practiced in social settings like parties; and Classical Persian Dance, which is choreographed before audiences.

Khorsandi calls her technique the Shahrzad Technique (which is the book’s subtitle), and it’s based on hundreds of specific movements for hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, hips, legs, and feet. Hand and wrist movements are particularly important and unlike anything in Western dance. Khorsandi has named poses and movements that she’s taught to dancers at her academy for 19 years, such as Qalammu, which emphasizes a dancer’s fluid arm and wrist work (Qalammu means “paintbrush” in Farsi), and Ranesh, which emphasizes both hands pushing away from the body in an artful way (Ranesh means “to be pushed away” in Farsi).

“A lot of times,” Khorsandi says, “the wrist leads the movement, and kinetically, as a dancer, you feel the connection between the wrist and the core of the body, so that there’s this dialogue and relationship between the motion of the wrist and the motion of the spine through the connection of the core.”

In The Art of Persian Dance, Khorsandi depicts the parallels she sees between Persian dance and other Persian art forms, like calligraphy, which has a similar emphasis on harmony and balance.

“Most of my students and dance-company members are non-Persian,” Khorsandi says, “and it’s hard to describe to them what makes something ‘Persian.’ They’re always afraid of going outside of the boundary. They’ll say, ‘Is this not Persian if I do it this way?’ So in trying to define what makes it Persian, I can do a movement and say, ‘This is Persian.’ I’ve tested it over the years. I’ve had older Persian audience members who say, ‘You took me back to Iran.’ Or, ‘This is so Persian.’ I’m capturing the essence of what’s Persian. I’ve looked at textiles, calligraphy, architecture, and it has made it easier to explain the similarities. You see these curvilinear lines, and see how this composition has this swing and rhythm to it, that’s why the arm goes this way and the body follows through this way.”

A page from The Art of Persian Dance
A page from The Art of Persian Dance.

With the publication of The Art of Persian Dance, Khorsandi has completed an important new stage of her career — a bookend to the very beginning, when she had to battle her parents’ expectation of what she should do with her life. Khorsandi began gravitating toward dance as a student at El Cerrito High School, and as she notes in The Art of Persian Dance, aspiring to be a dancer “for the most part still is unheard of in Persian culture,” despite the long tradition of dance in Persian society.

Khorsandi studied dance as an undergraduate at the California Institute of the Arts (she also has masters in Creative Arts from San Francisco State University), and her book notes that when her parents’ Persian friends “asked about me and what I was studying in college, my parents would quickly change the subject to my brother and talk about his degree in computer science. They would often say something like, ‘Well, you know how kids are… She is going through a phase and thinks she wants to be a dancer.’”

Khorsandi’s parents eventually accepted her career, and are proud of her accomplishments, says Khorsandi, who acknowledges them in her book.

“My family’s resistance didn’t stem from any religious reasons, though a lot of families consider it blasphemous to dance,” Khorsandi says. “My parents were (initially) supportive of dance as a hobby. They were coming from a very common place in Persian culture that a successful career is engineering or being a doctor. And because I was good at school and academic stuff, they assumed that I would be one or the other. The shock of ‘throwing everything away’ and becoming a dancer goes back to that difference of, ‘Dance is just an intuitive thing that you do. You don’t think about it. You don’t have to be smart to do it. Can’t you just dance on the side?’”

The answer was “no.” And Khorsandi’s continuation with dance has elevated it to the forefront of audiences who, whether Persian or non-Persian, get something important from her performances.

“If we’re doing it for the Persian community, we’re educating them in how classical live Persian dance can be — it doesn’t just have to be social dance; it’s not just improvisational. It can be mindful and have a format,” Khorsandi says. “To non-Persians, we teach them that it’s non-belly dance, that it has an organic flow to it.”

Shahrzad Khorsandi.
Shahrzad Khorsandi.

On April 26, Khorsandi and her dancers will perform a male character dance that includes fake mustaches, and then what Khorsandi describes as “classical Persian ballet style.” Through performances that are recorded and put on video-sharing sites like YouTube, people in Iran can see Khorsandi’s dances. Undoubtedly, her book will eventually find a way to Iran, where it will be studied by young dancers who, like Khorsandi, dreamed of doing something life-long with dance.

“After the Iranian Revolution (in 1979), dance in Iran was completely outlawed,” Khorsandi says. “Recently, they started to calm down and let people have companies if it was all female dancers, female choreographer, and everybody in the audience was female. But throughout the rehearsal process, the government would send agents in to censor anything they consider inappropriate, and that included any movement they thought was sensual and any music that had too much of a dance groove to it. In fact, they don’t use ‘dance’ in their programs. They call it ‘harmonious movement’ and ‘theatrical movement.’ Most of the dancing choreography in Iran is done in the realm of theater. For the most part, they can’t show the body line. They have to wear baggy clothes.“

The limits on dance in Iran, Khorsandi says, “keeps the art form from evolving and keeps scholars from having the opportunity to work on (writing about it) openly and getting grants, because there’s no support. In fact, there’s resistance and possible imprisonment for it.”

Khorsandi has visited Iran since moving to the United States, most recently last summer. “When I go, I go there for personal reasons,” she says. “I miss my family, and I spend time with them. We have a great time. I shop for fabric and things like that. But I don’t have any plans of going there to perform. I don’t want to risk being able to go back.”

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