The Illegal, Underground Ballerinas of Iran
Dancing is illegal in the Middle Eastern state, but that hasn't stopped renegade ballet teachers and students from staging classes in secret.
Photo by Amanda Large via Stocksy
The first time I met Ada* was at a rooftop party in Amsterdam. We had gravitated towards the snacks table and, reluctant to give up a prime position that offered both uninterrupted access to the fries and a view of drunk tourists falling into the Prinsengracht canal, we began swapping stories. Ada, a web developer from Iran, told me about dodging Tehran's morality police as a teenager, once dashing into a shop in the hope that they'd run past—only to realize that they had followed her in.
"They used to check our nail varnish to make sure it wasn't too bright or enticing," she laughed. "All the police had different ideas about what was going to turn men on too much and it was difficult to know how they'd react. But I knew they'd hate purple so I ran into the shop. The shop owner saw me and opened the backdoor and I ran out into the back alley while he told the police he hadn't seen me."
"It sounds like something out of the French resistance."
"It was resistance! We would wear gloves to hide our hands and use tricks to get away with wearing as much makeup as possible. That's what [the government] does to us. They make us feel like painting our nails was a really rebellious thing to do. They make you care about such little things, so you don't have the energy to fight for the big things."
Six months after our conversation, Ada emailed me from Tehran. She had just attended her first ballet class in years and was buzzing. She told me about covertly scanning the local newspapers for the "right kind of advert," stalking online message boards, calling mysterious numbers, drafting in friends as character references and, finally, gaining entry to the secretive classes.
Dance is illegal in Iran. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the country poured funding into the arts, especially dance programs that combined elements of traditional dance with Western disciplines like ballet. After the Shah's government was overthrown, dance was declared sinful. The Iranian National Ballet Company was disbanded in 1979, shortly after all its foreign dancers fled the country.
Their Iranian counterparts were left with three choices: Give up on their life's work and find another way to pay their rent; leave Iran and revive the company somewhere else (Les Ballets Persans is currently operating out of Stockholm), or stay in Iran and—through a combination of subterfuge, bribery, and outright defiance—keep dancing.
Ada was 20 when she attended her first ballet class; she is now 28. "I'm not a risk taker and I never went to any of the illegal parties at college," she says, "but dance classes seemed worth the risk." It's not just dance that is banned in Iran; any music that makes your body move spontaneously is considered sinful. "It's OK as long as it doesn't give you pleasure," Ada explains. "As soon as dance or movement gives you pleasure, it's a sin."
Coming from an English town that was obsessed with three year olds in pink tutus wobbling to Swan Lake, it's difficult to picture ballet as a risky or illicit activity. While I was whining to my mum that I wanted red, not pink, ballet shoes, Ada had to keep her dance classes a secret from her parents. Her parents would have banned Ada from attending—police regularly broke up the classes, especially if the teachers hadn't paid a big enough bribe, and Ada's arrest could have led to a prison sentence and expulsion from university.
I make dance shoes. They cannot forbid making shoes.
These days, classes are held in abandoned hospital basements, office blocks, or silently conducted in the teacher's homes. More often than not, a teacher counts out the beat for the dancers, rather than risk playing music and alerting the neighbours.
Ada's old dance teacher, Azar*, reflects on the constant threat of police intervention. "At any time there is a chance that police will arrive and arrest all of us," she says. "I keep telling my students that I cannot guarantee their safety. However, I try to be very careful. I only accept students who have been referred by other students. I do not try to fill in all my hours by advertising, like some other teachers who give out business cards on the street."
Advertising the classes is a delicate balancing act: Too little promotion leads to empty classes, while too much can attract the wrong kind of attention. A trainee teacher, Yassi*, remembers the delicate balancing act performed by her dance mentor. "She was very cautious, but several times she received calls from government people even from offices under direct control of Ali Khamenei [Iran's Supreme Leader], inviting her to perform Iranian folklore dances either abroad at some specific international event, or in the embassies of other countries in Iran," she says. "They offered good compensation, but she did not accept." Yassi's mentor eventually left Iran to teach abroad and Yassi took over her classes, making sure not accept any juicy invitations from the regime to dance in public.
While the 1979 Revolution ended many dancers' careers, it did create unusual opportunities for people like Nassrin*, a young dancer who has—almost by chance—become one of the only suppliers of dance shoes in Tehran. Before the Revolution, professional and amateur dancers could buy their shoes from multiple places, and take their pick from cheap and cheerful basics to high-quality ballet shoes. Thirty-five years on, Tehran's shoemakers have largely moved on, died off, or given up. Nassrin advertises her work via Instagram and is fairly philosophical about the risks: "I make dance shoes. They cannot forbid making shoes."
I put the shoes' photos on my Instagram and it has a specific audience, most people don't know about it. When some of my friends saw it they said they did not know that they were shoes for dancing. They did not recognize them."
They [the government] still say dance is sinful so you must not dance, unless you pay bribes, and then you can dance, but only in secret...
Nassrin's attitude is a fairly recent development in Tehran's dance scene. When Ada first started attending classes, people were a lot more worried about being arrested. Now she tells me that they have settled into a familiar rhythm with the police. "They [the government] still say dance is sinful so you must not dance, unless you pay bribes, and then you can dance, but only in secret... Because it's sinful..."
Dancers still have to keep their lessons secret from their families, teachers continue counting out the beat in silent rooms, and shoemakers remain few and far between. But opportunities to dance in public are increasing, although it remains illegal for women to dance in front of men—the only attendees allowed are other women.
Yassi explains that things have changed with the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. "There are a lot more chances to perform but they ask a lot of money for it. We have to pay a big amount of money for each performance, so it will cost us about 200 million rials ($6,630) per performance, which is a lot of money."
An informal compromise has been reached after decades of jostling between fundamentalist Islam and the Iranian public's reluctance to characterize dance as sinful: Pay up and you can dance. When she recently returned from Tehran, Ada reminded me that genuine progress remains painfully slow.
"This new pay-to-dance scheme seems like a good development for Iranian dancers [but] the regime is still benefitting from not having a clear border between what is legal and what is illegal," she says. "It makes it harder to challenge them and majority of the people live even more limited lives by trying to stay away from danger. Ambiguity and fear are the easiest ways to control people."
There is something inherently ludicrous about the idea that a room of seven year olds doggedly practicing La Bayadère is sinful. But until this is acknowledged by the Iranian government, Ada and her dance partners must continue to view every small public performance as a triumph in the bigger battle to keep ballet alive in Iran.
* Not her real name