The invention of an ideal female national dancer in twentieth-century Iran
Hailed as “ancient” (bastani), “authentic” (asil), “traditional” (sunnati), and “classic” (kilasik), the Iranian “national dance” (raqs-i milli) emerged in the creative performing arts sphere of Tehran in the early twentieth century. In the decades to follow, this genre became an artistic means to showcase the narratives of the nation through dancing bodies. Oﬀering a genealogy of this choreographic genre, this chapter explores raqs-i milli as an artistic medium whose trajectory encompasses innovative experiments with concepts, nuances, movements, and aesthetics drawn from the “repository of Iranian national culture” throughout the twentieth century.1 Moreover, it examines the female national dancer as a performative subject of the nationalist stage, embodying the characteristics of the modern Iranian woman. In the aftermath of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-09), the
newly established public sites of sociability brought together performing artists not only from various parts of Iran but also from the southern regions of the Russian Empire, mainly the Caucasus. With the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its consequent dispersion of ethnic and cultural Russians to Iran, Tehran’s artistic scene developed into a cosmopolitan center for experimentation in the performing arts. The mingling of these diverse peoples in the public sites of entertainment allowed Iranian musical and performing arts conventions to come into close contact with their counterparts from other places. It was this cohabitation of performing arts and artists that provided the creative spaces for the shaping of modern Iranian “national” music, dance, and theater. It also paved the way for female performing bodies to appear on the modern theater stage, and to replace and consequently eliminate the cross-dressing male performer, zanpush, and the transvestite bachchah-raqqas (see Figure 2.1 for a picture of a Qajar-era mutribi troupe featuring a bachchah-raqqas) from the “national” stage. In the period following, each of these disciplines, including dance, became professionalized in their own way. They all, however, share continuity with their early years of emergence. Looking at the dancing body of the nationalist theatrical stage of twen-
tieth-century Iran, this chapter ﬁrst provides a historical overview in roughly two periods: from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, when most dance
performances were part of the theatrical scene; and from the mid-1940s through the 1970s, when an independent public dance scene was developed.2
The chapter goes on to examine the nationalist biopolitics that regulated the stage and its staged dancing subjects.3 It also explores the prevailing trends in the discourse of dance in Persian periodicals of the Pahlavi era. Focusing primarily on the female subject of the national dance through a comparative perspective, this chapter investigates the ways her regulated female performativity defamiliarized both the image of raqqas-the contemporaneous dancer of the popular cabaret scene-and the male bachchah-raqqaqs-the boydancer of previous eras. Finally, this chapter addresses how the female performer of this invented genre embodied the ideas, aesthetics and ethics of Iranian nationalism and modernity.