May I Have This Dance?

Shirin Abedi

2019 - 2020

In a long red dress with a small crown in her hair, Mojdeh dances in front of a red curtain in the cheer of a female audience in Tehran, Iran.

Nona (18), Mojdeh (21), Reyhaneh (22), Elham (24) and Yasamin (22) belonged to the “Alternative” ballet group in Tehran. They are part of the Iranian post-war generation, which stands up for self-determination, freedom and equality.

In 1958 the Iranian national ballet company was established and produced over 50 shows till the revolution. According to the Iranian law, immorality and fornication result from sensual dance, why 1979 all dance facilities got dissolved and dance got banned from the Iranian public.

Nevertheless, more and more Iranians are dancing today and try to make this their profession. The ballerina Pardis formed the “Alternative Motion Group” with Nima, a contemporary dancer in 2008, which ten years later performed for the first time after the revolution with both women and men on Tehran‘s most famous stage.

Having said that, the group is struggling with reprisals: Already approved plays are cancelled, the light is turned off during the performance and too much public attention, such on Instagram for instance may result in the arrest of the participating artists.

Whereas during the revolution ballet‘s abolition symbolized independence from the West, today dance stands for the longing of a generation for Western freedom.

This story is about the social change in Iran on the basis of a subculture in which dance is elementary to life. By this, the dancers represent a whole generation, who reclaims their desired future with a peaceful resistance.

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  • „I was standing back stage before going on stage on this performance and I literally teared up thinking that this is all I want to do in my life,“ says Nona (18) after dancing on stage for a female audience. She is frustrated about the inequality and disadvantage she experiences in comparison to foreign dancers. Nona studies chemistry in Tehran, but she is very determined to pursue a career as a dancer.

  • The crew rehearses for a show which got cancelled shortly before the premiere. A video of the dance rehearsals went viral on iranian media, which bashed the show. While rehearsing in Iranian public facilities, women have to wear wide, long and dark clothes.

  • Yasamin (22) spends her evening with her boyfriend by an artificial lake in western Tehran.
    Almost a decade ago, relationships between unmarried women and men were a taboo among the majority of Iranians. Back then, couples could be arrested by the morality police for their relationship. Nowadays having a girl- or boyfriend is much more accepted in the Iranian society.

  • Yasamin (22) and her friend Mojdeh (20) prepare a pose for a photo for their social media.
    Mojdeh often shares videos of her dance or workouts on Instagram, for her, this is one of her few delights. Since some iranian dancers got arrested because their dancing videos went viral on instagram, Mojdeh keeps her account private for her safety.

  • “If they take away dance from me, it is like they took away my life.” – Mojdeh (20) dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Since there is no higher education program for dancers in Iran, she is searching for a good institution abroad.

  • Every ballet lesson includes an improvisation part where the dancers try to picture emotions or situations. According to national Iranian media, these women are a tiny minority, almost not existing. Even the word "dance" shall not be used. Instead institutions shall officially use the names rhythmic movements, theatrical motion or aerobic for their dance classes.

  • “I had to fight a lot for my freedom with my parents. Even for my education - I had to study MBA until they allowed me to switch to tourism.”
    Reyhaneh (22) does a splits on the sofa while her brother tickles her. Reyhaneh (22) dances for ten years. She had to persuade her parents for a long time before she was finally allowed to participate in dance classes five years ago. Although her parents were against her participation at first, they meanwhile ask Reyhaneh to dance at family gatherings and support her.

  • Reyhaneh (22) sits on the floor of the metro in Tehran after a long working day. An hour earlier she was asked by three different people to dress according to the Islamic guidelines within 50 meters.

  • Reyhaneh (22) hugs her friend Narges after a Yoga class in Tehran. The friends met in middle school and Narges also dances ballet.

  • While 27% of Iranians below 25 years are unemployed, young dancers can work as dance instructers. Reyhaneh (22) teaches several times a week and mainly spends her income on dance lessons and travelling.

  • Elham (24) doesn‘t think that islam and ballet contradict each other.
    She didn‘t find a good ballet instructor in her own city, why she travelled each friday by plane to Tehran to participate in Pardis‘ dance classes. For receiving training on an international level, she travelled to Armenia and Georgia.

  • “For a dancer, the stage is sacred” says Elham.
    Elham’s (24) dream was to stay on the stage of the Georgian Opera in Tbilisi during four days of travelling to Georgia for a workshop with principal dancer Natia Bunturi. Unfortunately Elham was only allowed to observe the building of the Opera during a tour. She became sad comparing herself with the highly respected Georgian dancers. Worlds separate them, while both see their passion and profession in dance.

  • Yasamin (22) is a visual designer who suffers in the Iranian traditional society. Although her mother is a practicing muslim, she totally supports her daughter. This shows the social change in Iran. While parents of previous generations believed that „good girls don‘t dance“ or „girls can‘t laugh loudly in public“, today‘s parents are more tolerant and support their children, even if they have different opinions.

  • For Yasamin (22), it is important to be able to dance on the stages of her homeland, not in foreign lands. Maybe the saddest part about dancing ballet in Iran is that fathers could never attend her daughter's performances. While there are shows for a female audience, the dream of fathers seeing their daughters on stage remains unfulfilled.

  • Sometimes Yasamin (22) dances on the rooftop of her home. Many Iranian women dream of singing and dancing under the sky of their homeland.

  • Nevertheless there are performances with dance and singing for women in Iran.
    However, there are no pictures of such events, as all bags are controlled at the entrance and mobile phones and cameras are submitted.
    They are a hidden, surreal, parallel world in which the women can be free.