Presenting Ethnic Dance on the Stage

Robyn C. Friend, Ph.D.
Originally presented at a UCLA Dance Conference, 1992
First published in this form in Habibi, June 1999


Copyright © 1992, 1998, 1999 by Dr. Robyn Friend. All rights reserved.

Rights statement:  This material is the intellectual property of the author.  We encourage hyperlinks to be made directly to
this URL.  We encourage recognized academic usage, including quoting (with appropriate credits) and citing.  We also
encourage educational use, and publication in commercial forums; permission for such uses can be obtained by writing to:


Such use is authorized only after obtaining written permission in advance from the author.  Thank you.


As a choreographer and dancer who also does field research, I find myself wanting to bring to the stage the beauty and excitement of the dancing I have experienced in the field.   I realize, of course, that a great part of the fascination with ethnic dance comes from its context – the village, tribe, or family home.  To bring to an audience the thrill of “being there” is my hope as I plan my choreographies.

In presenting ethnic dance, we must somehow balance the competing demands of authenticity (in the form of an accurate re-creation of the tribe or village setting), and a presentation that is both entertaining and aesthetically pleasing.  Over the years, I have developed a two-step process for transferring ethnic dance from its original context to the concert stage; the purpose of this article is to describe this process.

First, I summarize my criteria for determining when a dance form is suitable for staging.  I then propose some guidelines for reconciling the requirements of the original dance form with the limitations of the staging process.  I then discuss, as both a scholar and an artist, how I apply this process in my own choreographic work, using as an example my staging of dances of the Qashqa’i, a Turkic-speaking tribe who live in southwest Iran.

1.  Should it be attempted?

Before considering how one might stage a particular ethnic dance, it is important first to determine whether or not the particular dance form is suitable for staging, by considering questions such as the following:

2. Guidelines for reconciling the requirements of the original dance form with the limitations of the staging process

Having determined that a dance is indeed suitable for the stage, I employ guidelines such as the following for translating a dance from its original context to the concert stage:

3.  An example

Having presented some criteria for determining whether a dance form is suitable for stage presentation, and establishing some guidelines for staging ethnic dance, I would now like to illustrate these through a specific example from my field work: a choreography depicting dances of the Qashqa’i tribe of southwestern Iran.

I selected this example for the following reasons:


Figure 1.  Qashqa’i women dancing.
From the photo archive of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Arts, Tehran.

The most characteristic Qashqa’i men’s dance type – called ub bazi (please see the entry “ub bazi” -- written by Robyn Friend -- in the Encyclopedia Iranica.  The Encyclopedia is edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater.) in Persian, and how oynamak in Qashqa’i Turkish – are rather more difficult to execute.  When I was first learning about the Qashqa’i from the son of a Qashqa’i khan (tribal leader), he explained to me that he never danced, because it was too dangerous.  “Dangerous!”  I exclaimed, “How can dancing be dangerous?”  He then described the dance to me as a contest between two men, one with a short stick who tries to hit the shin of the other, who uses a long pole to try and stop him.  The attacker gets one hit; if he misses, someone else rushes in to take his place; see figure 2.  And this is done completely in time with a 7/16 rhythm!  It was a real challenge to choreograph a stick fight like this, so that it looked spontaneous, kept with the music, and looked dangerous at the same time as being perfectly safe!



Figure 2.  Qashqa’i men dancing how oynamak at a wedding, Bonrud, Iran, 1978.
From the book “The Qashqa’i people of Southern Iran”, UCLA Museum of Cultural History pamphlet series, #14, 1981.



Figure 3.  The AMAN women dancers rehearsing the author’s Qashqa’i choreography, 1989, in a high-school auditorium near Los Angeles.
Photo by the author.



4.  Conclusion

The author in Qashqa’i dress, Tehran, Iran, 1975.
Photo by Carrol Klatte, an American who traveled with the author for a portion of this trip.

About the author:  A first-generation Bulgarian-American, Dr. Robyn Friend is a singer, dancer, choreographer, and linguist who specializes in Iranian and Turkic folklore.  Dr. Friend has studied dance and music with noted teachers in Iran, Turkey, and in the U.S.  Her dance repertoire includes traditional dances of Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia; her singing repertoire includes the classical radif of Iran, Sufi and folk songs from Turkey, and Gypsy songs.  She has a Ph.D. in Iranian languages from UCLA, and has authored numerous papers in both scholarly and popular publications on many subjects, including Iranian traditional dance and music, Iranian linguistics, and the exploration of Mars by balloon.  She has performed as a soloist throughout North America, in Europe, and in the Middle East.  She teaches and performs -- mostly to the Iranian community -- in Los Angeles.  She spent the summer of 1975 in Iran doing dance research among the Qashqa’i, and has also worked with members of the Qashqa’i tribe in the United States.


Copyright © 1992, 1998, 1999 by Dr. Robyn Friend. All rights reserved.

Rights statement:  This material is the intellectual property of the author.  We encourage hyperlinks to be made directly to
this URL.  We encourage recognized academic usage, including quoting (with appropriate credits) and citing.  We also
encourage educational use, and publication in commercial forums; permission for such uses can be obtained by writing to:


Such use is authorized only after obtaining written permission in advance from the author.  Thank you.