Dances of Iran – Robyn Friend
by Neil Siegel

This video tape contains dance performances and choreographies by Robyn Friend.  The performances date from 1977 to 1999, and include solos, duets, and group dances.  There are also some songs and instrumental performances.

Dashti.  The word dashti means "desert", and is used to identify one of the principal musical modes of Persian art music.  Many of the names of these principal Persian musical modes have geographic contexts (e.g., place names, etc.), and expert opinion generally agrees it is at least possible that this may indicate that these musical modes have origins in ancient folk music from the named regions.  The principal musical modes like dashti (and segâh; see below), however, no longer have regional associations in Iran; they are played in the Persian art music repertoire ("radif") in all of the centers of art music across Iran.

Each of the principal musical modes of Persian classical art music is associated with an aspect of love -- in the case of dashti, the perspective of a young man, who is likely to complain about the problems in his love life!

In this segment, Robyn sings two songs in dashti -- hajjiani, and deylaman.

Hajjiani:  "A vagrant said this secret to his companion: 'Oh Sufi, wine will be pure when it has remained in the bottle 40 days'."

Deylaman: "I am so shackled by love of you, I am like a roped gazelle.  Sometimes I weep at my incurable pain; sometimes I laugh at my loveless life.  But I am not mad enough to forget about love, and if you are wise, you won't try and change my mind".

These songs are built around their poetry, and the musical rhythm of the melody follows the poetic foot, rather than a repetitive measure-mark; this sort of singing is often called "avaz" in Persian.  While such singing is often called "arrhythmic" or "non-metered" by western musicians, that is not correct; the rhythm is derived from the poetry, albeit with significant room for improvisation.  The vocal ornamentation and the relationship between the text and the melodic emphasis are also improvised, as is the instrumental accompaniment.  Robyn learned these songs from Morteza Varzi, her long-time Persian music teacher, in the 1980's.

We are then treated to a great solo on the tonbak by Siamak Pouian.  We met Siamak in the early 1990's; our first performance together was a concert in Vancouver, BC, that was a part of a celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of the publication of the Persian epic "Shahname", by Ferdowsi.

The dance which follows is in three sections, with tempos of medium, slow, fast (this is not mandated by tradition, but Robyn likes it).  The first and third pieces are well-known rengs (dance pieces) in dashti.  The second was adapted by me from a piece taught (and probably composed) by our friend, the late Philip Harland, in the musical mode of hicaz.

The dance includes two special sections, jâheli and raqs-e bazak.    The jâheli style is perhaps the most unusual Persian dance style, especially from the point of view of a non-Iranian.   Jâheli dance is part of an Iranian sub-culture that has its origins in 9th and 10th century, a period when eastern Iran especially suffered under the incursions of Turkic and Mongol tribes seeking pasturage and pillage.  Local, informal constabularies were formed to protect each town or village.  The men of these groups, called jâhel (meaning “ignorant” in Persian), along with their women, developed a group culture with an interesting mixture of street smarts and spirituality.  In this dance,  Robyn imitates a jâheli man’s “tough-guy” style of dance.  Raqs-e bazak depicts a lady at her toilette, washing, combing her hair, applying makeup and perfume, and putting on jewelry.

Musicians:  Siamak Pouian, on the tonbak (Iranian wooden drum), and myself, Neil Siegel, on the târ (Iranian long-necked lute).

Performance date:  July 1992

Azerbaijani.  In the 1950's, the Soviet choreographer Igor Moseiyev took traditional "floating" movements (e.g., the use of bent knees to isolate the upper body and hold it smooth while moving across the ground) in Azerbaijani and Georgian dancing, and refined them into his famous "Partisans" dance suite, which featured such "floating" by both men and women.

In the 1960's, Leona Wood, one of the two co-founders of the Los-Angeles-based AMAN International Music and Dance Ensemble, used the same idea to create a set of dances (in her case, just for women) featuring both "floating" and a dance with a picnic cloth (sofra).  In the 1970's, Mardi Rollow, another AMAN dancer, extended this choreography.

In the early 1990's, long after AMAN had stopped using this dance in its repertoire, the Duquesne University Tamburitzans asked Robyn to revive and adapt it for their use.  With Leona's permission to do so, Robyn created a new version on this wonderful theme.

The Tamburitzans -- all undergraduate college students -- accompany themselves, as they do in every number in all of the 80 or so concerts they do every year.  The melodies were selected and sequenced for them by me, using the same melodies that we used in AMAN at various times.  The second and third melodies were composed for AMAN's use by Phil Harland.  The orchestration is by the Tamburitzans.

Layla and Majnun.  In the musical mode of homayun, there is a section called Leyli-o Majnun, which is used exclusively to accompany the poem of that same name.  This poems appears in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, all over the Middle East . . . but in Iran, the version by Nizami is the most revered.

When Robyn received the offer to dance in a concert that was a staging in dance of this poem, I could not resist the urge to use music in this special musical mode.  The music for the dance piece that follows the recitation of the poem is in the older, slower version of the reng form, and is an improvisation built around musical themes I learned from recordings of Majd and Banan.

We recorded the sound track on 19 February 1999.

Musicians:  Neil Siegel on the târ (Iranian long-necked lute), and Robyn Friend on daire (frame drum).  The sound track to this dance is available on Robyn's new audio CD.

Performance date:  February 1999

Bazm.  Robyn has studied Persian classical singings for many years with Morteza Varzi, one of the great masters of Iranian music.  In the course of her studies, which have included Iranian culture, language, music, and poetry, she has become interested in the bazm, the traditional home entertainment (see, for example, the articles on bazm on this web site).  It therefore was natural that she would create a stage rendition of a bazm.  The complete performance includes about ten minutes of music and singing that is not shown on this video (but is included on an audio CD by Morteza Varzi that is available for purchase through Robyn -- drop her an EMail if you are interested).

The complete dance portion of this performance is shown on this video.  It includes a jaheli solo dance performed by Robyn.  This is part of a concert by the AMAN International Music and Dance Ensemble that took place at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California, as part of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.

The beautiful stage set was designed by Leona Wood.

The music is in the musical mode of chehargah.  The musicians are Peggy Caton (santur), Morteza Varzi (kemance), Neil Siegel (târ), and Ali Tavalali (tonbak).

Performance date:  July 1984.

Sheikh Shamil.  I learned this dance from our friend Ergun Tamer in 1970.  This style of men's dancing -- on the tops of the toes in soft, unpadded leather boots -- is popular not only in Azerbaijan, but also in other nearby cultures -- Georgia, Daghestan, etc.

The music is a traditional melody for this dance, recorded by the AMAN ensemble in the 1960's.  The AMAN orchestra was at that time led by Phil Harland.

The video recording was made as a part of a student film project.

Performance date:  September 1977

Qashqa'i.  The Qashqa'i are a Turkic-speaking tribe that live in southwest Iran.  They are "transhumant"; that is, they have separate summer and winter quarters, migrating between them -- with all of their animals -- twice each year.  Robyn met the son of a Qashqa'i khan (tribal leader) at college, and in 1975, went to Iran, visited the tribe, studied dance, and filmed dancing at a wedding and other functions.  This choreography is largely based on what she learned in 1975, supplemented by later consultations with tribal members and reference works.

Let me extend a big "thank you" to our friend Manoochehr Gorguinpoor, now the khan of one sub-tribe of the Qashqa'i.

The dances and musicians are with AMAN, during a performance at Royce Hall, UCLA, in Los Angeles.

Performance date:  June 1989

Segâh.  This is another solo performance built around a single musical mode, in this case segâh, associated with enjoying love through its difficulties, but ending up happy.  The word "segâh" means "three places" (possibly in reference to the finger position  on the târ of the most prominent note), and, like "dashti",  is used to identify one of the principal musical modes of Persian art music.  Segâh is the mode in Persian classical art music that is perhaps the most different from any musical scale used in any type of western music.

The song is called Kolâh Makhmali ("felt hat"), in the jâheli style.  "My curly hair makes everyone crazy.  Show me the money, if you want me to go to the ends of the earth.  I am sweeter than cookies and candy.  I have crazy moves.  If you don't have any money, get out of here.  I won't be tricked; I always land on my feet".

After this (very cute!) song, we are again treated to a great solo on the tonbak by Siamak.

The dance that follows is in three sections, with tempos of medium, slow (including raqs-e bazak), and fast.  All three are well-known rengs (dance pieces) in segâh.  The second is a particular favorite of mine, called reng-e del-gosha, and is a very old composition indeed.

Musicians:  Siamak Pouian, on the tonbak (Iranian wooden drum), and Neil Siegel on the târ (Iranian long-necked lute).  A longer performance of this same musical set is available on on Robyn's new audio CD.

Performance date:   May 1997

Ferghana.  I learned this piece of music in the 1970's, originally from a Soviet-era recording owned by our friend Kathy McCallick Miller.  Originally composed as a song (and not intended for dancing), I like to use it as an instrumental to accompany this kind of dance, because of its variety of lovely melodies.  It is in the musical mode of kurdi, which is featured in much Turkic music from Anatolia to Central Asia . . . but almost never in Iranian music.

Don't blame Robyn for using this music; her accompanist was just beyond her control!

The dance itself is in the Uzbek style of Ferghana.

Our friend Massoud Modirian is playing the daf (frame drum).

Performance date:   February 1991

Notes by Neil Siegel, September 2000