E. Music and Dance
In dance, as in other areas of creativity among Muslims, social attitudes were often carried over from pre–Islamic societies like Byzantium and Sasanid Iran. In fact, the Empress Theodora had once been a public entertainer, and because in Roman society it was forbidden for members of the elite classes to marry public performers, Justinian had to seek a special dispensation from his predecessor and uncle, Justin, in order to marry her. But not all of the considerable imperial propaganda machinery of the Byzantine Empire was able to erase the stain, and Procopius in his Secret History spread many colorful, and off–color, stories of Theodora’s sexual activities.
Today, many apologists for the low status of dancers, actors, and musicians in Iran attempt to portray pre– Islamic Iran as a society that gave royal patronage to artists, even housing them at court as Louis XIV did.15 Unfortunately, for many years, Medjid Rezvani’s book on theater and dance in Iran was the only one available on the subject; thus, some serious scholars like ethnomusicologist Amnon Shiloah accepted Rezvani’s fantasy of a classical dance tradition with formal rules and training that was performed in secret and “guarded, right up to our own times, the rules of the classical dance, even if a few old dancers are the only repositories of them.”16 This led Shiloah to conclude the following: “From the scattered information we possess, however, it emerges that alongside non–professional dancing, a well–defined form of sophisticated dance did exist. The latter probably referred to the glorious pre–Islamic Iranian dance with its codified rules and aesthetics. . . .”17 However, no evidence survives to demonstrate that any such classical dance tradition existed or that artists and entertainers were regarded any more highly in Sasanid Iran and Byzantium than in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia.
That the low position of dancers and other performing artists in the Middle East and Central Asia is a result of the continuance of earlier societal attitudes in those regions is considerably strengthened when one looks at the high position of classical dancers and musicians in the Javanese courts. In Java, by way of contrast to the position of Middle Eastern and Central Asian dancers and musicians, Muslim royal courts, continuing and adapting pre–Islamic attitudes, did indeed lavishly support classical dancers and musicians.
In response to the high priority and popularity of the performing arts in the West, many 20th century governments, including Egypt, Turkey, pre–Revolutionary Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Tunisia, formed national dance companies for touring purposes. These companies frequently created fantasy visions of their respective nation states to correspond to Western images of the Orient.18
Steps were taken to ensure that the dancers, culled for the first time from the middle classes, did not suffer from the traditionally poor reputation of professional dancers. These actions did not always succeed. All dancers, whether ballerinas in Cairo or Istanbul, or members of folk troupes in national companies, can regale listeners with the horrified reactions of friends and family when it became known that they have followed the profession of dancer.19 Lotfollah Mansouri, a well–known Iranian artistic director of the San Francisco Opera, recently told an audience of his father disowning him, calling him a raqqas (dancer), and of his father refusing to speak to him for years, despite his international celebrity, because he followed the disreputable profession of music.
As for music, classical forms (which differ from country to country) have often been granted official status by the state, thereby denying more popular forms of music access to state–supported media such as radio and television. Classical musicians frequently supported efforts to exclude other musicians from public performances by denigrating popular music forms as corrupting, establishing false hierarchies of permissible and impermissible genres of music, and attempting to imbue classical music with spirituality in order to bolster their societal positions at the expense of others.20 The well–known “Arabesque debate” in Turkey. which involves conservative opposition to popular, working class songs influenced by Arab melodies, is another example of the contestation of musical genres.21
Though the playing of musical instruments to accompany songs appears very early in the historical record of Muslim societies, dance makes a comparatively late arrival. When dance finally does appear, it is associated most strongly with Sufism. Some Sufi masters placed dance forms at the center of their ritual practices, and by the fifteenth century the theme of dancing Sufis, intoxicated by love of God, became common in miniature paintings from Iran and India. Other Muslim religious leaders, however, particularly among the non–Sufis, eschewed both dance and song, considering them distractions from true religious devotion.
This does not mean that dance was always associated with Sufism, or even with the religious life. The important role of court–sponsored music and dance in Indonesia has already been mentioned. In certain other regions, tribal customs involved dancing by groups of men or women. Moreover, traditional popular festivals held for centuries from Morocco to Egypt to India are known to have included dance groups, sometimes involving men dressed as women. Dance played a role in private life as well. In Iran, female dancers are a favorite theme in paintings of the Qajar era (late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries), and women of elevated social status sometimes danced for the entertainment of female friends.Back to the top.