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The belly dance diaries
Part 1: The belly dancers' guide to Persian culture (or, "All I really need to know I learned at Chatanoga")



April 11, 2006

Relocating to the west coast was a big leap for me. A young belly dancer from New England, I wanted to move where the weather was gorgeous, and the stakes were high. I had heard there were a lot of people from Iran in California. This gave me respect for the culture.

People who were smart enough to pick a place with nice weather -- how great. Not like my ancestors, who moved halfway round the world to wind up in Massachusetts. I resented that with each blizzard -- why couldn't they have gone a few extra miles and landed someplace sunny? Shaking my fist at the sky, I made my plan. California, here I come!

Nothing in my life had prepared me for Southern California. Television had lied to me. And to make things worse, I moved to Orange County. I hated OC immediately. But -- there were Persians as promised! Lots of them. And the women all looked ten times more beautiful then me. Damn!

Now, let me explain something about me here. Growing up as a girl brain in New England, I never worried much about my appearance. Bathe and comb your hair, that's all it takes to be cute in Boston. Add lipstick and you can be homecoming queen.

I was used to gussying up for performance, but the rest of the time, I considered myself strictly off-duty, and with good reason. Now thanks to all these hyper-groomed females I might be forced to join a gym. Oh, the humanity.

The first week I called home and regaled my best friend with stories of how you could get "that good soup" (aush reshteh) whenever you wanted. At this time, Massachusetts had only one Persian restaurant in the entire state. So getting the good soup was really something special. I had it every day for a week.

Pretty soon I was dancing at a lot of the venues, and getting my soup for free. I learned there were tricks to dancing for Persian audiences. I live in the Bay area now, and perform at a lot of Persian events in the South Bay. Here's what I have learned in my cross-cultural journey:

1. No matter what you call them, it's wrong. Whether I say "Persian" or "Iranian" someone in the room will correct my usage. If you call them "Arab" they'll send you home with an atlas. Oh yeah, and a black eye.

2. Nothing slow. Americans love really draggy music; it sounds mystical and exotic to us. Not the Persians. Loud, please. Fast, please. And does it have to be middle eastern anyway? Haven't you got some Alabina?

3. I am not the best. The best dancer in the room is never the professional dancer. It's always a guest, but she would never perform for pay -- so they are stuck with me, hah!

Sometimes I like to play a guessing game before going through the audience. I call it "Dancing Quuen". Dancing Queen might br six years old, or sixty. Who will she be this time? That coed princess in platforms? The grandmother in a headscarf?

All I know, is someone here is going to act very shy and offended before standing up and transforming into an Austin Powers Femmebot. Then she'll sit down before getting sweaty or disheveled.

4. Nothing old. This includes the dancer. Got a wrinkle? Get off the stage!!! This also includes music. No old music. And costumes - they better not be shabby, and don't wear the same one twice in a row. Is "bling" a word in Farsi by the way?

5. Nothing boring. Bring your sword, your fire, your wings and coin tricks. The first time I danced at a South Bay club, there was a mixup with my music. It was another dancer's CD that turned out to contain thirty minutes of new age music for stretches and yoga exercise.

I tried to front that I'm all ethereal and mysterious, but after a few songs I gave up and went back to the dressing room. I think we were all relieved when the band came on and struck up a thumping bandari. The next time I showed up, one guy said to his friend "Look, it's the serious dancer!"

6. Don't touch the hair. Never the hair.

7. Mind the carpet. Living in SoCal, you meet some very wealthy people. I guess you've got to have money to afford all the rug shampoo it takes to clean 10,000 square feet of wall-to-wall white shag. From Bel Air to Encino, I would dance at parties and marvel at the courage it takes to sip red wine in a house that looks like the set of a Kubrick movie.

8. They could have fun anyway. I love this about Persians. Okay, let me explain something from the belly dancer's point of view. I might see a hundred parties in a year. I run in, dance, run out. Repeat. And I'll tell you most people don't know how to have fun. Parties like that are torture. It's like working at Chuck E. Cheese's except for the sequined bra. But the Persian gigs are great. They don't need me there, they're having a good time anyway.

9. It's going where it's going. Although I usually put a hand on my opposite shoulder if a tipper has a certain look in his eye, all bets are off when it comes to the older ladies. A tactfully draped arm across one's cleavage may be a defense for the guys, but it's no match for a determined granny! I've been mauled more times than I can remember by little old ladies.

10. Tah dig with ghormeh sabzi rocks. I know, I didn't have to spend my entire adult life belly dancing to find that out. But boy is it good.

So there you have it -- the belly dancer's confession. Next time you see one of us shimmying away, remember, we're looking at you too!

Zari is a Professional Dance Artist in Berkeley, California. Visit

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