Persian Dance

A Brief on Persian Dance

by Peyman Nasehpour

Abstract. Dance is to move rhythmically to music. There are various kinds of Persian dances in Persian culture. This is a brief introduction to Persian classical and folk dances.

Introduction. The antiquity of Persian dance goes back to at least 5000 BCE. A piece of ceramic belonging to 5000 BCE shows a group of dancers taking their hands, found in Cheshmeh Ali, near Rey city, in Persia. On the other hand, Xenophon mentions a kind of Persian dance accompanied by a flute in his book Anabasis. It is also reported in Deipnosophistae that at the feast of Mithra, the great king danced Persian after getting drunk.

In the Persian language, there are a couple of words standing for dance such as "bazi بازی", "paykubi پای‌کوبی", "raghs رقص", "sama' سماع", "vachik واچیک", and "vasht وشت". In Iran (Persia), there exist different kinds of dances and detailed discussion of each kind can be a title of a specialized book. In this note, first I give a lexical discussion of the above words and then I introduce different kinds of dances in Iran briefly.

This is a piece of ceramic artwork showing dancers, belonging to 5000 BCE  (now kept in the Louvre museum) found in Cheshmeh Ali near Rey city, Persia.

Persian Group Dance

This is a piece of ceramic artwork showing dancers, belonging to 5000 BCE (now kept in the Louvre museum) found in Cheshmeh Ali near Rey city, Persia [G, p. 189].

The photo was taken from Wikipedia.

A lexical discussion of the word "bazi". In the Persian language, the word "bazi بازی" stands for "acting", "game", "play", and "sport", but the use of the word "bazi" in different expressions such as "pay-bazi پای‌بازی" and "chub-bazi چوب‌بازی" shows that "bazi" meant dance in the past. Note that "pay پای" means foot and "chub چوب" means wood (or twig). For the convenience of the reader, I bring some examples.

  • As Setayeshgar reports in his encyclopedia, the expression "pay-bazi پای‌بازی" has been mentioned in a pre-Islamic manuscript, when the servant of Khosrow Parviz describes himself as follows:

به چنگ‌ون، بربت، تمبور، و سرود و چکامه و نیز پتواژه گفتن و پای‌بازی کردن استاد مردمم.

  • The expression "pay-bazi پای‌بازی" in the sense of "dance" has been used in Persian literature. For example, Hujwiri, in his book "Kashf al-Mahjub" written in Persian, says:

و من که علی بن عثمان الجلابی‌‌ام از شیخ ابوالعباس شقانی رحمه اللّه شنیدم که گفت: روزی در مجمعی بودم که گروهی سماع می‌کردند دیوان دیدم برهنه اندر میان ایشان پای‌بازی می‌کردند و من به تعجب حال ایشان مانده بودم که در می‌دمیدند و ایشان بدان گرم‌تر می‌شدند.

Several poets included the word "pay-bazi" in their poems. For example, Fakhraddin Asa'ad Gorgani says:

گروهی در نشاط و اسپ‌تازی گروهی در سماع و پای‌بازی

It is interesting that Gorgani brings "sama' سماع" and "pay-bazi پای‌بازی" right beside each other. As I mentioned above the word "sama'" also stands for dance in Persian literature.

In the following, I bring another interesting verse by Gorgani which includes the expression "pay-bazi":

معلم چون کند دستان‌نوازی کند کودک به پیشش پای‌بازی

  • The expression "chub-bazi" (abbreviated to chubazi چوبازی) is a combination of "chub چوب" and "bazi بازی" meaning "wood" and "dance", respectively. The expression "chub-bazi" (meaning "twig dance") stands for a martial group dance performed by Bakhtiari men.

A lexical discussion of the word "paykubi". The Persian term "paykubi پای‌کوبی" (also with the dictation "پایکوبی") is a combination of "pay پای" and "kubi کوبی" meaning "foot" and "beating" (and "striking"). The term "paykubi پای‌کوبی" and also with the dictation "پایکوبی" has been used by different poets from Ferdowsi (940 - 1019/1025 CE) to Malek osh-Sho'ara Bahar (1886-1951). Ferdowsi uses the term "paykub پای‌کوب" in one of his poems which means "dancer":

یکی پای‌کوب و دگر چنگ‌زن سه دیگر خوش‌آواز لشگرشکن

Today, the phrase "raghs o paykubi رقص و پایکوبی" is quite popular which definitely means "dance". For example, Mohammad Moin, in his dictionary, explains that the verb "dast-afshandan دست‌افشاندن" means "raghs o paykubi kardan رقص و پای‌کوبی کردن" and both the verbs mean "to dance". For example, Hafiz brings both "dast-afshan" and "paykub" in the following verse:

چو در دست است رودی خوش بزن مطرب سرودی خوش

که دست‌افشان غزل خوانیم و پاکوبان سراندازیم

A translation of this verse is as follows:

Minstrel! since in thy hand is a sweet instrument, a sweet song sing

So that, hand-waving, we may sing the love song, and dancing, our head down may cast

At last, in the following, I bring a verse by Rumi which includes "paykuban پای‌کوبان" and "dastafshan دست‌افشان" right beside each other:

پای‌کوبان دست‌افشان در ثنا نازنازان ربنا أحییتنا

A lexical discussion of the word "raghs". The Arabic word "raghs رقص", also spelled as "raqs" in the Latin alphabet, stands for "dance" and has been used in Persian literature extensively, though the word "raghs" has not been included in the poems by Ferdowsi since Ferdowsi has tried to use original Persian words in his Shahnameh. Since there are thousands of examples of the use of "raghs" in Persian poems, I only bring a few of them. The oldest poem that I found mentioning the word "raghs" is the following belonging to Abu Sa'id Abulkhayr (967 - 1049):

فریاد ز شب روی و شب رنگیشان وز چشم سیاه و صورت زنگیشان

از اول شب تا به دمِ آخر شب اینها همه در رقص و منم چنگیشان

The Kashf al-Mahjub is the first formal treatise on Sufism compiled in the eleventh century by Hujwiri. Hujwiri, in this Persian text, devoted a section to "raghs" with the title "Bab al-Raghs باب الرّقص" and there he uses the word "raghs" several times.

Hafiz uses the word "raghs" in his poems for at least 18 times. As as example, I bring the following verse:

رقص بر شعرِ تر و ناله‌ی نِی خوش باشد خاصه رقصی که در آن دستِ نگاری گیرند

And this can be translated as follows:

To sweet song, and to the reed's voice, sweet is the dance!

Especially, that dance wherein, an idol's hand, they take

In Persian literature, the word "raghghas رقاص" and its female form "raghghaseh رقاصه" stand for a male dancer and a female dancer, respectively, but since these words have been used derogatorily, today, professional dancers call themselves "raghsandeh رَقصَندِه" which also stands for a dancer. This word is quite new in the Persian language and I found only one verse by Adib al-Mamalek Farahani (1861 - 1917) mentioning it:

خفتگان همراز با بیدارها مست‌ها رقصنده با هشیار‌ها

A lexical discussion of the word "sama'". The Arabic word "sama' سماع" means "hearing". In Sufism, the sama' is a Sufi ceremony performed as part of meditation and prayer practice "zekr ذکر". Note that the Arabic word "zekr" means "remembrance" and in Sufism, it is meant "remembrance of God". The sama' ceremonies often include singing and playing musical instruments as well as dancing and recitation of poems and prayers. Since Sufism has been always popular in Persia, it is not surprising to learn that the word sama', in the sense of Sufism, has been used in Persian literature extensively. I bring one interesting example by Hafiz:

یارِ ما چون گیرد آغاز سَماع قدسیان بر عرش دست‌افشان کنند

And a translation of the above verse is:

When our beloved beginneth sama' Hand waving, the holy ones of the ninth Heaven make

A lexical discussion of the word "vachik". As Joneydi reports, the Pahlavi term for "dance" is "vachik واچیک" and this has been transformed to "bazi" in New Persian. For example, the old term "dar-vachik دار واچیک" means "chub-bazi چوب‌بازی" which means "dance with a stick". This kind of dance still is popular among many ethnicities in contemporary Persia. Note that the old term "dar دار" stands for stick, tree, or wood and preserves in many Iranian languages. Another example is "chambar-vachik چمبر واچیک" which means to dance with a dayereh. Note that the old term "chambar چمبر" with another form "chanbar چنبر" means ring, frame, or a "frame drum". Finally, let me add that the phrase "mar-vachik مار واچیک" means to dance with a snake which is popular in India. The Persian name "mar مار" stands for a snake.

A lexical discussion of the word "vasht". In old Persian, the word "vashtan وشتن" stands for "dance" and "to dance", though it is not used anymore in Persian. The only verse, that I found in which the verb "vashtan" has been used, belongs to Qasem-e Anvar (1356 - 1433) which says:

یارم ز در درآمد، وشتن کنید، وشتن این خانه را ز وشتن، گلشن کنید، گلشن

The verb vashtan survives in the Gilaki (voshtan), Mazani (voshtan), and Talysh (veshtan) languages all meaning "to jump", and "to play".

Persian classical dance. In Persian classical music, there are four rhythmic forms called "chaharmezrab چهارمضراب", "pishdaramad پیش‌درآمد", "reng رِنگ", and "tasnif تصنیف", and among them, the "reng" is reserved for dance music often performed in a 6-beat rhythm cycle. Each "dastgah دستگاه" (Persian mode) has its own special "reng". Depending on the length of the performance, different pieces of a dastgah might be chosen to be sung and played. Note that each dastgah has a couple of rather fixed and standard pieces and each piece is called "gusheh گوشه" in Persian classical music. If a dastgah is performed by a vocalist, usually accompanied by instrumentalists, then a tasnif which is a vocal rhythmic form is sung. Any dastgah performance is ended with a "reng". In the past, the reng of any dastgah performance was sometimes accompanied by a special form of dance which can be called "Persian court dance" (in Persian, "raghs-e-darbari رقص درباری"). The tradition of this kind of "court dance" was quite popular in the Ghajar era though after the Ghajar period, and in particular, today it has been almost forgotten. The standard dance movements applied in the court dance of the Ghajar era included head and shoulder movements, and also, belt rolls. The court dances were accompanied by other actions as I bring in the following based on what Khaleghi reported in his book on the history of Persian music.

  • Raghs-ba-zang. The "raghs-ba-zang رقص با زنگ" is the first kind of dance that Khaleghi reports in his book. The phrase "raghs-ba-zang" literally means "dance with bell" and this is how Khaleghi describes it: The dancer wears two small metallic bowl-shaped castanets for each hand, one for the thumb and the other for the middle finger, and hits them to mark the rhythm cycle while dancing. The antiquity of this kind of dancing goes back to the pre-Islamic ages.

  • Raghs-ba-gilas. The phrase "raghs-ba-gilas رقص با گیلاس" literally means dancing with glass. In this kind of dance, the dancer holds a glass with the mouth in a way that when the dancer bends from the back, even a single drop of the liquid in the glass must not fall.

  • Moallagh-zadan. The verb "moallagh-zadan معلق زدن" literally means "to turn a somersault". Khaleghi explains that though this is an acrobatic movement if it is performed elegantly, it can be used as a dance technique during a dance performance.

  • Raghs-ba-sham'dan-va-laleh. The phrase "raghs-ba-sham'dan-va-laleh رقص با شمعدان و لاله" literally means dance with a candlestick. In this kind of dance, while holding a candlestick in the dancer's hand, the dancer does some acrobatic movements during the performance so skillfully that the lightened candle is not blown out.

  • Raghs-e-ard. The phrase "raghs-e-ard رقص آرد" literally means "flour dance". In this kind of dance, the dancer or somebody else spreads some flour on the floor and while dancing on tiptoes, the dancer draws a design on the floor or writes someone's name.

Persian folk dances. Different ethnicities have lived in Persia since ancient times and they have their own dances. There are various kinds of Persian folk dances and I illustrate them in the following as much as my knowledge permits.

  • Azerbaijani dance. The Azerbaijani dances consist of different figures of dancing belonging to the Azerbaijani people. Usually, wedding ceremonies start with slow-tempo dance music, especially for old people. For example, "ənzəli rəqsi انزلی رقصی" is an old-fashioned dance performed by older people at the beginning of wedding ceremonies. Slow-tempo dance music is also a kind of warm-up dance music, and gradually, the dance music pieces become faster and/or are changed to faster pieces, performed especially for younger participants in the wedding ceremonies. Perhaps the fastest and the most energetic dance music is the music of the Lazgi dance. Azerbaijani dance music is performed on other festive occasions. For example, "Bahar rəqsi باهار رقصی" is performed during the "Nowruz نوروز" festival. The other dances include "çoban rəqsi چوبان رقصی" (in English, "shepherd's dance"), "cəngi rəqsi جنگی رقصی" (in English "war dance") which is a kind of martial dance, "ghaval rəqsi قاوال رقصی" performed by a woman while holding a ghaval in her hand, "mirzəyi rəqsi میرزایی رقصی", "mücəssəmə rəqsi موجسمه رقصی" (literally means "statue dance", and in concept, equivalent to "stop dance"), "nağara rəqsi ناقارا رقصی" performed by a man while holding a naghara in his hand, "nəlbəki rəqsi نعلبکی رقصی" (in English "saucer dance"), "tərəkəmə rəqsi ترکمه رقصی", "vağzalı rəqsi واغزالی رقصی", and finally "zorxana rəqsi زورخانا رقصی" (related to the tradition of Persian sport called "zurkhaneh زورخانه" tradition).

  • Bakhtiari dance. In Bakhtiari culture, there are different kinds of dances. For example, "chu-bazi چوبازی" is the name of a male dance explained above as "chub-bazi". Note that the Lori word "chu" (in Persian "chub") stands for wood or stick. The other dances are for women and men together and they are called "chahar-dastmali چهار دستمالی", "do-pa دوپا", "raghs-e-mojassameh رقص مجسمه" (literally means "statue dance", in concept equivalent to "stop dance"), and "seh-pa سه‌پا".

  • Baluchi dance. Baluchi people have their own special music and dance. The Baluchi group dance, called "chub-bazi چوب‌بازی", is similar to the "chub-bazi" dance in Khorasan and other regions of Iran. The other dances which are usually solo dances include "chap-sarhaddi چاپ سرحدی", "chap-zaboli چاپ زابلی", "chu-chap چوچاپ", "do-chubeh دوچوبه", "seh-chap سه‌چاپ", and "shamshir-bazi شمشیربازی". A dance rhythm in Sistan-Baluchistan province is called "chap چاپ" and a dancer is called "chapgar چاپگر".

  • Ghashghayi dance. Ghashghayi people, similar to other ethnicities, have different kinds of dances such as "chub-bazi" and "hali هلی". The "hali" dance of Ghashghayi people have three different phases. The first phase is in a slow tempo usually for older people. The second phase is a bit faster. The third phase is very fast which is usually for young people. The third phase is called "laki لکی".

  • Gilaki dance. Gilaki people have different kinds of dances. One of the most famous dances in Gilan province is "raghs-e-ghasemiabadi رقص قاسم‌آبادی" which is a special form of dance that originated in Ghasemabad village in Gilan province.

  • Khorasani dance. In Khorasan, there are different dances and one of the main dances of Khorasan is "chub-bazi". However, some cities in Khorasan have their own dances also like the Quchani dance belonging to Quchan city. Kurdish-speaking people in North Khorasan are called Kurmanji people, but unlike Kurdish dance, they don't hold their hands while doing circle dances. While interviewing with ISNA, Khorasani sorna player, "Jaber Zare' جابر زارع" reports that in the Southern regions of Khorasan, various kinds of dances include "chub-bazi", "gandom dero گندم‌درو" (wheat harvest dance), "estekan-bazi استکان‌بازی" (glass dance), "kaseh-bazi کاسه‌بازی" (bowl dance), and "dastmal-bazi دستمال‌بازی" (handkerchief dance). He also adds that sometimes the dohol player, while playing the dohol, dances solo or with other dancers.

  • Kurdish dance. Most Kurdish dances are group dances making a curved line of people while holding each other's hands. The first dancer of the group, who usually holds a handkerchief in her/his hand, is the leader and the best dancer of the people involved in the dance. Sometimes a skillful dancer holds two handkerchiefs with different colors and does a solo Kurdish dance called "raqs-e-do-dastmaleh رقص دو دستماله". The other Kurdish dances include "barzi-barzi برزی‌برزی", "bukani بوکانی", "garyan گه‌ریان", "halgerten هه‌لگرتن", "khananeh خانانه", "mahabadi مهابادی", "marivani مریوانی", "saghghezi سقزی", and "seh-payi سه‌پایی".

  • Lori dance. Most Lori dances are group dances making a curved line of people while holding each other's hands. Lori people call their group dances "bazi بازی", and also, "chupi چوپی". Lori dances include "chu-bazi چوبازی" (twig dance), "dastmal-bazi دستمال بازی" (handkerchief dance), "do-pa دوپا", "sangin-sama سَنگین سَما", and "seh-pa سه‌پا". The tempo of "sangin-sama" is slower than the tempo of "seh-pa".


[AAA]: Arghavan Asadi, Seyyed Saeed Seyyed Ahmadi Zavieh, Abbas Ardekanian, Iranian Folk Dances, a Cultural Attraction for Tourists, Journal of Cultural Management, Vol. 8(24), pp. 91-113, 2014.

[G]: Yosef Garfinkel, Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003.

[J]: Fereydoon Joneydi, Raghs dar Iran, Risheh va Shekl, Rudaki Cultural and Artistic Monthly, No. 61 & 62, 1976.

[KH]: Ruhollah Khaleghi, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1974.

[N]: Peyman Nasehpour, Personal Interview with Maestro Morteza Dadashi who was an Iranian professor of Azerbaijani dances. 1992.

[NS]: Jahangir Nasri Ashrafi, Abbas Shirzadi Ahudashti, Tarikh-e-Honar-e-Iran, Arvan publishers, Tehran, 2009.

[Pa] Keivan Pahlevan, Daf and Dayere, in the history of Iran, in Farsi literature, and in Iranian world, Arvan publishers, Tehran, 2014.

[S]: Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).

Mohammad Farugh Kianipour (widely known as Farugh Kiani), Professor of Persian Folk Dance

Mohammad Farugh Kianipour (widely known as Farugh Kiani), Professor of Persian Folk Dance