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From Tehran to Mills: Dancer follows her dreams

Graduate student teaches traditional Persian dance at Mills after leaving Iran (Zackary Forcum).
Graduate student teaches traditional Persian dance at Mills after leaving Iran (Zackary Forcum).

While Aisan was studying abroad in London, she was featured on television performing one of her choreographies from the Laban Center in London. Some of her family members in her home country of Iran had satellite television and saw her dancing, leaping and jumping on stage. They were confused. They had thought she was in London to study business. The authorities in Iran were not pleased with the broadcast, and she was detained for questioning upon her return. 

Although dance is part of a rich cultural history that stretches back to ancient times, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it was deemed immoral and illegal.  Theaters and dance companies closed, and the practice of dance moved underground into private spaces.

Aisan asked that her last name not be published for safety reasons. Two years ago, she was teaching dance to her students underground and people were getting caught.  As the economic and political situation worsened in Iran, she applied to Mills College for a Masters in dance choreography in case she had to leave the country.

As a child, Aisan studied traditional Persian dance in underground schools for many years, performing occasionally; some presidential regimes would occasionally permit dancing if women were only performing for private female audiences. When she was 18 years old, she told her father that she wanted to pursue dance as a career. He thought that she might not be too serious about it, but the feeling stayed with her.

“I was doing business management in Iran and that was something that I had to do in order to get permission from my parents to go abroad and study dance,” Aisan said. ” My father wanted for me to make sure that I really loved to dance.” 

She decided to go to London, took English classes and attended the Laban Center — a renowned institution for the performing arts. She received a dance diploma in one year and then stayed in London for three more years to complete an undergraduate degree.

When she returned home to Iran, she and her husband rented a house and set up a home dance studio. Advertising through a Facebook page, Aisan soon had a hundred students coming to her house to study dance with her. Things were going well, and Aisan loved her students, but the police were cracking down and  beginning to arrest more people involved with dance. Her own dance teacher was arrested along with 20 other girls, taking their passports and barring all communication. Aisan was scared. 

“I was like, oh my God, this is my future, and she is doing traditional Iranian dance!” she said. “I was coming from London and seen as Western.”

 Aisan’s family encouraged her to study abroad if she was to continue dancing for her safety, but she still dreaded leaving her students behind.

“I remember the last day I told them I have to go and do this degree; they were crying,” Aisan said. “It was really hard for me because there is no one who really knows academic dance, knows anything about dance” 

After she completed her first year of graduate work at Mills, the dance department offered Aisan a chance to teach a Persian dance class. She is grateful for the opportunity to share the dances that she has been doing since she was a child and to grow as a teacher. Every Monday and Wednesday, Mills students learn dances from the different ethnic groups that live in Iran: Azeri, Kurdish, Shomali and Jonoobi, as well as traditional Persian dance. 

“I really want people to know about Persian dance and Persian art because this is something that is dying over the years after the revolution,” Aisan said.

For Junior Nia Fitzpatrick, Aisan’s class is an important way to experience another culture as well as something fun to look forward to during the school week.

“Dance tells a story that talks about daily life, and it’s very deeply tied to the experience of the people. So I think it’s a great way to get to know another culture, and you can truly embody it,” said Fitzpatrick. “Not to mention if you have someone like Aisan who is actually from there, who grew up there, it’s real, its authentic.”

Whenever Aisan talks about her students, in Iran, or at Mills, she communicates a great love for teaching them. 

“It is very interesting because none of them [her students at Mills] are Persians and to see the movements on their bodies is so nice, and interesting, and inspiring,” said Aisan. “I love to hear the music and see the movements of my culture inside the studio that is in California, that is in Oakland. It feels like I am at home or I am bringing home here.”

She has also been dancing with Ballet Afsaneh, a professional dance ensemble based in the Bay Area that performs the dances of the Silk Road — an ancient trade route through central Asia that linked the East to the West.

Set to obtain her master’s in May, the future for Aisan is still undecided.   She and her husband love living in California, but it is hard to be away from her family, friends and students in Iran. For now she would be content to direct her own company here in the Bay Area.

“I would definitely go back and teach and do my own choreography and have my own company there, but I can’t,”Aisan said. “I am optimistic for the future.”

Aisan has also been thinking about opening a dance school in Turkey or Dubai because both locations are close to Iran, and Iranians can easily travel there. She is often frustrated with the attitudes of other Iranians here in the U.S., and others who fail to look at the whole picture in Iran.

“Sometimes people think it is so bad or whatever, but I think if the situation in my country wasn’t like that, I wouldn’t be so inspired anymore to do this work,” Aisan said. “There are people living there, and there are happy people. You need to grow from what you have, right? You can’t just have everything.”

For now, the students and faculty of the dance department are proud to learn from Aisan, whose personal story is so different from many other dancers at Mills. Mills dance department head, Ann Murphy, praised Aisan’s technical ability in both Persian and Western dance styles. She also admired her tenacity to pursue dance in spite of the many obstacles.

“Aisan is a powerful young artist who uses dance as for personal expression but also to comment on her native country, Iran, where dance is outlawed. Her very act of dancing is a protest, and then she builds in content that also challenges the Iranian status quo,” Murphy said. “We in the West take our right to dance for granted. Aisan makes clear that it’s a privilege to dance, in particular for women, whose bodies remain a site of discipline and subjugation world over.”