by Aiano Nakagawa
Dancer and choreographer Aisan Hoss tells her story of growing up in Iran
where it is illegal for women to publicly perform as dancers. She says "I lived during the revolution and it became part of me."
Aisan Hoss: When the Islamic Republic Revolution happened the government rules [changed a lot]. So, what happened was very simple things, for example, alcohol, women without scarfs, dancing, singing, bars, discos, and nightclubs all became forbidden. All the singers moved to L.A. because they couldn’t stay there anymore. Signing traditional singing was [considered] fine, but--during that time-- no songs were allowed to be about lovers, only about God. Women are still not allowed to sing… [And] even if you’re a tourist in Iran and you’re a woman, you can’t go without a [head] scarf. No woman can be without a scarf. You can be arrested because what you’re wearing isn’t good enough. So it [feels] like they can really force you to do whatever they want by government standards and you don’t have any power. You can’t do anything because this is part of the rules. You can not say “I want to be free,” that’s part of the rules. Since I was born, dancing has been illegal. I lived during the revolution and it became part of me. I didn’t know what [life] was [like] before that.
AN: Why is dancing illegal or seen as not proper?
AH: I think it’s because dancing is seen as sexual. Because [people think] a dancing body is more important [to focus on] than dancing as art. A dancing body is thought to sexually provoke men… I think it might be part of what the history of dance in Iran is, how prostitutes were forced to dance before the king and then he’d choose them. And it was like that even before that time. Dance has always been a tool for sexual seduction.
AN: Can you describe your ethnic identity within the context of Iran?
AH: I am Azeri, from Azerbaijan. I’m from Tehran, but my parents are from Azerbaijan. I don’t identify with one more than the other, I am both.
I speak Azeri, Farsi, and English.
AN: What is your story with dance?
AH: When I was 12 years old, I had a birthday party and one of my friends was dancing at my party. My mom said “Oh my gosh she is so beautiful! You should learn from her!” My friend told me she had a dance teacher that came to her house. Because at that time it was [not safe] in Iran to study dance or have a dance teacher, we were surprised to find someone who would come to the house and teach us. So we called the teacher and she came.
That teacher taught me for a few years and then I found Haideh Kishipour who has an underground dance studio. She still has it even after years of difficulty with the government. I was so happy to find her and I [trained with her in] traditional Persian folkloric dance. She taught a lot and I took everything she taught. She also had a [dance] group that performed at different venues. It just depended on which President we were on, whether it was legal to dance or not, or [sometimes] we’d get a letter saying we could do it illegally.
When I say “dance studio” or performances, [I mean] they were only for women. You don’t train with guys. It is believed that men and women should be separate. I started to perform and I loved it! I started teaching and I spent most of my time at her studio. She taught 6-8 hours a day, every day. Every hour she’d have 40-60 students. She was one of the only ones who was teaching and I was one of four students who would help her out. I loved it there.
When I was 18 I was like “I want to do dance!” and my father told me “Those kind of things are just dreams.” He didn’t really think I was serious until I said “I’m going to stop studying till you send me to Canada!” - I wanted to go Canada for some reason... I don’t know why [laughs]. So I stopped studying for my University entrance exam and I was firm that I wasn’t going to do it.
My dad wouldn’t give in and just kept saying things like, “Oh, that’s good, I want you to be at home.” He was so cool about it, he would come home and say “Oh, it feels so good to have you at home” and I would get so angry.
Some time passed and it was getting close to exams. I thought he was going give in and say “Okay, she’s really not studying, I’ll send her” but he didn’t. I knew I had to do something about it because I realized he really wasn’t going to send me. I told him I really want to dance and he made a deal with me.
“If you study what I want you to study, when you finish I will send you wherever you want.”
“Well what do you want me to study?”
“Business management of course!”
So I studied really hard for 3 months to get into university and did four years of business management. When I finished he said “Now you’re free to go.”
At first I went to London. I was still dancing with Haideh at the time, but I went to see if I could even do anything [else] in dance. When I first left, I thought I was really advanced because I worked so hard in Iran, but [the dance there] was so different. I went there and felt so lost.
I had a home-stay with an 80 year old woman who [helped me find] the Laban School. I did one year at Laban, just so I would be able to audition for a B.A. in dance. I worked so hard. I’d finish at Laban at 6pm and then go to another studio in London to do extra classes until 10:00 or 11:00 every night. I did this to catch up and get proper training. For me it was really difficult because I wasn’t just getting proper training, but all the training I had in Iran was wrong. So I had to rebuild my body from the beginning.
AN: When you said you were taught wrong, what do you mean?
AH: In Iran dancing is about the outside of your body, not about what’s going on inside and with your muscles. So, you see a photo of a woman like “blah” and then you just make the same “blah” shape. It’s not technical or really right. So that’s how we were trained, we tried to make the shapes and even the teachers mainly learned through videos.
AH: When I started auditions it was a very difficult time for me because I didn’t know what I’d do if I didn’t get in, plus my teacher [discouraged me.] He told me I wasn’t ready, I shouldn’t audition, and that it wasn’t for me. I was really down. I’ll never forget his face. He was my dance teacher and he said “This is not for you.” And I was just so pissed off and sad and I said “OK, I’m not going to audition,” but then another teacher who I really loved said “I am someone who runs the auditions, just do it!” In the end I got in, which made me really confident. From there I did three years of dance [earned my BA] and then went back home [and got married].
In Iran, my husband told me I should apply for my master’s somewhere so I googled “Master of Fine Arts in Choreography” and Mills College popped up. It was a good time because I wasn’t able to work in Iran much longer. In Iran, I rented a really big house and I made a dance studio in my house. I started having students and it grew so fast. I went from 1 student to 100 students in the first month. It grew so fast. It was great, but also it’s not good for an underground studio in Iran to grow so fast, because that’s how you get in trouble. Haideh got in trouble too, which was something that started to affect my decision. I couldn’t talk to her, they put her in prison, and so many things happened to her. So it changed my decision [about my dance school] and I went to California.
AN: What kind of dance did you teach at your studio?
AH: I started teaching just contemporary, but in Iran, everyone loves ballet. I taught ballet and some contemporary, but no folk dance or traditional dance.
AN: So your parents were supportive of you pursuing dance?
AH: Yeah, but my father didn’t want me to leave the country so young, but he’s really proud that I’m doing dance.
AN: Is it safe for you to return to Iran?
AH: It’s difficult because I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s safe because since I’ve been here I’ve danced a lot. Some stuff that I’ve done has become public in the news, so I don’t know. But before I came here I was in trouble [in Iran] because I did interviews with two TV broadcasts [in the U.K.] I don’t know [if it’s safe for me to return.] I’m not going to try it now.
AN: Did you know you were going to get in trouble by doing those interviews?
AH: No. When you live in a different country for a long time you kind of forget what your country is. One of the worst examples is once, when I was spending 7 months in Cambridge, I filled my luggage with alcohol to take as gifts to my father… [at that time] you could be hanged in Iran if you got caught with that. When my father saw it, he was almost crying like, “How did you… Why did you do that?!” I had totally forgot. So when I did the interview, I just forgot. One interviewer with BBC Persia even told me that I could get in trouble for that [interview], since it was so religious. I was talking about religious chanting and how I related it to my dancing. The BBC called me and asked “Are you sure about this? This could get you in big trouble?” I said “Let’s edit it” so we edited it. It was very clean and it didn’t show me that much, it didn’t show my body or choreography - it was very clean, but both interviews still got me in big trouble.
AN: What does dance mean to you?
AH: When I think of dance, I think of me as a dancer and me as a choreographer. Me as a dancer, it means [being in] the moment, like, I can’t be in the past or future, I can only be in that moment and feel what I have in that moment. It is something I can’t experience a few seconds later. As a choreographer, dance means finding the unknown aspects of myself that I can’t usually find. I started to find the things and the facts and emotions that I had and I didn’t know that I had. It’s like being hypnotized. You find things from your childhood, emotions that you didn’t know about, and I think it just comes from movement. Sometimes it gets hard for me to even explain what those are. [Sometimes] it’s just a dream or my imagination of a memory I had and I want to bring it on the dancers and onto the stage.
AN: What are some themes for dances you’ve choreographed?
AH: I’m really trying to find out my own culture. As a girl living after the revolution, living all the moments in Iran and struggling with happiness, it’s very difficult to know what was fact and truth. There were a lot of masks we had to wear to be social in our country. So being out of Iran is about finding who I was. What did I experience? What was that? Because there were a lot of things in my life that it didn’t matter if I loved or hated, I just had to carry them. It was just the rule. I had to carry it with me.
AN: Tell me about your MFA thesis project.
AH: Well, one of the differences between me and [some other] American-Iranians, is they’re like “Oh I hate this chanting!” [The public Islamic call to prayer, common in many Muslim areas in the world] And for me it’s like “Oh my god, I miss it. This reminds me of something.”
So for this piece it was [exploring] those relationships that I miss. I took the chanting and also the images that remind me of things… I don’t know if you know, but in Iran the movies are so dark, like 99% of the movies are so, so dark. And I love movies, I’ve watched most of them. Movies are also the experience of our lives, [and] some of the images are still in my mind. Some of them are really rich… I started playing with those images. It was very personal. The whole piece became very dark, but in a good way. It was happy in a way [that I could share] something that I miss and that I could just bring it up with less stress. Having those memories and bringing them out on the stage was something that was pleasant.
AN: Do you identify as feminist?
AH: I don’t think I am feminist or that I belong to a group of anything...Well, it’s so hard for me to [claim] the most rights because I always had the least rights and when I get a bit more, I’m like “oh that’s good!” and I’m happy. But, I think as a woman, I just try to be who I am and who I want to be and not to take away others' rights. I just want to take what is mine.