In 2008 I asked a Diaspora instructor of regional folk dances of Iran if she could recommend any dance instructors I could study with in Iran, and her answer left me stunned. She had never been to Iran, and had no contacts in any of the regions. I could not blame her, restrictions within the country coupled with distorted international media coverage have not made travel to Iran an attractive idea for many. Nevertheless, it was unfortunate. Many Iranian Diaspora dancers only had access to instructors who had no direct experience with the folk culture they represented and taught to others.
I was lucky that year in finding an Azerbaijani instructor in Tehran willing to teach me Azerbaijani dances privately. I continued studying with her on three consecutive trips to Iran in the following years. With time I also met an Armenian instructor in Tehran who gave me private intensive classes. Both experiences were rich in movement and technique, but could not provide me with the sentiment of dancing in the natural environment of festivities. On subsequent travels I attended weddings and folk festivals across the country and each door that opened led to others. After years of having experienced regional folk dances across 14 provinces, I know with certainty what I felt from the onset: no amount of travel will result in a person outside of a culture understanding a folk dance as deeply and fully as a person who was born and raised within that specific culture. Nevertheless, if international dancers decide to perform or teach dances from cultures they were not born and raised with, the more direct experience they have with that culture, the better.
How can non-native dancers and instructors enter this realm without cultural appropriation? Part of the answer may lie in how their performances are introduced. Non culture-bearers could label their creations as “inspired in” or “based on” a particular regional dance and give credit to the people and the place where the movements were learned, rather than “borrow” original movements in their work then label these creations as Folk.
As online and distanced learning becomes more commonplace, it becomes ever more important to credit and avoid misrepresenting the cultures whose dances we admire.